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Idaho's whitewater highways: a rivertrip is the only way to get into some great country.


Rivers are to Idaho vast highways through an otherwise impenetrable wilderness, compelling you from one bend to another, sweeping you on in a seemingly endless daydream. Hours pass unnoticed, and the day of the week is soon forgotten, lost in currents that have carved nature's roads through these rugged passages. Elsewhere, man has built highways through such exquisite beauty. Here, nature built the roads out of water over millenia, and then dared us to pave anything as good. Man demurred, leaving back-country Idaho largely roadless. A river trip is the only way through.

And what rivers! The state contains more miles of white-water than any state but Alaska, much of it class 4 or even 5 in a rating system of 1 (flat water) to 6 (unrunnable). Its rivers have carved North America's three deepest gorges--Hells Canyon on the Snake, Salmon Canyon on the Main Salmon, and Impassable Canyon on the Middle Fork of the Salmon--each, amazingly, deeper than the Grand Canyon. And the Salmon, the River of No Return, is the longest free-flowing drainage in the Lower 48, beginning as a trickle in the Sawtooth Range above Sun Valley and traveling 420 miles before pouring into the Snake south of Lewiston.

Despite large differences in terrain, rafting difficulty, and seasonality, each of the seven three-day-plus outfitter-led trips we cover rewards you generously (see "Which river to run?" on page 28). Whether you paddle the rivers of the Owyhee Desert, the Selway through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Hells Canyon on the Snake River, or the Salmon River or its Middle Fork through the Frank Church--River of No Return Wilderness, you'll be alone amid the beauty--in other words, in Idaho.


Getting to the rivers can be an adventure in itself. For most, it begins with a flight, usually to Boise. From there, you take a shuttle or rent a car to meet your outfitter at an agreed-upon location, take a single-engine plane to a Salmon River airstrip, or spend 4 hours in an old Suburban bumping along an Owyhee Desert road. After all that, prepare for the shock of darkness and quiet at river's edge.

At daybreak, jitters abound as guides teach paddle strokes and what to do if you fall overboard (float feet first and avoid rafts behind you). Then the convoy of orange rafts--sometimes, with kayaks, canoes, and one- and two-person inflatables in tow--pushes off, and the world falls further away.

On day two, long before guests stir, guides ready breakfast: blueberry pancakes, bacon and eggs, cereal, or (the usual favorite) the previous night's dessert. Before 8, guests splash their faces in the river and hover over coffee cups, mentally preparing for the first rapids, while fly-fishers cast from the bank. An impromptu lottery determines who stays dry in the larger oar boats, and who gets wet and cold in the paddle rafts, at least until the sun creeps above the ridge. By now, Idaho river life has adopted a familiar rhythm.

For whole days on the river, you may see no one else, but don't think you are alone. On the Main Salmon, bevies of boulder-hopping chukars watch the floating zoo; in Hells Canyon, bighorn sheep cock their heads curiously at any sound; above the Owyhee, red-tailed hawks search for brunch. And residents from long ago look out from river pictographs--rock drawings painted by the Sheep-eater and other tribes of central Idaho--as guides tell of more recent dwellers.

There was Buckskin Bill, whose Main Salmon homestead-turned-museum you might visit. And Earl K. Parrott, who upon losing both his gold and his fiancee, hunkered down for 27 years in Impassable Canyon, where no trails lead up or down. Legend has it the old hermit always carried a Colt 45 so if he ever broke his leg on the canyon's sheer shale, rhyolite, and granite cliffs, he could kill himself.

Evenings, around the campfire, the guides describe happier Earl Parrotts they know. The former insurance man from Mississippi who now runs the Selway for a living. The Manhattan brain surgeon who, after a week on the Middle Fork, took off around the world on a quest for holistic religion.

At times like these, why they fled the real world is easy to understand. The day's spills have been laughed off, the volleyballs put away, the warm afternoon winds stilled, the wine and dinner digested, and the sleeping bags readied. The dark blue sky has gone black. Everyone listens to the chorus of crickets and the river highway rushing into darkness.

This is the spell of River Time, Idaho's version of the rhapsody of the deep. It doesn't go away. Days after you return, familiar things will seem foreign: a car steering wheel, city noise, the radio. You'll still be there, peacefully floating between rapids, hearing that indelible sound of water going by.

Different Idaho rivers have different personalities. To help you choose the best river for you, we describe the outstanding traits (and a few quirks) of the ones outfitters run for three or more days.


Everything you could want

Six to seven days, 71 to 96 miles; 27 outfitters. Cost: $800 to $1,400. The Middle Fork, which drains into the Main Salmon, has it all: heart-pumping rapids, flat stretches of quietude, hot springs, exceptional trout fishing, rich wildlife, and no jet boats. The river journeys the lofty mountains of central Idaho, with forests growing sparser as it nears the granite-walled abyss of Impassable Canyon, which is run the last two days. The stunningly clear river flows as a series of pools, eddies, and deep drops over a golden streambed.

Each night's campsite is preselected so guides can plan your day intelligently, including stops at the river's pictographs and a 150-foot-tall natural cavern, Veil Falls, to shower under. Cutthroat and rainbow trout predominate (it's a catch-and-release river), and you'll likely spot bighorn, deer, osprey, and otter.


Family vacations

Main Salmon: three to seven days, 79 miles; 30 outfitters. Cost: $400 to $1,100. Lower Salmon: three to five days, 57 to 71 miles; 17 outfitters. Cost: $250 to $1,000. These are similar runs, though the Main is far better known--it was Idaho's original pioneer thoroughfare. Generally, the Salmon is wide and warm (70-degrees by August), with long flat stretches that invite conversation, games, swimming, water fights, and nature-watching, including near-daily encounters with moose, bighorn sheep, or deer. The many white, sandy beaches are prime for campsites, picnics, and sports--all of which make it the best river for kids of any age.

That isn't to say the whitewater and scenery aren't up to Idaho standards. In many sections of both the Lower and Main Salmon, rolling rapids, big waves, and giant holes promise wilder rafting than you'll get on the Middle Fork, and Salmon Canyon is a beautiful blend of forest, towering grassy hills, and (on the lower section) lava domes and basalt cliffs. But be prepared for noisy jet boat traffic through August (less on the Lower Salmon), the adventure of hunting down campsites, and, excepting smallmouth bass (Lower only) and steelhead, less-than-excellent fishing.

People can also run the Middle Fork and the Main Salmon consecutively. it takes 12 days.


Immense, intense

Three to six days, 32 to 79 miles; 13 outfitters. Cost: $400 to $1,000. North America's deepest river-carved canyon, while not as sheer as the Grand Canyon, drops more than 8,000 feet. Rafters look up the immense, largely treeless grade to the canyon ridge and feel like flecks at the bottom of a deep bowl.

A rafting trip begins at Hells Canyon Dam, and for three days and 32 miles the river challenges with big water, waves, and boulders. At Pittsburg Landing, one of the few roads out of the canyon, you can end your trip.

The next 47 miles is lazier water, good for sightseeing and fishing (rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, and if you get to the deepest pools, hundred-year-old sturgeon). Look for elk, bighorn, mule deer, and mountain goats against the hillsides.

This is the busiest Idaho river, with lots of jet boats (a great way to see the canyon if you have only a day; boats leave from Lewiston). It's also the most historic; your river guide becomes your shore guide on stops to see pictographs and old homesteads.


An oversize stream

Four to five days, 47 miles; 3 outfitters. Cost: $800 to $1,000. On its journey through the remote Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, the Selway takes you into a pristine, forested, low-elevation world that outfitter Doug Tims calls "what America used to be." The river is accessible only by boat, on foot, or on horseback; runnable only in May, June, and July; and has permits for only one trip a day. As a result, only 600 people float the Selway a year. This is wilderness rafting at its best.

And most untamed. During its peak flows in June, the Selway drops between 28 and 50 feet per mile in constant whitewater, like an enormous babbling brook run wild. July provides more leisure, warmer waters, and outstanding fishing. You can catch and release dozens of cut-throat a day.

Because of limited space, trips are booked far in advance, so check quickly for 1992 spaces or plan ahead for next year.


Desert remote

Owyhee: one to three weeks, 60 to 190 miles; 6 outfitters. Cost: $800 to $2,400. Bruneau: three to five days, 40 miles; 4 outfitters. Cost: $600 to $900. Miniversions of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, the Owyhee and Bruneau rivers have carved ancient-looking, turret-topped fissures in the Owyhee Desert from Oregon to Nevada. Sheer walls dwarf your rafts, and you rarely, if ever, spot another rafting party. Trips on both rivers have an expeditionary feel.

The season is short (usually April through mid-June) and might be even shorter (two weeks) this year because of a mild winter, though trips in canoes and smaller inflatables should be offered all spring.

The Owyhee is a "feast or famine" river with stretches of currentless water punctuated by big-bouldered cataracts. The narrower Bruneau River, with virtually no shoreline but for a few grassy campsites, has shorter and smaller rapids than the Owyhee. After relaxed scanning of the pink-hued cliffs for pack rat nests, falcons, and golden eagles, however, rafters must navigate the infamous Five Mile, an endless rock garden of class 4 rapids, on the final day.
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Hunter, Cynthia
Date:May 1, 1992
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