In the summer of 1987, my brother was teaching Chemistry at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA. He was friendly with members of the College Outing Club who invited him on their riverrafting trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, known more poetically as the River of No Return. This was how I was blessed by possibly the most exciting outdoor experience I ever enjoyed.
The trip began inauspiciously with a cancelled flight in Los Angeles which caused me to miss my connecting flight to the Tri-Cities Airport. I finally arrived 7 hours after my original scheduled arrival time. The airline never notified my brother of the delay and he waited for me seven hours! When I met him, I saw that he had a serious dose of poison oak on his arm. What he didn’t know at the time was that he had accidentally confused the dosages for the two medications his doctor prescribed; so that he was taking twice the dosage of one drug and half the dosage for the other. This caused a severe swelling of his arm and this in turn caused him to back out of the trip.
He told me that I shouldn’t back out of the trip on his account so I joined the group for the rafting trip. The Outing Club’s whitewater trips were “coop” style, which meant that all common items like food were purchased by trip organizers and all participants shared in the cost. Other than that, there were no other costs. The entire trip cost something like $27 (these were 1987 prices, remember)!
We met on campus, packed all of our gear including rafts into a bus and drove twelve hours, crossing into Idaho at the Lewiston locks, to the departure point on the river. On the way, a group of us devised a new version of Botticelli (or was it Twenty Questions?), which involved one person who thought of a famous person and the rest of us who attempted to guess the identity. The game was so captivating that I don’t remember once being bored during the long bus ride.
The Middle Fork is called the River of No Return because Lewis & Clark realized after tremendous effort that they could not proceed on their westerly journey using the Salmon River watershed because the terrain was too treacherous for the men and especially their horses. The rapids were also too treacherous for their Indian canoes. Thus they were forced to retrace their steps on a frustrating and exhausting 140-mile detour. Click here for the story of Lewis & Clark’s failed trip. Instead, they rode on horseback north through Montana’s Bitteroot Valley. This dashed their dream of finding an east-west water route across the United States.
I don’t remember what the water level was that year, but we were treated to some magnificent whitewater. The trip members seemed all much more experienced than I with rafting, kayaking and all manner of outdoorsmanship. They were also a tremendously bright and athletic bunch. Several taught themselves to kayak while on this trip. Within an hour or so, several of them were doing siderolls involving 360º rolls in the cold river water.
Though I love the outdoors and have camped often in many places including New York, California, Israel, Greece, etc., I had no previous riverrafting experience. In the first few days, I felt like a real tenderfoot as I was flipped out of the boat on the first rapid we ran (no one told me the tricks about wedging your foot inside the boat’s canvas side so that it’s harder to be launched out of the boat; or about leaning one’s body forward as the raft drops down the rapid). I can remember the helpless feeling of my body flopping into the water. Even worse, after dropping into the water my body rose to the surface precisely underneath the raft. It was a terrifying experience. You knew you had to get to the surface fast but the raft prevented that. I decided to try to relax and let my body go limp, hoping the raft would travel a faster rate of speed than my body. My improvised tactic worked and the second time I surfaced there was clear blue sky overhead, thank God!
A highly unusual phenomenon of the Salmon River watershed is that the air was savagely hot–at least 90º or more, while the water was terrifically cold. So much water fell on us that I was deceived into thinking I was cooler than I really was. I used sunscreen but didn’t realize that I needed to slather my entire body with it in order for it to be effective in this climate. I also didn’t realize how extraordinarily dry the air was and became severely dehydrated, which had never happened to me before. Luckily, some of my shipmates recognized my symptoms, placed me on the ground, told me not to move and plied me with enormous amounts of water.
The Salmon River is lined on both sides with enormously high cliffs filled with wild mountain goats. One of my tripmates told me that these are some of the steepest cliffs in the world. The yellow jackets are savage here–I’d say even carnivorous. If you open any food containing sugar or meat you will be swarmed in mere minutes. It was here that I learned two tricks to fight them: after you have prepared your meal, take out a small piece of meat. Wait for the yellow jackets to swarm over it, then dip the meat into the river drowning them. Or take a small piece of meet and place it several hundred feet from the spot you plan on eating dinner. This trick at least gives you enough time to wolf down your dinner in relative peace until the yellow jackets discover your subterfuge and attack with a vengeance.
The rapids were tremendously challenging. I remember we traversed several rated fours and even more rated threes. The adrenalin rush as you prepared for a whitewater descent, paddling furiously to build up speed, was one of the most exciting experiences I’d ever had before. This trip was five days of heaven. Click here for some grainy, but visceral video footage of Tappen Falls and Haystack Rapids. Click here for an extended video journal of a rafting trip down the Middle Fork. Though I later rafted the Rogue River, nothing has ever compared to the excitement of the Salmon. It is one of the great rafting rivers of the United States, if not the world.
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