Down By the River

It was day two on a five day rafting trip down the Main Fork of Idaho’s Salmon River when our flotilla of two loaded boats and a half-dozen people rounded a bend to a surprising sight. Until that point we had only seen a couple other rafters, a few deer, and a moose. It felt like we had the place mostly to ourselves. And then here were a couple backpackers hiking along a previously invisible trail along the canyon wall way back in the middle of nowhere.

Wilderness river trips down Idaho’s Salmon, Snake, and Selway Rivers are legendary and accessible to just about anyone willing to hire an outfitter or pull together a private trip and land a permit, yet the miles of meandering trails that snake their way up, down, and along these same river canyons, for the most part, are little known. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that it might be possible to hike all the way into this remote stretch of river. How many other wilderness rivers had trails along their shores?  I didn’t have a clue, but I wanted to find out.

Hiking along and boating down a river are two very different things. By the time our float was over – one of the most magical experiences of my life – I was thoroughly convinced that I needed to experience them both on as many rivers as possible. Over a decade later, my brother Scott and I finally got around to hiking in to that same remote stretch of the Frank Church Wilderness ourselves. We drove my van on what seemed like several hundred miles of back roads, and then set off on foot, sweating and swearing as we dropped thousands of feet toward the canyon bottom over a long, hot day of hiking. I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake and the ancient trail we had been following finally disappeared all-together about an hour before dark. Down by the Salmon River, we enjoyed some of the good life typically reserved for rafters: green, glassy swimming holes; beautiful beach camps; and a nightly symphony of crickets and the dull, soothing roar of the river. We saw several groups of rafters each day, and we got to watch a few of them scout and run the same rapids we’d run ten years before. We tried to remember beaches we may have camped on and got lost in the memories that the river stirred.

Time on a river, whether you’re on a trail accessed with a simple pair of walking shoes; set up with a full camp on shore; or out on the water in a raft, kayak, or some other watercraft, is an undeniably special experience. The Inland Northwest is blessed with wild, beautiful rivers, many with miles of trails along their banks. There is no better place to lose your worries and revive your spirit than in the fragrant spring air of an enchanting river canyon. So grab your pack or paddle, and make a beeline for the river. //

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