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Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

Courtesy Photo

Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.


River of No Return

Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho


As soon as my kayak dropped into the trench of swirling white water, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it out right-side up. All I had was one wave to go, and I’d be through the worst of the Cliffside Rapid—one of the largest we’d yet encountered on this six-day rafting trip with Far and Away Adventures down the Middle Fork of Idaho’s Salmon River.

I paddled fiercely, nearly topping the wave, but then the surf curled over my inflatable ducky, as they’re called on the river, and I went into the cold, wild water. When I surfaced, I was staring at the underside of a blue raft as it sped toward my head. “Oh shit,” I thought, “this is how people drown.”

In reality, I wasn’t close to drowning. Surrounded by professional guides and geared with a helmet and life jacket, the chances of getting seriously hurt were slim. The raft did land near me, though, close enough for one of my fellow campers in the paddle boat to pull me from the swirl. A bit giddy from my exhilarating—and slightly unnerving—experience, I jumped back into my kayak and paddled the short distance to camp.

I’d signed up for this Idaho adventure because it seemed the perfect mix of thrill seeking and cushy comforts. Run by Steve and Annie Lentz, Far and Away promised six days of exploring “the outdoors with a level of safety, service, and comfort surpassing all expectations,” as well as an educational tour of “a truly amazing resource—this world’s wilderness.” Navigating a remote, untamed river during the day, relaxing in the evening with gourmet food, a nightcap around a fire, and then 40 winks in a two-person tent fitted with cots and a wee table, the river’s roar a lullaby—brilliant.

From Santa Barbara I took an easy flight to Sun Valley, where I spent the night at the Tyrolean Lodge in the adjoining town of Ketchum. The next morning, under a robin’s-egg-blue sky, a shuttle picked us up for a several hours drive to Boundary Creek, where the boats awaited. On our way there, we stopped in the small town of Stanley, for last-minute personal supplies. I was one of 23 people — ranging from kids under 10 to grandparents in their seventies — on the trip; we were to spend the next week traveling 100 miles of the Middle Fork section of the Salmon River, which runs through the heart of the Frank Church Wilderness, a 3.3-million acre national forest sanctuary.

By Courtesy Photo

Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

Shooting the Salmon

Considered the spiritual heart of Idaho by many of the state’s residents, the Salmon was discovered in 1805 by Lewis and Clark, who mistakenly thought it part of the Columbia River. After weeks of difficult passage, they abandoned the exploration and, unable to paddle back up river to the launch site, named it the River of No Return. Although the river isn’t quite so perilous, it is at times daunting and, if you choose to paddle, physically demanding.

Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.
Click to enlarge photo

Courtesy Photo

Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

The Lentzes have created an adventure that succeeds in its mission: an as-rugged-as-you-like river trip that is also decidedly pampering—not an easy feat considering there are no amenities at the campsites. (A portable toilet called the Groover is carted from one camp to the next, providing an open-air yet curiously civilized experience.) With the spectacular scenery for a backdrop, little touches made for a spa-like experience. Each morning, for example, we were awakened by two guides offering a hot face cloth and a cup of coffee, cocoa, or tea. Smells of a gourmet breakfast—e.g., fresh baked bread, scrambled eggs, pancakes, bacon, fruit—wafted through camp. While we ate, the crew broke down the cots and tents, loading the two giant sweep boats, which went ahead of the paddle boats. By the time we arrived at the next overnight spot, all tents, beds, tables, etc. were set up and dinner was underway. It’s hard work that the guides do expertly and cheerfully.

By 8:30 each morning we were in our boat of choice for the day and heading downriver. After rafting for several hours, we would stop for lunch (delightful treats such as turkey and cranberry, bean salads, fruit, lemon white chocolate cookies) and explore the surrounding riverbank. One day we hiked to a cliff overhang to see a waterfall. Another day we soaked in natural hot springs. Sometimes it was a just a dip in the river and relaxing in the shade.

By Courtesy Photo

Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

As the river dropped in elevation (7,000 feet to 3,900), the scenery around us changed. We launched surrounded by lanky lodgepole pines and Douglas firs. Thirty miles later, thick-trunked ponderosa pines (peel its bark and smell its vanilla aroma) abounded, providing lovely shaded campsites. The river passage opened then and the water was deep and wide. Nearing the end the geography changed again; cliff walls shot 1,000-feet skyward in the gorge called “Impassable Canyon,” the third deepest in North America.

There are only two roads leading to the Middle Fork, so the river and its surroundings remain pristine, similar to how it was when the Native American Shoshone Sheepeater (or Tukuduka) tribe thrived. The history of the Sheepeaters, a nonviolent group, is like so many in the U.S.—white folks’ expansion west during the Gold Rush brought about the Sheepeater Wars of 1878-79, virtually stripping the Sheepeaters of the land they had inhabited for a thousand years. There are still a few descendents in the area, however, and during one lunch stop a Shoshone Indian named Diana told us the history of her people. Then we took a short hike to where the tribe’s ancient pictograms remain on a rocky overhang.

By Courtesy Photo

Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

Boats and Fish

I mixed it up, taking a spin in all of the watercraft in our fleet. When I wanted to paddle I rode in a boat helmed by guide Leah from Bozeman, Montana. She told us the history of the river and the rapids we encountered and by the end of the day had us singing river songs. On the oar boat, I practiced fly fishing for my first time. Despite hours casting into the water, I only caught one fish, which was a spectacular under-achievement since the waters were bulging with native cutthroat trout. And then there’s the wildlife, with osprey, wood ducks and ducklings, big horn sheep, and even river otters spotted at the water’s edge. One night a bull snake slithered past the campfire and deer wandered nonchalantly through camp.

No wonder the guides speak so reverentially about the Middle Fork. Once you’ve spent time on the river, you will too. It is unbridled and untouched, serene and spiritual.

4•1•1

• Far and Away Adventures, 401 Lewis Street, Ketchum, (208) 726-8888; far-away.com

• Best Western Tyrolean Lodge, 260 Cottonwood Street, Ketchum, (208) 726-5336

• Riverwear Sports, Stanley, (208) 774-3592, riverwear.com

• Delta Airlines, delta.com

• Iconoclast Books, 671 Sun Valley Road, Ketchum, (208) 726-1564, iconoclastbooks.com

• Suggested reading: The Middle Fork of the Salmon River: A Comprehensive Guide, by Matt Leidecker (2006); The Middle Fork, A Guide, by Johnny Carrey and Cort Conley (1992)

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