One Photo, One Story: Rafting’s Idaho’s Wild Middle Fork Salmon River

By Michael Lanza

On the fifth afternoon of our six-day rafting trip on one of the world’s premier wilderness rivers, Idaho’s 100-mile-long Middle Fork of the Salmon, our big, guided party reached one of the most exciting of the scores of whitewater rapids on the river: class III Cliffside Rapid, which takes a sharp right turn while slamming up against a jagged wall of rock. Standing on a gravel bar right beside the rapid, I got this shot of guide Matt Leidecker’s raft crashing through Cliffside’s massive wave train as four kids in his boat, including my daughter, Alex, shrieked and laughed loudly enough to be heard for a half-mile up or downriver. The expressions on all of their faces—including Matt’s—say everything.

Matt, who was a guest guide on our trip with Middle Fork Rapid Transit (experienced, fun guides and great food;, happens to have authored the definitive guidebook and river map for the Middle Fork ( By his own estimate, he has run the Middle Fork at least 130 times. Our kids were in good hands (as was our entire party with MFRT’s guides).

Besides thrilling whitewater from class II to IV every day, the trip descends more than a vertical half-mile through a canyon that changes from a forest of lodgepole pine and Douglas fir at higher elevations, to open terrain of ponderosa pine and rolling, grassy hills in the middle canyon, and finally the lower Impassable Canyon, the third-deepest gorge in North America, where sheer cliffs rise straight out of the roiling waters. The Middle Fork of the Salmon is also one of the most remote rivers in America, lying deep within the second-largest federal wilderness in the Lower 48, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. We saw bighorn sheep, bald eagles, and osprey, and made side hikes to hot springs, waterfalls, and overlooks hundreds of feet above the river with long views up and down the canyon.

I’ll post a feature story with many photos and a video later at The Big Outside. Meanwhile, see all of my stories about family paddling trips and all of my stories about family adventures at The Big Outside.

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