A Family Bonds on White Water Rafting Adventure
It’s day two of a six-day white water adventure on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon, often referred to as The River of No Return (how comforting is that), and as usual, I am powerless to stop my son Rigel from adding another heart-pounding feat to his stash of adventures.
This time my husband Bob has joined the fray, and the two most important men in my life are about to catapult through Class IV rapids in a flimsy looking rubber raft nicknamed “Daring Duck.” Rigel slides into the front of the double kayak, Bob into the back, and smiling like a couple of Jackass pranksters, they lurch onto the river.
I’m ahead a 12-foot-long paddle boat with five other rafters. We hit the rapids and desperately try to obey our guide’s commands. “All forward! Left back! Paddle hard!” as we crash into the crest of a wave, hurl into the trough, and get drenched with icy water.
When my boat is through the rapids, I look back and see Rigel and Bob digging into Mother Nature’s cauldron, orange paddle tips flashing more or less in sync. They fly around a Volkswagen-sized boulder, bounce through the chop and rocket downstream smiling ear-to-ear and yelling “whoo-hoo.”
I have watched this delicate stepfather-stepson dance for over two decades as the two most important men in my life move emotional puzzle pieces around. Sometimes they fit, sometimes they miss. Today, they glued a cornerstone together.
When you sign up for six-days of close-quarters adventure, you cross your fingers your companions will be likeable, your guides (in whose hands you are placing your life, after all) will be skilled, the food will be hearty and cocktail hour will an integral part of the schedule. When you invite your 20-something-year old son along, you hope there’ll be enough action that he won’t wish he’d gone to Cancun.
Picking a river isn’t so hard.The Middle Fork of the Salmon packs technical rapids and winds along for over 100 miles, isolated in the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Pull-outs include hot springs, mysterious caves, ethereal waterfalls and ancient pictographs.
We signed on with ROW Adventures and started our six-day trip in Stanley, Idaho, with fellow rafters that included a mother and her adult son, an assorted family with teenagers and two other couples. The guides delivered safety orientation that covered life vests, helmets, how to paddle, where to sit, what to do if you go overboard. Overboard?
If you ride in a six-passenger paddle boat, helmets and life vests are required, going overboard is possible and getting drenched is guaranteed. A guide with tiller in hand perches at the back of the boat, yells paddle commands and rafters row like crazy in what can best be described as a roller coast ride without the safety bar. Mellower 18-foot oar boats float the river with a guide at the helm and because of their bulk and stability, are good choice for the timid.
There’s no gradual introduction to white water on this river and the first fifteen miles of the Middle Fork pack a 45-foot-per-mile gradient and rapids with names like Ramshorn and Chutes. I know the canyons laughing “Howdy, Greenhorns.”
At day’s end we glide into camp where our tents are pitched and guides are setting out wine and appetizers. Our four female and four male guides are a multi-talented crew in charge of safety and comfort, education and enlightenment, food and games. Tonight’s dinner, fried Idaho trout, fresh vegetables and strawberry shortcake, is the first of several extravagant meals.
Next morning at 7 a.m., a guide is outside our tent with a wake-up call and a thermos of coffee. Breakfast is on the griddle and all we have to do is dismantle our tent, pack our dry sacks, eat and go.
Standing under a cascade of toasty water at Sunflower Flat Hot Springs, Rigel says “You gotta try a duckie, Mom.” My son’s motto is “No Fear” while mine is “Some Fear,” and in an uncommon mother-son dynamic, I never want to wimp out on him. So after a hot springs soak, I know he’s right and I’m ready for a duckie. Piece of cake. Wet cake.
The next day, the guides pull on shore and lead us on a short hike to a bridge that stands 40-feet above the river. Rigel is the second person to jump. Bob is right behind him.
“Come on, Mom,” Rigel says.
“Nah, I’ll just watch.” I am not afraid of heights, in insist. I am afraid of stepping off heights and freefalling into the River of No Return.
He smiles, nods his head like he knew I’d say that and clambers back onto the bridge for another leap. By the time he climbs out of the water and back onto the bridge, I am standing on the edge, waiting for him.
Our roles have flip-flopped. I am afraid, out of my element. My son is confident, guiding and encouraging me. I grip the front of my vest and step into thin air.
As days melt together, the river canyon morphs from lush fir and spruce covered mountains to buff-colored hills studded with ponderosa pines and sagebrush. If we aren’t paddling like maniacs, we are drifting like water-born leaves, until the stealthy family sneaks up and pummels us with blasts from giant water pistols. Screams echo through the canyons and revenge is plotted.
The last day, we hike to an ancient pictograph site where Native Tukudeka left graffiti, now faint with age but bold in meaning, and an ancient amphitheater where water spews from overhead as if coming straight from heaven. One of the guides pulls out a flute and serenades us with melodies that conjure peace pipes and vision quests. We are deep in the River of No Return Wilderness, so very, very far from home.
If you go: ROW Adventures, 800-451-6034, www.ROWadventures.com. Five and six-day trips run from May-September.