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WET 'N` WILD; ROARING DOWN IDAHO'S SALMON RIVER ON A RAFT.

Byline: Bill Dietrich Seattle Times

My family is rafting on water so clear it appears to be molten glass, skimming over a riverbed of granite boulders that glows with liquid fire.

The granite cliffs of Impassable Canyon in central Idaho rear a couple thousand feet above our heads. Several times this week, mountain sheep have peered down on us.

The sound of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River grows, and up ahead it bends past the line of dancing white waves that mark the beginning of Jump-Off Rapid. ``Get set!'' our guide, Travis Bullock, tells us.

I tuck one wet tennis shoe in the stirrup on the bottom of the rubber raft, wedge another under the swollen bladder of a tube, and ready my paddle.

Heidi, my 14-year-old daughter, leans forward in anticipation. Holly, my wife, grins. After six days and 40 named rapids, we know what to expect. The roar becomes louder.

``All forward!,'' Bullock shouts.

We dig in with the paddles, giving us the momentum necessary to maintain steerage in the white water. Huge rocks flash by and the ``tongue'' of the main current mounds into big waves as it roller-coasters downhill.

The raft tips into a hole and punches through, cold spray flying like a curtain over our heads. We shout mindlessly, bouncing up and down.

Near the end of Jump-Off, Bullock digs in with his paddle and the corner of the raft where I sit spins and skids into a wave. The water catches me by surprise, slapping me into the bottom of the boat with a cool drenching.

As the raft glides into a quiet pool, we giddily hoist our paddles to celebrate yet another rapids run, and then slap the water like beavers.

Bob Nall, another of our guides on this trip, was right when he called the Middle Fork a ``hundred-mile-long, Double-E ticket'' amusement-park ride.

It's exhilarating for ``kids'' of all ages - if they treat the white water with respect.

Idaho's Salmon River system is the longest undeveloped river system left in the contiguous United States, and the Salmon's Middle Fork flows through the Lower 48's biggest wilderness.

The 2.3-million acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness (locals call it ``The Frank'') includes land from six different national forests and is bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

My family's six-day trip began at 6,000 feet elevation in a spruce, fir and lodgepole pine forest. We descended 3,000 feet through Ponderosa pine and down into near-desert terrain in Impassable Canyon.

By the end of the trip, we were in a gorge deeper than the Grand Canyon. The Middle Fork boasts the third-deepest canyon in the nation, exceeded only by the canyon of the main Salmon River it flows into, and then by Hells Canyon on the nearby Snake.

Each year, about 10,000 people descend the Middle Fork to experience what river enthusiasts rank as one of the best white-water trips in the United States, rivaled in overall drama and beauty only by the Grand Canyon.

One of the first eight rivers included in the Wild and Scenic River system, it offers a combination of scenery, history, thrills, fishing, wildlife, hot springs and frequently dry weather that is hard to beat.

Descending the Middle Fork is not very dangerous, but there is some risk.

The Middle Fork boasts several Class IV rapids, defined as ``difficult, long rapids with powerful, irregular waves, dangerous rocks and boiling eddies.''

Our group was lucky, blessed in early July with good weather, an ideal river level and no serious mishaps.

The river is also long enough, and remote enough, to transport anyone who ventures on it to an unspoiled heaven far from the outside world.

``It really takes people about three days to unwind from whatever was kicking them in the butt back home,'' our outfitter, Bill Bernt, said. ``The white water is part of it, but only a part. It's the whole experience.''

The Middle Fork is not entirely wilderness. Along the hundred-mile trip are a developed lodge, a few private homes and ranches, and several primitive airstrips. But nowhere else in the Northwest can you raft so long, through such wild country.

Our group met in Stanley (winter-time population, 71) in central Idaho's spectacular Stanley Basin, which is walled to the south by the jagged Sawtooth Range.

There were 20 guests in our party, including three families with children. We would descend the river with seven guides in four oared rafts, one paddle raft, and a large sweep boat that carried the food and gear that made this ``wilderness'' trip seem like a passage on a cruise ship. No dehydrated rations here.

The people proved as much a part of the experience as the river.

The guides were Idaho locals. The guests came from Connecticut, Texas, Kansas, California and Seattle. They included a lawyer, banker, psychiatrist, pediatrician, Red Cross volunteer, apartment developer, social worker, teacher and a recent widow who works with children infected by AIDS. An oil executive named Charlie Brown had come back for the fourth straight year.

We were issued waterproof duffel bags with ample room for our sleeping bags and clothes, which had to bridge a wide range of temperatures. It was 24 degrees on the July morning when we left Stanley; the lower canyon, on the other hand, can get blazingly hot.

Our leader, ``Muskrat'' Bernt, is a rangy 45-year-old former rancher with silver beard, cowboy hat, chaw of tobacco and a master's degree in wildlife management. He has been running river trips for more than two decades.

``The Middle Fork starts out with a bang,'' Bernt notes. Small, swift and rock-studded at its beginning, it initiates rafters with a small rapid only a few hundred yards downstream from the launch site. Five more named rapids and many unnamed follow in its first eight miles, including Class IV Velvet Falls.

We had a choice between the oar boats - in which the guide does the maneuvering and the guests sit in front for a wet but secure ride - or the paddle boat where guests have to help maneuver, get even wetter, and are at more risk of falling out. Paddle boaters wear helmets.

Some outfitters also offer inflatable kayaks, but Bernt considers them too risky for inexperienced users on the Middle Fork. During our trip we watched several experienced kayakers flip.

Our Wall Street banker, John Raben, managed to fall out of the boat just three miles down the river at Sulphur Slide Rapid.

Floating with feet forward and his paddle still in hand as instructed, the life-jacketed John jounced over rocks and was scooped up by Jim Parks' oar boat in an eddy below, shaken but OK.

We averaged four or five hours a day in the boats, the time dictated by the river's height, speed of the current, and the camp we were assigned by the Forest Service.

Much of the time the water was quiet and we floated by wild roses, wildflower meadows, granite cliffs and shadowy pools.

``A classic Middle Fork day,'' Bernt remarked one morning. ``Good water, snow on the peaks and bright sunshine.''

The ample rafting still gave time for hearty shoreside lunches and side hikes to see Indian pictographs and pioneer cabins. We visited a half-dozen hot springs during the trip.

Camp was downright hedonistic. Guests were expected to erect their two-person tents but after that and a change into dry clothes, it was relaxation time.

The guides built the fire, prepared the appetizers, fixed the gargantuan meals and did the dishes. Dinners included steak, trout, ribs, teriyaki chicken and other hearty fare, served with Idaho wines.

Bernt baked Heidi a chocolate birthday cake in a Dutch oven. Some outfitters get even fancier, serving up eggs benedict for breakfast and European sauces at dinner.

Not only do boats allow a lot of stuff to be brought along, they allow waste to be packed out as well.

Each morning as the boats were loaded, guides inspected the camps and scooped up anything as small as a scrap of paper or a matchstick. At sites where there were only portable toilets, solid human waste came out as well, as did ashes. The result was a remarkably clean corridor.

With 10,000 visitors jammed primarily into just three months, the Middle Fork is an example of the minimal impact humans can have when they set their minds to it.

The Middle Fork is that rare kind of place that can take you away from the troubled world and closer to yourself.

The magic worked on Holly, who typically prefers the ocean to the mountains.

Deep in the shadows of Impassable Canyon, however, she sat alone on a rock and let the river run with her thoughts and came back to the campfire contented. ``This river touched my soul, too.''

On Location

The full 100-mile length of the Middle Fork is usually run in June and July when water levels make the upper portion navigable.

In August, parties may have to fly or pack horse into a river midpoint and concentrate on the lower half.

The main Salmon River downstream from the entry of the Middle Fork has a longer season stretching from spring to September. It is a good choice for families with young children because of its sandy bars and beaches. The Lower Salmon offers sportsmen trips in early October.

On any river trip, the water level will dictate how fast you travel, the kind of rapids encountered and the quality of fishing. Talk to your outfitter about conditions and timing.

Rafters range in age from grade school to people in their 70s. Riding an oar boat is pretty safe, does not require much vigor, and passengers wear life jackets at all times.

The youngest member of our party was 10, which I'd advise as a good lower limit even though kids as young as 5 have done it. That's old enough to relax fears about safety and to allow a youngster to mesh easily with groups that tend to have a large number of adults.

That same mix can provide an ideal family trip. Multiple rafts and numerous side trips give kids a chance to be independent of their parents, yet the wilderness and shared excitement brings people together. My daughter Heidi judged it one of the best vacations we've had.

However, the first day or two at high elevation can be chilly and you can count on getting splashed with cold river water. (While on the river, many of us gravitated to a goofy-looking but serviceable dress of polypropylene long underwear, shorts or swimsuit, hat, and wet tennis shoes or aqua socks. The long underwear retains warmth when wet and dries quickly.)

Guests sleep on ground pads in tents. But the food is excellent and everyone on our trip had a good time.

For our outfitter, we picked Aggipah (P.O. Box 425, Salmon, Idaho 83467; 208-756-4167) because it was an Idaho-based company specializing in the Salmon, with Idaho guides, and offered a lot of down-to-earth information.

But there are 27 licensed outfitters that compete by offering twists such as gourmet foods, wine-tasting trips, etc.

To get brochures from several, contact the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, P.O. Box 95, Boise, Idaho 83701; (208) 342-1919.

Cost was about $1,000 per person for a six-day Middle Fork trip, $700 for three days. Main Salmon six-day trips start at about $750 and can go as high as $1,500 with lodge stays. Some trips or outfitters have children's discounts.

For general tourism information and brochures, phone the Idaho state tourist office, (800) 635-7820.

CAPTION(S):

3 Photos, Box

Photo: (1--color) Rafting down the Salmon River in Idaho can turn into a family adventure with a few thrills and chills.

(2--color) American Indian pictographs can be spotted on granite walls of the Salmon River.

(3) Rafting is one of the delights of Idaho's Salmon River, and the fishing isn't too bad, either.

Idaho Department of Commerce

Box: On Location (see text)
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 20, 1997
Words:2010
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