Some people view mountains by climbing gentle paths or steep, rocky trails; some from snow capped peaks and lofty summits. Some climb down through canyons and caves; squeezing through twisty slots even wading through pools of muddy water. And here on SP you can read about all the above and more. I too, devour many of the posted trip reports and browse the mountain pages looking for a good hike to take in the future but now, I think it’s the proper time to admit that I do like to give my legs a rest sometimes and “paddle right through the mountains”.
Yep! That’s right! I like to load up a 16’ to 22’ raft for five days and paddle down a big river with a group through some canyons and rapids stopping to hike and swim and look UP at the mountains whenever I choose. It gives a different perspective to what makes a mountain a mountain as you paddle by it.
And while rivers can move very quickly and that fact alone is enough to keep many people away from this mode of mountain-viewing, I can cite some mileage where paddling was more work than walking on the river bank would have been. I’ve rarely been afraid rafting. In fact, for me the rewards far outweigh any of the risks. I love working hard as part of a group to achieve something; something I found I missed backpacking and hiking. And I love reading about a river and its’ history. I love the rapids and how they change from year to year and day to day and then facing my own fear as I stare at them bobbing around in my over-inflated bathtub toy!
I have rafted many times on two of our local rivers: the Youghiogheny (PA) and the Cheat (WV), but these rivers are only sufficient for day trips so this article will focus on the first of two longer trips and their mountain locales.
Both of my big trips covered more than 70 water miles, involved Class III-V rapids and were different in terrain.
July 2005 – Lower Salmon River, Idaho
So what is so different about a mountain experience from a floating barge?
Before 2005 I had never spent any camping time in the arid mountains out west. A family road trip in 2000 to the Grand Canyon, Nevada, and Utah in an air-conditioned car was as close as I had come to being in the dry hills of Idaho. I had backpacked in the Colorado Rockies for four weeks before and of course back east but the hills and mountains along the Lower Salmon River were very new to me. I spent a lot of time looking up at the amazing hills and canyons.
And for those who think that rafting with a commercial company spoils the camping experience, do a Nancy Reagan and “Just Say No” to catered cooking and insist that your group paddle and guide yourself through the rapids when possible. Our group paddled every inch of the trip. We cooked right with the guides and I guided our raft into our night spot one day. It’s a blast!
What you pack is less limited but how you pack it is even more critical than backpacking – remember that water is always seeking the lowest point….in your dry bag that is! You live in the same water clothes every day wearing sandals or water booties exchanging them for nice, dry clothes and sneakers at night.
Abundant water supply is a definite plus. Either you carry it along or simply filter, treat, or boil what you get from the rivers. This I truly enjoyed and after a while it didn’t even bother me that this was the same river we deposited liquid in once it replenished our bodies. You scoop upstream and dump downstream – got it? Other waste goes in the ‘groover’ – see the picture for more info.
That same river is great for refreshing swims during the day, intentional or not and the Lower Salmon River being what’s known as a pool and drop river
offers wonderful sandy beaches to camp on and eddies to swim in at night. And the water was warm unlike those freezing alpine lakes!
Oh those sandy beaches for sleeping! As hot as these beaches were in the daytime they provided wonderful sleeping pads at night, complete with
infinite capability to level for older hips and finicky achy bones. The stars at night were, to use a cliché, unbelievable. Viewing the Milky Way was our signal to say goodnight. With no ambient light and no threat of rain, everyone slept out under the stars.
Which reminds me, different muscle groups can get sore when you view mountains in this manner. Instead of tired, complaining legs you might need some rotator cuff repair after a few strenuous, rafting trips. I ended up with major shoulder repair (congenital defect that finally proved too painful) after a 72 mile canoe paddle so I was fine before my big rafting trips but my buddy required repair right after this trip before going on our 2008 trip (See Part II.)
Another negative: Rafters can also end up with “helmet hair” like climbers. But this is easily cured with a quick head dunk in your nearest local aqua salon. Climbers rarely have the same option and actually seem to relish the look for some reason!
And that great river water and paddling really does a number on your skin! By day 5 even the kids were asking me for some of my heavy duty unscented lotion. There’s something very acidic in many rivers which combined with wear and tear breaks down the skin on your hands. Guess that’s comparable to climbers’ hands.
More than anywhere else I’ve been, Leave No Trace is evident everywhere in this region. The beaches were so clean we had a hard time finding anything to pick up when we policed the site each morning. This really contributes to the wilderness feel of the area.
A downside for my trip in 2005, (and potentially any rafting trip) was that we took only waterproof disposable cameras so the photos aren’t as good as I would like. And no matter how waterproof your camera is, you will be needed to paddle during the big rapids. It is literally every hand on deck (and none holding cameras) when the big ones come. You can bring good cameras for pictures off the river though and for sightseeing on the side trips.
The Lower Salmon area is filled with history ranging from early tribal groups 10,000 years ago to the more recent Nez Perce Indians who encountered Lewis and Clark. We stopped on our trip to examine Indian pictographs and a Chinese miner’s cabin remains along the river as well as a walk up to an abandoned copper mine.
The Lower Salmon is rich in geologic evidence of the molten basalt flows which once covered much of Washington, parts of Oregon and half of Idaho. We passed several examples of these basalt columns – vertical ones formed when the lava cooled from the surface and narrow ones from rapid cooling.
Our final stretch was on the Snake River below the confluence with the Salmon River in Hell’s Canyon where we played in the Cherry Creek Waterfall, climbing up and sliding down like little kids. We also stopped at the Cache Creek Ranch where the US Park Service has an orchard open to the picking and green, green grass for lounging, our first in five days. It was a lovely stop complete with port-a-potties and a tiny post office.
The closer we got to Heller Bar, our take-out point, the more we saw the power boats and cabins along the Snake. Our four days earlier along the lower Salmon had been very isolated in comparison, with only an occasional dirt road or barbed wire fence in the distance.
It was this very trip in 2005 that hooked me on big rafting trips and led to the one in 2008 on one of the biggest rafting rivers in the U.S., the Arkansas in Colorado (See Part II.) Someday I would love to do the one most serious rafters aim for, the really big one, the Grand Canyon but that will have to wait until I can save some big money.
In the meantime, think about trying a mountain “padded with rubber” too!
And for more about my rafting and mountain adventures, read Part II.