By Michael Lanza
Sitting in my inflatable kayak as our flotilla of more than a dozen rafts and kayaks launches on our first morning on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River, I just drift and wait. And it takes only a moment before the feeling sinks in deeper than the warm sunshine on my skin: serenity. The profound peacefulness generated by the simple act of floating down a wild river, surrounded by a wilderness of mountains, forest, and canyons vaster than the mind can comprehend.
It’s a good feeling, and one I’ve been eagerly anticipating.
Our party of about 30 people, including my family and two generations of other families and friends—several in their late teens and early twenties—who’ve joined us from as far away as the Boston area and Germany, has embarked on one of the great multi-day, wilderness river trips in America—if not the greatest. The Middle Fork, deep in central Idaho’s sprawling, 2.4-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (aka “the Frank”), has earned this reputation for its mix of breathtaking scenery, frequent rapids up to class III and IV, beautiful campsites and side hikes, hot springs, world-class trout fishing, and one of the most lovely rivers to ever carve a twisting canyon through mountains.
In many ways, this six-day journey is a reunion—or actually, several reunions.
For my family and two others here, this is a reunion of a formative adventure for our children that we took 12 years ago, floating the Green River through Canyonlands National Park when our kids ranged in age from 11 to four. For several years afterward, my kids referred to it simply as “the river trip”—in their minds, it became the archetype by which all future river trips would be measured. To us parents, those five days on the Green don’t feel all that long ago, of course. But looking at the young adults in their early twenties and late teens now, who were grade schoolers and preschoolers then, reveals starkly just how much time has ticked past since—and how much parenting has taken place to bring us to this point where our kids now sit in rafts and kayaks on the Middle Fork.
This trip is also a reunion with some friends with whom we too rarely have the opportunity to share a wilderness adventure—like our German friends Guido Buenstorf and Inken Poszner, who we last saw two summers ago when they joined my family trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc—as well as a reunion with guides from Middle Fork Rapid Transit, with whom we took our inaugural trip down the Middle Fork four summers ago, an adventure my family considers one of our absolute best ever (among a long list of many outstanding ones).
And for some of us, this trip is also a reunion with a river and the gentle way of being it inspires.
Today’s float alternates for a few hours between bouncing through easy rapids and periods of slowly drifting and spinning and gazing at the rocky riverbed—each stone sharply defined through the crystalline water, whether a foot or 10 feet below the surface. On all sides, ponderosa pine forest climbs canyon walls that soar well over 3,000 feet above us.
After stopping at 20-foot-high riverside crag for some cliff-jumping, we drop through the foaming waves of class III- Marble Rapid. Then the kayakers in our party—my son, Nate, who at age 18 is making his second descent of the Middle Fork (as is my 16-year-old daughter, Alex); plus friends Jeff Wilhelm, Mark Solon, Joe Lovelace, and 19-year-old Ben Simpson all in hard shells, and Joe’s mom, Sue, and I in my two-person inflatable kayak, spend nearly an hour paddling laps up the eddies to surf and drop repeatedly through the wave train.
By early evening, we reach our first campsite at Lost Oak, on a big, sandy beach. As we wander up to our tents, I watch everyone closely—and see exactly what I expect to see: only smiles and laughter. Turns out a day filled with running rapids, swimming, cliff jumping, fishing, and drifting lazily down one of the West’s most lovely river canyons exerts a positive impact on your mood.
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A River Trip With Great Hiking
In the tranquil dawn of our third morning, seven of us climb into a raft at our campsite, a pretty spot known as Whitie Cox, just above a sweeping bend in the river. The campsite draws its name from a settler who became something of a Middle Fork legend in his time, known for his knowledge of this canyon. Whitie worked a mine he developed by himself until the day a collapse buried him alive in it. Now his gravestone marks a corner of this camp’s tenting area.
One of our guides, Max Toeldte, oars the raft just across the river, where we all clamber up the steep riverbank. In the mild, calm air, Sue and Joe, Guido, Pam Solon, Mark Fenton, and I follow Max along a faint footpath, ascending nearly a thousand vertical feet up a narrow ridge crest, watching the tents—where much of our group still slumbers—shrink to dots.
Within an hour, we reach the destination of our pre-breakfast hike: a rocky point with long views both up and down the Middle Fork canyon. Horsetails of cloud cling to some of the highest ridges and summits we can see, which rise as much as 3,000 feet above the snaking Middle Fork. This obscure rocky point, like many in this canyon, offers a perspective you don’t get from a boat on the water, illustrating one of the highlights of floating the Middle Fork—the abundance of great hiking in the canyon. In fact, many of us on this morning jaunt had also dayhiked eight miles yesterday and will hike part of almost every day this week.
Our dawn ridge climb has the added benefit of making breakfast taste like possibly the best we’ve ever had.
Floating the Middle Fork Salmon River is one of “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”
For the morning’s stretch of relatively easy rapids, Nate fly fishes from a raft while another Boise friend, Gary Davis, takes the opportunity for his first-ever trip down a river in a hard-shell kayak—Nate’s boat. Joe, who was a kayaking instructor at Middlebury College, shadows Gary down the river, offering him tips. “I might get me one of these,” Gary says.
At lunch on a gravel bar—where several of the young people and a few oldsters jump off another cliff nearby—guest MFRT guide and Middle Fork celebrity Matt Leidecker gives us an impromptu lesson in the subject of his college degree: geology. Matt, who guided the Middle Fork for more than a decade and has run it well over 130 times, authored the definitive guidebook to the river. (Matt and I first met at a book event three years ago, when his guidebook and my book both won National Outdoor Book Awards.)
He instructs us all to bring him a river rock from the gravel bar we’re on. Separating the rocks into three piles by type—igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary—he discourses knowledgably on how the varied coloration and composition of each came to be. It’s possibly the most captivating geology lecture any of us has ever heard, and almost certainly in the prettiest setting any of us has ever listened to a lecture on anything.
Not long after lunch, in the July heat of our third afternoon, my kids, Alex and Nate, stand with me and a few others in our group on rocky ledges just below class IV Tappan Falls, a drop of about five feet where the Middle Fork pours thunderously over a barricade of boulders spanning the river, forming a recirculating wave. Immediately beyond the waterfall, the river boils up in a roiling, swirling pillow of white foam that races forward through another recirculating hole for paddlers to avoid, then past a large boulder we must also dodge, before mellowing out as the river widens, where we’ll all regroup in a big eddy.
We watch other rafts and kayakers in our group run it. Nate’s eager to hit the line correctly—and finally get some unfinished business with Tappan Falls off his mind. Four years ago, when he was a competent kayaker at 14, but also prudently cautious beyond his years, he decided against attempting Tappan in his kayak. Alex also passed up my invitation to run it in an inflatable kayak with me four years ago, and regretted it immediately after seeing me drop it successfully with another of the kids on that trip. She’s gunning to do it with me this time—but lets me know that she’s mentally calculating the odds of us getting flipped and swimming through that frothing, angry patch of river.
After everyone else runs Tappan without swimming, Alex and I get in my boat. She throws a quick, wide-eyed glance back at me as we near Tappan and see the actual size of the drop and the waves. In that instant, I have a flashback to Alex, then just four, sitting in front of me in a two-person kayak in flatwater on that Green River trip long ago, grinning proudly as I tell her, “You’re an awesome kayaker!”
But we have no time for reminiscing right now. Alex and I dig in with our paddles as our boat plunges steeply downward over the waterfall, and rears up abruptly as we slam with surprising force into the foaming pillow of water. Seconds later, cheers greet us as we float up to the other boats in the eddy. “That went by really fast,” Alex gushes. I’m just glad she paddled more than she did at four years old on the Green River.
Like this story? You may also like my “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You” and my very popular “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”
That evening, sitting in chairs below tall cottonwood trees on the beach in our camp at Camas Creek, Nate tells Joe and me, “I’ve literally been thinking about running Tappan Falls for four years.” It feels good to finally settle an old score.
Long after dark, I lay my sleeping bag and pad out on the ground a few steps from the steady murmuring of Camas Creek, where I’ll sleep like a baby all night—except for awakening once, briefly, to the gift of gazing up at a Milky Way that, out here in one of the darkest places in the Lower 48, looks like it was painted across the sky with a giant brush.
Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness
Twenty summers ago, I backpacked a roughly 160-mile, north-south traverse of central Idaho’s wilderness, most of the trip in the Frank, half of it solo. My recollections of it now consist of fragmented moments: Floating neck-deep in the cool water of the Selway River. Panoramas of mountains and river canyons virtually unknown to the world—more pristine today, as federally protected wilderness, than when settlers, ranchers, and miners inhabited some of these canyons a century ago. Hiking entire days in the high country, off the rivers, literally without encountering another person, a depth of solitude I’ve rarely experienced.
[As a side note, that trip was the first of many that inspired a project I’ve recently developed with the Idaho Conservation League: a new long-distance trail called the Idaho Wilderness Trail that stretches for over 285 miles through three Idaho wilderness areas. Read my story about it.]
Near the end of that trip, I sat by myself on a beach on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, assessing my meager remaining food supply and feeling like I could eat at least four times as much as I had. Just then, a guided rafting party pulled up, and several grandmotherly women debarked and promptly insisted I join them for lunch. They were like angels to me. I think I ate three sandwiches, various fruit slices, and half a package of cookies. But as the afternoon slipped past, I became famished again. That evening, a private rafting party pulled up, apologized for the fact that they were assigned that campsite and invading my solitude—and invited me to dinner. I ate three heaping plates of pasta—I may have consumed a pound of it—and about half a loaf of garlic bread, besides draining a few cans of their beer.
Now, looking around our camp at Camas Creek, I realize, in a flash of memory, that this was that same beach where I’d been fed those two enormous meals on that grand adventure 20 years ago.
It’s funny how often I look into the past and see wilderness as the backdrop for some of my most enduring memories. I guess this camp represents yet another, personal reunion fostered by this trip.
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Perhaps my most powerful impression of that backpacking trip two decades ago is less a specific memory than a feeling that accompanied me almost every step of the way: the calm that settles in after we disconnect completely from civilization—which increasingly only happens deep in wilderness.
I especially love seeing that feeling come over these teenagers with us, who rarely know the pleasure of complete disconnection. Out here, they’re spending their entire days interacting with each other, with the adults, and with nature.
One of my greatest fears for their future is that we end up creating a world where anyone can text, make a phone call, check their email, and post a photo from anywhere—even on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, in the largest federal wilderness area in the contiguous United States. I can’t imagine a greater deprivation of freedom that we could impose on all people. That would be a tragic threshold for humanity to cross, and one we may never be able to cross back over again.
One of the First Wild and Scenic Rivers
Our fourth day on the river begins with a couple hours of easy rapids and waves interspersed with lazy, slow floating and spinning and gawking up at the canyon walls—plus a stop at the Flying B Ranch, a private-land inholding and lodge where we buy ice cream. Shortly afterward, we enter the Middle Fork’s Impassable Canyon, the two-day stretch below Big Creek where the canyon grows narrower, with towering walls of rock and severely pitched talus slopes pinching the river on both sides, creating big whitewater.
One of today’s two largest rapids, Bernard, requires passing left of a big rock at the top, paddling hard right to avoid a large hole on the left, and then threading the needle between two boulders. But a large boulder mid-rapid leaps into view at the last second, catching some of us by surprise. My wife, Penny, and I bounce my kayak off it, spin completely around quite unintentionally, and then quickly correct our course and punch through big waves that break over the boat.
Mark Fenton—who pulled his own unplanned 360 paddling a ducky through a rapid earlier on the trip—and I decide we’ll form the 360 Club for all boaters who execute perfect, unintended 360s in rapids.
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This year’s Middle Fork trip also represents a reunion with a concept and a construct—wilderness—and an experience that even those of us who are fortunate enough to ever enjoy do not get to do that nearly often enough.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon was one of the original eight rivers designated in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System created in 1968. The River of No Return Wilderness bill passed Congress in 1979, a year after President Jimmy Carter rafted the Middle Fork with his Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, who was also a four-term governor of Idaho (and for whom Idaho’s Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness was renamed after he died). Idaho Sen. Frank Church was a giant of conservation and wilderness protection. In 1984, as Church lay dying of cancer, Congress renamed the wilderness in his honor. Responding to that news, Church said, “The winners are the people of Idaho, who will enjoy the finest wilderness in the West, the crown jewel of the National Wilderness System.”
As a whitewater river, the Middle Fork drops at a uniquely steep angle for a long distance, roughly 100 miles, starting at 7,000 feet above sea level about 20 miles northwest of the tiny town of Stanley and dropping to 3,900 feet where it meets the Salmon River. While calmer sections comprise many miles of the Middle Fork, there’s a whole lot of whitewater: 100 ratable rapids, a number of them pretty big and exciting—class III and IV.
Now we, as a nation, may face a decision about whether to save the species that gave this river its name—and make a fundamental choice about values and what’s most important to us.
After lunch at Camas Creek, before we launch, one of our guides, Dagny Deutchman gives the group a talk about the history and politics of the salmon, a keystone species here in the Northwest, which means that other species in this ecosystem largely depend on it, so much that if it were to disappear, the entire ecosystem would change drastically. Even the ponderosa pine trees that fill this canyon carry DNA from salmon that spawned in these creeks, got swept downstream to reach maturity in the Pacific Ocean, and finally swam unfathomable distances upstream, following some instinctive homing beacon to return to the very creek where each was born, there to spawn and die and nourish this ecosystem with a treasure trove of protein.
Quick to laugh and strong and capable at the oars of a loaded raft, Dagny grew up in little Salmon, Idaho, on the Salmon River, and has worked as a guide on the Middle Fork for 11 years. She explains to us how four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington, downstream from the Salmon, have precipitated a severe decline in Idaho’s salmon population for decades—providing both an environmental and an economic case for removing those dams.
Among those arguments for removal: Other options for trying to restore the salmon population—none of which have worked, despite billions of taxpayer dollars spent in the effort—include restricting the season for floating the Middle Fork and Main Salmon rivers by about a third. That would not just cause economic harm to the dozens of companies that run float trips down these rivers, and businesses in places like Stanley that feed and provide lodging and other services for people like us, but it would mean significantly fewer people getting the opportunity to enjoy this experience and this place.
Alex will tell me after this trip that she’d like to work as a rafting guide when she’s old enough. I suspect that watching Dagny had some impact on her.
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‘It Was So Fun’
On our fifth morning, five of us—Lisa Fenton, Cat Serio, Sue Lovelace, Pam Solon, and I—hike or run a roughly four-mile section of the Middle Fork Salmon River Trail no. 578 from our camp last night, Driftwood, to Fly camp, where we’ll rendezvous with the boats. At first, the trail wiggles along close to the river, where rocky crags erupt from water reflecting the golden light of sun on cliffs. Then we climb through switchbacks to cross a broad, grassy ridge between Rattlesnake Creek and Wollard Creek. Seeing the Middle Fork canyon from a prospect several hundred feet above the river gives us a sense of the canyon’s depth and vastness. It’s one of the two or three nicest stretches of hiking I’ve done on the Middle Fork.
At Fly camp, Cat and I hop onto Matt’s raft, where Cat’s husband, Vince, is fishing—as he has been all week. Unlike many in our group, Vince doesn’t obsess over paddling or hiking. He’s spending these days pulling so many trout from the Middle Fork that he’s lost count.
We go from Driftwood camp to Cliffside camp, a bit over 18 river miles, a full day with several exciting rapids—including one of the most thrilling on the Middle Fork, Cliffside, a borderline class IV where the river makes a sharp bend and forms a long train of monster waves crashing up against a wall of rock.
Inken, who wasn’t initially sure she wanted to go whitewater rafting, now grabs a seat in the paddle raft for the wet and wild ride through Cliffside. Lili Serio, one of our group’s recent high-school graduates, also jumps into the paddle raft, while her twin sister, Sofi, shares an inflatable kayak with Mark Fenton through Cliffside and several of the trip’s biggest rapids. When I ask Sofi afterward how that went, she tells me with a belly laugh: “It was so fun!”
And Guido earns membership in Club 360 by running Cliffside backward after getting spun around in his ducky—or perhaps just because he’s so good that he can paddle a kayak while facing upriver.
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In camp that evening, our last night on the Middle Fork, all of us, guides and guests, form a wide circle of chairs around the campfire for an MFRT tradition: the “closing ceremonies,” when everyone gets to stand up and share any thoughts about the trip.
It’s really a powerful exchange, with everyone sharing heartfelt sentiments and funny stories. For me, one of the most poignant comes when Nate talks about how he’s been anticipating this trip since we did it four years ago because back then he was an “introverted 14-year-old kid who liked to stay in his tent” and didn’t appreciate all the human interactions that make this trip so special. This time around, he says, he took full advantage of that.
This river has now completed the metamorphosis of spirit that began the moment we launched that first morning—which, thanks to the way that a wilderness adventure warps our sense of time, now seems fuller and longer than just five days.
Floating the Middle Fork is uniquely special because of two equally important attributes: the incredible scenery and the element of high adventure, which gives people the opportunity to step outside their comfort zone and discover the intoxicating rush of taking on a challenge they might not have ever seen themselves doing.
Beyond those two attributes, though, the Middle Fork can leap onto your personal list of best trips ever when you share it with some of the best people in your life—and perhaps make new friends who are the kind of people you enjoy spending time with. (See this list of my family’s best trips ever.)
I brought this group of people I know together for this trip simply because I like them all; many had never met or didn’t know each other well. Sharing the canyon’s quiet stretches and its rapids, its beaches and aching beauty have, in just days, transformed strangers into friends.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon has reminded some of us who’ve known this truth for years, and reinforced a lesson these young people are still absorbing: that we desperately need places and experiences like this, not just because they have the power to turn strangers into dear friends in just a few days, but because without these special times and places, it’s too easy to lose sight of what’s most important in life.
So many threads connect the 12 long years separating that Green River trip with young kids to this Middle Fork float. For the parents here, though, I think what’s most gratifying is seeing how these kids have grown into young adults who love the outdoors. All reunions take place in the heart.
With all of that done, we can focus on just having fun on our last day, when the river throws its greatest concentration of rapids at us.
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Last Day on the River
We launch before 8 a.m. to float the final miles of the Middle Fork and then a stretch of the Main Salmon River to our takeout. Between close, vertiginous canyon walls that cast long shadows, we drop through a gantlet of 11 named class II and III rapids, many in quick succession, with much unrestrained hooting and cheering.
The last bit of the Middle Fork canyon opens up as the sun grows warmer. We bounce through riffles and make a slow turn onto the bigger and broader Main Salmon, gazing around at rock walls at least 1.4 billion years old, some of this stone predating life on Earth.
More than a century ago, early boaters with the nerve for it could navigate some 200 miles of wilderness waterway from the outpost of Salmon to the similarly secluded little town of Riggins. But it was a one-way trip, with no easy means of returning to Salmon. Thus, the moniker “the river of no return.”
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At the trip’s grand finale, class IV Cramer Rapid, an enormous recirculating hole in the middle can flip kayaks and rafts. One boat at a time, we drop over the entrance wave—skirting just right of the big hole, close enough to peer into its maw—plummeting down a steep water slide into a trough that seems to briefly eclipse the landscape around us. Then we slam into the next mountainous wave with an impact that feels like hitting a brick wall.
After Cramer’s thrilling entrance waves, which to many of us felt like sitting perched momentarily on the edge of our boats getting flipped like a pancake, getting dribbled through the long tail of tall waves below Cramer feels, appropriately, like a victory lap.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR just about anyone willing to get wet and sit on a raft through big whitewater; riding in a paddle raft or inflatable kayak is optional (as is bringing your own hard-shell kayak). While private parties should have experienced rafters and/or kayakers with the skills to run rapids up to class IV, no experience is necessary on a guided trip.
Guidebook/River Map Middle Fork of the Salmon River—A Comprehensive Guide, by Matt Leidecker, $30, http://www.mattlphoto.com.
Guides Middle Fork Rapid Transit, (208) 371-1712, http://middleforkrapidtransit.com. Other companies offer guided rafting trips on the Middle Fork; search the Internet.