WE’RE DRIFTING DOWN IDAHO’S MIDDLE FORK OF the Salmon River, deep in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. It’s sometime in July, but no one can remember exactly which day, and, really, what does it matter? Bright morning light bounces off the water, warming the rafts and the canyon walls, illuminating tiny drops that fall from the tips of our paddles. Suddenly my father’s voice, from our raft’s front-right corner, shakes me awake: “Watch out!”
I glance up as we careen wildly toward a VW-size boulder. Uh-oh. While I’d been focusing on each paddle stroke, the oar raft in front of us wrapped itself around a rock, and we’re bearing down on it. What comes next is an unplanned rock-bounce-spin, a blur of swirling water, and my dad, 68, pulling me clear as the tip of the errant raft’s wooden oar nearly spears my left jaw. Two seconds later, we slide into a placid eddy, as neat as a puck into a net.
I’ve been on my own for decades, but some things never change: You’re always your father’s daughter.
GROWING UP WITH HIP, OUTDOORSY PARENTS meant that shared adventures were a key ritual in my family. Annual summer biking trips not only turned my sister and me into lifetime travelers, they drew us all closer with bonds that only the best family vacations can create. Naturally, now that my own two boys are old enough, I hope they can share some of the same peak experiences. One of the must-dos: raft the Middle Fork of the Salmon, one of America’s archetypal wilderness rivers. My parents had taken us kids down the Middle Fork in the mid-1970s, and the journey, which involves floating through the largest chunk of contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48, still topped my Greatest Hits List of family trips.
When my brother- and sister-in-law, Hoyt and Susan, called from New Jersey to say that they were thinking about doing a river trip with their boys, we quickly agreed to meet up in Idaho that July. We signed on with O.A.R.S., an outfitter with a reputation for superb guides and years of river experience, and invited my parents to join for a special Middle Fork reunion. Mom, our family’s original camper, declined, but for my outdoorsy dad, it promised the week of a lifetime. By April we were three generations – East and West Coast contingents – with no guess of how well things would go.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon is part of one of the nation’s first Primitive Areas – land set aside by Congress in the 1930s so that people could “detach themselves from the strains and turmoil of modern existence.” Idaho’s governor at the time, H. Clarence Baldridge, declared it was the wildest country he’d ever seen. The river’s fame inspired the 1968 Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, and in 1980 it became the heart of Idaho’s 2.4-million-acre Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness. When the Middle Fork surges with snowmelt each spring, its rapids swell to epic proportions. But by July it typically turns into a near-perfect ride: a delicious float through one of the deepest gorges in North America.
NOT EVERYONE ASSOCIATES RIVER TRIPS with luxury, but spending a week in the care of an outfitter like O.A.R.S. will change their outlook. First, there’s the luxury of simplicity. While most of us had packed a little more than Dad’s carry-on size bag, we didn’t need much. O.A.R.S. provides sleep kits (consisting of easy-to-assemble tents, sleeping bags, and sheets) and waterproof gear bags. Practically all we had to bring were a few pairs of shorts, a bathing suit, and a flashlight. Next, there’s the luxury of isolation. Our gang meets up in Stanley, Idaho (population 100), in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains. From the instant we load up several six-seater planes and land between steep canyon walls at the river’s Indian Creek put-in the next morning, we begin to relish one of the week’s most notable features: no telephones, no e-mail, no modern-day intrusions of any kind.
At Indian Creek we join our fellow passengers. Our party totals 22 people – a family of four from La Jolla, California; their friends, a father and son from Northern California; plus assorted couples and single adventurers. Our incredibly fit-looking guides suggest we each introduce ourselves.
A good river trip is really more about the individuals than the rapids. I say something about this expedition being a multigenerational reunion for our gang. We go around the circle, and Dad admits that this trip is a particularly sentimental one for him since he ran the Middle Fork 30 years ago with his daughters, noting that I was 15 at the time. Then, smiling, he jokes that he won’t tell anyone how old I am now.
After the introductions are accomplished, everyone cinches up their life jackets, jumps in a boat, and we’re off – a flotilla of six-person paddle rafts, two- to six-person oar rafts, and three inflatable kayaks. The river, with its clear water and rugged canyons, looks just as I’d remembered it: steep, rocky banks climbing toward khaki-colored mountains; dense conifer forests and stands of ponderosa pine.
The idea of being together in the wilderness, completely cut off from the modern world and sharing the adventure of “running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life,” as the philosopher George Santayana once wrote of travel, seems to me the best kind of trip. Still, I’m nervous as my 16-year-old Sam paddles through the biggest rapid of the day, Marble Creek (Class III-), in an inflatable rubber ducky. We hold our collective breath: Will he tank? He misses a stroke or two and gets carried over the lip before he’s ready, but the landing is easy. His cousins cheer.
That afternoon we set up camp on a long, sandy beach with a forested bench above. Dad, who never uses a tent given the option, methodically clears a flat spot, unfolds his tarp, and anchors the corners with four stones. He unrolls his sleeping pad, places his sleeping bag on top, then heads off to find a beer before anyone else is done, including my husband and me. When we’re finally set up, I walk back down the beach and find that the cousins have copied their grandfather. (But since they fail to find a flat spot, by morning their sleeping bags have nearly rolled into the river.)
Mark, our calm and capable head guide, explains our game plan for the week: Wake up each day for a leisurely breakfast (coffee at 7 am, followed by huevos rancheros, pancakes and sausage, or coffee cake baked in a Dutch oven), pack up and float, stop for picnic lunches, take on a few more rapids, and savor leisurely afternoons in camp with plenty of time to relax. And relax we do.
The days ease by as we slip into river time, the ultimate peace of mind. You know you’ve crossed over when you wake up to the smell of camp coffee and don’t have anywhere else to be but in a raft, heading downstream. We hike up to investigate some pictographs that date back some 300 to 500 years. Bram, the resident geologist, archaeologist, and guitar player, points out ancient Lemhi Shoshone rock paintings of stick figures and animals resembling sheep and goats. Magpies with white wings dart overhead and a majestic blue heron flies slowly downstream.
“What day is it?” my 14-year-old James asks. People have begun ditching their watches. It’s 9:30 at night. We’ve had a lovely dinner of grilled salmon, fresh vegetables, rice pilaf, and warm brownies; the evening is so balmy we’re still sitting around camp in bathing suits, shorts, and Tevas. We’ve pitched tents a few feet from the water’s edge, and the sound of the Middle Fork is a soft refrain. Bram breaks out his guitar and strums some bluegrass tunes. One of them, an original, captures the moment perfectly:
I ain’t got no money
It won’t get you too far
I’d give away all the money in the world
Just to look up at the stars
Wake up in the morning
Take a look around
Another night passed under the pines
Sleeping on the ground.
ON DAY THREE THE RIVER PICKS UP PACE. Everything feels more vital and alive. After lunch we hit a quick succession of Class II+ through III+ rapids: Tappan I, Tappan Falls, Tappan II, and Tappan III. The kayaks have become our main source of entertainment, with much jockeying to see who gets to paddle them through rapids. Once that’s decided, everyone else enjoys watching the antics from the relative stability of the rafts. On Tappan I, my husband Jeff takes a swim. We dunk George from La Jolla in Tappan Falls. And Tappan II turns out to be the spot where Milton wraps his raft around a big rock. After much jumping up and down, Milton and his passenger, Carl (who puts on a terrific show), manage to free themselves. Nothing like a little excitement to bring the group closer together.
When we pull into camp that afternoon at Camas Creek, the gang takes turns hiking upstream, sitting right down in the water, and sliding downstream over slippery-smooth rocks. By now, Mark and the guides have realized that we don’t need to be entertained, so they gracefully leave us to our own devices. Half of us string up fly rods and hike a few miles up the creek to fish in the late-afternoon light. The other half settles into cocktail hour (we’ve all brought along plenty of beer and wine to share), which eases into dinner, followed by poker and hearts played by headlamp. Mark leads a calm, upbeat “meeting,” which consists of everyone gathered around in camp chairs, ably assisting in the day’s recap. Jeff and I skip setting up our tent and sleep out under the stars. The night sky fades from violet to inky black and is awash in constellations.
SOON EVERYONE HAS CONQUERED THE KAYAKS. Dad deftly paddles through Haystack Rapid, a boulder-strewn, Class III rock garden that’s one of the most technical sections on the river. The three moms – Aunt Sue, Jan from La Jolla, and yours truly – get up the nerve to paddle a stretch of wave trains one day after lunch (although not without the teen contingent placing bets on who will swim first). Even the three youngest cousins (ages 15, 14, and 12) maneuver through chutes and falls with aplomb.
By day five, any doubts we’d had about the trip a few days earlier have dissipated with the current. Drifting through Impassable Canyon, the most dramatic landscape of the week, we float awestruck between walls of sheer granite and metamorphic rock that rise up thousands of feet, framing the river. Everything is silent except for the rush of the current, the wind in the pines, and the occasional call of a canyon wren. We pass bighorn sheep grazing on a shelf, a mink, a handful of river otters, and ponderosa pines so gnarled they could have been the subjects of ancient Chinese paintings.
We are all changed, somehow, by the time we reach our final camp at Otter Bar, a long stretch of golden, sun-warmed sand. Rather than setting up camp the instant we land, everyone takes a swim and then just hangs out on the beach. Even my husband notices the difference. “You know, now I just find a spot and dump my stuff there,” he says, stringing a fly rod. “Who needs a tent?”
That last night all nine of us sleep out under the stars. Aunt Sue and I agree the morning is a little rough, and we aren’t looking our best when we sit up and catch Dad, neatly packed, snapping a picture. Of course, it turns out to be a classic family portrait reminiscent of those I grew up on: a row of bright red sleeping bags lined up on a sandy beach, side by side by side.
Rip-roaring rapids and placid pools earn the Salmon River’s Middle Fork its reputation as one of the country’s epic multiday rafting trips, with more than 100 river miles of remote alpine forests, endless grasslands, and rugged canyons. O.A.R.S.’ six-day family outings get adventurous clans riding rafts and paddling kayaks by day and gazing at shooting stars by night (they also run trips on the Lower Klamath, Rogue, Colorado, and other notable rivers). Hot-spring soaks, hikes to pictographs, and wildlife spotting add to the family scrapbook. Multiple departures, May 28 through September 7, 2007; from $1,836. Minimum age: 9. – LISA COSTANTINO