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Sports >  Outdoors

Rafting Idaho’s wild Middle Fork of the Salmon River ‘a spiritual experience’

I’ve been on three rafting trips in my life. The first was a lazy day on the Snake River nearly a decade ago. The second, last year in Riggins, Idaho, was frankly much more about hard seltzers than paddling. But the last and most recent was on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River during high-water season.

In other words, I have been on one rafting trip.

I’ll admit I’m not the outdoorsiest person to ever waltz through the ice-axe-handled doors of Recreational Equipment, Inc. Four nights and five days in the rainy wilderness without cell service, Wi-Fi or modern plumbing doesn’t immediately come to mind when I think “vacation.” But every once in a while, I’m struck with the urge to break out of my comfort zone and try something new.

So when a spot opened up on a generous friend’s trip, I had just enough time to cough up the funds for a dry suit rental – ouch – and gather all of my quickest-drying clothes.

Operated by Boundary Expeditions, the trip ran from June 9-13, covering more than 80 miles on the river.

We took off from Deer Park Airport Thursday morning, making our way to the camp at Indian Creek via backcountry airstrip; unfavorable conditions had forced us to move our starting point 20 miles downriver from the usual early season boat launch at Boundary Creek.

Touching down a little before noon, we had a quick lunch and then it was time to pull on our dry suits. This is a task easier written than done. Sure, the legs go on easily enough over whatever base layers the weather calls for. But once you’ve wriggled your way into the unzipped torso of the thing, getting your hands and – shudder – head through the waterproofing gaskets is another story. Still, one splash of that sub-50-degree water to the face and your priorities will sort themselves right out. Mine certainly did.

Leaving Indian Creek, I chose the paddle boat, primarily because I was still apprehensive and it looked like it would be the hardest to fall out of. But it was the right boat for a totally different reason.

Our guide, Will “Wildo” Thursby, made me feel instantly at home. Sharing tidbits about safety and what to expect, he took us through the ropes with such an overwhelming sense of “welcome to the river” that suddenly, I wasn’t just some rookie kid holding a paddle. I was a member of the team.

It was a relatively short float from Indian Creek, passing the Marble Creek Rapid (Class III) to camp at Marble Creek Left that first day. Our little fleet – five oar boats, a nine-person paddle boat, a shredder, two kayaks, a two-person kayak and a safety boat affectionately referred to as the “cat” – reached camp with time to unpack, hike and generally revel in the outdoors. A few of us even braved a cold plunge and before we knew it, dinner was served.

Sitting around the campfire, listening to rafting stories that night, I realized by going on this trip I’d essentially crossed off the top spot on my rafting bucket list before I’d even written it.

Jake McBurns, one of the more experienced guests, told me when it comes to real rafting in the continental U.S., it’s all about the Grand Canyon and the Middle Fork. The Grand Canyon is formidable as far as rapids and requires a significant time commitment – sometimes more than two weeks.

But the Middle Fork brings a greater sense of isolation. Before we left Indian Creek, I remember being told in no uncertain terms that while the guides were trained to deal with most problems, it would be hard to get out of there if something were to happen.

True to the company’s name, we were going right up to the line every day. There was a real sense of urgency and danger and respect for the river. But, thanks to the guides, I was never afraid.

“It’s just such a special place due to how far out you are – a really unique landscape,” McBurns said. “We can really enjoy how peaceful it is out there. You get a different appreciation for the power of Mother Nature … and how much energy is going through that river every millisecond.”

“The overwhelming beauty of the area – it’s pretty incredible how you pass through all the different microsystems and different topographies as you head down the river,” Saiah Schneider said.

A typical day with Boundary Expeditions starts around 6 a.m. The guides set out tea and coffee for early risers and call the rest of us for hot breakfast closer to 8 , ideally dressed and ready to go.

Speaking as a chronic overpacker with a high-maintenance skincare regimen, the fact that I was somehow able to pack (and repack) five days and four nights’ worth of clothing and toiletries into one 35-liter duffel bag is a remarkable achievement.

On the water by 10 a.m., we would break for lunch around noon and leave an hour or so later to reach camp by 4 p.m. with time for fishing, hiking, naps, light-up bocce ball, and a Viking game that involved throwing sticks at slightly larger sticks, the name of which I cannot remember. After dinner, evenings always ended around the campfire, access to the “river bar” lasting late into the night.

After lunch on the second day, I left the paddle boat for the smaller, much more adventurous shredder. Knowing “Ski Jump” (Class II-IV) was behind us and “Jackass” (Class III) just ahead, I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own. But with a little encouragement from Schneider, another of the more experienced guests, I decided to “yes-and” the experience. And I’m so glad I did.

In the oar boats and even the paddle boat, stretches without needing to paddle are common. But in the two- or three-person shredder, you’re paddling. And you very well might fall out. But I didn’t.

After a sunny but tempestuous entrance into camp, we docked at Lune Creek. Changing quickly, the group took a short hike and spent the afternoon in a hot spring, staying hydrated. The forecast for the third day was rain, so after dinner, we gathered the dry suits into our tents.

The rain waited until we were suited up and on the water to get going. When you’re on the water, you hardly notice the rain unless you need to wipe off your sunglasses.

We broke for lunch at the Flying ‘B’ Ranch just as several other rafting groups were doing the same. It was cold, gray, windy and raining. But between our group and every other party we ran into, it was smiles all around.

Leaving the Flying ‘B’ was more of a voyage than a float.

“It felt like we were on a real adventure,” Schneider said. “Even though we had world class guides and we had our dry suits, it was just one of those most adventurous feelings that I’ve had.”

After another hour or so on the river, we camped at Woolard. The rain let up before dinner, but the fun continued. The fourth day was similarly rainy but nothing compared to the last.

Approaching Cache Bar, the “end of line,” we went over Weber and Rubber, two of the highest class rapids on our route.

Another first-timer, Jeremy Tjards, remembered making it through Weber at the front of an oar boat.

“We were the last boat through and we took it straight on … probably 8 feet down and 10 feet up,” he said. “It felt like a roller coaster where you crest the top and there’s no turning back. Then you get through it and look back like, ‘Wow, we just nailed that!’ ”

The last day especially was something to behold, Boundary Expeditions lead guide and owner Eric Ladd agreed.

“That was definitely really special,” Ladd said. “Even for people that are out there a lot … the old-timers might see that twice in 10 years.”

I remember going over “Rubber” that day in Ladd’s oar boat – dropping down into the hole took three oar strokes as the waves swelled upward past the length of the 18-foot raft. That day, we might as well have been paddling through Hermit, a famously wild series of rapids in the Grand Canyon that ranks between class IV and V.

“To line up and actually be on the river with the right crew – it doesn’t happen that often,” Ladd said.

“That was like Hermit in the Grand Canyon – no, that was bigger than Hermit,” I remember Ladd saying. He explained later that Hermit is a reliably wild rapid.

Beth Moug, a fellow guest and first-timer, told me at a certain point “the names of the rapids and days all blurred together.”

“I was soaking up living in the moment and the rarity of our experience on such high waters,” Moug said.

The Middle Fork is one of the last rivers without a dam. That means every day on the river is somewhat unpredictable. This year especially, there was a real sense of adventure. You couldn’t help but share the guides’ enthusiasm as they were essentially experiencing a whole new river right along with us.

Driving away from the river toward the Boundary boathouse in Salmon, Idaho, was surprisingly emotional. I started to think about how experiences from the trip might stay with the group. Even weeks later, I can feel a difference in my mood. And so can everyone else.

“I remember going to work on Monday (and) having this sense of peacefulness,” Schneider said.

“It was truly a spiritual experience,” Moug said. “Being unplugged from our phones and society – in the untamed wild gave me a massive reset. I came home with clearer priorities and a wider vision of my purpose on this earth. It might sound silly, but those five days in the wilderness, riding the wild river completely changed me.”

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