River of no return

A kayaking adventure in the Idaho mountains delivers breathtaking scenery, amazing food and great camaraderie, writes Rob McFarland.

It's up to you," says Clint. "You've got a 50/50 chance of flipping."

Don and I huddle together on the riverbank and talk it over. We've both spent all morning in duckies, notoriously unstable two-metre-long inflatable kayaks, but coming up are Redside and Weber, two of the biggest rapids of the day.

"You wanna do it?" asks Don in his slow Texan drawl.

"Sure," I reply, feeling anything but.

Head guide Tom "Big T" Canada, a 118-kilogram man-mountain who could wade down the river with a ducky under each arm, talks us through the lines. "Hit the waves square on," he advises, "and never stop paddling."

Moments later, we're back on the river, part of a convoy of rafts and kayaks heading towards what I'm starting to think might be certain death.

As we approach Redside, I spot Airplane Rock, a large boulder in the middle of the river, and paddle furiously to stay on its right. The channel narrows and I'm jettisoned through a chute of white water to a chorus of cheers from the rafts.

And then comes Weber. "Stay on the left," was Tom's advice. Which I now see is where all the action is. I plunge into a two-metre-high wave-train, my view oscillating between an overcast sky and impenetrable walls of water. I summit three waves in quick succession before one catches the front left of the ducky and I make a fatal mistake: I stop paddling.

The swim isn't that bad. I manage to hang on to the upturned ducky as it's swept through the remains of the rapid. A support raft quickly gathers me up and I look up to see Don has made it through.

That evening Clint offers me a conciliatory beer. "Cheers brother," he says, grinning. "Thanks for not spoiling my stats."

Clint's office is Idaho's ominously named Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness. At 9580 square-kilometres, it's the largest forested wilderness area in the lower 48 states. Apart from a couple of dirt roads, the only way in or out is by plane, horse or raft.

Squirming its way through this majestic back country is the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Over its 167-kilometre course it drops 915 metres, creating more than 80 Class 2-5 rapids with menacing monikers such as Dagger Falls, Devil's Tooth and Hell's Half Mile.

As the owner of Middle Fork River Tours, Clint is one of 26 commercial operators with a licence to run the Middle Fork. Cumulatively, he and his team of seven guides have navigated the river more than 600 times.

Our trip began three days ago in Stanley (pop 63), a blip on the map that cowers beneath the steely gaze of Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. At the pre-departure meeting, Clint talks our group of 23 through the logistics of spending five days in the wilderness. We're issued with bright yellow dry-bags for our day gear and cavernous waterproof blue bags for everything else. Lifejackets are compulsory and wetsuits are recommended as the water in mid-June is a bracing 12 degrees (next month it will rise to a balmy 18 degrees).

We discuss sleeping arrangements (tents or a mat under the stars), bathroom arrangements (a portable toilet hidden in the bushes) and the practicalities of "leave-no-trace" camping. He then suggests we all remove our watches. "It'll be a nice break," he says. "If you need to be somewhere, we'll tell you."

It's a 1½-hour drive to our launch point the next morning. After a thorough safety briefing from Big T, we divide up between the five boats. Some choose to be active in one of the two paddle boats; others opt to be ferried in an oar boat.

An unusually warm spring has melted much of the snow so the water level is far below its normal height of 1.6 metres. Once it drops below 0.7 metres, it's too shallow to navigate this upper section and guests will start the trip 40 kilometres downstream.

While Clint expertly steers us through a pinball maze of exposed rocks, Don and I lie back and soak up the scenery. All around, snow-capped mountains rush down to the river, their sides studded with Douglas firs and Lodgepole pines. Above us, swifts swoop for insects while bright yellow butterflies flicker across the raft's bow. Occasionally we're engulfed in a fragrant cloud of fresh mint from the riverbank.

After 13 kilometres we stop for lunch at a shaded grove on the riverbank. Ten minutes later, a sumptuous Greek-style buffet of pita bread, cold meats, dips and salads has appeared. For dessert, there are succulent slices of peach and homemade chocolate chip cookies from Clint's wife, Molly.

It's the first in a succession of improbably good meals that are miraculously conjured up from the bowels of a raft. Our dinners over the next few days will include handmade crab cakes, steak bearnaise and marinated duck breasts with bok choy.

The Middle Fork's steep gradient allows a sweep boat laden with supplies to be sent ahead each day. So when we pull into camp about 5pm, our tents are already set up. Half an hour later the bar is open and we're enjoying a pre-dinner snack of cured pork with teriyaki sauce.

After dinner, people congregate around the campfire to chat or play games. One night it's a catchphrase guessing game; another it's a fierce contest of Pass the Pigs. By midnight, the camp is quiet. Most guests retire to a tent; most of the guides sleep outside.

There are six natural hot springs scattered along the Middle Fork and we visit two, the bath-warm water particularly welcome on day three when the sky turns grey and the temperature drops. Other excursions include hikes to see an abandoned fluorite mine and some striking 6000-year-old cave art by the indigenous Shoshone American Indians.

As we lose altitude, the dramatic high-alpine landscape mellows into rounded sage brush-covered hills before the river narrows and we plunge into North America's second deepest canyon.

For the last 40 kilometres we're dwarfed by Impassable Canyon's towering granite walls. The riverside path disappears; the only way out is to follow the river.

At the start of day four, 69-year-old Betty from Arizona jumps in a ducky and paddles the best part of 30 kilometres. Along the way, she successfully negotiates the tricky Class 3 Aparejo rapid. Later, she confides she wants to celebrate her 75th birthday with a tattoo. "I just need to find somewhere that doesn't sag."

The rest of the group includes three wisecracking friends from Philadelphia, a father and daughter from Boston, a family of four from Seattle and another family from Idaho. The youngest is 14; the oldest is 78.

The number of families is a pleasant surprise. It's refreshing to see teenage boys jumping off cliffs rather than glued to video games; college girls playing guessing games rather than plugged into iPods.

On the last morning I rise early and join father-of-two Charlie around the campfire. Yesterday was his birthday and he spent it fly-fishing from the back of a raft with his 14-year-old son. That evening he celebrated with his family on a beach in the depths of a moonlit canyon.

I ask him why he chose this trip and his reply speaks for everyone. "It's all about creating memories."

The writer was a guest of Middle Fork River Tours and Idaho Tourism.

THREE MORE ICONIC RAFTING TRIPS

COLORADO RIVER

Grand Canyon, USA - the Big Kahuna of rafting trips. Sixteen days navigating 362 kilometres of the Colorado River through one of the world's greatest natural wonders. Huge Class 5 rapids, towering sandstone walls and spectacular hikes. Shorter five-12 day options are also available, oars.com.

FUTALEUFU RIVER

Patagonia, Chile - starting in Argentina, the mouthwash-blue Futaleufu River snakes its way through the snow-capped Andes into Chile. Earth River offers a nine-day expedition-style descent staying in four stunning private camps. The trip culminates with the biggest day of white-water rafting in the world - 15 kilometres of Class 4 and 5 rapids, earthriver.com.

FRANKLIN RIVER

Tasmania - nine days among the gorges, pools and temperate rainforest of Tasmania's World Heritage-listed Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. Physically and mentally demanding, this is a true wilderness experience for the intrepid traveller, worldexpeditions.com.

GETTING THERE

Qantas flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles with return fares from $1299, 13 13 13, qantas.com.au. Internal flights from Los Angeles to Boise, Idaho take around two hours. Stanley is a three-hour drive from Boise.

STAYING THERE

Most guests spend the night before and after the trip at Mountain Village Lodge, Stanley, +1 208 774 3661, mountainvillage.com, rooms from $US90 ($98).

RAFTING THERE

Middle Fork River Tours runs four, five & six-day trips between June and September. Trips include all meals, drinks and transport to and from Stanley, from $US1100 ($1200), middlefork.com. For a list of scheduled departures by all outfitters, see idahosmiddlefork.com.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitidaho.org.

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