Floating a wilderness river like Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon poses certain hazards. Rafts can flip in the churning rapids, sending paddlers swimming. Drinking untreated water from the river can wreak havoc on the intestines. There are mosquitoes, snakes and other wild creatures to contend with.
And there’s no cell service. None at all.
This was the greatest problem facing my 14-year-old daughter, Cassidy, as our trip approached. There were tears of anguish at how far out of the loop she’d fall with her posse of friends. Would she be the only kid there besides her 10-year-old sister, Annabel, who had worries of her own about how she’d survive without her two main food groups, macaroni and cheese and bagels?
Throughout their protestations, I stayed calm but firm. They were going to love this trip, darnit. I’d paid for it. They were going.
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While no Bear Grylls, I’ve been fortunate enough to take a number of wilderness river trips in my time, floating fabled fishing streams in Alaska, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Each time, I’d found the experience incredibly rewarding: the scenic beauty, the isolation, the sense of how little one really needs — at least in a material sense — to be fulfilled.
After my last float on Oregon’s Deschutes River, I decided that I needed to share this experience, at least once, with my family. Although my wife and daughters enjoy car camping and day hikes, they’d never had the wilderness immersion that an extended river adventure affords. I thought they’d be game, given the right conditions. With skilled river guides, good food and a comfortable camp, the absence of electronics and a corner market might be overlooked.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon carves its way 106 miles through the second-largest wilderness area in the contiguous United States — the 2.4-million-acre Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness — in the heart of central Idaho, before reaching its confluence with the main stem of the Salmon.
In its upper reaches, the Middle Fork is an intimate stream, hemmed in closely by thick forests of Douglas fir and spruce. As one proceeds downriver, the canyon opens up to expose jaw-dropping crags of the Idaho Batholith that climb to the sky. There are 300 named rapids on the river, plenty to get your blood pumping.
The water is incredibly clear, a boon for anglers who can watch native cutthroat trout rise from deep in the river’s pools to take their flies on the surface. The area is home to elk, deer, moose, mountain lions and black bears, although these creatures are seldom spied, as they summer higher in the mountains. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats, however, are often seen cavorting on the cliff sides.
A few Oregonians began running the Middle Fork in the 1940s, and word started getting out about the wonders of the river.
Today there are 24 outfitters licensed to escort guests down the Middle Fork, although only a handful are allowed to launch each day. This preserves the quality of the river experience, ensuring you’re not shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow rafters. Most commercial trips are six days and five nights.
While a few intrepid rowers take to the river in drift boats, most are in sturdy inflatable rafts, which are much more forgiving if you happen to bump into rocks – almost a fait accompli in some of the Middle Fork’s rapids. (A few lucky private groups will draw a permit from an annual lottery to float the Middle Fork without guides; among paddling aficionados, it’s considered one of the country’s top multi-day rafting trips.)
After flying into Boise in late July, we drove the three hours to the little town of Stanley, where most river trips stage. The Sawtooth Mountains rise dramatically behind the town’s handful of hotels, restaurants and outdoor-supply shops.
That night, we had an orientation session with Willi Cannell, owner of Solitude River Trips, and the 14 other guests who’d be joining us on the Middle Fork. The groups included several 60-ish couples who’d met while mountain-climbing and a grandpa from Michigan with three teenage grandsons who’d come to fish. (Fly-fishing trips are also offered by Solitude; anglers keep their own pace during the day but join the larger group in camp.)
Cannell mapped out how the trip would unfold and what to expect, showed us how to pack our sleeping bags and pads and gave us the duffel bags we would use to pack our belongings. My wife and daughters looked questioningly at the smallish-seeming bags, but Cannell assured us that everything we needed on the river would fit.
The next morning we bid our electronics adieu and boarded a school bus as the sun crested the Sawtooths. An hour later we were at Boundary Creek, where most groups begin their river adventures. The put-in was a cauldron of activity, with rafters hustling to and fro preparing for their launch. Here we met our guides, were fitted with life jackets and were given instructions on what to do if we fell out of the raft in a rapid (keep your head up and you feet in front of you).
Soon we were in our rafts and off: the girls and I in a rowing raft piloted by Dano Hawley; my wife, Dee, in a paddle raft with five other guests and lead guide Adam Grogan. In the rowing raft, it’s the guests’ job to sit back and take in the scenery as the guide steers the craft downstream. In the paddle raft, guests paddle on the guide’s command while the guide uses the oar as a rudder.
Guests carry a waterproof bag with water, a rain shell, sunscreen and other essentials; all the other gear travels on a separate craft.
The Middle Fork has a steep gradient, dropping from an initial elevation of nearly 7,000 feet to 3,000 feet by the time the main Salmon is reached. The river moves quickly in its upper stretches, and we passed through several Class III rapids — enough white water to get cooled off in the 85-degree heat, but not quite enough for white knuckles (that would come later).
After a dozen or so miles, we reached our first camp. The tents were already set up on a bench of land above the river, optimized for stunning morning vistas and equipped with thick sleeping pads and comfy bags.
An extensive kitchen was also in place, and a few of the guides had begun prepping dinner. One does not eat poorly on a Solitude trip; dinners featured steak, fried chicken, grilled salmon and pork chops with dimensions that boggled the mind (and stomach). Guide Roger Goth, a Dutch oven wizard, created delicious desserts each night, ranging from pineapple upside-down cake to berry crumble.
While many guests settled into chairs for a happy-hour libation, my girls and I wandered behind camp to some natural hot springs that bubble out of the steep hillside. A few well-placed rocks create a shallow pool that’s big enough to allow a few sojourners to soak. Whether we’d earned it or not, it felt delicious.
There are several other hot springs along the river’s course; my favorite is Sunflower, where 102-degree water cascades 10 feet to form a natural shower, the perfect antidote for sore paddling shoulders. After a few minutes of hot-water massage, you can jump into the river, which was running an invigorating 60 degrees during our trip.
It takes a day or two to adjust to the rhythm of the river, to realize that it doesn’t really matter if you put on a clean shirt or shorts and that combing your hair is optional. Once you do acclimate, you realize that your only job is to enjoy time on the river and eat well, especially when the guides are setting up and breaking down your tent each day, and carrying all your gear.
Later that day, I was shocked to see my eldest — not always the most adventurous girl — opt to leave the raft and try her hand at paddling an inflatable kayak. I was even more impressed when she was swept into the branches of a downed tree and kept her composure as two guides quickly fished her out.
Each day presented new surprises as we made our way downriver, traveling 15 or 20 miles per day. We’d stop our rafts for short hikes up the canyon to view Native American pictographs or pioneer homesteads. Some of the pictographs resembled tallies; others showed stick-figure-like animals — bighorn sheep or elk — and hunters with their bows drawn.
“Archaeologists and anthropologists have a lot of ideas about what they mean,” Dano told us at one site. “One thought is that they are the equivalent of doodles or graffiti, made to pass the time while hunters or fishermen were away.”
A herd of bighorn sheep assembled near the river one morning as we passed, unabashed by our presence as cameras came out for photos.
On the final morning, Adam the guide shepherded the paddle raft (where I’d grabbed a seat) through four of the river’s most challenging rapids in quick succession: Rubber, Hancock, Devil’s Tooth and House Rock. My paddling knuckles were white this time, but no one went overboard. Soon, the crystalline waters of the Middle Fork merged with the slightly off-color main stem Salmon, and our trip was done.
On the bus ride back to Stanley, several of the boys had recovered their smartphones and were busy with games and music. Cassidy looked longingly at them and their devices, then leaned her head against the window, looked at the river on our left and dozed off with a smile on her face.
Santella is the author of 16 books, most recently “Fifty Places to Paddle Before You Die.”
Rafting the Salmon
Getting there: McCall Aviation (800-992-6559; www.mccallaviation.com) provides air taxi service from Boise, Idaho, to Stanley for $210, one-way. The drive to Stanley is about 130 miles.
Rafting: Solitude River Trips, 208-806-1218; www.rivertrips.com. A six-day trip is $2,950 for adults and $2,570 for students. Price includes transportation to and from the river as well as all meals and equipment, but not gratuities. Guests bring only clothing and other personal items.
When to go: Rafting season is from mid-June through early September.