Rafting on Idaho’s ‘River of No Return’


By Nicola Bridges- Trussed up in our soggy wetsuits, splash tops, life jackets and helmets, my (mature) river mates and I are daring each other to jump off a 25-foot-high rock into the freezing-cold water at the mouth of a waterfall that gushes into the rapidly running river we’ve been rafting for the past five days.

We’re too old for this craziness, but as we watch the teens on our trip scream with glee as they plunge into the waters below, the kids in us exclaim, “Let’s do this!” I take the plunge. It’s exhilarating and I’m beaming as I’m hauled onto a raft like a 5-foot-4-inch flapping wet fish after popping up from the depths.

It’s day five of our six-day whitewater rafting and fly-fishing trip on Idaho’s majestic Middle Fork of the Salmon River, winding our way north on a 104-mile stretch, through jaw-dropping gorges that cut between steep-cliffed mountains that tower above us in the remote 2.5 million-acre Frank Church “River of No Return” Wilderness.

Our group started off at the Boundary Creek boat put-out, wide-eyed and nervous after a safety briefing and short lesson on how to paddle rapids. We are two families with teens, brothers on their annual fly-fishing excursion, a dad-and-daughter duo and a couple of couples: one young on a never-ending honeymoon, the other an internationally known entrepreneur and his wife, experienced fly-fishers who’ve rafted the big rivers of America and abroad.

And then there’s me, a newbie to rafting, fly-fishing and camping, gung-ho but supremely anxious at navigating the rapids and, well, the camping. Showering under a water bladder slung in a tree with a wooden bucket and ladle to rinse and being fully off the grid from the outside world for an entire week when we’re hundreds of miles and mountains away from the nearest cell tower and Wi-Fi, is all a first for me.

But after living life on the water and in tents for days (comfortable finally at grabbing my flashlight in the night to head to the “groover,” a toilet tent with the best views of any bathroom I’ve ever frequented), I feel a sense of pure freedom in nature, a boldness at being able to battle the Class III and IV middling to difficult rapids — and I’m sad, we all are, that’s it’s coming to an end as we just start to feel like whitewater rafting pros.

It’s all thanks to our very patient Solitude River Trips guides, who live and breathe and raft the rapids of this magnificent landscape. They share the history of the river and the “Sheepeater” Indians who once hunted bighorn sheep on its banks and take us on excursions from our lunch camps or to relax in hot-spring sulphur slide pools along the way. We hike up to Velvet and Veil Cave falls, Pungo’s Mine and caves featuring pictogram drawings, and take a leisurely meadow stroll to a frozen-in-time deserted pioneer cabin.

Each morning, we hit the river early after being awakened by the chilly daybreak temperatures and stuffing our bedding into our dry bags and helping to pack our tents that the guides erected for us the night before. We devour a campfire-cooked griddle breakfast, even after the previous night’s lavish three-course dinners of flavorful fish, 2-inch-thick chops, steak slabs, veggie options and delectable Dutch-oven desserts.

Then we hop aboard our boats for the day’s 20-plus-mile stretch. We negotiate whose turn it is to man the two rubber rafts to careen the rapids, or who’s exhausted from that and going to laze on a boat paddled by guides or brave a solo “ducky” inflatable canoe and follow the boats. The fly-fishers embark their wooden dory to bob along the cliff-face eddies, hoping to hook a red-necked cutthroat trout.

We’ve recovered from our rock-jumping the day before, and our last night comes too soon. We sing bawdily around the campfire under the vast starry sky, toasting our guides, drowning our sadness and wanting to prolong this journey full of lifetime memories made — and we plot a reunion to defy the river’s nickname and return together in years to come and do it all again.

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