23 August 2017

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it." - Norman Maclean

Out in the vast spaces of the Frank Church - River of No Return wilderness area, one of the most epic white water river flows. Surrounded by 2.5 million acres of natural beauty, wildlife, and a few hundred lucky rafters each year, I now understand why the Middle Fork of the Salmon River is such a sacred destination. 

It took stepping outside of my normal vacation destinations, placing preconceived notions aside and trusting that the best trips are often ones that contain the most unknowns.

If you've never been to Idaho, you may have visions of potato farms and cowboys. But this beautiful state is filled with mountains, rivers and wildlife, untouched compared to many states. This is a mecca for river rafters and we had a spot to boat down 75 miles of the Salmon River with the Middle Fork Rapid Transit (MFRT).

What a way to end summer. 

MFRT has been running the river since the early 1980's. Grant Porter, whose father started the company and now owns it, has been rafting this river since he was a young boy and his passion for the river is contagious. From the very beginning, every detail was accounted for, communications were prompt and no stone was left unturned. Whether you were an avid rafter or novice, you felt prepared for the journey. The packing lists were my favorite! 

I packed in a 40L Patagonia duffle bag for the 6 days - all of our gear had to fit into a "dry bag" that would float down the river with us on the "sweep boat." I packed a down jacket, long underwear, pants, shorts, swim suits, a hat, sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen. A pair of river shoes, flip flops and wool socks were all one needed for footwear. They provided our Personal Floatations Devices (PFDs) and everything else (think tent, sleep bags, sleep pads, food, drink).  

By the time August rolls around, the river is flowing slower and lower than when the snows first melt in the Spring. Our journey started at Indian Creek and the only way there was by airplane. We flew in on a tiny 4-seat prop plane, enjoying the remote scenery, the largest roadless area left in the lower 48 states.

As our new friends were landing on the dirt air strip, we were assigned our dry bags and PFD's and became acquainted with one another. After a safety talk by our guide, Dagney, we boarded our boats and started down the river as the sun was warming us up and the water was sparkling.

There were 4 oar boards, one paddle boat, 3 "duckies" or inflatable kayaks and a "sweep boat." We had 6 guides who safely and graciously led us down the river. They were caring, funny, helpful and talented. There were 22 guests of all ages and from as far away as Holland. Each day, the guides loaded and unloaded our boats with all of our gear and food and drink. They cooked us three gourmet meals each day, washed dishes and set up camp. I haven't felt that cared for (or lazy) in years!! It was fantastic. 

Our days started around 7:00am with coffees at camp. We were served breakfast around 8am. While the guides packed up the kitchen and started loading the boats, we packed up our own bags and broke down our tents. The "sweep boat" was then loaded and two of the guides took off for our next camp. They would have tents assembled and the kitchen put together by the time we arrived on the oar boats later that afternoon. 

We would float about 15 miles each day, stopping for lunch, hikes, hot springs, waterfalls or swimming. There was time for talking, laughing, learning and just being present. There were no phones, no music, no distractions. I felt more connected than I had in a long time. It felt so good to be without the "pacifier" our cell phones become. 

We usually reached camp in late afternoon/early evening. We would grab our bags, find a tent and set up our beds. And most importantly, change into dry, cotton clothes! Everyone would then gather around our ring of camp chairs to enjoy drinks, play camp games like bocce ball and leg wrestling (!!), and talk. Eventually, appetizers would be serves before we were served meals like salmon, salad and potatoes or lasagna and chocolate cake. 

The evenings were capped off with a bonfire, guitar and singing. People would retire to bed here and there. Being outside all day makes a person tired in the best way. I didn't even have time to get past page 6 in my book! 

Each day found us in a different ecological region. The trees changed from towering Ponderosa pines to steep rock cliffs in the "Impassable Canyon," the third deepest in North America. We saw petroglyphs from the native Sheepeater tribe and watched bald eagles, big horned sheep, trout and snakes thrive in their habitat. 

The rapids on the river were not as scary as I thought they would be as a rider (I wouldn't say that if I were in charge of the oars). I'd never done anything quite like this before, so my imagination got the best of me. But, once I saw the competence of our guides and how they could maneuver their boats, I felt much more at ease, traveling through these obstacles of boulders and water. Not that the rapids couldn't be scary, because people die on this river, but we were in good hands and knew what to do in case we flew out of the boat. I hung on tight!

And I am going to hang on tight to these memories and friendships. In our world of connectivity and comparison and distraction, it felt good to let go and go back to just being present. It was a true vacation. And I know I made friendships that will fuel my soul well past our float trip. 

I would highly recommend MFRT to anyone looking for an escape into the wilderness. A true adventure into a stunning part of our country, where a river runs through it. 

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