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Essential Idaho

It makes no difference whether my line is in a knot or in the water; I'm getting no nibbles. It's early in the season, and the water is still too cold for trout to think seriously of feeding. I don't really care—for me fishing is just an excuse to sit around in a beautiful place and listen to the sound of running water.

The lazy flow of the Snake is peaceful compared to the Middle Fork of the Salmon. We drift along, stones passing eight inches under our keel. A few miles down we enter a canyon, and for the next 14 miles we drift through a dramatic and otherwise inaccessible landscape. On both sides, eroded layers of lava, remnants of past cataclysms, stand at the top of steep green slopes like battlements. The river, Darren tells me, is a favorite of Vice President Dick Cheney's, who visited just two weeks earlier. Apparently, when he comes there are sharpshooters posted for his protection along the canyon rim.

Finally I hook a couple of fighting rainbows, handsome fish with lurid purple streaks down their sides. As with sunsets, only nature could make something so garish yet so beautiful. Then I land a cutthroat, bearing the telltale slash of crimson at its gills. By the time we arrive at the haul-out at the end of the canyon, my total is two cutts, a whitefish, and a rainbow—one-tenth what a decent angler could do later in the summer.

I drive back toward Central Idaho on a road that passes along the trough of the Snake River Plain. This is potato country, bedded with the rich loam that has done so much to build wealth for the state.

Then the land becomes suddenly, disturbingly, dark. A smattering of black boulders amid the sage gives way to an endless rolling carpet of volcanic rubble. I've happened upon Craters of the Moon National Monument, a 75-square-mile landscape of lava and cinder. I pull over into the visitors' center, where an ever-looping audiovisual show explains how 15,000 years ago, a hot spot in the magma underneath Idaho blew out a massive caldera 30 miles across. The hot spot has been migrating eastward ever since, exploding again and again, punching a chain of giant holes in the Rockies. It's still down there. Its M.O. is to blow every 2,000 years—and the last time it did was 2,100 years ago. You do the math.

"Before the next eruption," the audio says, "is a great time to visit the Craters of the Moon!"

Thanks, Idaho, I think, as I head back to my car. I've had my fill of adventure for now.

JEFF WISE is a T+L contributing editor.


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