Rafting the Salmon River and the Restorative Power of Wilderness

6 Min. Read
A view of camp on a Middle Fork Salmon River rafting trip | Photo: Rob Aseltine

The Cure of the Wild

Every once in a while I have a William Wordsworth moment.

Wordsworth is the immortal English poet who penned, among many masterpieces, a sonnet entitled “The World Is Too Much With Us,” which begins:

The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon, The winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers, For this, for everything, we are out of tune.

I was having that kind of a moment in June of 2008. The world of deadlines and dishes and car repairs and computer meltdowns and endless emails and soul-sucking meetings was too much with me. Like WW, I had lost my connection with nature, the sea, the moon; I was out of tune.

Flying over Idaho's Salmon River

Fortunately, I had arranged a few months earlier to take a whitewater rafting trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. So I stuffed my despair and newly purchased water resistant outerwear into a duffle bag, and flew from San Francisco to Boise, Idaho, where a posse of 15 fellow rafters crammed into propeller planes for the flight over endless undulations of densely forested mountains to the Old West hamlet of Stanley, in the shadow of the snowcapped Sawtooth Range. We spent the night there, then piled into a bus for a 2-hour drive to the launch point at Boundary Creek. And there my 6-day wilderness cure began.

Two highlights stand out.

Rough Water Ahead

This was a big-water time of year. High with snow melt, the river was very cold and flowing very fast. Each day had some Class III rapids, and 4 days had at least one Class IV.

On the second day, at a place called Lake Creek Rapid, my adrenaline really got pumping. As we approached this rapid, the guides said it had changed completely since last year. (This is one of the really interesting things about rivers: Their map changes from year to year and season to season. Winter floods might deposit huge tree trunks in an area that had been unobstructed the year before, or a flood of water might open up a previously impassable stretch.) So we beached our boats upriver and got out and walked to scout the rapid. The guides spent a half hour dissecting and discussing its angles, dips and flows. There was a narrow channel on the left of a big hole in the center.

They concluded that we had to hit that channel.

When we returned to our boats, everyone was very somber. The guides reviewed what we should do if our raft was overturned or if we were thrown from an upright raft into the river. Basically, because the water was extremely fast and cold and there was another rocky rapid just downriver, the message was simple: Swim like hell to get to the riverbank as fast as you can; guides will be positioned on both sides to toss throw ropes to you.

Whitewater rafting on Idaho's Middle Fork Salmon

As we paddled back out into the river and approached the rapid, I could feel the fear in my pulsing heart and dry, coppery mouth. Our raft headed in a little too close to the hole and for a moment I looked straight into the maw of the roiling water, then in a roller-coaster split second — surging freezing water slamming us up and down and slapping over us, the sensurround roar of the churn deafening us — our pilot slipped us through and out into the calmer stretch beyond. I was exhilarated, by the narrow escape and perhaps even more, by the suddenly liberating sense of my own impermanence.

A Man Transformed

The second highlight occurred on the last night of the trip. As usual, after a full day of rafting, we’d pitched our tents around 4 p.m., then had some free hours to read, wander, and nap. Around 7 p.m. we’d gathered for another epiphanically delicious dinner, salmon and steak with grilled veggies, baked potatoes and deep dark chocolate celebration cake. After dinner, we’d sat around the campfire as the guides played guitar and harmonica and swapped tales.

Rafting The Salmon River And The Restorative Power Of Wilderness

Other nights I’d crawled sated into my sleeping bag around 10 p.m. and quickly fallen asleep, but that night, I kept re-rafting our previous days’ adventures on the whitewater of my mind. Finally I slipped out of my tent and sat on a rock looking out on a wide bend of the Salmon. I pictured the soul-soaring landscapes we’d rafted through: dense green pine trees and steep rocky slopes, long stretches of burned-out trunks from fires the August before, the snaking white-roiling curves of the river, the stark sun in a deep blue sky. I filled my lungs with the crisp Idaho air, filled my mind with the Zen roar of the river. The stars twinkled pluckably close, and a full moon rose over the crest of a pine-silhouetted crag.

I remembered something that Bronco, our crusty and endearing trip leader, had said at the beginning of our journey, “The Middle Fork is one of those places that will make you a better person just for being out there.” When I first heard that, I had some inkling of what he meant, but now the lesson was all around me: Sometime over the course of the 6 days, the river, the wilderness, gets inside you — it becomes a dynamic thing, churning through your veins. You absorb that wildness — the fresh open air, the green straining pines, the rushing roaring river, the geological texts of the implacable ageless crags. It freshens you and stretches you and puts you in sync with something deeper and broader than yourself.

By moonlight, I penned in my journal: “You leave the river, but it doesn’t leave you. Instead, you bring it to the life that roars and flows and bends before you; you map its depths and channels and flows, ride its surging waves and roiling holes, with a wisdom and courage that you didn’t have six days before. And that is wild.”

I looked up and stretched out my arms to hold the sight: The Salmon River danced with the moon, and everything was in tune.

This essay was originally created for OARS’ Adventures catalog. For more compelling stories from other renowned writers, request a copy of our latest catalog today!

Middle Fork Salmon River rafting trip photos: Rob Aseltine, Justin Bailie

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