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  • rbarker773

Idaho's ultimate vacation experience is deep in the wilderness and you can get there in style

It's hard to jump back into real life after a week on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

The Middle Fork's 100 miles of roller-coaster rapids run through Idaho's wild heart, the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness carrying floaters from the high country down to the Main Salmon. Along the way rafters and kayakers run 100 class 3 and class 4 rapids, soak in its six natural hot springs and fish for the thick westslope cutthroat that clog its shadows.

National Geographic Magazine rated it the third best river to raft in the world. They should know.

The river is managed as a true wild river, which means that each time you run it, the rapids have changed, the landscape is different, the ecosystem reborn.  Rapids so gnarly, guides will have to decide as the water goes down whether to make guests walk around it.

You begin running Velvet then the long Powerhouse Rapid that goes on and on. This year Velvet has changed so much guides are worried they can get their sweep boats down this year.

The springtime torrents have made Pistol Creek, long a great rapid, even more technical and exciting. In high water, Redside Rapids flipped one of our boats on my last trip, a reminder we were on an adventure trip, especially with the water at 47 degrees.

These days early floaters have returned over and over, bringing their grandchildren along. The outfitters have become safety experts and their guides cook gourmet meals, set up the tents and do all the work so their guests can just have fun at all ages.

I think the rafting trip has become the great American vacation experience.

I took my boys on an outfitted trip when they were seven and they played in the sand with others kids they met on the trip and were watched carefully by all of the guides. My last trip included a grandmother in her 80s with her brood and they all had a ball whether in the boats or on the shore.

As we floated down the river, the spring Chinook salmon were swimming against the current heading for spawning grounds up stream. Once again, these fish are really wild.

Untouched by hatcheries, these fish that entered the Columbia in March, April and May carry the pure genetic material that may allow salmon to survive even climate change. In the river above the embarkment point on Boundary Creek, huge salmon jump up Dagger Falls on their way to spawn in the headwaters near Stanley, Idaho, the main jumping off point.

About 10,000 people float the Middle Fork annually but the low-impact camping practiced by the outfitters and private boaters under U.S. Forest Service guidance keeps the river crystal clear and clean. Boaters carry out everything, including their human waste so that the land and water remains pristine.

This is a land of elk, deer, mountain lions, Bighorn sheep and smaller mammals like pine marten and mink. I have heard wolves howl here.

Climate change has made trips in June possible with conditions that would have been rare in the 1970s. The last trip I made we took wetsuits for a mid-June trip and the first day was cold and it snowed.

But then the sun came out the next day and we were in our shorts for the rest of the five-day ride. Now outfitters and private boaters run all the way into October, especially fly anglers who find the fall float awesome. I paddled down one October and while the water was low we had no problems flying into Indian Creek for the start like most trips in August and after. This cuts 25 miles off the trip.

The Middle Fork’s canyon walls and caves hide more than natural wonders. Pictographs, painted by ancient ancestors of the Shoshone and Bannock Indians, who lived along the river for thousands of years, tell their stories still. Several of the campgrounds were used by the U.S. Army during the Sheepeaters War of 1879, the last Indian war in Idaho.

With all of the tributaries flowing into Middle Fork including the largest, Big Creek, which enters in the Impassable Canyon, the final rapids are big and bold. Guides usually have no problem keeping their guests in the boats even in high water. But I swam both Rubber and Hancock on an early trip in an inflatable kayak.

One of the main reasons the Middle Fork trip is special is that only seven parties are allowed to launch daily with private trips made available through a lottery from May 28 to Sept. 3. After that its first come first served. Outfitter trips are included in the seven.

The best way to find an outfitter that meets your needs is to check out the Idaho Outfitter and Guides website. But you also can many a private trip in a lottery run by the Forest Service.

My last trip with an outfitter included my wife Tina and long-time friends. Tina, who has done her share of adventure trips over the years just wanted a break. Afterwards she told whoever would listen “I felt I was still on vacation a month later.”

I returned to the real world, a couple of pounds fatter from the tantalizing Dutch oven cooking and relaxed like I haven't been for a long time. But the Middle Fork will never be far from my mind, a treasure shared by all who ever see it and all of us in Idaho.

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