Rip-Roaring Away: The Glories of White Water Rafting in Idaho
By Linda Hagan Miller

We are two days into a six-day white water rafting adventure on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon, often referred to as The River of No Return, and as usual, I am powerless to stop my son from adding another heart-pounding feat to his stash of adventures. This time my husband has joined the fray, and the two of them are about to catapult through Class IV rapids in a flimsy-looking rubber thing called a "Daring Duckie." Smiling like a couple of "Jackass" pranksters, they lurch onto the river.

Digging their paddles into Mother Nature’s cauldron, orange tips flashing more or less in sync, they fly around a Volkswagen-sized boulder, bounce through the chop and rocket downstream with a huge smiles and lots of happy shouting.

When you sign up for six-days of close-quarters adventure, you cross your fingers for likeable companions, skilled guides, hearty food and cocktail hour. When you invite your 20-something-year old son along, you hope there’ll be enough action that he won’t wish he’d gone to Cancun.


Picking a river isn’t so hard. Time and time again, the word ‘magical’ cropped up when people talked about the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Hard-core river rats crooned about technical Class III-IV rapids and the 3,000 foot drop over 105 miles. Escape artists pointed to its isolation in the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Gentle souls mentioned hot springs, mysterious caves, ethereal waterfalls and ancient pictographs.
Picking a rafting outfitter can be daunting, however. We went with Row Adventures because of their stellar reputation and decades on rivers from Idaho to Peru.

Our group of 20 – an assortment of Baby Boomers and their 20-something year-old kids -- assembles in Stanley, Idaho, a tiny outpost that seems to exist solely to send river rafters into the wilderness, and are transported to Boundary Creek launch where head guide Dustin delivers the safety orientation covering life vests, helmets, paddling, where to sit and what to do if you go overboard . Overboard?


In a six-passenger paddle boats, helmets and life vests are required, going overboard is possible and getting drenched is guaranteed. A guide with tiller in hand perches at the back of the boat, shouts paddling commands and the rafts scream along in a ride best described as a roller coast without the safety bar. Mellower 18-foot oar boats float the river with a guide at the helm and because of their bulk and stability, are good choice for the timid or tired.

There’s no gradual introduction to white water on this river and the first fifteen miles of the Middle Fork pack a 45-foot-per-mile gradient and rapids with names like Ram’s Horn and Chutes. I can hear the canyons laughing "Howdy, Greenhorns."


At day’s end we glide into camp where our tents are pitched and guides John and Joe are setting out wine and appetizers. Our eight guides, an even split of men and women, are a multi-talented crew in charge of safety and comfort, education and enlightenment, food and games.

Tonight’s dinner, fried Idaho trout, fresh vegetables and strawberry shortcake, is the first of several extravagant meals.

Next morning guide Isaac is outside our tent with a wake-up call and a thermos of coffee. Breakfast is on the griddle and all we have to do is dismantle our tent, pack our dry sacks, eat and go.


The "duckies" debut on day two and all the manly rafters have proved their mettle by the time we pull into Sunflower Flat Hot Springs. Standing under a cascade of toasty water, Rigel says "You gotta try a duckie, Mom." My son’s motto is "No Fear" and in an uncommon mother-son dynamic, I never want to wimp out on him. (A couple of days later, he just as gently urges me to join him and jump off a 40-foot bridge into the river. And I do.) So after a hot springs soak, I know he’s right and I’m ready for a duckie.

Midway through our trip, the elevation has dropped over 1,500 feet along with everyone’s stress and inhibitions. New friendships emerge, family bonds strengthen, and we’ve even gotten comfortable with "the groover." Every night the guides set up a chemical toilet in a yellow tent far, far from camp, and since this is leave-no-trace territory, they’ll pack its contents out in the cargo raft.

As days melt together, the river canyon morphs from lush fir and spruce covered mountains to buff-colored hills studded with ponderosa pines and sagebrush. When we aren’t paddling like maniacs, we are drifting like water-born leaves. Equally memorable are the pauses that pull us ashore for a hike to a waterfall or cave, a hot spring soak, or a wildflower wander.

Guide Kari leads us to an ancient pictograph site where Native Tukudeka left graffiti now faint with age but bold in meaning. Anna leads a hike to an ancient amphitheater where water spews from overhead as if coming straight from heaven. She pulls out a flute and serenades us with melodies that conjure peace pipes and vision quests. We are deep in the River of No Return Wilderness, so very, very far from home.



Row Adventures: five and six-day Class III-IV trips run June-September, $1,325-$1,995. Contact:  800-451-6034  , .

Linda Hagan Miller is a freelance writer based in Washington. This is her second article for BAFT.

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