Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Perfect Retreat for the Work Weary
A few summers ago I took time off. Really took time off—how a European takes time off. I didn’t intend to be gone so long, but it just turned into five weeks. And I needed it. I hadn’t had a real vacation in years…you know, the kind where you actually turn off your computer and don’t check emails—at all? You don’t? Well, read on.
Though I work in a place that affords a lot of adventure travel in the context of our work, this was the first time in a long time that I got to be a customer, a guest, and not in charge of anything but getting up in the morning and making it to breakfast.
The start of the long break was a Middle Fork Salmon rafting trip in Idaho, tucked deeply into the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church Wilderness. Our plan was simple: six days and 100 miles down a gorgeous river with a group of fellow adventurers and guides full of wit and wilderness know-how. We would wind our way downstream and see what happened.
At the put-in, the river was shallow enough to walk across and the sound of the water was loud as the clear river bubbled and thrashed over millions of rocks. Smiles were plentiful as we pushed off and heard from guides Erika, Barry, Codye, Ashley, Ned, and Bronco about how to work together, survive swimming rapids, avoid poison ivy, and keep the river free from our pollution as much as possible. I’ve rafted many times but somehow manage to learn something new during every round of “the safety talk.” Perhaps I just don’t listen well.
We tackled the river with rafts, inflatable kayaks, and a monster-raft called “The Sweep” that carried all the food and gear. This beast has two big paddles, or sweeps, that are on the front and back. Ned was the guide-beast-man to take off first with the sweep every day and hit camp in advance of our flotilla. It was amazing to pull into camp to see drinks ready, gear sitting on the beach in another stunning location, and Ned with a “welcome to camp” smile and wave.
The magic of whitewater rafting comes from a combination of things. And frankly, some of it is pretty uncomfortable at first: being cut off from electronic devices, plunging (sometimes literally) into nature, being forced to meet new people and cooperate, and to be taken care of by others who want you to experience deeply what the river has to offer. For me, being without online and phone connection was great. I found it harder to sit in a raft with strangers for hours on end, sometimes with long silent periods, because my work-self was impatient that nothing was getting accomplished, driven, finished, etc. But these silly things melt away after a couple days. And the long silences become comfortable and enjoyable.
The nights were spectacular. Laying flat on your back, and if you wish, staring at the stars and contemplating the bigger questions that somehow get quashed in the frenetic lives we lead. God, cosmos, universe, how long is my lawn getting, the depth of email awaiting—wait…back to the river!
We spent six incredible days of paddling, sitting, snoozing, staring at wildlife, hiking, fishing, talking, and playing ghetto river bocce on the shores at night. Magic. Several of the campsites had natural hot springs pooling up or even in one case, the stream dropped off a small cliff creating a hot shower by the river. Every day was a new gift from nature, and we found ourselves bonding as friends, talking at night and on the boats during the day. And always the river was cajoling, laughing, moving us along.
Day three brought a couple hours of insanity that changed the trip’s tenor for a period. That evening we were sitting around the “living room,” what the circle of camp chairs became wherever we landed. As dusk hit, someone yelled, “There’s a snake!” People either moved rapidly toward or away from said viper depending on levels of ophidiophobia.
A few of us crowded around with flashlights to see a small, 18-inch rattlesnake pressed up against a rock, clearly extremely unhappy that fat heads were crowding his skyline. The snake was in camp, but we were all headed to bed in tents momentarily so it seemed fairly benign and after the initial excitement everyone wandered back to bed. Rattlesnakes are not known for burrowing through tent material. Perhaps ten minutes passed and a scream ripped through the quiet night.“It bit me!” And Bronco, the team leader, immediately knew shit had gone left.
The team sprang into action—it turns out that one of the guests had left his tent and happened to cross vectors with a very pissed off pre-teen rattler who rewarded him with two curved, needle-sharp prongs in his leg. Fortunately guest Susan was an ER doctor, and she and the guides quickly gave him Valium and immobilized him on one of the dual use backboard-lunch tables. Because you don’t want to move much when you’ve been injected with poison. Meanwhile team leader Bronco was on a sat phone calling in a chopper. While the Frank Church is a wilderness area, there were a few airstrips grandfathered in when it became protected and one was two miles downstream. So the guides mobilized and night-rafted the guest down to the air-strip in the dark—fortunately they knew the river well and also had plenty of flashlight help in the front.
The excitement should have been over. But when they landed and walked up to the airstrip, carrying our hero, out of the dark a herd of horses came galloping directly at them. A moment of panic, a lot of “@#$^*^!” and it appeared that what the snake started, the horses would finish. But the equine-friendly guides lunged forward and diverted the horses. The fun seemed destined to not stop.
The chopper came, whup-whup-whupping the starry Idaho night and within an hour, the guest was in a hospital. Turns out that the bite was dry and he was just fine.
In an email afterward, he let everyone know what a great time he had (bite excepted). “I can accept that sometimes ‘stuff happens’ when you are in the wilderness. That is a risk we all take, and probably one reason I enjoy the thrill of river rafting in the more remote areas of N. America.” We were all relieved to hear the news and thrilled to move on.
As the streams and tributaries continued to swell the Salmon, the river got bigger, deeper, wider and the rapids got ever more exciting. Most guests tried out the inflatable kayaks (IKs) at some point and most also joined the “swim club.” That is a nice way of saying you got dumped in a rapid and swam. As the rapids got a little bigger, the willing swimmers narrowed down to Will, Annie, and me. We became a little team, helping each other stabilize when getting back into the IKs, talking about strategies but probably the most helpful is that the first of the three of us into a rapid was the guinea pig to see how NOT to hit a particular rapid. Then the following IK crew could adjust and try not to go arse over teakettle.
My favorite rapid was dubbed “Rubber.” Guide Ashley gave the three of us clear, solid instructions, and repeated them—in particular as this rapid has a fat wave that comes in perpendicularly immediately following the first big wave so she instructed. “Hit the first wave, and then immediately get your boat facing left. T-up with that next wave or you’ll swim.” At this point we’d done 90 miles of river. And we had clear instructions. My heart pounded and I rehearsed the plan. I hit the first wave dead on and as my boat ramped up and then plunged down the other side, I saw a wall of white to the left out of my peripheral vision. I jerked the craft left as quickly as I could and then was suddenly twirling underwater, paddle in hand, boat gone, drinking water, thrashing to find the surface but completely disoriented. Pulled under again, still no breath, a little panicky now… finally, air! Big breath, pulled under, another drink of river, no idea where my boat is but somehow kept my paddle in my left hand. Eventually I made it to the side and grabbed a rock, spying one of the rafts about 80 feet downstream with my boat in a calm pool. I smiled, saw that Annie was also swimming but safe and that Will had a big grin as he did not submarine, learning from our epic fails. Annie’s mom was in a raft downstream and said she actually enjoyed watching us get churned and eaten by the river since there were no strainers or major rocks to actually catch us.
Days were spent thus, paddling, laughing, connecting with each other and nature, thinking, being silent. Evenings were spent eating amazing meals prepared by the guides, enjoying the company of others and watching the sky go from blue to black to star-heavy affairs looking like an explosion of lights on the black hole of the sky. On the final night we were surprised by a thunderstorm with an hour of incredibly heavy rain, which was a fun respite from hot and dry days.
Days after our Middle Fork Salmon rafting trip, when email and schedules and lawns and such re-clamped onto life, the thing I really noticed was the absence of the river as a constant soundtrack. For six days the gurgling, singing water had filled our heads constantly—we never got very far from it—and it felt like something rich was missing. I couldn’t wait to hear it again—which I would five weeks later in Utah.
Shannon Stowell is the CEO of the Adventure Travel Trade Association. This article originally appeared on National Geographic’s Adventure Blog: Beyond the Edge in 2013.
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