If you are looking for a way to truly disconnect, unwind, and slow down, there is no better way then getting on ‘river time.’ And there is no better place than the famous Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. For 100 miles, the Wild and Scenic, free-flowing river winds its way through the unspoiled, remote and pristine River of No Return Wilderness Area. With more than a dozen natural hot springs, a blue-ribbon trout fishery, and more rapids than you count, you won’t even notice that you don’t have cell service or electricity.
From June through August, the river is a whitewater paradise for rafters, kayakers, drift-boaters, and recently, even stand-up paddle boarders. But come September, everything quiets down and the already legendary fishing becomes magical. The water level drops and the splashy, big-drop rapids become mazes of boulders that need to be dodged and navigated by the expert boatmen and women. I’ve done the trip several times with Middle Fork River Expeditions and highly recommend them for anytime during the season, but especially for fall fishing. www.idahorivers.com.
The river is fed by snowmelt, so is at its lowest in September. Instead of starting the trip near the headwaters at Boundary Creek, we took a short morning flight from Stanley, Idaho into an airstrip at Indian Creek. The steep banking of the plane as it turned in the narrow canyon gave us a straight-down view of the river and our launch site. Our guides had floated the boats in from Boundary Creek through shallows that would have been impossible to navigate with the extra weight of passengers. (If you go in the summer, you will be driven to Boundary Creek from Stanley.)
Stanley is 6,250 feet above sea level and it was below freezing when we left the airfield. Although Indian Creek was several hundred feet lower in elevation, it wasn’t much warmer. The boats were covered with a thin layer of ice and our guides wore their finest down parkas to greet us. But shortly after our arrival, the sun crested the top of the high canyon wall and, while the boats were still being rigged, we shed our coats and hats and the heartier among us even put on shorts.
One advantage of a fall trip is that the guest to guide ration is never more than two-to-one since only two people can fish from each raft—one in front and one in back. For this trip, there were only three other guests and three guides: Kate, Scottie and Mark. I chose to ride with Kate, an expert oarswoman with a philosophy degree and quick smile. I was joined by a 29-year-old fisherman from Pennsylvania who had never been to Idaho and was having a blow-out trip before his first baby arrived a few months later. A married couple–retired professors from Michigan–rode with Mark in the other raft; he was an avid fisherman, she was just learning. Scottie, a nurse and world-class paraglider, manned the large sweep boat that carried all of the gear and went ahead of us each morning to set up lunch and eventually our camp for the night.
Since I only fish a few times a year, I was nervous about my abilities, but I needn’t have worried. Kate helped with everything I needed—giving advice, tying on flies, putting the boat in perfect position for casting, and even helping me release the fish when I caught them. And boy, did I catch them. More than thirty cutthroat trout a day, ranging from eight to eighteen inches long. I also had needlessly worried about the fishing trip being male oriented; the guides would have made me comfortable even if I was the only woman there.
Throughout the day, we floated at a leisurely pace. I split my time between fishing and looking at the scenery. Steep, gray canyon walls jumped straight out of the water and sometimes high above me I could see herds of bighorn sheep moving impossibly along the rocky crags. A cloudless azure sky provided the perfect backdrop for a pair of golden eagles circling above, although later in the trip smoke from distant forest fires made the air hazy. On the boat, we had equal parts conversation and silence. When we stopped for lunch, there was time to hike up a side canyon or scramble up the hillside to view ancient rock petroglyphs.
One night we arrived at our camp and learned that at the end of the large, flat, sandy beach there were hot spring pools. Just what my sore casting muscles needed. (The camps are pre-assigned by the Forest Service to avoid disputes and ensure protection of the environment.) We had each been provided a dry bag for our personal belongings as well as a larger bag that included a tent, sleeping pads, pillow, and down sleeping bag. The tent was easy to put up, even by myself, and I left off the rain fly so I could see the stars through the mesh top. (Solo travelers get the same four-person tent as couples, so there is plenty of room.) Far from any light pollution, the night sky seen from the wilderness area had more starlight than dark background.
After a soak in the hot springs, I came back to find the sandy beach transformed into a cozy site with a fire, camp chairs, kitchen, and bar. (Wine is provided with dinner, but guests bring their own alcohol.) Before I could finish making a drink, a beautifully presented appetizer of baked Brie and smoked salmon appeared.
Speaking of food, this trip was a wilderness gourmet treat. Breakfast was robust with pancakes, eggs, bacon, cereal, yogurt, fruit, and of course, plenty of cowboy coffee. We’d stop for lunch at a pretty spot and enjoy dishes like curried chicken pita, Capresi salad, or gourmet sandwiches. Dinners were miraculously produced from scratch and included wild Alaskan salmon, lasagna, and, on the final night, prime rib.
After dinner, I indulged in the Dutch oven apple crisp for dessert, while sharing stories with my new friends and listening to the guides strum their guitars. As a woman traveling alone, I had never felt quite so safe and accepted. I could enjoy the evening and not have to worry about getting back to my hotel room without incident. I could have as much or as little solitude as I liked. I could completely relax and move at my own pace. I drank my glass of wine feeling completely unplugged from the urban daily grind, and marveled at the silence of the wilderness.
By the third day, I was definitely on river time. I never saw a clock. I had no idea how fast time was passing—or not. The current set the pace and I flowed with it. I watched my yellow-bellied grasshopper fly drift over a deep, dark hole–the kind where big fish hide. Nothing. I cast again. This time, I watched a large cutthroat trout come up to take a look and heard a huge smacking sound as it took the fly. I had to fight to get it to the side of the boat, but when I did, I could see the brilliant purple and pink spawning colors on its sides. It was beautiful. I released it with an apology for not giving it real food, then thanked it for sharing a piece of its magnificent world.
Getting to Stanley: You can fly to Boise, Idaho and rent a car (3 hour drive), take a shuttle (3 hours), or fly in a small 5-9 seat plane (45 minutes). Alternatively, you can fly to Sun Valley (Hailey airport) and take a taxi (1.5 hours drive). Details and phone numbers are on the Middle Fork River Expeditions website.
Trips are five or six days long and 2015 prices range from $1500-2300 per person. The company will shuttle you back to Stanley at the end of the trip.