Floating an Idaho River in Upscale Style

Garfinkel is an Oakland, Calif., author and free-lance writer.

It's happy hour near here on the Salmon River, the country's longest roadless waterway that runs through the heart of the nation's largest expanse of wilderness.

The trumpeting of a conch shell brings a ragtag group of 10 couples from their makeshift campsites at Ground Hog Creek to congregate around a fresh guacamole dip and chilled California Chardonnay.

Three days of running Class Five rapids--the most difficult--in rubber rafts and kayaks seems to have given these river neophytes a new appreciation of the wonders of free-flowing water and of what can come from a kitchen that lacks plumbing and electricity.

The mood borders on mindless giddiness; the veneer of civilization appears to be wearing thin. Waiting for dinner, Charles Osborne, 39, an otherwise single-mindedly serious San Francisco investment counselor, is taking wagers on the exact elevation of the monolithic rock wall across the river.

Human Pyramid

Margalit Mathan, 28, a Berkeley native who holds a master's degree in school psychology, has organized a human pyramid. Michael Levine, 36, a venture capitalist from Cambridge, Mass., recites verse into his tape recorder, inspired by successfully negotiating the day's most challenging rapids in a kayak.

Sitting beside a campfire later, the hungry band makes short work of a perfectly prepared dinner of chicken enchiladas, with a lettuce and orange salad and a dessert of fresh-baked Grand Marnier pound cake with peaches. That was preceded several miles and hours upstream by a lunch of tuna-stuffed tomatoes; breakfast was asparagus cheese egg puff and grilled country ham.

"Why should civilized people have to compromise the comforts of good living just because they're camping in the wilderness?" asked Steven Shephard, 38, owner, guide and chef de cuisine of Salmon River Outfitters, which provides the opportunity to go downstream in upscale style.

That kind of philosophy, which combines elements that would appeal to both Sierra Clubbies and culinary snobs, could mean that the days of trail mix, canned soup and powdered egs are numbered.

The main attraction remains the river and its pristine environs, evergreen forests of ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, sheer granite walls that descend to beaches of tiny white grains of sand, where bighorn sheep, river otters, black bear and golden eagles gather. But then, the appeal of poached salmon washed down with good wine cannot be underestimated.

One of 28 outfitters licensed to guide trips down the Main Fork of the Salmon, Shephard's company, based in Columbia, Calif., has earned a reputation for its meticulousness as well as its meals.

Mention in Bon Appetit

His recipes have earned him mention in Bon Appetit and Sunset. According to last July's Travel & Leisure, the magazine of the American Express Co., Salmon River Outfitters offers "what might just be the best river-rafting adventure in America."

A six-day trip from Salmon, Ida., to McCall, Ida., costs $750, including food and all equipment, and the rafting season runs from mid-June to early September. Shephard can be reached at P.O. Box 307, Columbia, Calif. 95310; phone (209) 532-2766.

Although there does seem to be an incongruity to nibbling croissants stuffed with a fruity chicken salad while squatting on the bank of a river that even Lewis and Clark deemed unnavigable, the scene has a kind of naturalist's logic.

"Why not?" challenged Randy Mason, general manager and wine maker of Lakespring Winery in Napa, Calif. "Sipping on the Salmon could be the ultra-position for wine tasting. There's nothing else to do. It's quiet and peaceful--just you and the stars and the sound of the river."

Last summer Mason and his wife Marilyn conducted wine-tasting seminars on Shephard's five-day rafting trips. Other specialty excursions featured Idaho plant and wildflower identification, photography and astronomy/geology interpretation.

Shephard, who felt the walls quickly closing in at his first job in advertising, took to the river 16 years ago and never wore a tie to work again. His interest in food, he said, "comes from having grown up in a family whose members all had the skills of professional cooks."

With the aid of three professional boatmen, Shephard's riverside kitchen goes up in a matter of minutes. Four connecting tables and a serving station surround the centerpiece, a four-burner propane stove with control knobs that enables the cook to heat foods with accuracy.

Armed With Dutch Ovens

Armed with four 10- to 12-inch cast iron and aluminum Dutch ovens, Shephard turns out fresh beer breads, blueberry coffee cakes, Gruyere souffles and down-home brownies with pecans.

His cooking utensils are the same as in any professional kitchen: stainless steel bowls, whips, spatulas and the like.

Over the years he has perfected techniques for carrying fresh produce on a five-day journey. He pre-washes vegetables, then wraps them in paper or plastic. All dry ingredients, such as flour or sugar, are pre-measured and packaged in plastic bags before the trip begins. The marinade for the beef Dijon shish kebab is also prepared beforehand.

His shopping list for a typical trip accommodating 20 passengers includes 14 pounds of pre-roasted almonds, cashews, pecans and walnuts; 13 loaves of sourdough, French, raisin, rye, seven-grain and whole-wheat bread; two dozen croissants; three dozen English muffins; three dozen corn and flour tortillas; 25 pounds of Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Swiss, feta, Gruyere, cream and Romano cheese; four cases of assorted Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Riesling and Chardonnay wine; six bottles of champagne, one bottle each of Grand Marnier and Vermouth; plus nine dozen eggs, six pounds of butter and six pints of whipping cream.

That does not include the (dried and fresh) fruits, vegetables, seasonings, beef and chicken.

The Computer Age

To keep track of all this, Shephard has introduced another element to camping that might make 19th-Century outdoorsman John Muir turn over in his grave. His shopping list is computerized.

In McCall, where Shephard buys his provisions between trips, the menus and recipes are kept in a computer file in his small office. When the number of rafters changes, the computer adjusts the measure of each ingredient accordingly.

Despite these modern adaptations, however, Shephard adheres to the traditional take-only-pictures, leave-only-footprints principles of conscientious camping. Campfires are made in metal pans; even the ashes leave the shore with the four rafts and kayaks.

The 80-mile journey drops downriver at an appropriately leisurely pace, allowing time to stop and study pictographs scribed on canyon walls by the Nez Perce and Shoshone Indians who lived here as long as 8,500 years ago. At Barth Hot Springs, another stop, sore muscles seek brief solace.

Ranches and camps full of American history and folk lore dot the river banks, rustic reminders of Idaho's gold rush days. These memories seem oddly juxtaposed against the luxury in which today's pioneers brave the river.

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