Family Camping on the Salmon River
Trade in the flat screens, video games and cell phones for the longest wild and scenic river in the continental United States. White sandy beaches, bluebird days and star-filled nights, plus the exhilaration of riding rollercoasters of whitewater waves will leave the whole family grinning from ear to ear. A five-day journey on the Salmon River offers plenty of white water, volleyball, hiking, fishing, swimming, campfire sing-alongs, sun-bathing, divine cuisine and, of course, peaceful relaxation at the river’s edge to keep everyone happy.
Our grand adventure into the serpentine wilderness of the Salmon River began in July at the Red Lion in Lewiston, Idaho, where guides from ROW Adventures and our other future raft-mates met and we introduced ourselves with polite smiles and hellos. Those were later replaced with hoops and hollers as well as slaps on the back after conquering our first whitewater challenge. The guides shared some fascinating history, outfitted us with river gear, and provided a safety talk so that everyone would remain secure while on the river before we ever saw our first riffle of white water.
Spirits of the Past
The Salmon River flows with an abundance of history. The Nez Perce and Shoshone Indians have inhabited the area for more than 8500 years. The first white men to the area were part of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the town of Lewiston derives its name from the famous explorer. During the 1800s a large population of Chinese immigrants came to the area for the mining opportunities.
Our river guides were well educated in the history of the area, and throughout the trip would slip in a lesson here and there that was captivating to kids as well as adults. The group was treated to an archeological dig where we viewed layers of earth and artifacts spanning thousands of years, and viewed a colossal woolly mammoth skeleton. We crawled inside some the best-preserved Chinese rock dwellings outside of China and hiked to ancient Native American lodgings with pictographs painted on the cliff walls. We also stood at the very spot in the river where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce crossed in dangerous water to evade the U.S. Calvary.
Rafters run 52 miles of the Salmon River and 21 miles of the Snake River. The rapids range from Class II to Class IV, and the best time of the year is July through September. Three different boats provide varying experiences: the oar-powered raft allows people to relax and let the guide do all the work; the paddle raft requires that each person paddles, but is by and large more exhilarating on the white water. Lastly, the inflatable kayaks, double and single, known as “duckies,” offer a much more intimate experience with the water, but also require a higher level of expertise.
We arrived at Hammer Creek Recreation Site to launch on a blue and cloudless day. After our final safety talk, people picked their boat and climbed in with anticipation and excitement. Our first rapid was a Class II called Rollercoaster, a long series of large waves. The growing roar of white water in the distance disturbed the quietness of the flat moving water. The excitement grew like the long climb of a rollercoaster to the peak until finally the speed of the raft swiftly dropped us into the first wave. A splash of cool water quickened my heart and an uncontrollable smile adorned my face. By the third wave any pretenses of spending time with people I had just met went out the door as we whooped and hollered like little kids as our raft rode out the wave train.
Rapids named Rollercoaster, Demon’s Drop, Bodacious Bounce, The Gobbler and Eye of the Needle provided a multitude of smiles, screams and splashes, and kept the whole trip action-packed with cheerful faces soaked in whitewater thrills. The larger rapids required the group to stop and scout the water to ensure everyone was comfortable with running the best line. It was always “safety first” and the five experienced guides keenly watched over all of the rafters.
The long days rafting and playing in the sun took loads of energy, so at the end of the day setting up camp and cooking a meal sounded tedious. Each day our support raft would disappear downstream before us, and when we reached our days end, we were greeted with a sandy beach, the tents already set up, with drinks and meals waiting!
I wouldn’t necessarily call it camp food. Perhaps camp cuisine would be more suitable. Meals consisted of wild Bristol Bay salmon prepared with dill lemon or tarragon rosemary, salt encrusted prime rib infused with garlic, Chilean salad with tomatoes, onion, and cilantro in a homemade vinaigrette, cod seared in garlic lemon butter and, of course, Idaho garlic mashed potatoes. Each meal was a culinary delight filled with a reward of fresh and healthy food.
At night the looming canyon walls silhouetted against the starlit sky dwarfed the glow of our campfire as the mighty Salmon River shimmered in a silvery glow that disappeared into the darkness of the gorge. Anyone could grab the guitar and start up the singing, but it was usually the guides who would get the crowd energized. The singing started out lively and with laughter, then grew quieter as people meandered off to their tents one by one, exhausted from a fun-filled day.
By far a highlight of the trip was sleeping under the stars. In fact, I did not spend one night in the tent. One of the great secrets of this area is that there are no mosquitoes, which made sleeping on a sandy beach remarkable! Each night I gazed up at the multitude of stars and listened to the pulsating river rush against the canyon walls like ocean surf.
Eyes Wide Open
The landscape along the way was dramatic. Towering mountains covered with golden grass and giant ponderosa pines. And then there were the four canyons: Green, Cougar, Snowhole and Blue. Each canyon possessed a unique beauty, and our craned necks marveled at the varied volcanic geology. Our last night was spent in Blue Canyon surrounded by the polished rock that glowed blue in the right light. I felt humbled as I sipped my drink on our own little beach and watched the magical and luminescent canyon walls.
Wildlife was abundant, including black bear, river otter, eagles, falcons, hawks, songbirds and waterfowl; and the guides were skilled at spotting animals along the way. Deer often greeted me on my evening hikes.
With daytime temperatures ranging from 85 to 95 F, nighttime temperatures in the 60 to 70 F range, plus water temperatures from 65 to 75 F, the Lower Salmon this time of year is unmatched for family fun.
Mix kids with water and there is an instant friendship and common bond. I was surprised at how quickly children from all over the country and various ages became quick pals and were inseparable balls of energy for five entire days on this trip. Beach football, volleyball, Frisbee, sand castles, fishing, hiking, board games, cards, sun bathing, skipping rocks, raft slip-n-slide and countless other camp activities provided non-stop fun for all.
Over a campfire conversation, the adults agreed they had searched for an activity that did not involve electronics for their children. One dad said he set out on a mission “to do something outside without video games” AND still have a good time. “Mission accomplished,” he said as he sipped a cold one on the beach and watched his two boys laugh and play in the water. Another member of the group brought her nieces and nephews and expressed that throughout the trip she saw each of the kids push themselves beyond their comfort zone and build greater self-confidence. A single mom voiced the appreciation she felt for being able to reconnect her kids with nature.
When I asked the youngsters about their experience on the river, the overwhelming theme was the white water. These kids represent a cross section of society, from the thrill seeker to the classical musician, yet they all had a common thread — they were sleeping under the stars, playing in the water and making new friends.
For the more daring members of the trip, hexagonal columns of basalt offered different pedestal heights from which to jump into the river below. There was always a chant from the crowd below, “One, two, three”… and some jumped whole-heartedly while others took a few times to launch themselves into the abyss. It was great fun and excitement for all, with a big splash at the end.
The Salmon River creates visions of adventures in a wild land born from an untamed river. This trip afforded the luxury to experience the history, scenery, white water, beach camping and fun activities only provided in a family-focused trip. It was truly magical, and totally unplugged.
When You Go
ROW Adventures has been providing white water rafting, kayaking, canoeing, fly-fishing and family adventure trips around the world since 1979.
ROW Adventures: 800/451-6034; rowadventures.com