Nacho Libre knows rivers. Okay, maybe not the real Nacho, but definitely my friend Kurt, who has kayaked all over the world and is standing before me, cocktail in hand, dressed as the fictitious Mexican wrestler. We’re at a campsite along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in central Idaho, and Señor Libre is on a roll.
In Idaho, R & R means rapids and relaxation
“This is one of the best — if not the best — river trips in the country,” he says of the Middle Fork, which cleaves through the alpine forest, high desert and shadowy gorges of the 2.4 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. We are here in mid-June with my wife, Cathleen, and 21 friends, many from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Class of ’80-something, on a five-day guided run of the river, which drops 2,900 vertical feet over 100 free-flowing miles and serves up a steady parade of Class III and IV rapids; Kurt and two others are kayaking while the rest of us are riding rafts.
“It’s the gradient, the scenery, the fact that there’re no dams,” Kurt continues, sweeping his drink across a view that features towering ponderosa pines, the luminous currents of the river and a hatch of caddis flies rising like dust into columns of sunlight. In short, the Middle Fork is a portal into bygone eras of natural purity, Native American and frontier history, and near-zero connectivity with the outside world. No cell reception, no roads, no evidence of the modern world.
Still, at the put-in, it’s hard to fathom we’ll have any peace over the coming days. Two dozen rafts are tied up along the shore, and teams are ferrying oars, dry bags and coolers from a dirt parking lot down a 100-foot wooden ramp to the boats. Shuttle buses steer around a frenzy of guides in frayed ball caps, clients struggling into wet suits and kayakers waiting for breaks in the action to shoulder their boats down to the water.
But minutes after we shove off into a chilly drizzle at elevation 6,000 feet, civilization feels very far away. The river sluices through a misty forest of lodgepole pines and Douglas firs, many skeletonized by wildfires, and starts into five miles of nearly continuous rapids.
Fortunately, we appear to be in capable hands. Our lead guide, Jamie Zahner, 56, a shaggy, ursine outdoorsman, has been running the Middle Fork for 20 years, the past 10 with our outfitter, Middle Fork River Expeditions. Standing in the company’s warehouse the night before our departure, Jamie impersonates a raft, a paddle, a variety of client prototypes, a leaning ponderosa pine tree (beneath which we’re instructed not to camp), the wind and the river itself as he preps us for the week ahead.
“Tomorrow’s going to be cold … like ice-on-the-windshield cold, and Tuesday morning, too,” he says, hugging himself in a mock shiver. “But then it warms up.” He smiles skyward to the imagined sunshine. “Plus, the river’s at a fun level right now, really cooking. You all know what to do if you see your buddy falling off a raft?” Jamie teeters, windmilling for a saving hand. “So pay attention. You fall in and it might be a while before we can get to you.”
Among our other six guides: Sadie Grossbaum: 31, gold dreadlocks, five months pregnant, works winters as a predator tracker, heading into Idaho’s snowy wilds at 2 a.m. to stalk mountain lions and wolves; Madeline Martin, a lithe 29, enjoys snorkeling in freezing rapids and teaches winter avalanche safety courses in Fernie, British Columbia; and Mark Martin (no relation to Madeline), fit, bearded and 38, encyclopedic knowledge of river life, moonlights as a conservation advocate. All our guides are trained in emergency response, wilderness medicine and swift-water rescue, and they could no doubt survive weeks in the backcountry on sticks, leaves and a handful of ants.
We, of course, could not. And so lashed to our armada are an embarrassment of clothes, food, booze, kitchenware, tents, sleeping bags and camp chairs, and the vital necessities: musical instruments, costumes, glow-in-the-dark bocce balls and hula hoops.
Shortly after launch, we hit a train of six-foot standing waves that explode over the bows, smacking us with a 45-degree wake-up call. (The Middle Fork is fed predominantly by snowmelt, especially in spring and early summer.) It is indeed gasp-inducing cold, and the rapid doesn’t so much end as settle into a mile-long Class II/III ramble that culminates in Murph’s Hole, a Class III/IV pour-over with a habit of flipping even heavily loaded rafts.
We encounter no such drama, although John McKinney — who is audaciously kayaking the Middle Fork following a 15-year break from boating — takes the first of a few swims he’ll endure after failing to roll his boat upright in rapids.
At Mile 13, we reach our first camp, form a fire line to unload the rafts, disperse to pitch our tents and return to find that the guides have set up the kitchen and bar, complete with hors d’oeuvres, and built a fire. They have also, at the end of a very private trail, set up the “groover,” a five-gallon bucket with a toilet seat and a stellar view.
After dinner, and after Cathleen and I follow a whisker of trail in the fading daylight up to a rocky moraine with steam rising from its far border, and after we sink into a 106-degree hot spring beneath ambling clouds and piercing stars — after all that, on our return to camp, we hear the faint strains of live music. It’s my friend Dan Rubinoff — a tall, scraggly-haired hippie — on acoustic guitar, and his partner, Joice Moore, playing a bass plugged into a toaster-size, battery-powered amp.
Their music is mellow, beautiful, original. It’s also mildly curious, because in a pre-trip group email exchange, Dan had requested that people minimize the use of Bluetooth-enabled speakers on our trip. “We are traveling a long way to be in one of the most incredible remote wilderness areas left in the country,” he wrote. “We spend a lot of time on rivers and prefer the natural sounds that those areas give us.” He signed off, “Love ya, Rube.”
When I ask him about the seeming contradiction, he doesn’t blink. “People have been making live music around campfires for thousands of years,” he tells me. So even though Joice’s bass is amplified, “it’s totally different” from piping canned music from a phone through a speaker. Fair enough, brother.
The next morning, hot coffee in hand, I listen to those natural sounds — the timeless wash of the river, the calls of osprey, canyon wren and western tanager, the wind through the pines — while watching fog billow down the mountainside.
We’re slow to break camp, but nobody seems to care: The Middle Fork is clipping along at 5,500 cubic feet per second — by late summer, it will drop well below 1,000 CFS — and we should reach our next camp with time to spare. However, the severe terrain and ever-changing weather here can scuttle even the best-laid plans.
In 2006, not far below our first camp, a natural dam broke high on the riverbank, sending a massive flow of fallen trees, soil and rocks into the river at Lake Creek — where a rapid had been created only a few years prior by a similar debris flow. In the 2006 breach, a mess of logs washed a half-mile downstream before sealing off one of the Middle Fork’s marquee rapids, Pistol Creek.
“We had groups backed up for three days,” Jamie tells me in Camp 2 as he flips (wild-caught Alaskan) salmon filets over the fire. “Hundreds of people. We all just sat there until the Forest Service showed up with dynamite and cleared it out.”
Pistol today is striking — a plunging, narrowing S-turn with a lateral current that, Sadie warns us as we approach it, endeavors to smash us into a rock wall on river left and, if things go poorly, bounce us into a massive, churning hole. (With a few well-timed oar strokes, she reduces the smash to a nudge and the hole to a roadside attraction.)
The first recorded run of the Middle Fork occurred in 1926; filmmaker Henry Weidner canoed it, taking four months and shooting 800 reels of film for a nature documentary. The first descent in a rubber raft followed in 1929, but recreational trips didn’t take off until after the signing into law of the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Forest Service started issuing permits to outfitters in the 1970s, and the industry continued to grow after the 1980 designation of the area as wilderness. And although new development is prohibited in wilderness areas, the Frank Church-River of No Return contains active airstrips for small planes and a few old ranches and miners’ cabins, all of which predated the wilderness designation.
What also predated that, of course, were the 10,000 years that the Shoshone Indians and other tribes lived here, subsisting on bighorn sheep (which still thrive here) and native salmon (which don’t), before their forcible removal by the U.S. Army in the late 1800s. At various stops, we see remnants of the Indians’ time — rounded depressions, mostly, which served as firepits inside their teepees, along with an obsidian arrowhead that Mark finds at our second camp.
Day 3 carries us through some of the week’s calmest pools, but even here there are highlights: our bright orange rafts drifting dreamlike over crystalline green waters, a waning moon rising over a ridge, Rube actually mooning me from a raft as I take my 200th photo of the day.
From our third camp, in a massive grove of ponderosas, Cathleen and I run a trail two miles downriver, through forest, meadow and sage, before turning up Loon Creek, which pours forth from the mountains in a turquoise cascade. This delivers us to the nicest hot spring of the week, a 6-by-15-foot log-and-earthen berm within steps of the creek.
Upon our return, we confirm that we are in fact in ursus country. We are playing music — Dan, Joice, Cathleen, our friends Ned and Bill, and I — when two bears, one green and one blue, twirl into the clearing. They pose no threat, other than demanding danceable tunes, and are trailed by Nacho Libre, a pregnant nun and Groucho Marx.
And if you’re thinking that a costume night in the wilderness is needlessly indulgent, please note that the following evening, our guides break out their masquerade assortment — a feature, they assure us, of every trip. As a fierce windstorm strafes the gorge and we scatter to batten down our tents, I catch a glimpse of a lion, a Nordic queen and Pippi Longstocking calmly cooking us dinner.
By Day 4, we’ve dropped into the mountain mahogany, juniper and parched, treeless hillsides of the high desert. We’ve also arrived in summer, with highs in the 80s, cloudless skies and, for some of us, tentless nights beneath the spangled heavens.
That afternoon, we beach the boats and walk to a wall adorned with Shoshone petroglyphs, including one of a dude squaring off against bighorn sheep. From here it’s a 10-minute float to camp, but the guides give us the option to hike while they deadhead the rafts. We follow switchbacks up to a rocky ridge with bird’s-eye views of the river 800 feet below, as it hews through an entrancing landscape — groves of riverside pines, wildflower-laced meadows and craggy summits, all swaddled in dazzling sunbeams.
On the last morning, we break camp by 8 a.m. and file downstream as the river squeezes between the 3,000-foot-high slabs of Impassable Canyon, so named because there are no roads or trails in this some 20-mile stretch of charging white water. Coming around a bend, I spot a flash of bright red on a riverside rock — McKinney, I suspect, emptying his kayak after a swim. But as we draw near, the form reveals itself: Nacho Libre in his cape, mask and shiny high-top boots, standing one-legged and holding his kayak paddle-spear-like, as if posing for a petroglyph.
He is facing upriver, an inveterate white-water miner, basking for one more moment in the glow of the mother lode.
Briley is a writer based in Takoma Park, Md. His website is johnbriley.com.
Where to stay
Triangle C Cabins
1 Benner St., Stanley, Idaho
Simple log cabins — with heat, air conditioning and full bathrooms — on a 2.5-acre property about a half-mile from the center of Stanley and a three-minute walk to Middle Fork River Expeditions’ main warehouse. Cabins from $204 in rafting season; two-night minimum on weekends.
What to do
Middle Fork River Expeditions
915 Eva Falls Ave., Stanley
Middle Fork River Expeditions runs six-day trips on the Middle Fork and main stem of the Salmon River from late May through September. It also offers fly-fishing trips and “musical adventures” featuring professional musicians. Most trips are in oar boats with one paddle raft, although clients may rent inflatable kayaks or stand-up paddleboards (Main Salmon only), or bring their own hard-shell kayaks. Trips from $1,899 (Main Salmon) and $2,599 (Middle Fork) per adult, with discounts for ages 16 and under and for large groups; cost includes tents, sleeping bags and pads, dry bags, wet suits and meals.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.