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A group running the rapids on the Middle Fork, one of Idaho's best rivers for rafting. (Photograph by Justin Bailie, Aurora Photos)

Adventure 101: Rafting the Salmon River

“A river changes people, even if they’re not looking to change,” says Bill “Bronco” Bruchak.

He should know, having guided on rivers since 1978, including 80 commercial trips down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River through the protected Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, in central Idaho.

“White water makes you let go of all of the other worlds and take the time to be absorbed by pristine wilderness.”

> Getting Started:

The Middle Fork is a free-flowing river that tumbles for a hundred miles of wilderness, promising plenty of frothy excitement from the headwaters an hour outside Stanley, Idaho, to the end when it rejoins the Salmon.

A favorite with families and fit folks from 7 to 70 years old, the Middle Fork features a hundred Class 3 and 4 rapids in a stunning forested setting. Excursions average five hours on the river per day.

Choose between single kayaks, rafts that hold up to eight people, or guide-powered rafts for two. Minimum age requirements change with the season (July is best for all abilities).

> Selecting an Outfitter:

Permits are strictly controlled on 
the Middle Fork, where roughly 26 outfitters run commercial multi-day trips from May through September. Check with the Middle Fork Outfitters Association for a list of permitted operators and trip dates.

Bruchak suggests researching your outfitter. “The best gauge is how long the guides have worked with an outfitter. Word of mouth also goes a long way in rafting, so ask where friends have paddled and with whom.”

Most people fly into Boise and either rent a car or fly (McCall Air) to Stanley, Idaho, where they attend an evening orientation and spend the night before departing for the river.

> Weather and Gear:

You will get wet, so pack in layers, i.e., the “Northwest wardrobe”: Capilene, fleece, and rain gear (pants and jackets).

And, because “temperatures can range from 32 to 100 degrees [Fahrenheit] in a single day,” Bruchak says to “bring comfortable long-sleeved shirts and a brimmed hat.”

Outfitters provide tents, sleeping bags, camping pads, pillows, and waterproof duffel bags for cameras and other day-use items. Riverwear Sports in Stanley, Idaho, is a good source for things you forgot.

> Off the Water:

In between paddling, groups make 
hikes into side canyons and climb up cliffs and pinnacles to discover pictographs, shrub-steppe flora in full bloom, and fauna, including bighorn sheep and the occasional rattler.

“There’s a story to learn or something incredible to see in every canyon,” says Bruchak.

Additionally, you can fish for trout, swim in clear pools, soak in natural hot springs, and dine on Dutch oven cuisine under a star-filled sky.

> Other Optimal Rivers:

  • Colorado River, Grand Canyon: The granddaddy of them all, this 5- to 18-day trip by raft or dory covers up to 280 miles.
  • Tatshenshini River, Yukon, Canada: The “Tat” float takes in the Yukon’s big mountains, bigger grizzlies, and biggest white water.

This piece, written by Crai Bower, originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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