Tatshenshini-Alsek River Expedition – 13 Days – $6995 Highlights: This is a remote wilderness river as wild as they get.
In the northwest corner of the continent, where the boundaries of British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska converge, the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers flow amidst three-mile-high mountains. The Tat-Alsek river trip is the only river that travels from the interior plateau to the ocean. Starting as a small creek in the Yukon, the river doubles in size each day and traverses the largest protected wilderness on the planet. Our trips are designed to allow layover days in the best locations for hiking and wildlife viewing. The St Elias Mountains are home to the largest non-polar ice fields in the world. Massive glaciers descend to the water’s edge, shearing off thunderously into calving icebergs. The primeval landscape, dominated by grizzlies, ravens and eagles is wilderness in its purest form.
Our Tatshenshini trips start in Whitehorse which allows us to use larger aircraft to fly out at the end of the river expedition. This is not a trivial matter, as the larger aircraft have better track records for efficiency and inclement weather but also allows us to carry all manner of fresh fruit, meat, seafood, and vegetables, along with an impressive selection of bottled wines, microbrew beers and liquor. With only 12 guests on the adventure, you will be certain to have an intimate experience as we journey through alpine tundra, past towering mountains with massive glaciers that often reach right into the river, and finally out onto the narrow coastal plain. Come experience this rugged wilderness with the legendary service and hospitality that Far and Away’s trips are known for.
Dolomites Ski Adventure – 7 Days – $5995 – pp based on double occupancy Highlights: Haute Route with views, comfort and cuisine.
If you love to ski, and the more runs you can get in on different slopes each day the better, then you should check out our Dolomites Ski Adventure experience! We’ve crafted this trip to maximize your time on the slopes, exploring a wide range of terrain at different resorts, in some of the most beautiful mountains on earth – the Dolomites. On our Ski Adventure, you’ll have five full days of skiing to get to know these mountains well. Each day you’ll ski from resort-to-resort across the Dolomites, enjoying the advantage of lift-service pistes. And one of the beauties of skiing here is that you can ski from rifugio-to-rifugio, staying at a different mountain inn high above the slopes each night! Every day you’ll explore a different ski area within the Dolomiti Superski – 12 ski areas featuring 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) of prepared pistes (all on one ski pass!) that will lead you to discover the breathtaking beauty of these mountains. From Alta Badia, to Civetta, to the Marmolada, to Lagazuoi and Cinque Torri – you’ll experience the wide variety of the finest ski resorts in the Dolomites. Each evening you’ll experience the welcoming atmosphere of a rifugio – an alpine mountain inn set high atop the mountains with excellent views – and savor the excellent culture and cuisine unique to the region. Crossing from region to region – the South Tyrol, Badia, and Cortina – your taste buds will enjoy the unique combination of flavors resulting from the disparate Italian, Austrian, and Ladin cultures found in these valleys. Throughout your trip, you’ll ski with our outstanding UIAGM/IFMGA Professional Mountain Guides, who know their way in and out of the Dolomite Mountains – the best runs, the best slope-side dining, and what wine to order! Plus, while maximizing your turns is the focus, they’re always willing to give you pointers to help you improve. Whether you’re a seasoned skier or still honing your skills, if you love full days of skiing on different terrain each run, this is the trip for you!
Zambezi – 12 Days – $6995 – pp based on double occupancy Highlights: Memorable safari tent camps, wildlife and world-class river adventure.
Explore the Zambezi River Basin and the game parks of Zimbabwe. Visit the Devils Pools on the edge of Victoria Falls in Zambia and revel in one spectacular African adventure after another. This incredible journey starts in Victoria Falls, where you are quickly whisked to Iganyana Tented Camp for two glorious nights. We then wind our way down the Zambezi Basin both above and below Victoria Falls. Game viewing, kayaking, rafting, and hiking are just a part of this active and rewarding wildlife safari. August through November are the best months to see game and experience the Zambezi Basin as it’s the end of the dry season and all the animals come down to the banks of the river to drink, swim and frolic in the shallows. The bush has been either eaten or has died down, so seeing the animals is much easier.
Our unique trip combines five-star decadence with fun-filled days of adventure while exploring a wide variety of environments in search of the Big Five. We will visit several highly developed and protected national parks as well as exploring remote wilderness areas rarely visited. The wildlife in the Zambezi Basin has thrived and the elephant herds of Zimbabwe are among the largest and most protected of Africa. The game viewing is outstanding, and our trip allows you to experience Africa without the crowds. We use 5-star luxury camps combined with wilderness outpost camps, so you get to immerse yourself in true African style.
Far and Away Adventures now offers new luxury tours in Zimbabwe, Italy, Alaska, and the Yukon in British Columbia. Guests can now raft the Zambezi River, ski Italy’s Dolomites, float the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers, and venture through Alaskan terrain with the brand.
he 12-day Zambezi River Explorer trip is ideal for whitewater rafting enthusiasts. Combining rafting, kayaking, hiking and wildlife watching, guests also enjoy 5-star accommodations and cuisine. The trip includes flying out of Victoria Falls, visiting national parks, game reserves and gorges, swimming Devil’s Pool, floating the Upper Zambezi, and witnessing a herd of rescued elephants. Accommodations include Iganyana Tented Camp, Elephant Camp and Old Drift Lodge safari camp. Dates for this tour are Oct. 20–31 and Nov. 1–12.
The Dolomites Ski Adventure entails skiing at 12 resorts in the Italian Alps, with each day ending with dinner, reflecting the influences of Italian, Austrian and Ladin cultures. Guests fly in and out of Venice and shuttle to and from the ski areas. Guests can book this trip for either Jan. 29–Feb. 4, 2023, or March 19–25, 2023.
The 13-day Tatshenshini-Alsek River Expedition explores the boundaries of Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon. Beginning on a plateau in the Yukon, guests will witness grizzly bears, ravens and eagles, as well as massive glaciers, the St. Elias Mountains and ice fields. This trip is soon approaching, July 22–Aug. 3.
Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River is one of America’s premier whitewater destinations — and for those lucky enough to spend a week floating down it, the river takes on a mythic status.
There is one true and correct response to the news that someone is headed to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho: First, a shout. Next, congratulations. Expletives are optional; green-eyed envy is mandatory.
“Where you goin’?” said the guy at the hotel in Ketchum, eyeing my dry bags and fly rod.
“Damn! Have a great time.”
Minutes later, at the fly shop down the block: “Where you headed?”
“Really? Oh man!”
From left: Looking down on a Far & Away riverside camp; a river guide in a kayak on the Salmon River. Photo: TOM FOWLKS
To have visited the Middle Fork is to be cursed to daydream forever about returning to the Middle Fork. I know because I have been living under this curse ever since my first trip a dozen years ago. Finally, last August, I had the chance to go back. To each of those men in Ketchum I returned a smile of fraternity: a brotherhood of dreams deferred. But I wasn’t about to cough up my seat.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon — maps of the American West tell of other Middle Forks, but for those who know water there’s really no other — is perhaps the premier multiday wilderness river float in the Lower 48. From its beginnings high in the northern Rocky Mountains of central Idaho, where two creeks tangle, the river flows north and east for about 100 miles, through the nearly 2.4 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Frank Church was the Idaho senator and ardent conservationist who pushed for passage of the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act and introduced the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Middle Fork was one of the original rivers included in the system.
We drifted, easily. The day was warm. The sun sat high above the reaching walls. The air carried smoke from the fires that were burning throughout the West, and at midday the scene had the washed-out look of overexposed film.
Today, the chance to float the challenging Middle Fork is so coveted that a lottery is held each year for the limited number of parties — roughly 600 — that get to do so. In practice, the smartest way to get on the river is by signing on with a commercial outfitter. Perhaps the best is Sun Valley-based Far & Away Adventures, which pioneered luxury raft trips on this part of the Salmon. To drop into the Middle Fork’s deep canyon for a week, where a cell phone is of no more use than a paperweight, is to shake off the dross you have deemed important in daily life — the Insta feed and the Peloton ranking and whatever nonsense Dogecoin is — and to get back in touch with more bedrock facts. It is exactly what you didn’t know you needed.
From left: A quiet morning at camp; guides Claire Siderman, Daniela Stokes, and Ali Rusch. Photo: TOM FOWLKS
Later that morning our group’s bush plane lifted off the grass airstrip at Smiley Creek, where the mountains of the Sawtooth Range surge up from the flats. The pilot pointed the nose just west of north. He flew past the toy boats dragging their wakes on Redfish Lake, over the last of the dirt roads scribbled on the dry humping hills, and above mountain lakes that shone like pieces of fallen sky. The pilot tipped the wing and far below a dirt airstrip appeared beside a river that frothed at a bend, where a mini armada of bright river rafts nuzzled the shore. He banked again, and the wheels touched down and rolled to a stop beside an old Forest Service guard station: Indian Creek.
I had joined the trip at the invitation of a friend of a friend who, in the interests of privacy, we’ll simply call Leslie. Leslie, who has lived in Sun Valley for 40 years, once owned a restaurant at the base of the ski area, and there didn’t seem to be a person Leslie didn’t know or a nonprofit to which she hadn’t contributed her time or money. That openness and generosity had extended to me, a stranger who’d asked to join her trip.
It was Leslie’s 60th birthday celebration for herself. “If you have a ‘zero’ birthday, you kind of want to do something,” she told me. The Middle Fork meant a great deal to her — she’d been there five times over the years — and she wanted to share its specialness with family and friends. Along for the week were her two grown sons, who live in California, and their significant others, and also many good friends and their spouses — from nearby Ketchum, from Boise, and beyond. “Half of these people have never been gone gone,” she told me — that is, out in the bush, unplugged, for a week. Several weren’t even particularly outdoorsy. She had booked a six-day trip with Far & Away, which is known for its comforts and high-touch service, as a way to feather-bed the landing.
From left: Local beer, served with a wedge salad in camp; the Pioneer Saloon in downtown Ketchum, the entry point for a trip down the Middle Fork. Photo: TOM FOWLKS
Before we departed, lead guide Sanne Hilbrich — blond, tall, lean as an oar — sat us down on driftwood logs for The Talk. This week, in the wilderness, we would need to act a little differently — “expedition behavior,” she called it. Look before you leap. Drink water. Stay warm, but keep cool. Have a raincoat close. “You can get all four seasons in five minutes,” she said. The most dangerous weapon on the river, Hilbrich added, is your raft paddle. Keep a good grip on it, or it can recoil. “You don’t want ‘summer teeth,'” she said, grinning as she delivered the old guides’ joke, “Some are here, some are there.”
The Middle Fork has many personalities. For the first 25 miles it is a steep alpine river that flows through pine forest thick with moss and fern, where bears grunt around on the banks. (Already, by August, the water had diminished too much for us to float this upper stretch.) In its middle miles, the gradient backs off a notch and the land alternates between steep walls and softer sagebrush country. On hot afternoons the ponderosa pines that crowd the banks smell of vanilla and cinnamon. In its final 22 miles, the river plunges into Impassable Canyon, third-deepest on the continent, where the surrounding peaks rise up to 5,000 feet. The boulders that have tumbled into the water create some of the rowdiest whitewater on the river.
We talked about books. We talked about other rivers we love. We talked about parents who are aging and sick, and who worry us. On a river, distance between people collapses quickly. You get to the heart of things.
Seasons change the Middle Fork’s mood, too. In late spring and early summer, the snowmelt-swollen river is a wild thing, a nearly nonstop log flume of fun, icy rapids. By midsummer it mellows to a mix of deep languid pools, punctuated by splash-and-giggle rapids — except when they’re sometimes much more. It’s great for families. Later still, fishing for Westslope cutthroat trout heats up; some visitors also hunt chukar partridge along the shore.
Taking a plunge after a riverside lunch. Photo: TOM FOWLKS
When Hilbrich had finished the talk, I grabbed a paddle and hopped into a raft with Cole Wells, another guide, who was in the stern. Wells had red stubble and the bronzed look acquired by spending months on the river, with a stylized tattoo of a wave on one thigh. The rest of us were novice paddlers, but his strong J-strokes kept the raft on track. We drifted, easily. The day was warm. The sun sat high above the reaching walls. The air carried smoke from the fires that were burning throughout the West, and at midday the scene had the washed-out look of overexposed film. Wells told us to keep an eye out for wild raspberry bushes.
In a few hours the rafts bumped ashore just below Marble Rapid. Some of the crew had jumped ahead — as they would every day — and constructed a village by the shore. Waiting for me was a six-person tent large enough to stand in, with a cot and thick mattress pad, a nightstand, and a wall-to-wall rug. There was another rug out front, like a doormat to my nylon room. Nearby was a table long enough to seat our entire group. A keg of IPA was on ice. For a guy like me, whose backcountry nights normally involve a fitful sleep on a leaky air mattress, the scene was disorienting, but welcome.
The river tilted, imperceptibly. Indolent waters turned white. Pungo Rapid, our first of the week, appeared. But it was August, in a year of low water. We slid through easily. Someone riding in a “ducky” boat — a little rubber kayak — splashed into the drink. Wells made sure she was okay, then celebrated her baptism with a holler: “Welcome to the Middle Fork Swim Club!”
Before I’d set out with Far & Away I spoke to Steve Lentz, who founded the company with his wife, Annie, 42 years ago. He told me that many find the idea of a long wilderness trip intimidating. Amenities like a cot with a thick mattress, or a rug that helps keep the sand out of clothing, allow people to settle quickly into being outdoors for six days — which jump-starts their ability to relax. “People are fully rested from night one, and fully absorbing each day’s events,” he said. Or as Leslie, the birthday girl, put it, “It’s so nice for everyone to get out of their comfort zone, but still be ridiculously comfortable.”
From left: Guide Walker Royston cooks dinner over an open flame; a camp dinner of lamb with rosemary, potatoes, and green beans. Photo: TOM FOWLKS
And yet, a nightstand ultimately isn’t what makes a trip memorable. In my experience, the right guides do that. And the Far & Away guides are a wonder — equal parts Sherpa, raconteur, majordomo, chef, and naturalist. Several of them grew up in the area, and their affection for the Middle Fork shines through. There were eight of them for just 21 guests, a ratio that left little for us to do but get down to the business of being comfortable. Upon arrival some of us vanished into tents for a nap. Some poured a beer. Some had a glass of wine and played cribbage. Those guides, meanwhile, turned their attention to kitchen prep. That night they served paella with shrimp and chorizo, followed by Dutch-oven pound cake still warm from the coals, along with a sporty little Malbec that Leslie brought along from her cellar.
Our group included a pilot, two firemen, a computer engineer involved in space flight, and a SWAT commander. At dinner there were outrageous true-crime stories and straw polls about who would pay for space tourism. Late, we drifted off in ones and twos to watch the flour-spill of stars in search of the Perseids meteor shower or simply peeled off to bed, falling asleep to the sound of the river rolling its stones downstream.
Hilbrich and another guide, Claire Siderman, knocked at my tent flap the next morning and handed me hot coffee, a steaming face towel, and a report on what lay ahead. “Biggest day of the trip: 20 miles to Hospital Bar” — that night’s camp — “but it will be great. Different country. And, a hot spring at camp,” Hilbrich said.
I hopped into a raft with Hilbrich to fish. On this river, the trout are so ravenous they’d bite on paper clips, and the water is clear enough that you can watch them coming from 15 feet away: the definition of anticipation.
Splashing through the rapids with the Far & Away team. Photo: TOM FOWLKS
Alas, a storm just before our arrival had flushed huge amounts of mud into Marble Creek. Thanks in part to climate change, wildfires have roasted more than three-quarters of the Middle Fork corridor since 1979, according to Matt Leidecker, a commercial guide who has written a definitive guidebook to rafting the river. The heavily burned landscape can’t absorb a deluge; the river for miles downstream had turned the color of a Frappuccino. Fishing was done, for now.
Disappointment has a bright side: I set down the fly rod and paid attention as Hilbrich rowed. The sun sent cathedral light through the branches of tall trees. An osprey posed on a snag above silver willows. The canyon walls stepped back, like a fist unclenching, and were replaced for miles by hide-colored hills flecked with sage and patches of sunflowers. White clouds that looked as if they had just drifted off the soundstage of an old western bumped in the enameled sky. Hilbrich, rowing, took it all in. “Every single week is different,” she said of the river. “I had a guest say, ‘What should we do next? We’ve been here. Now where?’ I thought, You don’t know this place. Sixty trips and I’ve barely scratched the surface.”
We floated on. The canyon knitted itself tighter once again. We talked about books. We talked about other rivers we love. We talked about parents who are aging and sick, and who worry us. On a river, distance between people collapses quickly. You get to the heart of things.
That afternoon when we pulled up to the bank the village was set up and waiting for us, again. I took a beer and went in search of that hot spring. I found it spilling from a rock beside the river, its water almost too hot. It smelled of deep earth. I stood beneath it for a long time, scrubbing at the days.
From left: Far & Away Adventures guides Sage Sauerbrey, Cole Wells, and Reed Stokes strike up a tune; the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, as it winds through central Idaho. Photo: TOM FOWLKS
The culture at Far & Away is a culture of “yes.” Want to fish Loon Creek one day? Yes. Want to arrange for a sushi chef to fly into a backcountry airstrip for a night with a cooler of fresh sashimi? Can do. I was in training for an ultra-distance run, and the next morning I asked the guides if I could run ahead of the boats and meet everyone later. Sure, they replied. I wolfed down a croque madame, paddled across the river, and jumped on the Middle Fork Trail, which traces the river’s course for 78 miles and offers great views. In the mornings the river lived in blue shadow, cool and still waking. The trail was fast and in decent repair. For miles, the canyon felt mine alone.
A few miles down, where the river writes a quick S, lay our meetup point: Daisy Tappan’s log cabin. In the 1930s Tappan and her husband, Fred, homesteaded the place and raised a family. Beating the boats, I headed behind the cabin to see the remains of Daisy’s garden; I’d been told that she fended off bears who swam the river for her strawberries and watermelons. Daisy was said to be tougher and better than most men in that country — and unafraid to tell them so. The garden had the smell of old places, and lost stories, and of hard and happy lives now gone.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon—maps of the American West tell of other Middle Forks, but for those who know water there’s really no other—is perhaps the premier multiday wilderness river float in the Lower 48.
Often, as we drifted, we glimpsed cabins melting back into the earth that hinted at the presence of the mountain men, miners, and hermits who had hacked out a living there. Like Beargrease Falconberry, who homesteaded on Loon Creek. Or Cougar Dave Lewis, who lived alone in a sod-roofed house with a second room he never entered, in which hung a picture, its face to the wall, of the young woman who’d spurned his marriage proposal decades before. Or Earl K. Parrott, “the hermit of the Middle Fork,” who lived for decades in Impassable Canyon, scrambling up and down ladders to a spectacular garden he’d planted, and who always carried a gun in case he broke his leg, as Johnny Carrey and Cort Conley recount in their history of the corridor, “The Middle Fork: A Guide.”
Of course, before them it was home to others — the Tuka-Deka, or Mountain Shoshone. Whites called them the Sheepeaters. By almost all accounts they were a retiring people, small in number, expert tanners, wildly gifted with bow and arrow, who knew how to survive in the canyon. Their story follows the usual pattern: falsely blamed for violence, they were rounded up and pushed out to make room for gold fever. But their presence still lingers. Quietly, guides pointed out to us the dents in the earth where their lodges once stood. On rock walls, the accounts of Tuka-Deka hunts still stain the rock in vivid ocher.
One day we pulled to shore below Veil Falls, an important site for the Tuka-Deka. We took a short hike up to a spot where a proscenium of rock yawned open. A thin fan of spray fell from its arch, 200 feet above. The curtain of water blew back and forth with the breeze, gently, the beads of water throwing rainbows as they fell. The rock all around bloomed with life. No wonder it was a revered spot, with still more pictographs nearby. None of us wanted to leave. We lay on sun-warmed boulders picking out single droplets and watching them fall.
From left: Hiking to Nugget Creek Falls; a wild rose along the trail. TOM FOWLKS
The days passed in a pleasing blur. Rise. Eat well. Pack our things. Paddle all day in warm sunshine, beneath sun-heated granite. Pull in where the crew assembled the night’s village. Eat and drink well. Fall asleep to the sound of the river slapping the sides of the boats. Repeat.
“What day is it?” someone said.
“Do you really want to know?” someone else said.
Finally forgotten were phones, and Google calendars, and deals to be closed. What mattered now was the next bend in the river, and then the next bend after that. A different pulse was taking hold.
At Big Creek the walls pinched closer. Dark thumbs of rock rose taller. Bighorn sheep stood by the water’s edge and eyed us, unafraid, welcoming us into Impassable Canyon. The rapids, when they did appear, were the biggest yet. But it was not all adrenaline and foaming water. As we drifted through a long, still pool called Cutthroat Cove, a guide remarked that he once took a group of blind guests down the Middle Fork, and this was their favorite spot of all. I closed my eyes and tried to listen, as they must have done. Without busy water, I heard grasshoppers like castanets in the tall dry grass, and chukars chortling, and the heavy sigh of the wind through the pines. A trout splashed. And I understood what those guests had meant.
From left: Idaho’s state flower, the syringa; guide Ali Rusch cooks up a hearty breakfast. TOM FOWLKS
On our last night, the guides served a birthday dinner for Leslie: lamb lollipops, scalloped potatoes, hand-whipped ice cream with dessert. Always, more wine. The conversation went on long after nightfall.
One of the guests, Adam, remarked how, back at home, we fill every moment with technology. It’s our crutch, he said, our ersatz companion. But out on the river, we can’t lean on it. People who didn’t otherwise know each other, and who might not spend time together, bonded—thanks to the isolation, and the teamwork, and the sense of shared adventure. “You really made a beautiful community here,” Meg, the engineer and Adam’s wife, told Leslie.
The next day a road appeared, a jarring sight, and the reverie began to unravel. Not long after, the ramp where we would take out our rafts came into view. Even as we drove away, we decided we needed more. We needed the river’s beauty, and the camaraderie, and the time away from everything we’d thought was important. We needed to be back on the river, already. The Curse of the Middle Fork had struck again.
Casting a line at White Creek Bridge. Photo: TOM FOWLKS
Far & Away Adventures offers six-day Middle Fork trips from $3,599. A version of this story first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Rolling on the River.
The nation’s oldest protected waterway is a 104-mile gateway to our past and future
The eddy catapults us river left, into a safe zone, and away from the adrenaline-pumping drop. Parallel to our raft, the sweep boat—a 27-foot-long inflatable cargo vessel—isn’t as lucky. The hulk rises several feet above the water with two far-reaching sweep oars at its bow and stern. I watch our friends ping-pong around the deck as the boat nose-dives over Velvet Falls into a colossal hole of swirling whitewater. Sweep guide, Sanne Hilbrich, and Barb Gonzalez, another boater in our group, both fly overboard into the frigid water. A split-second later, Terry Palmer—the only rafter who manages to not fall in—grabs Sanne’s personal flotation device and pulls her out of the rapid’s gut. Barb bobs to the surface and, as the current carries her away, we furiously paddle downstream to catch her.
It’s the third week of May, and we’re five miles into rafting one of the most pristine and wild stretches of the American West: the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. North of central Idaho’s Sawtooth Range, Marsh Creek becomes the headwaters of this remote river, which is fed by another dozen tributaries before Boundary Creek—our launch site. For 104 miles, the Middle Fork flows north, from high alpine forest at about 6,000 feet to the confluence with the Salmon River (colloquially known as the Main Salmon), at half its start elevation. The final segment of the Middle Fork carves through the Impassable Canyon: the third-deepest gorge in North America. The Impassable is deeper than the eminent Grand Canyon, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and triumphed only by a passage carved by Idaho’s Salmon River and Hells Canyon, which towers above the Snake River. Even before we reach the chasm, the Middle Fork is exceptionally remote. The Middle Fork is one of the nation’s first-ever Wild and Scenic Rivers—a federal protection for waterways that was introduced 50 years ago—and it cuts through the heart of the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness: a 2.4-million-acre territory that overlaps with six national forests and is the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48.
Our trip is destined to be fast and rowdy. It’s early spring and consequently, the water’s running high, at a depth greater than six feet and a flow that’s more than 7,800 cubic feet per second, which surges up the canyon walls, accentuates hair-raising plunges and whips against edgy boulders. Much higher, and the water would be impassable, even for skilled boaters. The sheer volume creates shooting speed: We’ll complete the Middle Fork in four days, rather than the six- to eight-day average that’s typical during the summer season and at lower flows.
Matt Leidecker, author of The Middle Fork of the Salmon River: A Comprehensive Guide, writes, “At high water, the first twelve miles is a Class IV+ river with Class V consequences. Infrequent eddies and icy water can turn a flip at Velvet Falls into a very serious situation … this level requires preparation and a strong team.”
Before we reach her, Barb is intercepted by one of the safety kayakers. Our head guide, Jake Miczulski, acts quickly and calmly. He gives everyone directions, pulls Barb into the boat and we anchor the raft at the river’s edge. “This ludicrous hat—I’m never wearing it again!” Barb exclaims and yanks back her full-brim cap, which was suctioned beneath her helmet and became glued over her eyes. I’m thankful that this is the circumstance, and nothing worse, that needs consolation.
Traveling on whitewater is full of unpredictability. A guide’s ability to efficiently manage risk and emergency response comes with experience. I’m a novice paddler, but fortunately, I’m en route with one of the most qualified outfitters on the Middle Fork: Far and Away Adventures, a Ketchum, Idaho-based, 40-year-old, family-run rafting company. Jake, like all of our guides, is in his mid-twenties and is a fierce advocate for the environmental and spiritual benefits of the Middle Fork. As a seasoned local, he grew up paddling with his family, has guided for close to a decade and continues to sharpen his skills via courses, like swift water rescue, that Far and Away arranges for its staff.
Far and Away Founder Steve Lentz understands the nature of the job. His great aunt and uncle were among the first-ever commercial passengers to venture down the region’s Salmon River, in 1946. Steve has run the Middle Fork more than 100 times since his first trip in the ’70s. He even recalls the ecological impact the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act had following the designation in 1968. The grazing of cows and sheep had been disrupting the surrounding riparian habitat. With the passage of the act, the animals were removed, and the water took a big turn in clarity. The protection of the Middle Fork helped make the river a whitewater destination. “To have one of the most pristine, runnable rivers and environments in the world is an incredible asset,” Steve said.
The river’s transparency, ergo good health, is unmistakable. On day one, before we boarded our rafts on the Middle Fork, I saw the crystal-clear water from my passenger window. From the bus, shuttling along Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, I watched Marsh Creek’s vibrant kaleidoscope of pebbles and flowing, slender grass fly by. As Steve drove, I chatted with Annie Lentz, Far and Away co-owner and Steve’s wife. She described the economic impact that travelers to the Middle Fork have on the local towns, known as feeder communities. Three decades ago, small municipalities like Stanley, Idaho (population 100), received mail only once a week. Now, retail shops like Riverwear—a freshly renovated store where I stopped to buy neoprene gloves on our way to the put-in—thrive in places like Stanley and Salmon. One-third of the economy in Custer County, where Stanley is located, is attributed to tourism and travel spending: that’s double the rate of tourism in the rest of Idaho, per a 2016 report by University of Montana Research Specialist and Economist Chris Neher.
“When 10,000 commercial and private floaters go down the Middle Fork in a three-month period—and each paddler spends $300 to $1,000 on a trip—it’s a huge impact for small economies,” says Neher. He reports that 27 outfitters operate on the Middle Fork and the annual revenue that’s collected from those client fees is close to $8.4 million. Beyond rafters and kayakers, the Middle Fork attracts hunters, hikers, horsepackers, backpackers, backcountry skiers and anglers. This 104-mile stretch is one of the few places in the Columbia River Basin that’s home to wild salmon. Gray wolves, reintroduced two decades ago, also live here among the wolverine, lynx, mountain lion, black bear, elk, mule deer, moose, mountain goat and other creatures. The Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness manages 296 trails, a total of 2,616 miles—yet, far more acreage has zero trails at all. All considering, Neher estimates that the total annual economic impact of Middle Fork-related spending is as high as $15 million in Custer and Lemhi Counties alone. By my third day on the water, I understand why.
Led by Far and Away Adventures, the crew pushed off from Boundary Creek put-in. While the sunshine was blissful, the river was immediately turbulent and tough to paddle. (Photo Credit: Morgan Tilton)
At mile 74, we tie off our boats to set up camp before dusk. I stroll upriver. At an inviting bend, I sit with my legs crossed beneath a grove of ponderosa pine and close my eyes to meditate next to the rushing water. The day’s memories flood my mind: a wide-eyed instant of excitement during our day hike, when we’d run into a large family of bighorn sheep on the summit of Johnson Point; being greeted by white-tailed deer here at Survey Camp, our home for the night; learning from our guides about the spiritual presence of the Tukudeka (also known as the Mountain Sheepeater) people. Behind me, several natural depressions are distinguishable, barely, in the raised benchland, and are believed to be their remaining historic house pits. According to the Idaho Museum of Natural History, the isolated tribe occupied the canyon as early as 8,000 years ago. My thoughts settle and I lose track of time. When I finally open my eyes, a bald eagle flies directly toward me, in slow motion above the water. It’s a moment I’ve never experienced despite a lifetime in the Rockies.
The Middle Fork is a diamond in the rough, both here in the U.S. and worldwide. As we devour a delicious beachside lunch beneath the sun on day two, the guides joke about how they missed Far and Away’s gourmet menu when they were paddling in Ethiopia, less than two months earlier. Sanne, Jake and four other Far and Away guides embarked on a 35-day trip, via rafts and kayaks, to complete the last descent of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. In navigating more than 500 miles, they passed threatening crocodiles and hippos, exchanged greetings with subsistence farmers and ultimately, were among the final boaters to experience portions of the Blue Nile’s Grand Canyon before one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the world is completed. The development will have a tremendous impact on the people who live along and depend on the river, reports National Geographic. Conservationists are concerned the enterprise will displace close to 5,000 villagers who inhabit a 200-kilometer stretch of the river, according to Power Technology. Yet, the dam, called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project, is estimated to provide 6,000 megawatts of electricity, or, 15,000 gigawatt hours of power per year, states Italy-based primary contractor, Salini Impregilo. The double-edged sword is that the dam will introduce energy that may improve quality of life in rural communities by allowing people to light their homes and cut down on health issues caused by household air pollution.
I feel ignorantly unaware of the overseas issue and curious about Ethiopian culture, so I continue to ask my guides about their experience. During the passing miles, as we float, share meals and explore sights on land, Sanne and I chat about her affinity for river habitats and fish, and how her extraordinary experience of drifting in Africa may have widened her perspective. Sanne graduated from Montana State University in May 2017 with an environmental science degree. She penned her senior thesis on the Snake River’s salmon and steelhead populations, and the potential positive impact that removing four dams on the Lower Snake River could have on those fish. Now, she’s applying to graduate school to get her master’s in environmental education and pursue a teaching career along with river guiding. She’s torn by the dam construction in Ethiopia:
After leaving Lower Grouse, the gorge’s character morphs into a rougher and more rugged environment. Far and Away Adventures Raft Guide Galen Barker steers the sweep boat, which carries the team’s camp gear. (Photo Credit: Morgan Tilton)
“The reservoir will flood hundreds of tribal communities that have no idea it’s even happening. Ethiopia is full of ancient culture, and if that culture gets wiped out, the history of those people will disappear,” Sanne says. On the other hand, she adds, “I do see the positive side of this dam in Africa on the Blue Nile with the benefits of electricity.” We pause. She and I sit on a fallen tree, listening to nature’s orchestra of creaking woods, trilling birds and the flying Middle Fork, and it is not lost on us that we are extremely fortunate to be here. This river will remain relatively unchanged. Sanne describes the contrast: “On the Blue Nile, there are no regulations. Everything goes into the water: It’s where you shower, drink and dispose of waste. It’s not that way here in the U.S., because of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.”
In the U.S., the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was established in response to the water resource development projects, dams and diversions that occurred nationwide from the 1930s to the 1960s. The intent of the enactment is for rivers to be preserved and protected in a free-flowing condition for today’s recreationists and future generations, states the USDA.Despite the Middle Fork’s secure status, today, only 209 rivers are guarded by the act. The potential is much grander: 3.6million miles of streams exist and at least 3,200 rivers qualify as Wild and Scenic, according to Denielle Perry, assistant professor in the School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability at Northern Arizona University.
Our nation’s slow forward-motion for protecting waterways is further strained pressure from extractive industries and pitches for fresh construction. A year ago, the Department of the Interior released a federal review of 27 national monuments in response to President Trump’s executive order. And recent dam proposals—like California’s Centennial Dam or structures on Colorado’s Maroon and Castle Creeks—continue to surface, which concern local residents and river advocates due to impacts like the flooding of cultural sites and choked streamflow for fish downstream.
Knowing passionate river guides like the Far and Away crew, who are teachers and stewards of our country’s natural and human resources, gives me hope for a future that responsibly holds and expands our public water and land. Jake, Sanne and their colleagues devote their lives to studying Idaho’s unique geology, ecology, wildlife and human history with an intent to share that knowledge through hands-on engagement. On our final day on the water, my knuckles go white as I grip the sweep boat’s railing next to my swivel seat, and I remind myself to trust our teamwork and their leadership.
For 25 miles, my eyes become fixated. After Big Creek, a tributary near mile 78, the Impassable Canyon begins. Until this point, the peripheral alpine-peppered, high-desert slopes and jagged ridgelines towered 3,000 feet over the Middle Fork. But here, the canyon becomes narrow and remarkably consolidated. Abrupt, concrete-like walls spike 5,000 feet above us, and I gaze upward to observe the dark-toned, V-shaped batholith and its alabaster-colored waterfalls. Layers of the beveled mountainsides mimic sinking battleships. Shrubs and Douglas-firs cling to the vertical terrain despite the impossible steepness. Holes between the tight rapids, which have surged in size and frequency due to the rock-solid ravine, nearly swallow our sweep boat.
The view from the Loon Creek Trail, which runs along loud gray-emerald waters and leads to the trail’s namesake riverside hot springs. The Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness is filled with these hidden gems. (Photo Credit: Morgan Tilton)
After we jostle through Redside Rapid, near mile 80, our boat is throttled through a series of hydraulic waves—known as Weber Rapid—before a stretch of calm. I take my mind off the flow and ask Jake what his plans are for August, when he finishes up the guiding season. He says he’s starting a graduate program at the University of Idaho McCall Outdoor Science School. His master’s will be in natural resources with an emphasis in environmental education and science communication. His ultimate plan? To introduce as many youths as possible to radical experiences in the outdoors, and to continue to share the Middle Fork’s magic for generations to come.
Most river trips involve a certain amount of effort at the end of each day to unload the boats and set up camp. And, let’s be honest, they also include a bit of “roughing it.” Not so with Far and Away Adventures’ Middle Fork of the Salmon River float. Every morning, after a hot towel is hand-delivered to your tent—and an indulgent breakfast like pancakes and bacon or frittatas and sausage is served—the outfitter’s giant sweep boat sets off with nearly all the camp gear. When you arrive at the next campsite that afternoon, the tents are set up, dinner is already being prepared, and happy hour is well underway. This leaves you free to relax bankside, fish for an endless supply of cutthroat trout, or scan the surrounding mountains for bald eagles and black bears. During the day, you’ll float 100 miles of high-country forest and granite canyons in some of Idaho’s most storied landscape, full of Native American history and pioneer sites. At night, you can sip wine fireside or hike to the hot springs adjacent to a few of the campsites for midnight dips.
CUSTOMIZE IT: In addition to its general trip, Far and Away offers a custom trip for larger groups, so you can have the whole float to yourself. —Ryan Krogh
Central Idaho’s intriguingly named Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness (named, it turns out, for a home state senator who helped pass the Wilderness Act) fairly spawns superlatives. Including adjacent parks and Forest Service lands, it is home to the largest roadless area in the lower 48. Its official borders run through six different National Forests. And it’s the second largest contiguous protected wilderness area in the U.S. (after Death Valley), encompassing some 2.2 million acres of stately pines, 10,000-foot peaks, deep river gorges, and a veritable encyclopedia of big game, from bear, moose, and elk to Big Horn sheep and mountain goats, among others.
Cutting a path through all that wonderment is a main tributary of the Salmon River – the aforementioned River of No Return – dubbed the Middle Fork of the Salmon. One of the most iconic and scenic whitewater rivers in the world, the Middle Fork is an unparalleled way to visit one of the few truly pristine chunks of wilderness left in the United States.
The six-day adventure begins in the small town of Stanley, Idaho, at the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains (just a few miles from the headwaters of both the Main Salmon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon). From there it’s a short drive to the put-in below Dagger Falls, where you wave goodbye to all signs of civilization and human contact, minus a rare homesteader’s cabin or occasional Nez Perce pictographs along the river banks. During the ensuing 100 miles of river run – featuring 300 class III to IV rapids – you’ll experience five star-studded, light-pollution free nights, hundreds of world-class fishing holes, and half a dozen epic hot springs along with views that discourage attempts at description.
The Middle Fork can only be run with a permit, and just seven boats per day are allowed to launch. The permits are incredibly difficult to get and only available through a lottery held every winter, so we recommend hiring an outfitter; we’re fans of Far and Away Adventures.
Not only will it sort out the permit in advance for you and take care of all the logistics, it also layers on the luxury, serving gourmet meals and fine wine by candlelight, and providing private tents with carpets, elevated beds, flannel sheets, and full-size pillows. [Six-day all-inclusive from $2,750 per person; far-away.com]
Design Your Own Getaway. Specializing in “wilderness luxury” Far and Away Adventures allows you to custom-build your vacation. While most trips take place on or near the Middlefork of Idaho’s Salmon River, the adventures vary from fly-fishing to white water rafting, with age-specific options. Whether you’re an advanced outdoorsman or you prefer hot springs to hiking. Far and Away works with you to create your ideal getaway and provides a staff of expert guides for every level of adventurer.
And the Middle Fork Salmon is so much better because of it.
Far and Away’s Steve Lentz remembers traveling the Middle Fork of the Salmon River with his father when toilet paper littered every campsite, rocks were blackened with soot and scattered garbage had to be shoveled into piles before tents could be erected.
Idaho’s then-Senator Frank Church introduced legislation to set aside certain rivers for protection from development, including more dams that could ultimately harm or destroy the fragile river ecosystems. The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA) was passed unanimously in the Senate and with only seven no votes in the House of Representatives.
When the WSRA was signed on Oct. 2, 1968 it created the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System, which originally designated eight rivers, including the Middle Fork Salmon. Over the next 50 years, another 200 rivers have been protected, and the wilderness area through which the Middle Fork flows is now called the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area in his honor.
WSRA protected rivers that “possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, culture or similar values, in their free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
One hundred miles of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River is designated as Wild, which is defined as “free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive, and waters unpolluted. The river also includes a one-mile section as Scenic, which is more developed than Wild river sections and less developed than Recreational river sections.
Today, the Act protects 12,734 miles of 208 rivers in 40 states and Puerto Rico, representing about one-quarter of one percent of the rivers in the U.S. Dams, on the other hand, have modified some 600,000 miles of rivers, or about 17 percent of rivers in the U.S.
Here on the Middle Fork Salmon, Far and Away is famous for it well-equipped sweep boats carrying “Far and Away the Most Stuff on the River.” If we carry it in, we carry it out. And that includes fine food and wine, cloth table cloths, massage tables, yoga mats, private tents, solar-powered showers and more.
Wild and scenic describes the river. Civilized and luxurious describes the experience.