In 2001 a massive landslide rolled down the canyon wall on the South Fork Payette and changed the river forever. Or at least a couple weeks. Most of the debris ended up right on top of the Idaho Icon, Staircase Rapid. It damed the road, cut Garden Valley off from shopping at Costco and made a giant of the famous rapid.

The natural dam forced the river against the left bank. The whale rocks were completley covered with mud and debris. Birthday Hole and the rest of the riverbed for miles downstream were covered by a thick layer of mud and cobble.

It took a massive effort to open the road. Part of that effort involved undaming the South Fork. The Army Corp of Engineers parked a giant Trackhoe in the middle of the river for a week and cleaned out the river bed. Not wanting to change nature (too much) they tried to put it all back together again. They took the trackhoe and dug out the center channel and placed the rocks, those that they could move, into some semblance of their previous position. The photos of the trackhoe in the river are on the wall of the Garden Valley Post office.

 

The result is Staircase in its present form is a less than natural rapid. Staircase has been altered by a natural disaster and then by the Army Corp of Engineers. In the photo (thanks James McNamara) of Staircase taken the day after the flood, Deans Rock is in place. It's unlikely that the landslide altered the farside of the riverbank.

There is far more at stake here than just

moving a rock. On June 30, 2007 river guide Dean Fairburn drowned on this rock when he became entraped after bumping into the rock that now bears his name. The left run had been, until then, considerd the "safe" route for rafts. It is still the choice for commercial trips. So the rock besdes beng a hazard is loaded with emotion for Dean's friends and family.

The problem is there is not longer a clean line through Staircase. Pre-flood you could slam down the middle in a raft with a high success ratio. River sports by their nature are not safe. And as it is now, going near Deans Rock is not a walk in the park. It wraps boats daily. I participated in five different unwrap situations in 2010. The season total is far above that. The middle line as flows go below 1400 becomes a no-miss collision course. The left line done right is clean. Done wrong your on the Rock.

What has happend at Staircase? Like most of the Payette it is far from its natural state due to encroachments from the road and right of way. There is nothing natural in the ACE placed observation platform. It is hard to believe that a giant flat rock, almost as if it were made, landed there on the right bank parallel with the Whale rocks. But people believe it. Nature isn't kind enough to place a giant boulder with a flat face up, so the turons can oggle the kayakers from a nice flat surface. And the Duckpond -- long-gone. The river center holes -- gone. Deans Rock -- the rock in question -- was it placed there by the landslide or by a trackhoe with a thumb? The parking lot too is the New ACE expanded version of Staircase. Oh and don't forget around 2001 the USFS dynamited a log that had floated up against the bank of the SF Payette at the take-out above Big Falls making portaging a very risky move indeed.

If outfitters, or anyone, start moving rocks around where is the stopping point? I would like to see the South Fork Surf Wave restored to it's pre Bronco Billy flood state. And I would like to see the Spin Dry move replaced in BB. Not to mention replacing the very sticky hole that was the namesake of BB. I think it would be a great playspot with modern kayaks.

On the other hand, No one seemed to complain about moving rocks around to make Kellys Whitewater Park?

As for the riverbed, it is still full of gravel and debris for miles downstream. Staircase has been altered to the point of not being anywhere near a natural rapid. The riverbed is state property. The Army Corp of Engineers along with the IDWR is the governing agency as far as modifying the riverbed. The land on both sides of the river is BLM or BOR, but that is meaningless. The USFS manages the access points and has no say in the riverbed.

This has been a hot topic with the River Management Society this summer. Not the question of altering Staircase itself, but the concept of what to do on high use rivers with an obvious or unavoidable danger. The answer so far has been to sign or portage the danger.


A CRC raft going down the left at medium flows.
After they pass the kayak the next rock is Deans Rock.

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