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Floating a wilderness river like Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon poses certain hazards. Rafts can flip in the river’s Class III and Class IV rapids, sending paddlers swimming. Drinking untreated water from the river can result in intestinal discomfort. There are mosquitoes, snakes and other wild creatures one must occasionally contend with.

And there’s no cell service…none at all.

This was the greatest dilemma facing my 14-year-old daughter Cassidy as our trip approached. There were tears of anguish at how far out of the loop she’d fall with her friends. Her 10-year-old sister Annabel had worries of her own about how she’d survive without her two main food groups, macaroni & cheese and bagels.

Throughout their protestations, I stayed calm but firm. They were going to love this trip, darn it. I’d paid for it. They were going.

While no Bear Grylls, I’ve been fortunate enough to take a number of wilderness river trips in my time, floating fabled fishing rivers in Alaska, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Each time, I’d found the experience incredibly rewarding: the scenic beauty, the isolation, the sense of how little one really needs—at least in a material sense—to be fulfilled. After my last float of Oregon’s Deschutes River, I decided that I needed to share this experience, at least once, with my family. While my wife and daughters enjoy car camping and day hikes—activities almost de rigueur in outdoorsy Portland, Oregon, where we live—they’d never had the wilderness immersion an extended river adventure affords. I thought they’d be game, given the right conditions. With good river guides, good food and a comfortable camp, the absence of electronics and a corner market might be overlooked.

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The Middle Fork of the Salmon carves its way 106 miles through the second largest wilderness area in the United States—the 2.4 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in the heart of central Idaho—before reaching its confluence with the main stem of the Salmon. (Efforts to preserve the area, including the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, were championed by Idaho Senator Frank Church.) In its upper reaches, the Middle Fork is an intimate stream, hemmed in closely by thick forests of Douglas fir and spruce. As one proceeds down river, the canyon opens up to expose the jaw-dropping crags of the Idaho Batholith that climb to the sky. There are 300 named rapids on the river, plenty to get your blood pumping. The water is incredibly clear, a boon for anglers who can watch native cutthroat trout rise from deep in the river’s pools to take their flies on the surface. The area is home to elk, deer, moose, mountain lion and black bear, but—because these creatures summer higher in the mountains—sightings are rare. Bighorn sheep and mountain goat, however, are often seen cavorting on the cliffs.

Two Oregonians—Buzz Hatch and Woodie Hindman—began running the Middle Fork in the 1940s in McKenzie-style drift boats, and word started getting out about the wonders of the river.

Today, 24 outfitters are licensed to escort guests down the Middle Fork, though only a handful are allowed to launch each day, ensuring a more secluded river experience. Most commercial trips are six days and five nights. While a few intrepid rowers take to the river in drift boats, most are in sturdy inflatable rafts, which are much more forgiving if you happen to bump into rocks…pretty much a fait accompli on this trip. A few lucky groups will draw a permit to float the Middle Fork without guides; among paddling aficionados, this is considered one of the country’s top multi-day rafting trips.

After flying into Boise, we drove three hours to the little town of Stanley, where most river trips stage. The Sawtooth Mountains rise dramatically behind the town’s handful of outdoor supply shops, hotels and restaurants. That night we had an orientation session with Willi Cannell, owner of Solitude River Trips, and the 14 other guests who’d be joining us on the Middle Fork. The groups included several 60-ish couples who’d met while mountain climbing, and a grandpa from Michigan with three teenage grandsons who’d come to fish. (Fly fishing trips are also offered by Solitude; anglers keep their own pace during the day, but join the larger group in camp.) Cannell mapped out how the trip would unfold and what to expect, showed us how to pack our sleeping bags and pads (which Solitude provides), and gave us the duffel bags we’d use to pack our belongings. My wife and daughters looked questioningly at the smallish-seeming bags, but Cannell assured us that everything we needed on the river would fit. (It did!)

The next morning we bid our smartphones and tablets adieu and boarded a school bus as the sun crested the Sawtooths. An hour later we were at Boundary Creek, where most groups begin their river adventure. The put-in was a cauldron of activity, with rafters hustling to and fro preparing for their launch. Here we met our guides, were fitted with life jackets and given instructions on what to do if we happened to fall out of the raft in a rapid (keep your head up and your feet in front of you). Soon we were off—the girls and I in a rowing raft piloted by Dano Hawley, my wife Dee in a paddle raft with five other guests and lead guide Adam Grogan. In the rowing raft, it’s the guests’ job to sit back and take in the scenery as the guide steers the craft downstream. In the paddle raft, guests paddle on the guide’s command, and the guide uses an oar to steer. Guests carry a waterproof bag with water, a rain shell, sunscreen and any other essentials; all other gear travels on a separate craft called the Sweeper, which resembles the bottom section of a bounce house.

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The Middle Fork has a steep gradient, dropping from an initial elevation of nearly 7,000 feet to 3,000 feet by the time it reaches the main Salmon. The river moves quickly in its upper stretches, and we passed through several Class III rapids—enough whitewater to get cooled off in the 85-degree heat, but not quite enough for white knuckles (that would come later). After a dozen or so miles, we reached our first camp. All of our tents were already set up on a bench of land above the river, optimized for stunning morning vistas. An extensive kitchen had also been assembled, and a few guides were prepping dinner. One does not eat poorly on a Solitude trip; dinners featured steak, fried chicken, grilled salmon, and pork chops with dimensions that boggle the mind (and stomach). Guide Roger Goth, a Dutch oven wizard, created delicious desserts each night, ranging from pineapple upside-down cake to berry crumble. (Roger enlisted Annabel’s help to make the desserts—an experience she still talks about.)

As many guests settled in for a happy-hour libation, my girls and I wandered behind camp to natural hot springs that bubbled out of the steep hillside. A few well-placed rocks created a shallow pool that’s big enough to allow a few sojourners to soak. Whether we’d earned it or not, it felt delicious. (There are several other hot springs along the river’s course; my personal favorite is Sunflower, where 102-degree water cascades 10 feet to form a natural shower, the perfect antidote to sore paddling shoulders. After a few minutes of a hot-water massage, you can jump into the river, which was running an invigorating 60 degrees during our trip.)

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The next morning, my girls were a little flustered as they packed their duffels. I understood the feeling. It takes a day or two to adjust to the rhythm of the river, to realize that it doesn’t really matter if you put on a clean shirt or shorts, that combing your hair is optional, and that your only job is to relax and eat well. Later that day, I was shocked to see my eldest—not always the most adventurous—leave the raft and try her hand at paddling an inflatable kayak. I was even more impressed that, after being swept into the branches of a downed tree, she kept her composure while two guides fished her out. That night in camp, my girls continued to amaze. The guides had pointed out a jumping rock just upstream—a 30-foot leap of faith into a deep pool. As several teenage boys and adult guests looked on with uncertainty, Cassidy flew off the rock…and returned to do so three more times! Annabel and mom did, too. (I’m afraid of heights, so I opted for trout fishing just upstream.)

Each day presented new surprises. We’d stop our rafts for short hikes up the canyon to view Native American pictographs or pioneer homesteads. Some of the pictographs resembled tallies; others showed stick-figure-like animals—bighorn sheep or elk—and hunters with their bows drawn.

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“Archaeologists and anthropologists have a lot of ideas about what they mean,” Hawley shared at one site. “One thought is that they are the equivalent of doodles or graffiti, made to pass the time while hunters or fishermen were away.”

A herd of bighorn sheep assembled near the river one morning as we passed, unabashed by our presence. On the final morning, guide Adam Grogan shepherded the paddle raft through four of the river’s most challenging rapids—Rubber, Hancock, Devil’s Tooth and House Rock­—in quick succession. My knuckles were white this time, but no one went overboard. Soon, the crystalline waters of the Middle Fork merged with the slightly off-color main stem Salmon, and our trip was done.

On the bus ride back to Stanley, several of the boys had recovered their smartphones and were busy with games and music. Cassidy looked longingly at them and their devices, then leaned her head against the window, looked at the river on our left, and dozed off with a smile on her face.

Trip Tips

Getting there: Most rafters fly into Boise; from there it’s a three-hour drive or short flight to Stanley. McCall Aviation (800-992-6559; www.mccallaviation.com) provides air taxi service between Boise and Stanley.

Best time to visit: Most float the Middle Fork from June through September; water can be high and fast in the early spring, and a little “skinny” in late summer.

Guides/outfitters: We traveled with Solitude River Trips (208-806-1218;www.rivertrips.com), which has been operating for over 35 years. Price (not including gratuities or fees) is $2,095 for adults, $1,775 for students. Middle Fork Outfitters Association (www.idahosmiddlefork.com) lists all licensed outfitters.

Accommodations: Find lodging options on the Stanley-Sawtooth Chamber of Commerce website.

A version of Chris Santella’s story first appeared in the Washington Post in October 2014 and is reprinted with permission.

Photography courtesy of Kat Smith Photography.


Published on April 12, 2015