"How would you like to retrace the route of Lewis and Clark?" I asked my wife as we sat landlocked in commuter traffic.
Kimi, who was driving, didn't look at me. She was intent on the bumper in front of us. "Oh, sure," she said, "as long as it's civilized."
I was reading a vintage National Geographic featuring a harrowing 1935 river journey that attempted to re-create the 1804 expedition of Capt. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on its 130th anniversary.
A once hardy trailblazer who has mellowed recently, Kimi now demands such amenities as beds, clean linen and hot showers. And great food.
That's how we found ourselves a few months later in a school bus traversing a dusty washboard road on the way to the headwaters of the Salmon River in central Idaho.
During the next six days, our four-raft expedition would negotiate 80 miles of deep evergreen recesses through the mountainous 2.4-million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness--the largest untamed wild country in the Lower 48. An adventure in advance of, but in tune with, the expedition's bicentenary, but one cushioned with fine cuisine crafted by a prominent Bay Area chef.
Salmon River Outfitters founder Steven Shephard has spent 30 years coordinating ambitious river runs and coaxing prominent chefs, winemakers, storytellers and musicians to come along. He offers his customers a choice of civilized adventures with accommodations in lodges, which afford the guest chef access to kitchens, or camping trips, where the campfire is the chef's challenge. We went civilized, of course, sleeping at lodges with real beds and, mostly, with bathrooms with hot and cold running water.
While we assembled our gear with 14 other adventurers outside the town of Salmon, I spied the chef of our gastronomic voyage: Lynn Sheehan.
Years ago I had a memorable meal at a San Francisco restaurant called Mecca, where I became enamored of Sheehan's lusty California cuisine. An honors graduate of the California Culinary Academy, she had cooked for the celebrated restaurants Masa's, Postrio and Stars before opening Rubicon, Mecca and ultimately Vertigo.
Sheehan prides herself on foraging (in the wild and in local farmers markets) for fresh seasonal ingredients.
A cold call from Shephard had found Sheehan embroiled in her latest undertaking--transforming Sand Rock Farm, a turn-of-the century winery just south of Santa Cruz, into a bed-and-breakfast inn. Needing a break from months of construction, she signed on for our trip.
I figured it would not hurt to fraternize with the chef, reasoning that if the going got tough, she might slip me an extra provision of foie gras. I asked how her trip from the Bay Area had been.
Brutal, Sheehan replied, in good spirits considering her ordeal getting to Idaho. She and her 60-pound coolers (10 of them, enough to feed the 16 guests, herself and four crew members five dinners on the river) had missed the flight out of SFO. On her own, she went down to San Jose, caught another flight to Boise, then squeezed her cache onto a bush "taxi" for the flight into the wilderness.
Soon we were donning life vests and dividing into foursomes. Because we got a late start, the first day's journey was only a short shuttle across the river to the Salmon River Lodge, a looming new A-frame where we would spend our first night.
Sheehan made short work of winning over her raft mates. In the waning sunlight on the redwood deck overlooking the roaring Salmon River, she cranked out an appetizer that would have done Mecca proud: home-cured gravlax topped with a tiny dollop of Cowgirl Creamery creme fraiche and accented with enticing river-green, wasabi-infused flying-fish roe. We downed it with a bone-dry Washington state Riesling.
When darkness descended and the temperature plummeted at least 20 degrees into the high 50s, we went into the lodge's cathedral-ceilinged dining room, where the crew served up Sheehan's inaugural menu: vine leaf-and bacon-wrapped quail on sweet corn polenta, fresh peach cobbler with crystallized ginger and more of that irresistible (and this time clove-infused) creme fraiche . The meal set the standard for the trip.
When nearly a dozen bottles of wine had been drained and the dishes done, I asked Sheehan how the preparations had differed from those in her own kitchen.
"An obvious challenge was how to menu plan for five days of lovely food with marginal refrigeration," Sheehan said. By the end of the week, she added, she'd be relying heavily on braised and preserved items.
I had thought that by Day 5 we might be subsisting on the same foodstuffs the Lewis and Clark expedition had. Bear, for instance. But to my surprise, the quality and creativity of the meals were sustained the whole week.
Anticipating a long day of rafting the next day, Kimi and I turned in early. Our room was fairly plush, with new furnishings. Our other accommodations ranged from clean and spare rooms to a rustic communal bunkhouse reminiscent of summer camp. That and the outhouse were reminders that we were a long way from any road. The instant intimacy among strangers was a challenge for some, but I shrugged it off and slept like a hibernating bear throughout the trip.
The wild river set the pace for our trip. The current in September was far more leisurely than it can be in June, July and August. With temperatures in the low 80s, more than once I just pitched over the side of the raft (allowed with your life jacket on) into the cool water and drifted downstream beside it.
Our days on the raft were meditative, with breaks for exploring along the banks. We simply floated with the river while our guide, Gini--whose biceps were bigger than mine--sat atop an aluminum trunk and handled the long oars. She recited the lore of the Salmon to us while deftly negotiating rapids.
Those not comfortable with (or downright fearful of) rafting were quickly put at ease by Shephard and his plucky crew, Kimberly, B.J. and Gini, who exuded the confidence that comes from firsthand knowledge of the river. Moreover, they seemed to be having a great time.
At day's end, our raft mates, ranging from age 40 to 70, were content to kick back under a sky full of stars and listen to the river resonate against the canyon walls. Next time, I decided, I would coax a dozen friends along, thus ensuring that the right songs were sung around the campfire.
Our mornings were made for wildlife viewing. At one midmorning stop, we ambled 100 feet up a steep hillside to Barth Hot Springs, a rockbound pool offering a soak just short of scalding with a fine view of ospreys and otters. On another we took a break to stretch our legs and explore an isolated homestead and mining ghost town.
Another day, we spotted mountain sheep clinging high above to the canyon walls. Bald eagles circled below them. We nearly missed a silent moose, hip deep in the river.
At one stop, Sheehan sidled up to me while I stood with the others admiring at a safe distance a young bear munching noisily on windfall pears.
"I understand black bear steaks to be a treat sublime," Sheehan said with a wink.
"Dinner?" I asked.
She shook her head, saying she had left her crossbow at home.
Breakfasts were simple and satisfying: fresh fruit, juice, muffins and thick camp coffee. There were also rashers of bacon and scrambled eggs, prepared by the lodge staff and the rafting crew. But after our lavish evening meals, I seldom had room for them.
When Shephard directed his regatta to shore for lunch, the crew members made like Marines taking a beach. In minutes they erected a sunscreen and launched into serious lunch production.
Our midday meals couldn't compare to Sheehan's dinners, but one of Shephard's signature dishes, croissants stuffed with curried chicken, raisins and apples, was a welcome repast.
Shephard later told me that Sheehan's culinary foray into the wilderness with us was the most ambitious in his years of running such trips. "Given the conditions, what she served was nothing short of amazing," he said.
In developing the menu, Sheehan said, she intended to showcase the abundance of Indian summer. One day, at the south fork of the Salmon, we made camp early, and Sheehan led us on a forage for additions to the menu. Although it was late in the season, we harvested wild cress and found enough blue elderberries to stain our hands.
After a couple of days of being chauffeured, I got restless and relieved Gini at the helm. In the remaining days, for half-hour intervals she let me row off some of the calories.
I had brought along my fly rod and asked Shephard where to test my novice casting skills. (I'd bought a one-week fishing license in Salmon.) On the penultimate afternoon, Kimi and I were dropped off at a sandbar. We watched the regatta disappear around the bend.
We were alone in the wilderness. My first cast was rewarded with a violent hit on a barbless fly. While Kimi read by the stream, I caught and released a half-dozen 8-inch rainbow trout in the glorious Idaho Indian summer sunlight. As the shadows seeped across the canyon, we hiked a deer trail downstream for an hour to Shepp Ranch, a working farm, rejoining our group just in time for dinner.
Sheehan's finale took a turn for the exotic with Peking duck confit, roasted squash (from Shepp Ranch) and whole-grain pilaf with our wild berries.
She also charmed us with her piece de resistance , a Bonny Doon wine tasting capped by "Rubus Cubed"--winery founder Randall Grahm's exclusive Carignan vinified with fresh raspberries. It perfectly complemented the dessert, a crisp that Sheehan had assembled from raft-ripened nectarines. Our Shepp Ranch host offered glass pitchers of fresh, frothy, cream-laden milk from their cows.
The next morning, after a group farewell photo, we pulled the rafts out of the Salmon's clear waters. The bus awaited on the gravel road above, our way out of the River of No Return Wilderness.
Staggering up the incline, I lamented to Kimi, "I should have spelled Gini more at the oars to work off Lynn's dinners."
"You're just far too civilized," she said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Guidebook: Running the Salmon
* Getting there: Alaska Airlines flies nonstop from LAX to Boise; Southwest flies direct (with one stop). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $122.
* Outfitters: Salmon River Outfitters, P.O. Box 519, Donnelly, ID 83615; telephone (800) 346-6204, Internet http://salmonriveroutfitters.com. Six days and five nights on the river, with all meals and lodge accommodations, costs $1,795. All-inclusive camping trips cost $1,395.
Lynn Sheehan isn't slated for a river run this season, but you can find her at Sand Rock Farm Bed and Breakfast in Aptos, Calif., tel. (831) 688-8005, fax (831) 688-8025, http://www.sandrockfarm.com.
There's a lottery system to legally run the Salmon, so your best bet is to sign on with seasoned outfitters. Some that offer gourmet rafting trips (I haven't tried them): Barker-Ewing River Trips, tel. (800) 448-4202, fax (307) 733-3497, http://www.barker-ewing.com/salmon/index.shtml.
Steve Currey's Expedition Co., tel. (800) 937-RAFT (7238), http://www.expeditioncompany.net.
River Odysseys West Inc., tel. (800) 451-6034 or (208) 765-0841, fax (208) 667-6506.
The Idaho Outfitters and Guides Assn. is a trade group with many links; tel. (800) (494-3246), http://www.ioga.org.
* For more information: Idaho Travel Council, 700 W. State St., P.O. Box 83720, Boise, ID 83720; tel. (800) VISIT-ID (847-4843), fax (208) 334-2631, http://www.visitid.org.