Idaho’s whitewater family adventure
The magic on the journey down the Salmon River comes from exhilarating rapids safe for the whole family and from the experience of being disconnected from “real life” and the electronics that distract us from the here and now. (photo from Lauren Kramer)
There’s nothing quite as thrilling as a whitewater rafting adventure, especially when you can do it with your kids. For safety reasons, most rafting companies restrict the participation of kids 12 and under for anything other than a bland float downstream. With one exception, that is: ROW Adventures’ five-day Family Magic rafting excursion on the lower fork of Idaho’s Salmon River. Here, the rapids are safe enough for a 5-year-old and just sufficiently exciting to get parents’ adrenaline pumping, without ever feeling dangerous. Add a “River Jester” to the mix, a staff member whose job it is to keep kids busy, happy and engaged, and you have the recipe for a perfect family vacation.
“Now try to imagine 10,500 turkeys moving with each passing second and you get a sense of the strength of the current.”
The city of Lewiston is the point of departure for the trip and a place where five families from Ohio, British Columbia, New York and California make cautious introductions, as their kids, who range in age from 5 through 15, nervously check each other out. We learn that we’ll be rafting up to 16 miles a day, that lifejackets are mandatory and that the river is flowing at 10,500 cubic feet per second. “One cubic foot is about the size of a turkey,” explains our head guide, Mark. “Now try to imagine 10,500 turkeys moving with each passing second and you get a sense of the strength of the current.”
Clambering aboard seven rafts, we let the river carry us through arid gulches and canyons to a beach with silver-streaked, powder-soft sand. By the time we arrive, guides have assembled our tents and appetizers are being prepared in the camp kitchen. Audrey, an undergraduate student spending her summer as the River Jester, quickly gathers the children for games in and around the shallow eddy of our beach, while the adults wade in the cool water and get to know each other over glasses of wine. We’re in a river valley where Idaho’s schist mountains soar to 2,200 feet around us and, but for the sounds of the river, there’s utter peace. Disconnected from our iPhones, iPads, emails and texts, a gradual relaxation begins, one enhanced by nightly campfires and meals that consistently defy our distance from civilization: huckleberry-flavored salmon, prime rib, casseroles and spectacular desserts baked in a Dutch oven. “We bloat ’em, and then we float ’em,” jokes our guide, Jake, a physics PhD student.
The days start early at camp, with breakfast served at 7:30 a.m., but we’re on river time, grateful to watch the sun rise and happy to be packed up and on our boats by 9 a.m. as the mercury hits 90 degrees Fahrenheit. By midday the Salmon River provides an easy respite from the 100-degree heat. In the calm stretches of river, we gladly hop overboard, drifting effortlessly downstream in our lifejackets and clambering back in the boats at the first sign of riffles on the water. My son rides the helm of one boat, his face locked into a smile as the waves lift the boat, tossing it like a leaf in the current. My husband and I take a two-person “ducky,” navigating the thrashing waves with pounding hearts and swimsuits drenched by spray.
The days are bisected by fabulous lunches at remote beaches and stopovers at places of historical interest. At one site, we gaze at pictographs inscribed on the rock walls thousands of years ago by ancestors of the Nez Perce tribe, who once claimed this land as their own. At another, we inspect the ruins of stone houses constructed by Chinese miners in the late 1800s and, at a third, we are awed by the columnar basalt rock formations lined up along the river banks with soldier-like precision. More than half of our guides are teachers and each offers a unique perspective on the environment. Distributing Oreo cookies to the kids, one guide, Matt Phillipy, uses the chocolate layers to explain the movement of tectonic plates, which created the landscape we observe. As he speaks, a hush descends over the children in our group. Utterly absorbed, they are learning, stimulated and engaged. It occurs to us they’ve not used the phrase “I’m bored” even once since entering the river.
With their kids amply entertained, parents form easy friendships over plates of crackers and goat cheese.
An antidote to the amusement park vacation, there’s certainly magic on the Family Magic rafting tour. Without links to the digital world, families can truly play together. Kids of all ages bond over games of soccer and volleyball. Fathers and sons compete for the longest vault into the water on a waterslide created by an upturned boat. With their kids amply entertained, parents form easy friendships over plates of crackers and goat cheese. They talk about their kids, their jobs and their challenges. They play long, contemplative games of Scrabble and cards, share stories and abandon their tents for the beauty of sleeping directly under the starry Idaho skies.
By 10 p.m., everyone at camp is fast asleep, exhausted by the excitement of white water rapids that have challenged our paddling skills, splashed and soaked us, and left us exhilarated and eager to head out the next day. Among us are grandparents in their 70s, kids in kindergarten and everyone in between, united by the serenity and thrill of the Salmon River and its rapids.
On day four, we have hair streaked and matted by sun, sand and water, skin plastered with umpteen layers of sunscreen and body odor; none of it bothers us in the least. Within 24 hours, we will disperse, each family traveling to their respective homes, plugged in, distracted and wired once again. But, in this moment, we’re suspended on a pristine, isolated beach amid Idaho’s majestic canyons, surrounded by rugged mountains that soar into a cloudless sky. Strangers have become friends, once-meek paddlers have surged with confidence and a sense of magic hangs quite tangibly in the air.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.