When Lewis and Clark trekked across America's uncharted interior two centuries ago, they had no idea what they'd find. Woolly mammoths?Cannibals?Volcanoes?They were ready for anything. But when they crossed into what is now Idaho, they nearly met their match. Struggling over the Rocky Mountains, they were trapped by snowstorms and forced to start shooting their horses for food. "I have been wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life," William Clark complained. They made it through, but remembered the passage as the most difficult leg of their trip.
Idaho has kept a low profile ever since. The state's public image is a vague and slightly forbidding amalgam of rugged terrain and climatic extremes, with a population of suspicious and uncommunicative ranchers, renegades, and militiamen—all of them armed. For those who know Idaho, the state's minimal visibility is a good thing and has allowed it to remain an untamed American wilderness. Yes, the mountainous backcountry can be daunting. But with the right guide, these expanses are an arena for a wide variety of adventures based on five simple ingredients: frontier towns, plunging white water, impassable Rocky Mountain peaks, high-altitude airstrips, and trout-filled rivers. Throw yourself into the mix, and you'll discover Idaho pleasures that Lewis and Clark never quite managed to find.
Idaho mountain towns are a haphazard affair. Take Stanley, population 70. The more sophisticated houses on its unpaved streets are made of logs. The rest look as though they were hammered together from pieces of scrap by cabin fever-crazed yokels.
Given the beauty of the looming Sawtooth Range and meandering Salmon River, and the fact that booming Sun Valley lies just 60 miles down the road, you might think more people would want to live here. But you wouldn't be taking into account the severity of the winters: temperatures have been known to get down to 58 below. During the summer, though, 20 outfitters operate here, guiding trips as far away as Hells Canyon and the Owyhee River. The plum assignment is rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon. From the put-in at Boundary Creek to the takeout at Cache Bar, the Middle Fork runs 100 miles of Class III and IV white water right through the heart of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, whose 2.4 million acres make up the largest contiguous designated-wilderness area in the Lower 48.
Rafting is what I've come for, but Stanley doesn't have much in the way of accommodations, so I'm staying nine miles south of town at the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch, a relic of Depression-era Americana with a sweeping view out over the sagebrush plain to the Sawtooth mountain range. My log cabin comes with a rustic stone fireplace and basic pine furniture—a homey old-school vision of the American West.
After checking in, I head back to Stanley and hit the center of the rafting universe, the Kasino Club. Underneath its rough-hewn timbers, the bar is jammed with glowingly healthy men and women, a fashion parade of billed caps, sunglasses, fleece vests, and technical outdoor wear.
I soon learn that, since it's the beginning of June, I'm about 10 days early for the main rafting season. Two more weeks and the town is going to be packed, and from then on the guides will work nonstop until Labor Day. Right now they're champing at the bit, ready to get at the river. Everyone who's anyone is here. "When are you leaving?Monday?I bet at least one of your guides is here," someone tells me. "Who are you going with?"
"Hughes River Expeditions," I say.
"Good outfit—Jerry Hughes has been running the Middle Fork for twenty-seven years. Pipé! Over here!"
A friendly blond woman, solid as a plank, comes over to introduce herself. "Oh, you're going to have fun," Pipé says. "It's big water."
"The last time the river was this high we flipped two out of three boats going over Velvet Falls. The water was flowing so fast, it took us a couple of miles to fish out all the clients and gear."
Hmm. And why, I ask, is it called Velvet Falls?
"It's a waterfall that's so quiet, you can't hear it above the noise of the river," Pipé says. "Not until you're over it."
I tell myself that flipping over isn't so bad. Sure, the water may be 44 degrees, and the 10 mph current could hurl you with fatal force against the jagged rocks. But a soupçon of risk is all part of the white-water experience.
The next morning at nine I get on a bus for the hour-and-a-half ride from Stanley to Boundary Creek. During the trip the sky grows progressively darker; as we arrive the clouds release a drenching rain. The guides unload the baggage and we scramble to put on our layers: thermal socks and underwear, wet suits and booties, then rain gear. "Remember," says Traves, our avuncular lead guide, "no cotton. Cotton kills. It'll drain the heat from your body and sap your strength."