Salmon River Family Magic

Unplug for a high definition experience on the Salmon River

By Chad Case

Camping Life Magazine

Trade in the flat screens, video games and cell phones for a truly high definition experience on America’s longest undamned river in the continental United States.  White sand beaches, bluebird days, star filled nights plus the exhilaration of riding a rollercoaster of white water waves will leave the whole family grinning from ear to ear.  This five-day journey on the Salmon River offers plenty of white water, volleyball, hiking, fishing, swimming, campfire sing along, sun bathing, divine cuisine and of course peaceful relaxation at the rivers edge.

This grand adventure into the serpentine wilderness of the Salmon River began at a conference room at the Red Lion in Lewiston, Idaho.  Peter Grubb of ROW Adventures went around a quiet room where we all introduced ourselves with polite smiles and hellos that were later replaced with hoops and hollers as well as slaps on the back after conquering our first white water challenge.  Peter shared some fascinating history on the area,
outfitted each of us with river gear, and provided a safety talk to ensure everyone would remain secure on the river.

Spirits of the Past

The Salmon River flows with an abundance of history.  The Nez Perce and Shoshoni Indians have inhabited the area for over 8,500 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 1800’s a large population of Chinese immigrants came to the area for mining opportunities.

The guides were very well educated on the history of the area and throughout the trip would slip in history lessons that were  captivating to both kids and adults alike.  The group was treated to an archeological dig where we viewed layers of earth and  artifacts spanning thousands of years and stared at a colossal woolly mammoth skeleton.  We crawled inside some the most  well-preserved Chinese rock dwellings outside of China and hiked to ancient Indian grounds 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 US Calvary.

Turbulent Times

This section of the river is known as the Lower Salmon or Salmon River Canyons.  Rafters will enjoy 52 miles on the Salmon River and an additional 21 miles on the Snake River.  The rapids range from Class II to Class IV and the best time of the year for the journey 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.

We arrived at Hammer Creek Recreation Site to launch our voyage 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 and 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, Demons 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 with white water thrills.  The larger rapids required the group 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.

Roughing It?

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, tents already setup and drinks and meals waiting!

I wouldn’t necessarily call it camp food.  Perhaps fine cuisine would be more suited.  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 starlight 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 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 an ocean surf.

Eyes Wide Open

The landscape along the way was dramatic.  Towering mountains covered with golden grass and giant ponderosa pines lined Green, Cougar, Snowhole and Blue Canyons.  Each of the canyons 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 with deer, black bear, river otter, eagles, falcons, hawks, songbirds and waterfowl.  Deer usually greeted me on my evening hike.  The guides were skilled at spotting and pointing out wildlife along the way.

I’m NOT Bored

With daytime temperatures from 85 to 95, nighttime temperatures in the 60 to 70 range plus water temperatures from 65 to 75, the Lower Salmon is unmatched for family fun.  There is plenty time each day for a veritable plethora of fun in the sun.  Mix kids with water and there is an instant friendship and common bond.  I was surprised at how quickly the kids from all over the country and various ages became quick pals and were inseparable balls of energy for five days.  Beach football, beach volleyball, Frisbee, sand castles, fishing, hiking, board games, cards, sun bathing, skipping rocks, raft slip-n-slide, king of the duckie and countless other camp activities provided oodles of fun.

Over a campfire conversation, the adults agreed that 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 beer 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 their self-confidence.  A single mom voiced her appreciation for  reconnecting with nature.

When I asked the kids 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 music player, yet they all had a common thread.  Other kid favorites were sleeping under the stars, making new friends and cliff jumping.

For the daring members, hexagonal columns of basalt offered different heights from which to hurl oneself into the depths 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, even for those at the bottom.

The Salmon River creates visions of adventures in a wild land born from an untamed river.  This trip afforded me the luxury to experience the history, scenery, white water, and beach camping and family activities only provided in a family focused trip.  It was truly magical.  And unplugged.

If you go:

ROW Adventures, 800-451-6034,

When: July through September

Look for:


Black Bear

River Otter






The Nitty Gritty:

Five days and 73 miles of river

Float on America’s longest undamned river in the continental United States

Plenty of Class II to Class IV rapids to keep your blood pumping

Four Canyons Green, Cougar, Snowhole and Blue

Camping Life Magazine

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