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Smoking the Salmon : Rafting the Middle Fork of Idaho's Classic River Guarantees Camaderie and Thrills

April 21, 1991|JOHN F. YARBROUGH John F. Yarbrough | Yarbrough is a free-lance writer based in Salisbury, Md

STANLEY, Ida. — The river curved as it approached the rapids, the current causing my inflatable kayak to skirt a canyon wall then return midstream, like a tentative lover avoiding a kiss. After slight maneuvering to avoid a "widow-maker" (midstream boulder), I gave myself a mental pat on the back and prepared to ride out the rapid.

No sooner had I bypassed the obstacle than I came upon a fellow kayaker caught on a rock cluster. The quickness of the river, and a novice's tendency to assume all is in control, kept me from acting quickly enough to avoid the collision. The impact threw us into the river, leaving us to float 100 yards downstream to meet our empty kayaks and the rest of our rafting party, which was waiting in a quiet eddy. Concerned about our safety but not overly worried, they seemed to have enjoyed our spill the way a parent might watch a child's blunder during a Christmas play.

That mishap, though at the time disorienting, in my memory now ranks among the highlights of a six-day, 100-mile venture down the West's classic white-water river, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

An undammed, free-flowing river that begins as an inconspicuous mountain stream in the Salmon Mountains of central Idaho, it gradually gathers the force of countless tributaries and becomes a raging white-water river as it joins the Main Salmon near the Montana border. During its journey through some 50 rapids, the river winds through valleys, 9,000-foot canyon gorges and four national forests that make up the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, named after the former U.S. Senator from Idaho. The Middle Fork carries its passengers on water as clear as gin and, at times, with flow volume up to 20,000 cubic feet per second.

Our trip last August, with an Oakland-based outfitter called Echo: The Wilderness Company, included 24 mostly first-time rafters, ages 8 to more than 60, and 6 river guides. Among us were a retired electronics executive, a book jacket writer for Harper & Row, a policeman, a television ad man, an environmental lawyer, a nurse who was four months' pregnant, a stockbroker and a retired nuclear physicist and his wife. We came from Texas, Maryland, Michigan, Florida, Iowa, Idaho and Southern and Northern California. In my sub-group were my parents, my law-student brother and his wife, and my sister, a sophomore in college. We were one of two complete families on the trip.

We entered the river from the Indian Creek launch site--the same spot where former President Jimmy Carter began a 1978 Middle Fork trip. Our convoy included three rubber rafts holding a guide and six paddlers each, two oar boats carrying daily supplies and travelers, and four inflatable kayaks for the more adventurous. Leading the pack each day was a large sweep boat operated by the lead guide, which would be the first to encounter any adverse river conditions, and coincidentally carried camping gear and supplies.

From the launching site 20 miles northwest of Stanley to the confluence with the Main Salmon, the Middle Fork rafter faces rapids with names such as Jackass and Devil's Tooth, ranging in difficulty from Class I, considered easy, to Class IV, considered difficult to very dangerous. As a set of rapids approach, rafters don't need urging to give their undivided attention to the guide's calm directions: rocks to watch out for, the direction to head in and so forth. Up ahead a flurry of white "haystacks"--large standing waves that make the river seem as if it is dancing, signal the imminent rapids. Then there is silence as the raft is drawn closer to the turbulence, a calm before the storm.

"Hard left! Hard right!" the guide barks out as he begins steering the raft from the rear, his paddle serving as a kind of rudder while the six rafters drive their paddles into the water, pulling the raft forward. The craft glides over the top half of the rapid, easily threading an opening between two boulders. As the life-jacketed rafters ride the rapid, they withdraw their paddles from the water, the force of the river having eclipsed whatever power their strokes might have. Some lift their paddles above their heads and yell out, giving a roller-coaster cast to the up-and-down plunging of the raft.

The effortless moment is brief, as the raft enters a momentary calm spot in the rapid and begins to wander. With the surging tail end of the rapid only seconds away, the guide beckons the group to reposition the raft.

"Reverse! Backpaddle!" he calls out, prompting everyone to thrust their paddles forward in the water, slowing the raft while he turns it toward the center of the remaining rapid. Then, once again, the rafters defer to the river, riding out the final part of the rapid.

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