Now that we settled at Carlisle Barracks and have traded the chaos of PCSing for the relentless schedule of school, work, and extracurricular activities, we’re reflecting more than ever on our transformative experience of whitewater rafting and camping in Idaho on the Salmon River earlier this summer.
Admittedly, our trip didn’t get off to the greatest start – just as we were getting ready for bed the night before, we received notice that our early morning flight to Boise was canceled. Not delayed, not rescheduled – cancelled. While we built in enough time to accommodate flight delays and other 2022 travel headaches, the next flight to Boise that we could get was cutting it too close to comfort. We had a flight booked from McCall, ID to Salmon, ID and if we missed our raft launch, we’d be out of luck (and out of a lot of money).
After a couple of hours of phone calls, online magic, and rental car headaches (our initial plan to fly into Bozeman, MT was scrapped due to the airport being 100% out of rental cars), we hammered out a plan that involved us flying to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, renting a car and driving 6 hours to the Boise Airport to pick up our original rental car reservation and then drive another two hours north to McCall, ID, where we had a non-refundable hotel reservation for the night.
It was an incredibly long day but we arrived at the Hotel McCall around 10:00pm and crashed soon after. Our flight to Salmon, ID wasn’t until the following afternoon so we were able to sleep in and explore McCall a bit. While it was founded as a logging town along Payette Lake, McCall has since turned into a resort town for both winter and summer outdoor adventurers.
After grabbing lunch at Frenchie’s on Third, we headed to the airfield to check in for our flight to Salmon. Admittedly, this was the part of the trip that we were most nervous about because while Clay is quite accustomed to flying in small military aircraft, our little family of four had never flown in anything smaller than a regional jet. After the extremely casual check-n process that involved weighing our 40L bags with a scale from 1935, we met a few other people who would be on our rafting trip and the same flight to Salmon.
We were assigned seats on the plane according to our weight – I managed to get the lucky seat behind the pilot. The flight was about 45 minutes long and nothing short of incredible. We flew over the Salmon River Mountains and looked out the window the entire flight – the spectacular scenery didn’t disappoint. None of us got sick either – which means more flights like this will definitely be in our future.
When we landed in Salmon, we were shuttled to the Stagecoach Inn, which was where our pre-trip meeting was later that night and our departure point the following morning.
From the hotel, we walked into the main downtown stretch of Salmon and ate dinner at the Junkyard Bistro, which was fantastic and a great pre-trip meal. After dinner, we went back to the Stagecoach Inn for our pre-trip meeting and to get acquainted with the 20 other patrons who would be joining us on the trip.
The lead guide did a fantastic job explaining the logistics of the 6-day trip and what was expected of us. We were issued dry bags and showed how to properly pack them with our sleeping bag and personal items. When we made our reservations for the trip earlier in the year, we were issued a packing list. We each brought a 40L bag containing a pair of pants, shorts, rain gear, swimsuit, long-sleeve shirt, fleece, sun hat, knit hat and gloves, trail shoes, Tevas, and toiletry items. While our big dry bags would be on the gear boats while on the river each day and therefore not accessible, we were also issued small day-bags that we’d keep with us on the rafts each day.
The next morning, we ate breakfast at the hotel and boarded an old school bus at 8:00am to start the journey to our launch point. It was a two-hour drive – the majority of it on a winding dirt road along the mountains. We lost cell service about 30 minutes into the drive and wouldn’t get it back until we returned 6 days later.
So let’s talk about the outfitter we chose for our first multi-day guided rafting trip – Wet Planet Whitewater. I cannot say enough good things about the company and they were an absolute dream to work with during every step of the process from booking, coordination, and execution. Our trip had 30 people total – 6 guides and 24 participants. All six guides on our trip were fantastic and we couldn’t have asked for a better experience in the remote Idaho wilderness.
Each day consisted of rafting down the river a predetermined distance with a stop for lunch and then setting up camp for the night. Each family was responsible for setting up and breaking down their own campsite (Wet Planet provided tents and sleeping pads) and the guides prepared breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
There was fresh coffee and cream every morning and the food was absolutely delicious – we weren’t eating hotdogs around a fire. Some menu items included savory oatmeal, mascarpone pancakes, Thai chicken salad, grilled salmon, and chimichurri steak. The guides had packed enough food for the entire 6 days and no one on the trip was ever hungry – I was constantly amazed by their logistics in setting up the kitchen each night and packing the boats each morning.
Our group had five gear boats and one rafting boat. There were no assigned seats and we were free to choose whatever boat we wanted to ride on that day. By the second day, the kids were on different boats than us and enjoying interacting with the other kids on the trip. While our daughter was the youngest (there was a minimum age of 8 for the trip), there were 9 kids total on the trip so they had plenty of friends to interact with during the day on the river and in the evenings at the campsites.
The campsites were primitive and nothing more than natural clearings where people could set up their sleeping arrangements for the night. Clay and I slept outside most nights – the late June/early July air in the remove Idaho wilderness couldn’t have been more perfect for doing so. There is something special about the air out west, for sure.
We socialized with the other members of our group and the guides each night. We were able to swim at most of the campsites and there were no shortage of Spikeball tournaments for the kids to participate in. The adults had deep and meaningful conversations about life, nature, and the human spirit and also shared stories that had us sending laughter down the river.
The stretch of the Salmon River we were on had a mixture of Class II, III/IV rapids. We were required to wear our helmets for the Class III/IV rapids and there were a few that we had to really lock in to ensure that we won’t fall out of the boat.
The Salmon River flows through the Frank Church ‘River of No Return’ Wilderness Area, which is the largest protected landscape in the lower 48 states. It is only accessibly by the river or one of the few airstrips that were grandfathered in before the wilderness area was designated as protected land.
Our days were not limited to just rafting and camping – our mid-rafting lunch breaks typically involved more than just eating. One day we hiked up to a natural hot spring, another day we visited the infamous Buckskin Bill’s for root beer floats and porter floats, and we even stopped by a working ranch only accessible by boat and plane and chatted with the owners.
I think my limitations as a writer and a photographer are lending themselves to inadequately describing just how amazing of a trip this was for our family. It was a mixture of all of our favorite things – being on the water, camping, eating well-prepared food, and adventure.
Not only that, being on the Salmon River was a transformative experience for our family. We are forever changed. We were wild, free, and together in the most remote wilderness in the continental US. We slept under the most beautiful skies, navigated powerful rapids, and affirmed our desire to forgo the safe and mundane existence that society keeps telling us we should want. We met the most fantastic people – many of whom were families just like us searching for more beyond the monotony of work, school, and extracurricular activities. We couldn’t be more thankful for the experience and we can’t wait to do it again!