Middle Fork Clearwater River
The Middle Fork of the Clearwater River System is formed by two main forks, the Lochsa and Selway rivers. These tributaries rise on the west slopes of the rugged Bitterroot Mountains in north-central Idaho and constitute the major river drainage north of the Salmon River.
The exceptionally pure, clear, clean water of this river system and the surrounding forest ecosystem provides a wide variety of cultural, recreational, scenic, historical, and natural opportunities for visitors.
October 2, 1968. The Middle Fork from the town of Kooskia upstream to the town of Lowell. The Lochsa River from its confluence with the Selway River at Lowell (forming the Middle Fork) upstream to the Powell Ranger Station. The Selway River from Lowell upstream to its origin.
Mild temperatures and abundant rainfall harbor a rare forest ecosystem that is a globally unique combination of Pacific coastal and Rocky Mountain biotic elements. The Middle Fork Clearwater canyons support relics of a 25-million-year-old Miocene flora that once extended across the northwest, before the appearance of the Cascade Mountains, and are considered a “refugium” of the mesic-temperate Miocene flora. This is most strongly expressed at the confluence of the Selway and Lochsa rivers. The lush understory vegetation of the lower slopes and valley bottoms is characterized by maidenhair fern and a high diversity of fern species.
There are two research natural areas (RNAs) in the designated Lochsa WSR corridor. The Lochsa RNA preserves examples of the disjunct Pacific coast vegetation that includes the Pacific dogwood and 14 other species that are rarely found inland occur in this area. The Dutch Creek RNA is distinguished by stands of northwest paper birch which established after multiple catastrophic burns that limited seed sources for conifers. These RNAS have been used for research for aquatic and riparian plant communities, the refugium ecosystem and Pacific dogwood.
The O’Hara RNA, in the Selway corridor, represents unique habitats and species including coastal disjunct habitat and species. Aquatic features are a primary focus of this RNA, with a network of streams ranging from 1st to 5th order, anadromous fish, a series of cascades and waterfalls through narrow canyons and wet streamside meadows used by elk and moose.
The Middle Fork of the Clearwater River and its tributaries play a vital role in management of sensitive, threatened, and endangered fish species, including steelhead trout and bull trout. The Middle Fork Subbasin is considered a core area for recovery of at-risk salmonids in the upper Columbia River Basin. Additionally, spring chinook salmon have been reintroduced to the river system. Westslope cutthroat trout, a Region 1 sensitive species, are also present. The Middle Fork of the Clearwater River functions as a critical migration corridor, connecting the Lochsa and Selway populations of listed fish with the South Fork Clearwater and lower Clearwater River and tributaries.
Numerous historic activities and events have occurred in the river corridor, including:During the Nez Perce War of 1877, Chief Joseph and nearly 750 Nez Perce fled General Howard's army along this trail to reach the Bitterroot Valley. The Lolo Trail National Historic Landmark is located on ridges north of the Lochsa River and mostly outside the river corridor. Lewis and Clark followed this trail in 1805 and 1806. Hundreds of cambium scarred trees remain as evidence from early winter travelers who stripped the bark from trees for food. Additionally, there is Kooskia Internment Camp, a Japanese internment camp where several hundred Japanese Americans were held for several years during World War II. The Selway River corridor is also important for Forest Service history, with several historic building complexes that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Native American Traditional Use
One of the most significant historical aspects of the Middle Fork is that it the home and traditional use area of the Looking Glass Band of Nez Perce. The rivers are part of the lands ceded by the Nez Perce Tribe in the Treaty of 1855. The treaty reserved the rights of the Tribe to fish, hunt, gather, and access areas for traditional purposes. The river corridor is an important area for exercising treaty rights due to the numerous usual and accustomed fishing and camping sites. Members of the Nez Perce Tribe continue to use the river corridor area to hunt; gather roots, berries, and culturally significant plants; and access springs and fountains for drinking or traditional purposes.
There is a strong connection between tribal members and the associated salmon and steelhead fishery.
Native American people, mostly the Nez Perce, have inhabited and travelled the Middle Fork of the Clearwater for millennia; studies indicate that humans have used this area for 10,000 years. The Lochsa River roughly parallels the “Lolo Trail” which was used by Native Americans as a travel and trade route between the Columbia River basin and the Northern Plains. Numerous prehistoric Nez Perce religious and cultural sites have been identified in the river corridor, which is within ceded lands for the Nez Perce Tribe and contains values and sites related to religious activities, fishing, hunting, and gathering.
Diverse recreation opportunities abound, with numerous dispersed and developed recreation sites along the Middle Fork. Easily accessible from the scenic Lewis and Clark Highway, the river corridor provides for sightseeing, day use, developed and disperse camping, fishing, hunting, swimming, and hiking on riverside trails. The calmer waters and the lower elevation of the Middle Fork River provide fishing opportunities for most of the year. It provides a wide range of floating experiences for both commercially permitted and private floaters.
The Lochsa River provides whitewater and scenic floating opportunities, as well as riverside camping and hiking opportunities. The river drops an average gradient of 31 feet/mile with a large number of rapids; the Forest Service has identified 63 Class II or greater rapids within the 64-mile length, with more than half that are classified as Class IV. On the river, kayakers and rafters dominate recreational use during the peak spring and summer floating season. With many boat launch sites and easy access from Highway 12, there are different options for single and multi-day trips. In the river corridor, there are nine developed campgrounds with 195 camping units. The highway turnouts provide opportunities for boaters to scout rapids and for visitors to pull over to enjoy scenery. Along the Lochsa River in the six miles between Old Man Creek and the Historical Lochsa Ranger Station, five suspension bridges provide foot and stock access via trails to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness directly from Highway 12.
The Selway River drops 7,641 feet in 99 miles. With an average drop of 28 feet per mile in the wild river corridor, the upper Selway has a considerable number of rapids and high-velocity flow with a limited number of slow water recovery pools below rapids. This provides a very challenging and potentially dangerous river, especially during peak flows from mid-May through mid-June. The wild segment has only one permitted boat launch per day with up to 16 people, so it provides outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation experience. The natural beauty of the canyon, combined with the challenge of the rapids and solitude, make the Selway one of the highest-quality whitewater float-boating rivers in the country. The wild river corridor is also renowned for stock use and camping, with several trailheads in the river corridor providing access to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.
The lower Selway is readily accessible due to its proximity to the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway, also known as the Lewis and Clark Highway or U.S. Highway 12. This corridor provides a wide range of river-related opportunities, including sightseeing, day use, recreational floating and tubing, swimming, picnicking, developed and dispersed camping, fishing, hunting, and hiking on riverside trails.
The Middle Fork has a much broader river canyon than its tributaries and is wider and slower moving. The hillsides surrounding the river are rounded and covered to the north by dry grasslands and ponderosa pine forest and to the south by Douglas fir and western red cedar. Near Syringa, Idaho the vegetative mix changes as elevation and moisture increase. This deciduous vegetation provides visual variety in the summer and seasonal color in the fall that enhances the scenic beauty of the river. Rock outcrops are found throughout the canyon. In the lower portion of the canyon, there are unique columnar basalt cliffs adjacent to the riverbanks, with basalt formations in the river. The lower river canyon with its gentle topography allows for broad views of the canyon walls. The river often appears mirror-like reflecting the images of the vegetation and rocky ledges found on its banks.
The Lochsa flows through a narrow, steep-sided canyon surrounded by rugged forested mountains. Many rock outcrops and a steep gradient form rapids. The Black Canyon Gorge, with towering granite walls and cascading waterfalls, becomes the focal points during rainy fall and spring periods. Large shrub fields resulting from the 1910 and 1934 fires are visible on the upper slopes. These brush fields along with deciduous trees provide fall color. The eastern portion of the river corridor is heavily timbered with cedar, larch, Douglas fir, and other species. The hillsides are more rounded and less rugged, but the fall beauty of the larch trees provide contrasting color.
The upper Selway has fast flowing, clear water with numerous riffles and pools. The stream cascades over large boulders and rocks. Rocky outcrops and sheer cliffs rise from the waterline along the river canyon with an occasional open meadow. From Paradise to Selway Falls, the river is only accessible by trail. The narrow bottom steep-walled canyons possess a beauty difficult to describe with words.
The lower Selway begins with Selway Falls and is a place of rare beauty, as whitewater tumbles and falls over immense boulders in the narrow canyon. From there, the canyon widens to create a more pastoral landscape with rolling green hills adjacent to the river. Heavily timbered with cedar, Douglas fir, and grand fir, the slopes of the lower Selway are intermingled with open, grassy meadows. The river is much wider, with numerous islands and gravel bars. The water’s edge and the islands have a variety of coniferous and deciduous vegetative species.
All three rivers have exceptionally pure, clear, clean water. The waters are “unusually clear,” except during high run-off and heavy storms. Previous studies found that the “unusually clear” water is one of the principal attractions of the river. The water quality of the Lochsa River is extremely high and supports a healthy and diverse population of aquatic species, including anadromous fish. The clear, cold waters flowing over coarse gravels provides good spawning habitat for resident and anadromous fish.
The river corridor provides a diversity of high-quality habitat for wildlife of national or regional significance. Most species rely on habitat conditions alternated by large-scale forest disturbances, particularly fire. The river corridor and adjacent areas provide habitat for ESA listed species, such as the lynx. Sensitive species found in the Middle Fork Clearwater and tributaries include the fisher, Coeur d’Alene salamander, spotted frog, and harlequin duck in the aquatic habitats. Wolverine, bighorn sheep, and Rocky Mountain goats are important species. Critical habitats of the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River include bald eagle wintering areas and harlequin duck migration routes.