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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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