In Idaho, White Water And White Knuckles

By Barbara Lazear Ascher

The bush pilot turns in his seat to fix a bloodshot gaze on the passengers seated behind him. Look where you’re going! I want to shout as his bucking bronco of a propeller-driven, six-seater plane heaves and kicks its way through a canyon in northwestern Idaho.

‘You know we’re headed for a dirt strip in the mountains, right?” We nod docilely. We stare ahead at the canyon wall toward which we move with alarming speed.

Welcome to adventure travel, where the adventure always appears in ways other than the life-affirming challenges promised in glossy brochures.

A woman puts her hands on the seat in front of her and buries her head in her arms. Who knew that at the end of the week she would be urging her kayak over bigger and bigger falls to rush through the rapids of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River prized by white-water aficionados? They revere it because its 75 rapids covering 75 wet miles are unpredictable, technically challenging and, at times, terrifying.

Among the group on this plane and those we’ll be joining in Stanley, Idaho, are two women accompanying their athletic husbands and a woman whose idea of roughing it is finding a fly in her hotel room, but who’s here to celebrate her husband’s 50th birthday. There’s a gentle couple from a small town in Oklahoma who are hoping for still waters between rapids so they can fly-fish, and a divorced father of two prepubescent children, a girl and a boy, who may be counting on the river to stun them into submission.

So, what’s my excuse? Six months ago, my husband died. I wanted death-defying adventure.

Off I went to acquire the clothing and equipment suggested by Outdoor Adventure River Specialists (OARS), the outfitters that had been recommended to me by a fan of white water. Long underwear, rowing gloves, a warm hat, water-wicking shirts and pants, a wet suit and booties. OARS would provide sleeping bag and tent.

I was drawn to this adventure not because of white water, of which I had no experience, but by the notion that I would be entering the second-largest wilderness area (after Death Valley) in the continental United States: the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, with its otters, eagles, bears, bobcats, hot springs, silence and stars, stars, stars.

Wilderness was what I needed, a place that would reflect how I felt.

A place big enough and tough enough to absorb grief.

When you hear the word ”wilderness” while sitting in your Manhattan apartment, you don’t envision the emptiness I now witness from the plane window. For the last hour I’ve been watching drought-dried plains rise to craggy mountains and deep forest making way for a golden ribbon of river, all of it untouched by human intervention. No roads, no buildings. The only way in is on the river.

At the little settlement of Stanley, we tumble out of the plane and take deep, grateful breaths of the cold mountain air. It’s the third week in August, and it smells like winter here.

Next to the rocky knob where the plane has landed is a rusty pickup truck with one door, three wheels. Below are a few log cabins, a small motel with a highfalutin name, Mountain Village Lodge, and the Kasino Club. That’s Stanley, year-round population around 100.

We check into the motel, then head for the Kasino Club. Mountain men with weathered faces and upturned collars drink beer and ignore our eager arrival. The beef is tough, the martinis dry.

Back at the motel we meet our group leader, Bronco, a very serious fellow. If any of us came here thinking this would resemble a summer outing on the Thames, we got that wrong.

”Should you fall overboard,” Bronco says gravely, ”face downstream and pull your knees into your chest so your feet, not your head, push off the rocks.” We try to commit this to memory. ”And never let your body get ahead of your boat. Your body moves a lot faster.”

”You must always wear a life jacket when on the rafts,” he says, ”and listen to the crew. They know what they’re doing.”

We’re given ammo cans that hold our drinking mugs. The wilderness environment is zealously protected, and to that end there will be no paper cups or plates. And should you want to bathe, says Bronco, you carry water from the river to the shore. You suds up — Castile soap only — and pour the bucket of water over yourself. ”Do not get soap in the river.”

He demonstrates river toothbrushing techniques. ”A small amount of toothpaste, stand away from the river, take a sip of water and then do this,” he says, dispensing a wide arc of imaginary spit through clenched teeth.

I pick up two waterproof bags, one holding my sleeping bag, the other my tent. I grab the ammo can. I can barely move.

The next morning — temperature 35 degrees — two small planes fly us to Indian Creek. After landing with a thump on a narrow strip of dirt in a canyon bottom, we make our way along a trail through dense stands of ponderosa pines.

Suddenly there it is. The sight of the river brings a shock of tears. Odd what mourning does. Beauty becomes a gift that is almost unbearably poignant. Water has always had the power to elicit a profound response, promising an escape route to freedom.

We inspect the conscientiously maintained yellow rafts and meet the crew. A brawny lot in their 20’s, without real names. This is Bram. Here are Mike, Hibbah and Grimes. And here’s Bob, and Brick, a woman with lovely, long, muscular legs. Bram and Mike, who guide on other rivers, are along to learn the ways of the Middle Fork. So much young flesh. We who are in our 50’s breathe in the sight with a sigh.

They’ve been busy these past 24 hours washing and outfitting the rafts. One raft will carry our bags, another the cooking equipment and another the toilet that, because of environmental concerns, will not be emptied until the end of the trip. There are four rafts that can carry four guests and a guide who does the rowing, for those who want a gentle ride and a bit of fishing, and two inflatable kayaks.

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