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IDAHO: ADVENTURE ON THE `RIVER OF NO RETURN’

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It is mid-afternoon on the Salmon River and the first day of a five-day wilderness trip. The weather, which has been cool and cloudy, suddenly changes. Afloat in a rubber raft we encounter an onslaught of hail. The pellets are solid and large and they sting as they hit my head and hands. My eyes water so hard I can't see and mascara blackens my cheeks.

We paddle toward shore where we clamore barefoot over slippery rocks to the protection of a spindly pine. We wait out the storm, shivering, with water dripping from our noses and chins.At that point I begin to wonder. Who, I ask myself, had conceived of this as a vacation?

THE SALMON RIVER winds east to west through the Idaho Batholith, a jumble of mountains covered with pines that measures hundreds of square miles. The river gorge is deeper than the Grand Canyon though not as colorful.

The Salmon has several branches including the Middle Fork and the South Fork. We'll be floating the Main Fork from Corn Creek Campground to Mackay Bar Ranch, a distance of 60 miles.

The scenery is nice, not spectacular. The white water is challenging, not perilous. And hail in mid-August is unusual. But this nondescript waterway in the middle of Nowhere, Idaho, the stream they call the "River of No Return," still captures my heart.

OUR TRIP BEGINS IN Salmon, a town of 3,000 in a scenic valley of central Idaho. We are a motley crew. Mary Shrier-Chinn and her husband, Larry, are our guides. Off-season Mary is a potter and Larry a contractor. Sheila Pickard, a clinical psychologist, and her husband Maurie, a physician, are from Chicago. Mario Bisio, who owns clothing stores in the Northwest, is from Portland. He is accompanied by his 11- and 13-year-old nephews from Seattle. Seth Tonsmeire is from Salmon, the 6-year-old son of Joe and Fran Tonsmeire, our outfitters who operate under the name Wilderness River Outfitters. Joe's brother, Pepper, is visiting from Honduras, where he runs a scuba diving resort.

Tonight we will meet Joe and two French brothers, Philippe and Eric Serret, at Fawn Creek. They have been backpacking in the Frank Church Wilderness area.

Our adventure begins at Salmon's Stagecoach Inn, where we spend the night. The next morning we hop into a well-worn Suburban. A sleepy-eyed Seth is wrapped up in his blanket in the corner.

We drive to North Fork, where we turn off the highway and follow a dirt road that parallels the river for 47 miles to the launch site. We inflate the rafts and load the gear that includes two large coolers of food, tents, cooking equipment and a portable potty. We have five inflatable crafts - a paddle boat, two kayaks and two oar boats.

We each have two waterproof bags made of heavy black rubber. I cram my sleeping gear - a sleeping bag, a pillow and an air mattress - into one, and my clothes into the other. I pack a minimum of things: swimming suit, waterproof pants, waterproof coat, shorts, jeans, T-shirts, visor, socks, underwear, towel. I also have two pairs of tennis shoes, one I keep dry for camp, the other to wear in the raft.

I put my camera, notebook, T-shirt and sunscreen into a small waterproof bag that I keep with me in the biat.

I wear waterproof pants over my swimming suit and lather my face and arms with sun screen.

We collectively pack our rain gear in two waterproof bags that we tie on top for easy access. That turns out to be an omen. Before the day is over we're wearing our rain clothes. The week is unusually wet, and donning rain gear becomes a daily ritual.

Larry takes the oar boat I dub "the freighter." It carries most of the equipment. Pepper takes the other, with Seth as his passenger. Mario and his nephews trade off in the kayaks. The rest of us settle into the paddle boat with Mary as our guide. We each put on an orange life jacket and we're off - carried rapidly downstream by the current.

FLOATING THE SALMON is like living in an episode of "Nature." Each day we see a variety of wildlife. Four otters paddle upstream, heads bobbing just above the surface. An osprey skims over the water ahead of us and lands on a dead tree. We stare at him. He stares at us.

A great blue heron stands in shallow water near the river's edge. A black bear ambles along the opposite hilside. Canyon wrens with bodies like parakeets and voices like Ethel Merman flit through the air.

Before the trip is over we spot another black bear. A few of us are lucky enough to see a mother moose and her baby grazing in the willows.

Watching wildlife is pleasantly passive. Reading the river current is not. Mary patiently teaches us the basics. "See where the water comes together in a V? That's where the strongest current is and that's where we want to be," she says.

We engage our paddles and head for the V.

"See that smooth water? There's a rock up stream from it." We paddle frantically, missing by a wide margin in the rock and the 3-foot drop it creates.

We are not always so lucky. Like the time we head into the biggest drop in one of the river's major rapids. Eric, the judo expert from France whose body is taut with muscle, is washed into the river. A wave crashes into the boat and lifts him over the edge. Panic besets his face as he bobs to the surface and gasps for air, his mouth open wide. He's up. He's under. He's up again. he stabilizes himself and floats feet-forward, just like the textbooks tell you to, through the rest of the rapid. We recover him and his paddle in the calm of an eddy. Every good river runner recovers his paddle.

Maurie, the internist from Chicago, goes in, too - on another rapid, on another day. He disappears amid swells of white water, and terror strikes Sheila as she scrambles toward the side of the boat looking for her husband. He pops to the surface behind us. Sheila is noticeably relieved but probably not as much as Maurie, whose duck-billed hat stays on through the ordeal.

After each rapid we look behind us to watch the kayaks. We glimpse a paddle or part of a red hull as it bounces up and down in roiling water. The kayakers are smiling whether they emerge from the rapid in the kayak or floating beside it.

One day passes into the next. We bond as we face our daily challenges, and I begin to care for these strangers like family.

Wilderness River Outfitters is unlike any other outfitter I know. Joe arranges a different activity each day.

One morning we hike a short distance from camp at Fawn Creek to Lantz's Bar. Apple trees planted by the hermit who lived here have grown into tangles. Ditto for the berry bushes. But bears don't seem to mind. We step over huge piles of droppings and, like the bears, help ourselves to some apples.

Lantz's cabin and land now belong to the Forest Service. A small visitors center recounts the area's history, and a caretaker couple lives in the cabin during the summer. In the fall the Forest Service moves them out by boat before the river freezes.

Another morning we hike to a rocky point overlooking Black Canyon. Here we get a view of the winding river gorge and hillsides covered with pine trees that rise steeply above it. Below us is Salmon Falls, the biggest drop in the river and the first rapid we will tackle that day.

One afternoon we climb the mountain to a hot springs, where we sit with steaming water lapping around our necks. An outdoorsman longing for the comforts of home fashioned a concrete pool into the side of the mountain and placed a pipe from the spring's source to the pool. The spring is a few hundred feet up the hill from the river.

A soak in the spring is considered a highlight of the Salmon trip. It is particularly appealing to us because of the inclement weather.

Every evening we turn a sandy beach into a village of nylon igloos. We stretch a tarp between upright oars to shelter the kitchen, and our guides make a fire in the portable fireplace, a rectangle of cast iron over which they set a grill. Then we do some serious eating. Dinner steak, mustard potatoes and tossed salad with artichoke hearts. Dessert is fruit salad. Another night we dine on pasta salad, barbequed chicken and pineapple upsidedown cake. For breakfast one morning Mary gets up early and makes a coffee cake full of fruit and nuts.

The menu differs daily, but the evening ritual is the same. We eat all we can, chit chat around the fire and crawl into sleeping bags in our nylon igloos, lulled to sleep by the sound of the rushing water a few feet away.

I don't always sleep alone. One morning I find corpses of bugs that must have come in through the open tent door. From then on I leave the tent door open to the sights and sounds of the river but I zip the screen shut.

JOE SAVES THE MOST challenging event for the fourth day - rappelling. The idea frightens me so much that when he explains our options I vote for hiking. As luck would have it there's time to hike, fish and rappel.

We pull onto a sandy beach in late afternoon. A hundred feet up the hill an outcrop of granite pokes skyward. Its 70 feet of vertical surface are perfect for climbing. "If it doesn't get your attention, you lose the effect," he tells me later.

We scramble up the hillside to the top of the rock, where Joe demonstrates. He pulls the harness over his legs and fastens it around his waist. He puts on the helmet, pulls the rope through the stitch plate and attaches it to the harness. The stitch plate is a piece of metal that creates friction as the rope slides through, allowing the climber to proceed slowly down the cliff.

Joe backs over the edge, governing the speed of his descent by how fast he lets the rope slide through his hand. The hard part is stepping backward off the cliff, he says. After that it's a piece of cake.

I shudder with apprehension.

Jake Hanover, a 13-year-old from Seattle, goes first. He descends slowly, cautiously, looking triumphant and relieved when he touches ground. A smile covers his face.

Then Mario. "That's scary, real scary," he says. Then Eric, who slithers down the face of the cliff like Spiderman. Then Sheila. The clinical psychologist. The mother gone back-to-school. If only her children could see her now. Then Hunt. Then Maurie. I watch them all, one by one, and try to learn from what they do.

My stomach works itself into a knot. When my turn comes I look at Mary. "Should I do this even though I'm scared to death? I don't think clearly when I'm scared to death."

"Only if you don't want to confront your fears," she says.

I practice on a gentle slope near the edge of the cliff. "That's perfect form," says Joe reassuringly. My fear dissipates as he talks me over the edge. I wave may left hand, my right hand letting the rope slide through ever so slowly. I look down. Straight down. I am not afraid. I touch ground with a renewed sense of confidence. I have done something I didn't think I could. It might as well have been Everest.

JUST AS I AM beginning to relax, to straddle the side of the boat and let my foot slide through the water, to lie back on the raft and look at the sky, to close my eyes and feel the boat glide over ripples, the trip comes to an end.

We see one more bear before we pull ashore at Mackay Bar Ranch. We transfer our gear to two single-engine planes. Eric and Philippe will continue down river with the crew. Maurie and Sheila board one plane and take off for Boise. Mario, Hunt, Jake and I get into the other. We rumble down an airstrip that resembles a construction road. It isn't even straight, for Pete's sake. And it's perilously close to a dirt cliff that descends to the river.

We lift off, finally.

We fly over a seemingly endless landscape of pine forest and mountains dotted with lakes. The Salmon rapidly becomes a thing of the past.

We descend into the Sawtooth Valley, a paradise of mountain scenery, and land on a strip of pasture known as the Stanley airport. I wave goodbye to Mario and the boys as they take off for Boise. Reality sets in as I pack my gear into my car, stop at the laundromat and find a motel. Tomorrow I will drive home.

Since then I have relived the trip over and over again in my mind. The Salmon may be the "River of No Return" for some, but not for me.