Smoking the Salmon : Rafting the Middle Fork of Idaho's Classic River Guarantees Camaderie and Thrills

Yarbrough is a free-lance writer based in Salisbury, Md

The river curved as it approached the rapids, the current causing my inflatable kayak to skirt a canyon wall then return midstream, like a tentative lover avoiding a kiss. After slight maneuvering to avoid a "widow-maker" (midstream boulder), I gave myself a mental pat on the back and prepared to ride out the rapid.

No sooner had I bypassed the obstacle than I came upon a fellow kayaker caught on a rock cluster. The quickness of the river, and a novice's tendency to assume all is in control, kept me from acting quickly enough to avoid the collision. The impact threw us into the river, leaving us to float 100 yards downstream to meet our empty kayaks and the rest of our rafting party, which was waiting in a quiet eddy. Concerned about our safety but not overly worried, they seemed to have enjoyed our spill the way a parent might watch a child's blunder during a Christmas play.

That mishap, though at the time disorienting, in my memory now ranks among the highlights of a six-day, 100-mile venture down the West's classic white-water river, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

An undammed, free-flowing river that begins as an inconspicuous mountain stream in the Salmon Mountains of central Idaho, it gradually gathers the force of countless tributaries and becomes a raging white-water river as it joins the Main Salmon near the Montana border. During its journey through some 50 rapids, the river winds through valleys, 9,000-foot canyon gorges and four national forests that make up the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, named after the former U.S. Senator from Idaho. The Middle Fork carries its passengers on water as clear as gin and, at times, with flow volume up to 20,000 cubic feet per second.

Our trip last August, with an Oakland-based outfitter called Echo: The Wilderness Company, included 24 mostly first-time rafters, ages 8 to more than 60, and 6 river guides. Among us were a retired electronics executive, a book jacket writer for Harper & Row, a policeman, a television ad man, an environmental lawyer, a nurse who was four months' pregnant, a stockbroker and a retired nuclear physicist and his wife. We came from Texas, Maryland, Michigan, Florida, Iowa, Idaho and Southern and Northern California. In my sub-group were my parents, my law-student brother and his wife, and my sister, a sophomore in college. We were one of two complete families on the trip.

We entered the river from the Indian Creek launch site--the same spot where former President Jimmy Carter began a 1978 Middle Fork trip. Our convoy included three rubber rafts holding a guide and six paddlers each, two oar boats carrying daily supplies and travelers, and four inflatable kayaks for the more adventurous. Leading the pack each day was a large sweep boat operated by the lead guide, which would be the first to encounter any adverse river conditions, and coincidentally carried camping gear and supplies.

From the launching site 20 miles northwest of Stanley to the confluence with the Main Salmon, the Middle Fork rafter faces rapids with names such as Jackass and Devil's Tooth, ranging in difficulty from Class I, considered easy, to Class IV, considered difficult to very dangerous. As a set of rapids approach, rafters don't need urging to give their undivided attention to the guide's calm directions: rocks to watch out for, the direction to head in and so forth. Up ahead a flurry of white "haystacks"--large standing waves that make the river seem as if it is dancing, signal the imminent rapids. Then there is silence as the raft is drawn closer to the turbulence, a calm before the storm.

"Hard left! Hard right!" the guide barks out as he begins steering the raft from the rear, his paddle serving as a kind of rudder while the six rafters drive their paddles into the water, pulling the raft forward. The craft glides over the top half of the rapid, easily threading an opening between two boulders. As the life-jacketed rafters ride the rapid, they withdraw their paddles from the water, the force of the river having eclipsed whatever power their strokes might have. Some lift their paddles above their heads and yell out, giving a roller-coaster cast to the up-and-down plunging of the raft.

The effortless moment is brief, as the raft enters a momentary calm spot in the rapid and begins to wander. With the surging tail end of the rapid only seconds away, the guide beckons the group to reposition the raft.

"Reverse! Backpaddle!" he calls out, prompting everyone to thrust their paddles forward in the water, slowing the raft while he turns it toward the center of the remaining rapid. Then, once again, the rafters defer to the river, riding out the final part of the rapid.

Once through it, the raft glides downstream and "eddies out" to a calm spot at river's edge. One of the rafters, who has lost a baseball cap, pulls the lost item to him with his paddle. As the group waits in the eddy they watch another raft follow virtually the same path, the paddlers following the commands of the guide, stopping and starting, paddling and holding still. That raft turns toward the eddy and runs ashore next to the first one.

"You guys really smoked that one," one guide says to another.

The Middle Fork is often cited as a personal favorite by veteran river rafters because of its natural force and its undammed, unadulterated character. That, and the fact that the Middle Fork has not suffered the drought that has lowered California rivers, make it something of a river of choice this year.

Packages offered on the Middle Fork by outfitters range from short three-day trips to ones as long as two weeks, and vary in cost from about $700 to $1,500. Our trip cost $839 for adults and $709 for kids 17 and under, and involved four- to six-hour days on the river, stops for lunch and for hikes to natural hot springs, Indian pictographs and mountain caverns and waterfalls. Some outfitters offer three meals a day cooked by river guides, with special Mexican and Italian nights, and provide car shuttling from Stanley to the town of Salmon, the end point for most trips.

River rafting, it would seem, has accommodated itself to the urbanite.

"Over the last two decades, the average family has come to realize that they can take a river trip," says Joe Daly, a former San Leandro, Calif., schoolteacher who with a fellow teacher started Echo in 1971. "It's from all those years of someone leaning over the back-yard fence and saying, 'Guess what a great vacation I had.' But it didn't come quickly."

Numbers of rafters are growing partly due to the greater variety of trips available: Rafters can take on a river by themselves in inflatable kayaks, can travel with a group in a paddle boat under the supervision of a guide, or sit back and watch the river in an oar boat with a guide doing all the work.

As to how a group of novices can handle Class IV rapids--even with an experienced river guide--outfitters point out that river flow volume varies greatly during the season: The more gung-ho can go during high river flow May through June, while first-time rafters can opt for the slower July-through-August period.

On our trip, all the guides had some emergency training and one--who was working the trip as his vacation--was a full-time paramedic. We were lucky. The most their services were needed was for a minor cut or two.

As one of our guides, Kelly Winton, put it, it's possible to make a safe trip with novices "in that the people you have running the trips have respect for the river. You want to try to get the adrenaline up, but you want to keep things safe."

The Middle Fork is undoubtedly the most famous river in a state blessed with white water. Commercial river running in Idaho began on it, and today, 28 outfitters take an average of 9,000 people down it each year during the June-through-September season. It's a far cry from rafting's beginnings there in the 1930s, when only rugged adventurers and serious sportsmen took on its waters, often taking three months in canoes or home-made boats. Not until after World War II did commercial outfitters become a serious presence, and as late as 1973 only some 3,000 went down the Middle Fork privately or with outfitters.

But with better equipment and growing public awareness of river running, rafting on the Middle Fork boomed in the 1970s before hitting a sag in the early 1980s. That growth prompted the U.S. Forest Service in 1973 to place a moratorium of 28 on the number of commercial outfitters allowed to run trips on the river.

Part of the Middle Fork's allure is that, except for occasional evidence of man-made camp fires, the river seems unchanged by the passage of time, as if it and the surrounding forests are the same as they were hundreds of years ago. Veteran river guides revel in telling stories of the Middle Fork's prospectors, trappers, bearded mountain men and hermits, whose histories today are the subject of river guidebooks. Artifacts have shown that explorers first came upon the Sheepeater Indians, or Tukudeka, in the early 1800s. Inhabitants of canyon dwellings, the Sheepeaters were part of the Shoshone Indian Nation and were named for their skill in subsisting on the elusive bighorn sheep.

In 1879, skirmishes between the U.S. Cavalry and the tribe led to the five-month Sheepeater War. The fighting ended with most of the Sheepeaters surrendering and becoming prisoners of war, and by the turn of the century the Sheepeaters had virtually vanished from the Salmon. Today all that remains of the Sheepeaters are their empty cliffside dwellings and their ocher pictographs.

Winton stands on a small cliff above the curving rapid, pointing out its obstacles to our group like a football coach discussing an opposing defense. A laid-back Stanford philosophy grad with a permeating laugh, she notes the movement of the current from left to right, points out a downed tree trunk, admonishes us of the ever-present boulders.

To get this overview, known as scouting a rapid, we have pulled over to the side of the river, left our paddles in the raft and walked up the rocks. Scouting Class IV rapids is common, and even experienced river runners will scout an approaching rapid if they can't see all the way to its end. In times of high river flow, rafters may have to line the boats together with rope or simply portage around the rapids.

Today, fatalities on the Middle Fork are rare, about 1 in 4,000, partly due to improved equipment and to the fact that commercial outfitters generally will not run a river during times of extreme river flow, when safe passage may be more a matter of luck than skill.

Despite the low number of river deaths, reminders of the river's power still live through stories of rafters who have traveled during high-runoff periods. In June, 1970, the first Middle Fork drowning with a professionally guided party occurred during a week in which the Middle Fork and the Main Salmon claimed six lives. In June, 1975, a three-boat party of Los Angeles businessmen faced high rapids that caused two boats to overturn and two rafters to drown. Among the survivors of the party who swam ashore was NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw.

Such stories, however, do little to lessen the appeal of river rafting on the Middle Fork, for there is something addictive about a river and a river trip. It causes some to spend a decade of summers as river guides, the river being a kind of yearly marker for them between teaching or school or seasonal work elsewhere. It causes city dwellers to pilgrimage to the river again and again, and leaves many first-time rafters touting the trip with such enthusiasm that it would seem they've been inducted into a cult.

"This is the type of vacation where you don't have to think about where to eat or what are we going to do today--just sit back and enjoy," said Bill Wexelblatt, 48, a San Francisco television advertising salesman after his second Middle Fork trip last August. "None of the things that I do on this trip do I do anywhere else. There is no telephone, no newspaper, no TV. If there was a phone around you can bet I'd be calling San Francisco."

The river was only part of our experience. There was a regular evening ritual at the end of the day when we arrived at our campsite.

Once at the campground, each of us picked up our tents and sleeping bags from the head guide, who had arrived several hours earlier to start the campfires. Then each party went searching for a piece of land to call their own for the night, hopefully one that was flat and without too many rocks.

Tents went up, sleeping bags were unrolled, Noxzema applied to sunburned backs and wet clothes exchanged for dry ones. Conversations could be faintly heard throughout the camp, as rafters recounted the day's events--the rapid they took with a vengeance, or the one that took them.

As the smell and sounds of supper filled the air, we filtered down to the base camp, each of us bringing a folding chair and a cup, picking up a plate and fork, grabbing a beer or soft drink out of the group ice chest.

Perhaps tonight there would be whole salmon with curried rice, maybe steak and potatoes, fajitas and margaritas, or lasagna, garlic bread and salad. Dessert might be cherry cobbler or apple pie, cooked in Dutch ovens. By the end of the trip, the evening meals, cooked by a different set of guides each night, would be as much discussed as the rapids.

After dinner, some of us stayed around the base camp talking until dark, some went off on walks, some read. Wexelblatt became famous for generating name games--famous people whose first or last names are colors, famous quarterbacks wearing the number 12, etc.

It was the evenings that also gave our group--all strangers before and perhaps so different that in the real world our paths would never have crossed--a chance to develop our collective personality. Before the trip was over, we were exchanging addresses and trout-fishing stories.

At one point, I was sitting on the river bank in a group of adult professional men, throwing stones at a stuffed Garfield the cat, and screaming with laughter each time we successfully knocked Garfield off his rock perch. Were it not for the fact that I have pictures of the whole scene, my father--back home a wing-tipped, pin-striped Dallas attorney--might deny it ever happened.

As the late writer and pioneering environmentalist Edward Abbey wrote in National Geographic magazine of a 1985 river trip he took on the Main Salmon:

"Before this voyage is done we will become, as I have witnessed on every river journey yet, one anarchic but reasonably happy family. It seldom fails: There's something about a progress down a river that brings out the best in anyone. Getting bored with your neuroses? Drop your analyst--drop him/her like a cold potato--and make tracks for the nearest river."

It is our final day on the river. As we come closer and closer to the confluence with the Main Salmon, the river grows bigger, the rapids more challenging. Once on the Main Salmon, the river Lewis and Clark thought to be impassable during their 1805 expedition, the number of rafters on the river increases. It is as if we had been on a lightly traveled state highway and had merged with the beltway. Now, cars, trucks and airplanes can be seen and heard, reminders that we have just finished traveling through one of the largest roadless areas remaining on the mainland of the United States.

We end the trip four miles later at Cache Bar, a concrete dock which is the usual ending site of Middle Fork trips. The rafts are taken out of the water and deflated before being loaded onto trucks. Gear is unloaded and group pictures taken. I sit down on a nearby bench and reconstruct my notes, somewhat blurred and faded from the kayak spill several hours earlier.

From the river we take a hot, bumpy bus ride to a Salmon hotel, where we will spend the night before heading our separate ways. During the ride, sections of The Missoulian from Aug. 5 are passed around. Like soldiers inhaling news upon arrival home, we re-orient ourselves to the world by digesting news of pennant races, football trades and showbiz gossip. Conversations turn to flights out, connections to be made and the coming week. Then a man at the front of the bus, who had been hoarding page one, stands up and calls out to the rest of us.

"Hey everybody, Iraq invaded Kuwait last week."

Our group is silent for a moment, perhaps pondering the significance of this news. Then one woman blurts out:

"Let's turn around and go back to the river."


White-Water Rafting

Getting there: United and Delta fly from Los Angeles to Boise, Ida., for approximately $400 round trip, with seven-day advance purchase.

Boise is the closest commercial airport to Stanley, where most Middle Fork trips meet. Then, take either Empire Air or Salmon Air to Stanley, or rent a car for the 2 1/2-hour drive on State Highway 21.

Where to stay: Your outfitter may suggest a hotel in Stanley. Some generally recommended: Mountain Village Resort, $47 single, $58 double, (800) 843-5475; Redfish Lake Lodge, cabins $74-$105, (208) 774-3326, and the Sawtooth Hotel, (208) 774-9947. Make reservations since Stanley is popular in the summer.

Partial list of Middle Fork outfitters: Action Whitewater Adventures, P.O. Box 1634, Provo, Utah 84603, (800) 453-1482; Aggipah River Trips, Box 425, Salmon, Ida. 83467, (208) 756-4167; ARTA, Star Route 73, Groveland, Calif. 95321, (800) 323-2782; Canyons Inc., P.O. Box 823, McCall, Ida. 83638, (208) 634-4304; Echo: The Wilderness Company, 6529 Telegraph Ave., Oakland 94609, (415) 652-1600 and (800) 652-3246; Hatch River Expeditions, P.O. Box 1150, Vernal, Utah 84078, (801) 789-4316; Middle Fork River Expeditions, 1615 21st Ave. East, Seattle, Wash. 98112, (206) 324-0364; Outdoor Adventures, P.O. Box 1149, Point Reyes, Calif. 94956, (415) 663-8300.

What to bring: Outfitters will provide you with a list of items to bring for the trip. During high-water periods, a wet suit may be required. Most outfitters provide waterproof bags with which to carry your gear on the river, and tents and sleeping bags can be rented.

Fishing: Fishing on the Middle Fork is catch and release. Trout fishing is good, particularly in August, and some outfitters offer special fishing trips. You will need to get a fishing permit through the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, P.O. Box 25, Boise 83707, (208) 334-3700.

Going it alone: If you are an experienced rafter and wish to run the Middle Fork on your own, it will be necessary to get a permit through the Middle Fork Ranger District, U.S. Forest Service, Challis, Ida. 83226, (208) 879-5204. The Forest Service schedules about 370 river launchings for unguided trips during the June 1-Sept. 3 period, through a lottery.

While you're there: There is plenty in the area to see either before or after your rafting trip. Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park are about a five-hour drive from either Salmon or Stanley. Sun Valley is about an hour's drive from Stanley.

For more information: Contact the Idaho Travel Council, 700 W. State St., Dept. C, Boise 83720, (800) 635-7820. Ask for a copy of the "1991 Idaho Travel Guide."

For more information on outfitters and a copy of the "Idaho Outfitters and Guides Directory," write or call: Idaho Outfitters and Guides Assn., P.O. Box 95, Boise 83701, (208) 342-1919.

Or write or call the Middle Fork Ranger District, U.S. Forest Service, Challis 83226, (208) 879-5204.

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