Fast Water, Slow Living

“The duckies are toast!” The yell —as loud, joyful and wild as the white water that surrounds us — comes from my 11-year-old son, Michael. A “duckie” is rafting lingo for an inflatable kayak, and as we enter the last bend in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in a paddle-boat ahead of the duckies and our take-out, Cache Bar, is in sight, I’m gripping my oar and holding my breath. Between us and the swirling eddy that will spin us safely to land towers a six-foot curl of churning water—the final and biggest yet class IV rapid in our six-day rafting trip in Idaho. We slip from the slick tongue of the rapid into the pull of its froth and paddle hard against the current, trusting—as we have all week—that the steady hand of guide Kate Stoddard (the daughter of a historic rafting family) will keep the rubber boat we are on off the rocks and out of the big holes. We clear easily, but Michael is so right—the few of the group brave enough to navigate duckies are flipped, flopped and flattened. Yep, toasted. 

The Allure of Nature

Rivers contain all the ingredients for a perfect family vacation—cool water with sparkling stretches of stillness and heart-racing reaches of rapids; clean air fragrant with the scent of high desert sage and ponderosa pine; and canyons so deep and remote they make the wilderness within them seem infinite.

Last summer I found all that and more when I traveled with Michael, family friend Jesse, and my partner, Robert, to Idaho, where we joined 16 other white-water fans for a journey down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Nearly 20 outfitters provide tours on the Middle Fork and the main Salmon. Keeping it local, we chose Middle River Fork Expeditions, a Sausalito company owned by James Ellsworth of Mill Valley. Ellsworth bought the company in 2007 after a decade of planning 50 expeditions a year for the big international guide company Sobek.

Ellsworth and I took to each other immediately. We soon discovered our mutual passion for creating community and our belief that bringing people together in nature connects us with friends, family and fellow travelers. The natural world also gives us a chance to unplug from that other world we’re all so tethered to these days—the digital one of Blackberries and iThis and iThat.

One of my favorite moments on the trip happened before we’d ever set foot in the river. We were in Stanley, Idaho, the jump-off spot for the two-hour bus ride to the Boundary Creek put-in on the Middle Fork. Those in our group were saying good-bye to their wired lives, locking cell phones in rental cars and sending last e-mails, posting final Facebook updates and making frantic calls to the office before, as Ellsworth calls it, going “off the grid” for a week.

For some of these folks, the anxiety over being unconnected was higher than what they would experience confronting one of the wildest rivers in North America. Still, Ellsworth says it only takes one day on the river for people to forget that wired world and embrace the rhythm of the wildlife around them, one lived in the moment with earth, family and the caprice of nature. He wants his clients to take some of that river consciousness with them when they eventually unlock those cell phones again. I certainly did.

The Making of Memories

We arrived at Boundary Creek excited by the adventure ahead. Our group—16 on the tour plus seven crew members—would ride the Middle Fork for 100 miles, descending 3,000 feet from put-in to take-out. Slathered in sunscreen, we lugged waterproof bags holding a few changes of clothes, headlamps, water and massive amounts of moisturizer down a short trail to our waiting flotilla of rafts. The kids and some older folks opted for the big oar boats, which the guides row. The more athletic—or at least we thought—among us jumped into the guide-led, six-person paddle-boats. (The guides provided a quick lesson in the basics of navigating the rapids that awaited us, all Class IIs to IVs on a scale of six.)

As we moved downriver and our experience grew, so did the group’s derring-do, with the adrenaline junkies taking to the duckies. The Middle Fork was ready for us, though, serving up bigger and tougher rapids as each day passed. The farther we floated downriver, the deeper the canyon became, eventually narrowing to a 6,000-foot-deep slot whose imposing granite walls provided the perfect sounding board for the shouts of the rafters. Those in duckies were dumped into the foam in nearly every big rapid and were then plucked out of the river by the paddle-boat crews that awaited them.

For me, as a mom, experiencing the Middle Fork with my son and other children was satisfying beyond description. What a joy to see them express and test the boundaries of their independence. From day one, the preteen boys scouted their own campsite (as far as they could from ours) and pitched their own tent. At dawn, when the crew screamed “coffee,” the boys would break camp, pack up and meet us for a hot breakfast. On the river in the small rapids, they donned helmets and soloed in the duckies.

Lunch was more than a break for good, healthy food on a warm sandy beach. The stopping points gave the kids—and us adults—the chance to hike, swim and explore the area. We jumped off rock cliffs into the waiting river, hiked trails to ancient petroglyphs from the Sheepeater Indians who called this land home and showered midday in flowing hot springs.

In the evening, the rhythm of the river also ruled. Scott Wilson, our lead guide, asked us to remember the river rule: slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Said more simply, there is no rush at camp. Moving slowly will get you where you’re going safely—and thereby quickly. 

The food from morning to night was delicious and plentiful. With the help of some willing guests, the crew made magic happen over an open fire, then served it up campground style. I expected the grilled food but was amazed at the mouthwatering meals that came from the Dutch oven—fresh apple cobbler and lasagna, for example. The final treat of the evening: guides Scott and Dusty Sturges playing guitar and mandolin, the music as sweet as the night air and as soothing as the omnipresent sound of the Middle Fork moving downriver, hidden in the darkness just feet from our campsite.

On our final night, as the music died down and the river rushed onward, I sat with my boy to one side of me and my man to the other. “Mom, look,” my son said, his voice both hushed and urgent. We raised our eyes to the south. There in the sky above the Middle Fork’s canyon a cluster of shooting stars arced through the heavens, the most I’ve ever seen. They seemed to move so slow, so smooth, so fast. Like the river, they reminded me of how much more we can see when we take the time to look.

Book It

Middle Fork River Expeditions
Box 70,
Stanley, Idaho 83278

800.801.5146; from $1,850 for
a six-day trip ($925 for kids 6–11),