Family Adventures on the Salmon River Rafting
Toil and water mix on a raft trip; A Salmon River run offers something for the whole family, with berry picking, campfire singing, cave exploring, even pedicures. By John Muncie When the cool, deep shaft of the abandoned copper mine ended in a wall of rock, guide Mike Thurbert turned to the group and said, "Turn off your flashlights." We were about 100 yards into an Idaho hillside. The lights went off as instructed and, in a moment of solemnity, 19-year-old Thurbert quietly asked us to contemplate the phenomenon of utter darkness. For that instant, each of us was an island, alone in the black tunnel. Then somebody made a spooky ooooo-ing sound and, to squeals of laughter, all the flashlights clicked back on, most of them shining up under chins, turning faces into grotesque Halloween masks.
Solemnity is in short supply on a river rafting trip full of kids. If you're wondering what a walk in a copper mine has to do with river rafting, you'll probably wonder the same about blackberry picking, hurtling down sand dunes, Wiffle-ball and toenail polishing. Our white-water rafting trip on the Lower Salmon River had as much to do with old-fashioned family fun as it did with running rapids. It was the warm and fuzzy things -- singing around the campfire, eating meals together, inventing games, telling bad jokes, debating big issues with know-it-all adolescents -- we remembered long after the white-water thrills faded. My wife, Jody, and I chose this particular adventure for family reasons.
Friends of ours, the Fullers, had researched the trip -- four days, three nights on the Salmon and Snake rivers starting in Idaho with the Outdoor Adventure River Specialists, or OARS, rafting company -- and asked whether we wanted to join them. John Fuller teaches science to our 14-year-old son, Sam, and Fuller's son, Woody, is a pal of Sam's. Our trip began on a Monday, when we took a bus from Lewiston to the Pine Bar put-in point on the Salmon, 62 miles upstream from our eventual destination, Heller Bar. We pushed out into the river around 11 a. Our little flotilla consisted of three rubber rafts, three wooden dories, a big paddle raft and three inflatable kayaks. Barry Dow, 57, a 30-year veteran of the Salmon, Snake and Colorado rivers, was our trip leader, but the rest of the seven- person crew seemed surprisingly young. In fact, three of them were in their teens. When we questioned them about their backgrounds, we discovered that rafting seems to be in their genes. "My mom was pregnant with me when she was on the river," said Thurbert, whose father was a river guide.
Thurbert, who made his first ex-utero rafting trip when he was 3, piloted the passenger- powered paddle raft on this trip. His instructions were both counterintuitive -- "Always lean into the wave, always lean toward the rock!" -- and straightforward -- "Listen to what I say and, when in doubt, paddle." Eric Shedd, 19, had a similar story. His parents were river guides and met on a rafting trip. "My mom says I was less than a year old when I was first on the river." The prize for the strongest river ties went to Zak Sears, 18, who made his first river trip when he was 6 months old. Sears pointed downriver and said his father was at the next campsite guiding another rafting trip. Then he pointed the other way, smiled and said, "My sister's 250 miles upstream and my brother's about 150 miles." Tossed into the drink The first three days of our trip were on the Salmon, a 425-mile river that begins in the mountains of central Idaho and ends at the confluence of the Snake River near the Oregon-Washington border. The Salmon is the longest free-flowing river left in the Lower 48.
For rafting purposes it's divided into the Middle Fork (the upper part), the Main and the Lower Salmon. Each has its charms and its advocates. Depending on water levels, our part, the Lower Salmon, usually has fewer and less difficult rapids. We faced only a couple that count as Class III. (Class IV and V rapids are scarier and more dangerous; Class VI is considered unrunnable for a commercial trip.) The lack of big white water might make the Lower Salmon a little tame for thrill-seekers, but it was perfect for our band of youngsters and their parents who wanted to get them acquainted with river rafting without the dangers of big water. "This is nothing," said veteran rafter Jim Eisch, 40, of Tampa, Fla. Eisch brought his daughter Kelsey, 8, son Jimmy, 11, and father, Ted, 69. "But I didn't want to make them so scared they didn't want to do it again." If we could have fast-forwarded a trip tape to the last day, it would have shown Jimmy grinning widely after his third back flip off a raft and saying, "I don't want to go home.
Next time I'm going on a 17-day trip!" With kids as young as 8 on the trip, danger was on every family's mind. Before we put in, the guides gave us several safety lectures, explaining what we were to do if we went overboard in a rapid -- or "went swimming," as they say in river parlance. There was a lot of information to absorb, involving, among other things, head-patting signals, throw ropes, flip lines and the "La-Z- Boy" float position. All of it washed out of our heads when, separately, Jody and I were thrown from our kayaks at the Class III Bunghole rapid on the second day. Disoriented after getting tumbled in the opaque wash cycle of Bunghole, we quickly bobbed to the surface. In less than a minute we were within grasp of a raft or dory, and in less than three, we were back aboard our kayaks paddling. The important things, it turns out, were not only procedures but also the vigilance and unflappable nature of our crew as we got tossed overboard and forgot all our lessons. That and the bright orange life vests we always wore. The inflatable kayaks -- like beach rafts with sides -- gave the most heart-pounding ride.