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River Rafting on the Salmon River...Our River Odyssey West Experience

From: Bob Reif

Our family of four has various levels of camping and rafting experience. Our son (who is 13) and I had been on two day-long rafting trips in Pennsylvania, have also done some canoeing and have been camping numerous times, with his Boy Scout troop. My wife also has been on day rafting trips although not in the fifteen years since we’ve been married. My daughter (who is 10) has had one overnight camping experience with Girl Scouts (although she is no stranger to sleeping away from home in rustic settings, owing to her summer camp experiences). So we were a “mixed bag” of experience when it came to camping and rafting. When friends of ours described the opportunity to go rafting on the Salmon River in Idaho, however, we jumped at the chance.

There are not enough superlatives to describe our river rafting trip on the Salomon River, with guides from River Odyssey West (ROW), Inc., this past August. The most complete description is fabulous. Everything about our experience was great. That experience started off with making reservations for the trip. Although my wife had these initial contacts with ROW, she tells how they asked about our travel plan flexibility, and the ages of our children, and advised her that if we could go during one particular week versus another, we would be with other families with children in the same age range. It seemed pretty clear that they were trying to ensure family compatibility, at least among the children.

My first contact with ROW was in completing the guest survey. This was the first indication I had that this was a company that was interested in making this adventure special. The survey sought, among other things, food and beverage preferences, so that the company could be certain to accommodate the guests’ tastes.

These trips (the family focus trips) are scheduled to depart on Tuesdays and Sundays, so we flew out on Monday. If you are traveling from the East Coast, you may want to travel a day or two earlier, in order to overcome any effects from the time zone changes. We did not have much of an opportunity to see the Clarkston, Washington – Lewiston, Idaho area to know whether there are sites to see during this early arrival period. However, depending on how frequently you travel though multiple time zones, you may want to give yourself and, particularly your children the time to become acclimated to the time zone changes.

Unlike the commercial phrase, getting there is not half the fun. For us, and most of the other families on our trip, the trip was the typical airplane hub and spoke trip, through Denver, Minneapolis or Chicago and then on to Spokane, Washington, arriving typically later than scheduled. From Spokane, it is a two hour trip to the Clarkston, Washington – Lewiston Idaho area, the base for the trip. ROW recommends flying to Spokane and driving (and leaving the rental car at the hotel for the week). I would agree. The alternative seemed to be flying into Boise (which means flying to one of the airline hubs and then to Boise) and then a commuter flight to Lewiston. Take the flight to Spokane.

The hotel, a Quality Inn, is part of the ROW package. The hotel personnel are friendly and know the routine. This includes supplying a safe deposit box for valuables, as well as luggage storage for all of the items you are going to leave behind.

We met one of our guides, Helen, that evening at poolside. She told us a little about the trip, but most importantly provided us with our gear bags, day bags and metal boxes (old ammunition boxes) to hold breakable items (such as cameras and binoculars). She also told us one of the first “rules.” “There is no time on the river” (not a real rule, but a rule for having fun). All of the type “A” personalities were told to leave their watches at the hotel. Among the four families, there were two physicians, two lawyers, a money manager, and architect and an author. We all complied and left our watches behind.

The gear and day bags are important items for the trip. The gear bags are huge waterproof bags to stow the gear that you will need at each campsite. The day bags are for the gear that you carry with you on the raft, in case you need something while on the river. During the rafting portion, you can’ t get access to your big gear bag because it travels on the cargo raft, right to the next campsite. So plan accordingly.

This raises the issue of gear. We brought all of the items that were included in the list that ROW sends. However, some of the items were more useful than others. In our case, a change of shoes from those used for rafting and those for the campsite, was unnecessary. We all stayed in the same shoes. A second piece of advice is that if you buy “expensive” sandals for rafting, break them in first. We had relatively inexpensive rubber sold water shoes, which generally were more than adequate. The important advice is to have comfortable shoes, because you will be doing more than just rafting.

The next thing to keep in mind regarding gear, is that you probably may find at the end of the trip clothes that were unworn. This may be affected by weather (ours was hot and dry), but we found that we rotated bathing suits and tee shirts, but that was about it. This was true not only within our family, but among all of our fellow rafters.

This brings up the issue of hygiene. For men, razors are definitely optional, and on our trip it was an option that no one exercised. For the ladies, while there was a sun heated shower, once Amy (my wife) spotted the rattlesnake, showers also became an unexercised option However, we all got “ripe” together, and it wasn’t until we were back in Clarkston (at the ROW offices) that we began to notice.

Toilet facilities are another “fun” aspect of the trip, again more so for the ladies than the men. Our guides explained that everything that is brought on to the river must be taken out again, and they did mean everything. This means a chemical toilet, known as the “groover”, and direct use of the river, so that the weight of the “groover” is limited to solid waste. Most of the ladies started out with the view that they would wait until we returned to Clarkston, but obviously not a real choice. What is important is the development of privacy, even if you are out in the open, so to speak.

On a more positive note, the food was outstanding. First, if you were a late sleeper, coffee, tea and hot cocoa were brought to your tent. Among the items our guides cooked, were pancakes and eggs for breakfast (and on our last day, Eggs Benedict, including Hollandaise Sauce), but what were really impressive were the dinners. We would start with wine, cheese, smoked trout, smoked oysters, olives and other similar appetizers. Then they would serve the kids dinner. (The kids could also eat with the adults, if they chose.) Our dinners included, a pan fried trout, wonderful shrimp and portobello mushrooms and other grilled vegetables, chicken and fajitas. Every dessert was a cake that was baked in a Dutch oven at the campsite. It was pretty impressive and delicious.

The first day of our trip started with a stop at the Nez Perce Museum. The Nez Perce was one of the tribes of crucial importance to the Lewis and Clark expedition. The museum was very interesting and our guides were very knowledgeable about the tribe, the expedition and other significant historical events in the region.

After the museum, we headed for the drop in point for our rafting adventure. We were met by our remaining guides who equipped us with our gear for the river and provided us with a good safety lecture. Then, we were off. I spent that first afternoon in a ducky, which is a small rubber raft, for one or two people, similar to a kayak, but much more forgiving. I was in a two person ducky with my daughter, Melissa. As both my son and daughter pointed out, I managed to aim for (and hit) every rock formation in the water. Oh well. She and I made it.

The remaining parts of the trip were spectacular. During the day we peacefully rowed down the river some of us working harder than others. For example, Melissa, our daughter, who endeared herself to the guides, did a lot of rowing on the raft, including rowing from the guide’s seat. Some of the adults would argue about who would go in a ducky with our son Eric, who showed his experience from previous rafting and canoeing trips. I, on the other hand, earned the nickname of “Resting Robert”, among other names, simply because I often chose the raft that had the umbrella and was rowed by a guide. (Yes, there is a picture of me lying on my back on the raft, but no, I was not completely asleep.)

During the day we would have little excursions. One day, when we stopped for lunch just after passing through some rapids, one of the guides invited those who were interested to walk on shore up river and swim through the rapids. Another day we stopped at this cliff area, about fifteen to twenty feet, where the brave (mostly the kids) could leap from the cliff into the river. I did it twice, leaping into the air with a loud expletive related to the “groover.” It was a blast. Another day our guides took us on little hikes to see area of historical interest along the river, including an area where Chinese immigrants who were no longer working on the trans-continental railroad build small shelters out of the ground.

At the campsite, which the guides with the cargo raft set up for us, we would get our gear bag, pick our tent and relax. One of the guides would be responsible for children activities and the kids seemed to have fun. They guides did set up a solar heated shower. Early on, Amy took the wrong path to the shower and called us over to see the snake “going backwards.” It actually was a rattlesnake that was probably more frightened of us then we were of it, but that did end shower use. More fun to see were the eagles, the otter, the beaver, the mountain goats and deer.

For those of us who live in urban areas, the nights were so clear that we could see not only all of the constellations and shooting stars that you read about, but also the Space Station as it passed overhead. (One of the guides actually complained that, because of the forest fires, the sky wasn’t as clear as she had seen it.)

This was a trip for all ages. The youngest person on our trip was a nine year old boy and the oldest was a seventy-eight year grandmother traveling with her daughter, son-in- law, and three grandchildren, one of whom was one of the paid guides. At one point, this youthful grandmother stumbled on the beach and when several of us went to help her said, “Don’t help me because then I’ll be helpless.”

Finally, I want to say a word about our guides. Eclectic does not do justice to describe these people. I think river guides, like ski instructors and scuba instructors are a breed apart. Two of ours were school teachers (one of whom still taught), one was a “perennial” student who ultimately wanted to open up a hunting/camping lodge, two others were also still in college, one in his third year at Harvard. Through whatever screening process ROW uses, these people were the perfect guides. In addition to being knowledgeable about the area, and skilled rowers, they were all around nice people. They were very safety and health conscious, reminding people to use sun screen and drink plenty of water. We could not have had better guides to show us this part of the United States and make this such an enjoyable adventure. From Amy Reif:

We’ve taken many terrific family vacations , but I’m certain that last summer’s rafting trip with ROW through the Salmon River Canyons will always stand out as the most memorable experience we have ever enjoyed. It was truly a magical adventure.

Everything about the ROW company is first-rate. When we first inquired about the trip, we were questioned about our flexibility. By giving them several possible departure dates, we were able to be booked with families having similarly aged children. Our group of four fabulous families included two nine year olds, two eleven year olds, a twelve year old and three thirteen year olds. We were very lucky that the four families were so nice. This only added to our enjoyment.

The ROW guides were wonderful. They were very helpful and attentive, but not cloying or intrusive. They worked together as a terrific team, even though most of them had not worked together before. We were really impressed by the attention paid to safety. Even though it was over 100 degrees during the day, no one got sunburned or dehydrated. We were frequently encouraged to drink water, and every day at lunchtime our head guide would announce that if you haven’t peed yet, you’re not drinking enough water. Handwashing was also emphasized after exiting the river, and, of course, using the groover. This is not a small concern when so many people are together. On the river, the guides were very careful, especially when people were in the duckies. All of our river guides were experienced. The two unexperienced guides only transported cargo, not people.

If a vacation camping does not appeal to you, you really need to think again. This was luxury camping at its finest. The guides did all the work. They set up and took down all the gear each day. Everything was always in place when we arrived at our campsite each afternoon. They did all the cooking and clean up. The food was fabulous—better than some cruise lines we’ve been on. They also took care of our children. Everyday at lunchtime, we played games with a guide while lunch was prepared. When we arrived at the campsite, a guide would take over with beach volleyball, water football, arts and crafts(hemp bracelets, sand candles, games), etc. while the grownups could just hang out , have a drink (or two) and relax. The children ate a small children’s meal first each evening (burgers, pasta , mac and cheese, etc) and then ate again with the adults. After the first night, the kids ate at their own tables, giving the adults additional time to relax. In the evening, we had campfires and played games together. The guides joined in and it was a lot of fun. There were really nice to all of the children, especially Missy, who managed to stay in the center of things at all times.

Interestingly enough, while there was a lot of family togetherness on this trip, it was incredibly relaxing. During the day, we went our own way, so to speak. Eric might be in a ducky. Bob would be relaxing on an oar boat exchanging bad jokes with our guide James. Amy liked the paddle boat best. Missy liked to row a big boat herself. In fact, the only time we were all in one boat together was in the attached photo! Yet , we all had fun!

The rafting was fun. I’m sure that the water fights were carefully orchestrated in the afternoons, but they were enjoyed by all. We also did a little sightseeing each day which was both informative and enjoyable. We saw Indian pit houses, Chinese rock houses, and a Nez Perce Rance. We also stopped at a Nez Perce Historical Museum on the way to the river.

The trip ended with a final dinner at a restaurant. It was a nice way to get together one last time and really topped off the trip. I felt that the whole trip was truly memorable and could not think of anything to improve. Most of all, I think I will remember the stars at night. The sky was so big and every constellation was in sight.

This trip was comparable in price to what we paid for a Disney Cruise four four during Christmas week. We enjoyed both trips but I think this is the one that we will always remember. It is a costly vacation, but I think it is really worth the price.

From Eric Reif, age 13

"My trip to Idaho was really great! I spent almost all of the trip in the rubber kayak known as the “ducky.” The best part of the trip was kayaking, or duckying, through the rapids. The two biggest rapids (and, consequently, my two favorites) were Snow Hole and China, the latter having been named that way because of all the Chinese miners that settled there. Snow Hole, on the other hand, was given that name because, once you got into it, all you could see was white. For those people who raft, canoe, or kayak, China is a class III rapid and Snow Hole is a class IV. For the people who don’t raft, this translates to “really big” and “really really big.”

All of the people on the trip were very friendly and open. The most friendly people on the trip, though, were the incredible guides. On the river, they were always there to offer advice, tell stories, or point out interesting animals or sights. At camp, they played games, did activities, and lead hikes. I can’t imagine going on a trip without them.

The food was great, the guides were great, and the river was awesome. The only bad part of the trip was leaving. Actually, the only bad part was when we went back to the warehouse and smelled how horrible it smelled in there. A few seconds later, we realized that the smell was from a bunch of people who hadn’t showered in a week. I would really recommend this trip to anyone."

From Melissa Reif, age 10

My Salmon River trip was extremely fun and cool!!! The guides were Brian, Leila, Shari, Steve, Helen, and Jimbo. Every day, you could wake up, get your mug, and get hot chocolate or coffee, or you could be lazy and wait for them to bring it to you. My favorite meals were pancakes, deli sandwiches, and grilled cheese sandwiches. I loved making the sand castles, playing Hawk and Mouse, and the dizzy stick game. Every day, I got to go in a ducky. At the beach on one of the first days, I got “corndogged.” A corndog is when you get wet and then a guide rolls down a hill on the sand. Every morning and afternoon, we had a yoga class. The trip was so cool. I would like to do it again.

For more information about River Odysseys West (ROW), give them a call: (800) 451-6034 or visit them online at www.rowinc.com.


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