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Whitewater fans trade winter hibernation for wet and wild exhilaration

Idaho has more than 3,500 navigable whitewater river miles, more than any other state in the contiguous United States. Add this number to the nearby whitewater miles in Eastern Washington and western Montana, and the Inland Northwest quickly becomes a world-class rafting and kayaking destination.

Many of these trips can cost less than $100 per person and are easily accessible, exhilarating and guided by experienced outfitters. So whitewater rafting can appeal to anyone, and the term itself isn’t just boat-pounding, helmet-bashing Class-V hydraulics of area rapids like Ladle or Lochsa Falls. It can also refer to the easy-to-handle, exciting splashes of Class-II and Class-III rapids found throughout area waterways.

The mild winter has left less snow than normal in the local mountains. While this may impact whitewater flows on several area rivers, local outfitters remain optimistic about the upcoming season.

“It’s not the worst we’ve ever seen, and a couple of late snow storms could really improve it,” said Peter Grubb, founder of ROW Adventures, an outfitting company that’s operated in Idaho since 1979. “We expect that some of the smaller rivers that depend on spring runoff, like the Moyie, may have shorter seasons, running through mid-June instead of early July.”

Gary Stueve, owner of 3 Hearts Outfitters, a rafting and fly fishing company in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, echoes Grubb’s assessment. “We have some concern that our Moyie River season will be shorter than normal, but a wet spring will only help that out.”

Late spring weather may be unpredictable, but one thing is certain: every skill level can find a waterway that’s fun, challenging and packed with scenery and excitement. Good choices for beginning rafters and kayakers are the Moyie or St. Joe, while experienced boaters looking for a serious adventure should seek the Lochsa River.

Several early season half-day and single-day float trips are available for those wanting the thrill of whitewater rafting or kayaking. Early season and group discounts are often available.

Blackfoot River

The Blackfoot is an early season whitewater river outside of Missoula, Mont. It flows throughout the summer, but spring runoff pushes the rapids to Class-III status. The Blackfoot is known for its scenery and fly fishing, as noted in Norman Maclean’s book, “A River Runs Through It. “

The Blackfoot is a good river for beginners and can be floated in a half or full day. Float during the early season, through early June, for the best whitewater excitement. The Blackfoot gets crowded during the summer due to its popularity.

No permit is currently required to float the Blackfoot River. Several area outfitters offer guided trips on the Blackfoot. Costs for half day and full day trips range from $65 to $85, respectively.

Lochsa River

Class-IV and Class-V rapids dominate this boulder-strewn stretch of river and guarantee an adrenal gland workout. With an early season dependent on runoff from the Bitterroot Mountains, the Lochsa is a great day trip for anyone craving continuous whitewater intensity.

The water is cold and rafts are known to flip, but almost everyone who braves the river considers the experience a must-do. This year’s meager snowpack means fewer days are available to float this world-renown river. Big water day trips are offered by several different outfitters up to mid-June.

No permit is required to float the Lochsa, but only experienced boaters should attempt. Guided day trips cost $95-$165 and typically include a shuttle ride, equipment (including a wetsuit and helmet), an experienced river guide, lunch, and return service.

Moyie River

The Moyie is a fast-moving river dotted with Class-II and Class-III rapids. Located 40 minutes north of Sandpoint, it starts out as a wide, scenic and seemingly gentle float, then constricts to become fast and continuous whitewater until the take-out below the old dam.

It’s a great whitewater day trip for beginners and experienced rafters and kayakers. The river typically has a short, early season and this year’s low snowpack means there will likely be even fewer days to float. Plan to go before mid-June for the most fun.

No permit is required, but it’s a cold, early season river and can be tricky for inexperienced boaters. Costs for half and full day trips range from $70-$115.

Selway River

The Selway is one of eight rivers protected under the original Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. Today it remains a pristine and beautiful whitewater river. Rafting and kayaking on the Selway’s Class-III and Class-IV rapids is strictly regulated, with one launch permitted daily.

While you can float the Selway into August, the best whitewater is found mid-May through June. Day trips are available on the lower section of the Selway, a gentle, scenic float good for beginning boaters. Multi-day wilderness float trips offer more scenery, seclusion and whitewater intensity.

Float permits are required and can be very difficult to obtain due to limited availability. If you don’t draw a permit, area outfitters offer both day trips and multi-day wilderness trips, with costs from $92 to $2,500.

Spokane River

The river flowing through the heart of the Lilac City calms down to become an easily accessible whitewater stretch for rafters and kayakers. With a couple of notable Class-II and Class-III rapids, Spokane River is a good choice for beginners and those pressed for time; it has mild whitewater can be floated in half a day. Spokane River float season begins in mid-May and runs through August. The river calms significantly after spring runoff, so go early for the best whitewater experience.

No permit is required. It’s considered the least expensive guided float trip in the area. Several outfitters offer half-day and full-day guided trips, ranging from $49 to $65.

St. Joe River

The “Shadowy St. Joe” is known for its beauty and great trout fishing, but many are unaware that the upper stretch is a fine early season whitewater day trip. Rafters and kayakers alike can take advantage of spring runoff to float Class-II and Class-III whitewater on this designated Wild and Scenic river.

This year’s lack of snow should benefit rafters and kayakers interested in running the river during its short early season. Boaters typically take-out at Spruce Tree Campground, which makes the St. Joe a 17-mile whitewater day trip. Guided trips are available throughout June.

You don’t need a permit to float. However, only experienced rafters and kayakers should attempt the river during the early season since the water is cold, rapids are fast, and log jams may exist. Guided day trips range from $93 to $115 and include transportation, equipment and lunch.

Wenatchee River

The Wenatchee is the most popular whitewater river in Washington state. Winding its way through the beautiful Leavenworth area, the warm central Washington weather and the Wenatchee River’s forgiving pool-and-drop characteristics contribute to its popularity.

During the early season, mid-May to early June, day trips offer great scenery and Class-III+ roller coaster wave trains. The river is great for beginners but exciting enough for all skill levels. The float season runs through August, though whitewater rapids typically get very mellow after mid-June.

The Wenatchee River does not require a float permit, and there are different outfitters that offer guided rafting and kayak trips. Half day, single day and overnight trips are available. Costs range from $64-$154 from a half-day to an overnight trip.

Outdoor professionals recommend hiring a licensed river guide if you are not an experienced kayaker or oarsman, and verify pricing and logistics with your preferred outfitter.