Lifestyle & Luxury
In the summer of 1805, members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition were hoping the Salmon River would help them on their journey. Scouting the river, Captain William Clark wrote in his journals that it “is almost one continued rapid…that the passage with Canoes is entirely impossible.…” With much disappointment, the explorers veered north to find a safer route.
Today, the river that turned back Lewis and Clark cuts one of North America’s deepest gorges, 1,000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. It flows west across central Idaho through nearly 2.5 million acres of the River of No Return Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in the lower forty-eight, an area three times the size of Rhode Island. The Salmon is a special gift. It flows without interruption, wild and free. At 425 miles, it’s the longest undammed river to flow entirely within one state.
Each year professional guides like Wayne Johnson lead travelers on multi-day excursions to experience these wilderness waters. Johnson, who has 52 years of experience as a professional river boatman, 38 of them on the Salmon, runs the Salmon River Rafting Company.
Last summer I joined Johnson, my longtime friend and river comrade, on a four-day trip. In the 1960s, we worked at Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. We were summer guides on the Snake River and floated 28 miles every day, from Moran to Moose, at the base of the Tetons.
On an August afternoon, a chartered air taxi was waiting at the Boise airport for the hour-plus flight to Salmon, Idaho, a small farming community near the Montana border. First night accommodations were at the Stagecoach Inn, which overlooked the rushing Salmon River. Dinner at a near-by restaurant offered two boatmen and 12 guests a head start on getting acquainted. One was a returning guest and Johnson said later that about 70 percent of his clients return, a rate of which any business would be proud.
A key reason for the return business is Johnson’s top-notch crew of Idaho certified professional boatmen. “Our guides are a unique asset and a significant part of the river experience. Safety is their top priority. They are also versed in the natural and human history of the canyon, which will help add a meaningful dimension to your trip,” he said.
The next morning, we boarded vans for our launch site, a 68-mile trip to the wilderness boundary, where the road ended and the adventure began. We were offered a choice of boarding a 22-foot sweep raft, 16-foot paddle raft or inflatable two-person kayaks, popular with the youngsters.
In late summer, the water was clear, the pace was leisurely and the river quiet. The serenity was broken by the sound of rapids downstream, a pattern that continued throughout our journey. After moving through our first rapid with ease, Johnson pointed out the challenges of navigating different water levels.
“A rapid at moderate or high river flows may be easy with just a succession of fun waves or rollers. At a lower level,” he said, “the same rapid may reveal large rocks or boulders that increase the technical maneuvering required to negotiate the rapid safely.”
We soon learned that this was much more than a river trip as we often stopped for side trips to view Indian pictographs, pioneer graves, abandoned homesteads, mining claims and to enjoy a natural hot springs.
“Our emphasis is less on white water, although that is part of the trip, and more on the human and natural history of the canyon. I like to think our trips are both educational and fun,” Johnson said.
Each night we stayed in rustic lodges next to the river where we welcomed hot showers and home-cooked meals. While the ambiance was different at each lodge, what was consistent was the western hospitality shared with the lodge managers and owners.
There is something special about the simple pleasures of water and wilderness, the sights and sounds of nature, the beautiful white sand beaches flanked by towering ponderosa pines, Douglas Fir and deep granite canyon walls.
It was a timely, rewarding trip that gave me a new and welcomed perspective. Those thoughts were reinforced by comments at our group’s last dinner together in Salmon. The trip was “a visually stunning hands-on tour through a rugged piece of American history,” said Scott Taylor from Texas.
“It’s amazing how you go into this trip as strangers and you come out as family. No one feels like an outsider on this adventure,” said Danielle Strong, 18, from Kansas.
“My personal recommendation” said return guest Debbie Sibley of Georgia, “is if outdoor adventure is part of your passion, give Wayne Johnson a call.”
All-inclusive Salmon River Packages
Salmon River Rafting Company runs trips from April through September. The 2018 rates range from $3,100 to $3,500 per person for weeklong trips, depending on arrival in Boise or Salmon, Idaho. All prices include motel accommodations in Salmon, restaurant dinners and breakfasts before and after the trip, river lodging, waterproof personal gear bags, all river meals and beverages including beer and Idaho wines with dinners, an up-river return on the last river day by jet boat (or if water levels are low, a charter scenic flight out of the canyon to Salmon), taxes and fees. Camping trips are also available.
Salmon River Rafting Company
P.O. Box 2043
Salmon, ID 83467
Charlie Brown was recently term-limited after serving more than 14 years on Denver City Council. As a Colorado state representative in 1983, he sponsored and helped pass legislation requiring licensing of Colorado river guides to ensure that all rafting operators met safety and business standards.
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