Stanley is a moose- and elk-head kind of place with two river supply stores, a grocery and not much else. For river rafters such as myself, it's only a school bus ride away from the headwaters of the legendary Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
After meeting the group at the Mountain Village Inn, I curled up under a calico bedspread in a knotty pine guest room and recovered from the flight. It was here I began the transition from city and job to no responsibilities and a professionally guided river trip.
And not just any river trip. The Middle Fork and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness are among the last unspoiled ecosystems in the continental United States - home of fish, eagles, trout, black bears, bighorn sheep and, for thrill-seekers, powerful white water.
For six days last July, our group of 22, led by the Echo River Co. of Oakland, floated 100 miles on rafts and kayaks from the put-in at Boundary Creek to the confluence with the Main Salmon - dropping more than 3,000 feet from a lush alpine forest to a colorful, desertlike canyon. We bounced through rapids, over waves as big
Every evening we watched the sunset from a circle of chairs around a cozy campfire. It was, as one guest happily described, "camping at its most luxurious."
My first float trip - on this river 20-something years ago - was a seminal experience. I've been rafting on many beautiful rivers since, but memories of the Middle Fork made it impossible to equal. The water then was as clear as glass, and we scooped drinking water from right next to the raft. Few other people passed by and campsites were pristine. That trip was thrown together by a bunch of amateurs, however. On the first day, we immediately wrapped our raft around a rock, costing us half of our food and all of the beer.
Rafting with Echo, whose river experience dates back further than mine, was a major improvement. With professionals in charge, I was free from the burden of carrying and preparing food or lugging a tent and sleeping bag. Our guides were all experienced river runners, who call Australia, Maine, Wales and Colorado their homes in the off-season, and who mostly return to run the Salmon for the sheer love of it. All of them could row a raft, prepare a meal or tell an entertaining river tale expertly.
Our little flotilla of rafts and kayaks was invisibly preceded by a supply barge called a "sweep" that ferried an amazing amount of gear. Like a clown car that never seems to stop discharging occupants, our sweep - with hyperactive Rio in command - held seemingly bottomless coolers of gourmet food.
A typical river day began with a hearty breakfast such as griddle cakes and bacon, a speedy pack-up and a run in one's chosen craft. A morning of sightseeing, fishing, photography or conversation was punctuated by a hold-on-tight trip through a rapid or two.
Burritos or sandwiches and veggie snacks for lunch on a beach were followed by a short hike to a scenic spot to stretch your legs, or maybe just a snooze in the sun. Back on the river for an afternoon of water challenges and wildlife viewing, our boats would eventually pull into a new campsite to find our tents pitched and camp set up by the sweep crew. Presently, I'd have a hot cup of tea and my journal in my hands, heading to my tent for a restorative part of the day - quiet contemplation to the sound of a rushing river.
Echo offered the option of riding the river in an oar boat, with an oarsman (or woman) doing all the rowing; a paddle boat, where guests help paddle the raft as directed by a guide, or going it on your own in an inflatable kayak. Our group had its super-fit members, a child, a senior citizen and a very large man, and all of us found a comfort zone for riding - or not riding - the rapids.
The rafts had their good points - the oar boat for relaxing and taking photos or the paddle boat for camaraderie and exercise. But many of us jockeyed for an inflatable kayak, best described by the archaic Disneyland phrase, an E-ticket.
Along with E-ticket, I learned to use a few notable river-running expressions, such as to "go swimming" (fall out of the boat) and to "cactus" (experience a nasty crash). In a worst-case cactus, an unfortunate boater could wind up in the "green room" - the way the turbulent river looks from underwater.
Inflatable kayaks are the roly-poly cousins of needle-shaped hard-shell boats, but are a bit easier to control and impossible to sink. They are also easy to flip over. Luckily, most of my nautical dismounts were more "swimming" than "cactus."
While handing out life jackets, wet suits and helmets, our leader, Echo co-owner Dick Linstrom, gave a safety talk about how to float if launched into the river (feet first) and how to rescue a floating guest (grab the shoulders of their life jacket). Kayak instructor Dowie added a few paddling pointers and tricks such as "high-siding" the boat by jumping uphill if you're caught on a rock. However, "paddle like hell" became my mantra for white water.
As Katharine Hepburn exclaimed after riding the rapids with Humphrey Bogart in the movie "The African Queen," "I had no idea a mere physical experience could be so exhilarating."
After the first set of roller coaster waves in a kayak, I was hooked, and so, seemingly, was everyone else. Those of us who planned to spend only minimal time in the "rubber duckies" quickly revised our outlook. The duckies were big, wet fun.
The Middle Fork can be unnavigable in the spring and has potentially dangerous stretches all year. Since the river constantly changes depth and intensity, guides would row ahead in a raft to scout the water before we made our descent. Briefed on the direction of the current and hazards such as standing waves and boiling "holes," we'd form a line and off we'd go - some skillfully; others, like myself, belatedly wondering if this was such a great idea.
There was always the comforting thought that several rafts were waiting downstream to rescue swimming kayakers, but, from water level, those waves, rocks and holes looked (BEGIN ITAL) huge (END ITAL). Actually, they (BEGIN ITAL) were (END ITAL) huge in places such as Weber Rapid, where many of us, myself included, chose to walk around a giant sinkhole and let the guides pilot the rafts.
Scenic rivers, such as the Middle Fork, are a state of mind as much as a place. If you brought anxieties from home, you can almost feel them peeling off and floating down the river as the days go by.
Home to the Shoshone Indians - known as the Sheepeaters - and visited by a succession of adventurous souls for thousands of years, the Salmon's deep canyon reveals a geology of titanic uplifts, glacial action and extreme erosion as the river has cut its way irrevocably down. Nature rearranges the rocks and sandbars every season, so there is a feeling of impermanence that blends with a time-capsule experience.
Rust-colored drawings of animals and people called pictographs can be found on the canyon walls where Sheepeaters painted them hundreds of years ago. Wildlife abounded. Playful otters tried to climb into the boat, twin bear cubs poked their heads out of the shore grass on the upper river, and mountain sheep grazed calmly as we lunched nearby.
Bird watchers delighted in observing circling raptors, diving Mergansers and bobbing shore birds. The Western swallowtail butterfly was a near constant companion. One would glide into the frame of a photograph or gracefully land on the raft as we plummeted down a rapid - a floating yellow and black shape that seemed to follow us like a shadow. The butterfly became a symbol of this white water raft trip for me, where delicate beauty met dangerous turbulence.
Often I was pulled from this reverie by the sound of a chef calling us to another terrific meal, such as whole baked salmon or pork roast, tasty fresh veggies and an irresistible dessert. The baked goods our guides pulled out of a campfire dutch oven - including a chocolate birthday cake decorated with fresh pansies for 10-year-old Sunny - were delicious. Our group included three families with teenage children, so, after dinner, giggles and shouts punctuated word games and skill contests held in a circle of canvas chairs near the campfire. Only a few feet away, darkness was near complete and millions of stars twinkled above.
Although all of the campsites were lovely, offering river-view sites for some and woodsy privacy for others, my favorite was in the lower river near Loon Creek, where I scored the tent site farthest away, almost directly next to the singing Salmon river and surrounded by flowers. Wildflowers were especially pretty in this area, where I spotted purple penstomen, cream-colored camas lilies, shooting stars and shrubs covered with the sweet, orange-scented Idaho state flower, the syringa, to name but a few.
That evening, flashlight in hand, I trooped along with the teenagers to a natural hot springs for a soak. After a bit more of a hike than we expected - including a harmless but exciting rattlesnake encounter_ the group descended like chattering magpies into a log-rimmed pool of 110-degree water. A muscle-easing soak, followed by a cold plunge in Loon Creek resulted in a group of camper noodles who made a much quieter exit.
The final stretch of the Middle Fork, known as the Impassable Canyon, is so named for its fortresslike granite walls that prevent travel any other way but by boat. Trails and cabins disappear, and towering cliffs force the hard-rushing river into some really impressive hydraulics. It was here that Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery expedition determined the Salmon River was impassable upstream by canoe. Instead, they headed over Lost Trail Pass (where they lost the trail) into Montana.
This part of the trip seemed compressed - we were at the confluence with the main Salmon and civilization all too soon. Another bus ride delivered us to tiny Salmon, Idaho, birthplace of Sacajawea, the legendary Lemhi Shoshone Indian woman who guided Lewis and Clark - and another small plane ride back to Boise.
Was the river as perfect as I remembered? Well, yes and no.
The Middle Fork - although it is still very clean and its tributaries are still drinkable - has declined somewhat in water clarity due to a series of forest fires in 2000 that defoliated the banks in places, allowing more silt to run off. More people are around, too, although the Forest Service strictly limits the number of parties allowed on the river, and it can hardly be called crowded.
This river is a special place that leaves an imprint on those who ride through its froth and shower in its waterfalls. It is a sparkling, celadon-green ribbon - full of life - that thankfully remains very, very beautiful.
NEXT IN THE SERIES: California coast by rail, April 10.
IF YOU GOFLOAT TRIPS: Echo River Trips of Oakland runs five-day trips from May 29 - when the Middle Fork of the Salmon River is at its highest - and six-day trips the rest of the season, until Sept. 1. At some point, usually from late July to mid-August, the upper 25 miles of river get too low to run, and the company begins trips by flying in to Indian Creek.
COST: Depending on length of trip, Middle Fork float trips run from $1,360 to $1,635 per person for adults and $1,260 to $1,495 for kids. Reserve dates early - many trips sell out.
WHAT'S INCLUDED: Echo provides transportation from Stanley, Idaho, to the river, and from the river back to Salmon, Idaho, and all on-river meals. The company can provide a tent, sleeping bag and pad, or you can bring your own. Guests are responsible for meals and lodging before and after the trip.
GETTING THERE: Most people have Echo arrange off-river transportation. Clients book their own flight to Boise, and Echo has a scenic small plane to shuttle passengers from Boise to Stanley before the trip and from Salmon to Boise after the trip. The cost for this service is $230 per person, plus tax, round-trip. Or you can drive to Stanley, and, for $100, Echo will have your car shuttled to meet you in Salmon.
INFORMATION: Echo River Trips, 6529 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, CA 94609-1113. www.echotrips.com; (800) 652-3246.