Family Rafting on the Salmon River in Idaho
Toil and Water Mix On a Raft Trip
A Salmon River run offers something for the whole family — berry picking, campfire singing, cave exploring, even pedicures.
When the cool, deep shaft of the abandoned copper mine ended in a wall of rock, guide Mike Thurber turned to the group and said, “Turn off your flashlights.”
We were about 100 yards into an Idaho hillside. The lights went off as instructed, and in a moment of solemnity, 19-year-old Thurber quietly asked us to contemplate the phenomenon of utter darkness. For that instant, each of us was an island, alone in the black tunnel.
Then somebody made a spooky ooooo-ing sound, and, to squeals of laughter, all the flashlights clicked back on, most of them shining up under chins, turning faces into grotesque Halloween masks.
Solemnity is in short supply on a river rafting trip full of kids. If you’re wondering what a walk in a copper mine has to do with river rafting, you’ll probably wonder the same about blackberry picking, hurtling down sand dunes, Wiffle-ball and toenail polishing.
It’s About Family
Our whitewater rafting trip on the Lower Salmon River had as much to do with old-fashioned family fun as it did with running rapids. It was the warm and fuzzy things — singing around the campfire, eating meals together, inventing games, telling bad jokes, debating big issues with know-it-all adolescents — we remembered long after the whitewater thrills faded.
My wife, Jody, and I chose this particular adventure for family reasons. Friends of ours, the Fullers, had researched the trip — 4 days, 3 nights on the Salmon and Snake rivers starting in Idaho with the Outdoor Adventure River Specialists, or OARS rafting company — and asked whether we wanted to join them. John Fuller teaches science to our 14-year-old son, Sam, and Fuller’s son, Woody, is a pal of Sam’s.
Our trip began on a Monday, when we took a bus from Lewiston to the Pine Bar put-in point on the Salmon, 62 miles upstream from our eventual destination, Heller Bar. We pushed out into the river around 11 a.m. Our little flotilla consisted of three rubber rafts, three wooden dories, a big paddle raft and three inflatable kayaks.
The first 3 days of our trip were on the Salmon, a 425-mile river that begins in the mountains of central Idaho and ends at the confluence of the Snake River near the Oregon-Washington border. The Salmon is the longest free-flowing river left in the Lower 48. For rafting purposes it’s divided into the Middle Fork (the upper part), the Main and the Lower Salmon.
Each has its charms and its advocates. Depending on water levels, our part, the Lower Salmon, usually has fewer and less difficult rapids. We faced only a couple that count as Class III. (Class IV and V rapids are scarier and more dangerous; Class VI is considered unrunnable for a commercial trip.)
The lack of big whitewater might make the Lower Salmon a little tame for thrill-seekers, but it was perfect for our band of youngsters and their parents who wanted to get them acquainted with river rafting without the dangers of big water.
“This is nothing,” said veteran rafter Jim Eisch, 40, of Tampa, Fla. Eisch brought his daughter Kelsey, 8, son Jimmy, 11, and father, Ted, 69. “But I didn’t want to make them so scared they didn’t want to do it again.”
If we could have fast-forwarded a trip tape to the last day, it would have shown Jimmy grinning widely after his third back flip off a raft and saying, “I don’t want to go home. Next time I’m going on a 17-day trip!” With kids as young as 8 on the trip, danger was on every family’s mind. Before we put in, the guides gave us several safety lectures, explaining what we were to do if we went overboard in a rapid — or “went swimming,” as they say in river parlance.
Tossed Into The Drink
There was a lot of information to absorb, involving, among other things, head-patting signals, throw ropes, flip lines and the “La-Z-Boy” float position. All of it washed out of our heads when, separately, Jody and I were thrown from our kayaks at the Class III Bunghole rapid on the second day.
Disoriented after getting tumbled in the opaque wash cycle of Bunghole, we quickly bobbed to the surface. In less than a minute we were within grasp of a raft or dory, and in less than three, we were back aboard our kayaks paddling.
The important things, it turns out, were not only procedures but also the vigilance and unflappable nature of our crew as we got tossed overboard and forgot all our lessons. That and the bright orange life vests we always wore.
The inflatable kayaks — like beach rafts with sides — gave the most heart-pounding ride. It’s just you and a little bit of plastic careering through the rapids. When the waves of whitewater curl up and attack, the key is to paddle hard. “No lily dipping,” guide Marci Whittman told us before we set off the first day. “No tea-and- crumpet maneuvering.”
Two days later Sam wiped out at the start of the most technical (river-speak for dangerous) of the rapids, Eye of the Needle, sending him swimming through the churning water.
At the bottom of the rapid, he happily climbed back in his kayak. The guides were impressed. His mother was unnerved. Sam had a blast. “That was great,” he said.
But the best ride, as far as we were concerned, was in the dories. Even Sam and 15-year-old Adam Mowery agreed. “The dories were awesome,” Adam said.
Because the wooden boats are rigid, they don’t bend to the waves, making the highs much higher and the drops like a mini roller coaster. And for the best ride of all, the guides let us ride the bow. That means wrapping your legs around the prow, grabbing onto a rope and riding the boat like a bucking bronco.
Follow The Sun
Aside from the occasional whitewater, river days were soothing stretches of lazy rocking and leisure, framed by spectacular scenery of golden hills and deep gorges. At the start, trip leader Barry Dow had suggested we leave our watches behind. The sun became our clock, and the plaintive note Dow blew on his conch shell our call to meals.
We would pack up and push off after breakfast each morning, then spend 2 or 3 hours on the river, sometimes falling overboard for a swim to cool off. We would stop at a sandbar for lunch and more swimming or games, then return to the river for a few more hours.
We usually pulled up around 4 or 5 in the afternoon, which left plenty of time for onshore activities. The first day set the tone. A couple of dads tried their luck fishing while the rest of the adults sought relief from the 95-degree-plus heat and the kids horsed around at the water’s edge. Later, somebody started a Wiffle-ball game. When wind blew the ball into the river, 13-year-old Amy Fuller yelled, “Seventh-inning stretch!” and everybody jumped into the cool water.
Eventually, big clouds boiled up, bringing shade and relief, thunder and a few drops of rain. By morning it was clear and dry.
The first night, before we got down to the business of family fun, Dow discussed the dangers of onshore life. It was pretty tame stuff—poison ivy, hornets, the rare brown recluse and black widow spiders, and the rarer rattlesnakes.
“This is important,” Dow said solemnly.
“Don’t harm the animals. This is their home. We’re visitors.” Some of the parents hoped the guides’ reverence for the river and its residents would rub off on their children.
“My kids are city kids,” said Susan Mowery, the Indiana mother of Adam and his sisters, Anna, 12, and Abbi, 10. “I want to show them there’s more to life than Disney World.”
Guide Matty Wilson, 28, aglow in the orange campfire light, pulled out a guitar and sang folk and pop songs, some so old that even the parents recognized them.
Soon the fire went out, leaving a soft night breeze, the sound of guitars, a big moon trying to shine through the clouds and a group of contented parents watching their children do something besides playing video games.
That was just one of many special shore-leave moments. At that campsite, many of us had our toenails painted. Whittman, an art teacher in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho when she’s not a guide, set up a salon in her raft. At the back end was a studio where the girls and some of the younger boys painted rocks and made sand art. In the middle, she painted toenails.
Having science teacher John Fuller along on the river trip was an extra treat. For Fuller, facts are fun, and it wasn’t long after our departure that he got trip leader Dow to talk about the river and its flow. At the time, it was running at a mild 7,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), but during floods, it ran more than 100,000 cfs. Dow pointed out driftwood trees high on the banks and said, “Imagine the river that high. It’s like a wild animal.”
Fuller’s favorite moment on the trip, scientifically at least, came at a blackberry patch just below the mouth of the copper mine. He watched in awe as one guide tossed a berry 50 feet into the mouth of another guide. And it gave him an idea for a science lab, involving the physics of tossing grapes (in the absence of blackberries).
There was no need to teach the physics of fun; the kids on the trip were experts. By the second day, increasingly confident in their new surroundings, they were jumping off the rafts into the water to cool off. By the third day, they were swimming down a Class III rapid. Water splashing fights routinely broke out.
Does It Have To End?
On Thursday afternoon as we approached Heller Bar, our destination, no one wanted the trip to end. That night guides and clients met for a farewell dinner at a restaurant near Lewiston, even though two families had to alter their travel plans to make it.
During toasts and testimonials, Dow rose and spoke for the guides, saying, “We hope the river spoke to you and gave you a special gift, because it does to us.”
As we left the restaurant, families were exchanging e-mail addresses and Whittman was painting the few remaining blank fingernails left on the little girls.
Months before, when the Fullers had pitched the family rafting idea, Woody, with teenage disdain, called it “the dumb trip.” Afterward, he had a new name for his rafting adventure down the Lower Salmon River. “Now,” he said, “it’s the great trip.”
This essay originally appeared July 20, 2003 in the The Los Angeles Times and was republished with permission on the OARS Blog in 2011. Photos: Rob Aseltine