White Water Rafting Trip - Six Days on the Salmon River

Six day trip on the Salmon River in Idaho. Featuring: The Salmon River, Idaho, Salmon River Rafting, The Salmon River Lodge, White Water Rafting, Salmon, Idaho, McCall, Idaho.


9/6/20220 min read

I’ve always said that white water rafting was one activity that I had no interest in ever partaking in. So when my best childhood friend, Karyl reached out a few months ago inviting me along on such a trip, I didn’t just say “no”, I said a hearty “heck no, but thanks for asking.” 

She pointed out that this was a highly coveted and sought after six-day rafting expedition on the permit-only Salmon river in Idaho in mid-August. And that it would be led by her niece Kate Burke, a highly renowned, world-class rafting guide. Karyl was organizing the activity for a very special group of ladies, members of The Paisley Project, a support organization for widows, along with some of their friends. Then she told me that her father Bob would also be coming on the trip. What?? 

I’ll admit that I did begin to feel a bit wimpy about adamantly refusing to participate in this opportunity out of fear, knowing that an 80-year-old man would be in attendance. So, out of curiosity, I started to do what I do best: over-research, overanalyze and overthink the idea of maybe, just maybe actually going. I watched YouTube videos of other Salmon River rafting trips, and not only did I see plenty of older people, I also saw plenty of young children. They all looked like they were having the time of their lives, relaxing and playing games on soft, sandy beaches, eating gourmet meals, and of course laughing joyfully while rafting down crazy looking river rapids. 

In my research, I learned that the location of the Salmon River is within the “Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.” I’m not kidding, that is the actual name(!) of this region which is home to the second deepest canyon in North America…even deeper than the famed Grand Canyon! It is the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48, and the Salmon River is a designated Wild and Scenic river allowing it to remain in its completely natural and unaltered state. 

After a few days of back-and-forth thinking, I let Karyl know that I had changed my mind and I would in fact be coming along on the trip! This was before I soon learned that I would also be required to face another fear/adamantly “not gonna happen” thing for me. Not only had I committed to rafting the raging class III and IV rapids, I also unwittingly agreed to fly to the remote river location on an 8-passenger (what I like to call) “Barbie” plane!

Before I had time to come to my senses and change my mind, the big first day of travel arrived. I flew from Nashville, TN to Boise, ID (on a nice, normal-sized Southwest Airlines plane) before meeting up with all of the new friends who I would be embarking on this adventure with. What an amazing and varied group of women they were! We had dinner together, before spending the night at a hotel near the airport.

The next day we boarded the terrifying tiny planes for the hour and a half flight to Salmon, Idaho. Our group of 11 people was divided between two planes. Mine, carried eight passengers, and the second plane had only four! Not gonna lie, it wasn’t my favorite part of the trip and something I’m hoping to never have to do again, but it got us to where we needed to be.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by our amazing head guide, Kate Burke, who loaded us up in a large van for the 2 1/2 hour drive to the Salmon River Lodge, our accommodation for the evening. The rustic lodge has recently been bought my new owners who intend to invest in a renovation project which will no doubt make this already outstanding outfitter even more desirable.

After a delicious dinner at the lodge followed by a hearty breakfast the next morning, we were given an informational briefing by Kate on what to expect for the day as well as the upcoming week. We were supplied with sleeping bags and waterproof dry bags to pack our personal belongings in.

Being an over-packer in general, this part was tough for me, considering we were limited to a duffel bag weighing no more than 30 pounds. I’m the gal everyone can turn to when traveling and know that I’ll probably have whatever random item they might be needing. Before this voyage into the unknown, I had spent hours painstakingly packing and re-packing and minimizing to the best of my ability. I tried to include everything I might want or need while at the same time reducing anything extra, in order to stay within that 30 pound limit. Two areas that I refused to skimp on were related to comfortable sleep (at least to the degree that is possible when we are talking about metal pole cots and sleeping bags) and natural medicine. I’m not too embarrassed to admit that I did pack a half size version of my favorite dense foam pillow, a silky sleeping bag liner, a large soft scarf that doubles as a cozy blanket, and my favorite cool bamboo nightgown. (Ladies of a certain age who deal with hot flashes and night sweats will not question this choice.)

My natural medicines were also in fact useful, perhaps even more so for my travel companions than for myself this time around. The lavender essential oil (part of my travel keychain of various commonly used oils) came in handy for wasp stings. The antimicrobial silver wound gel was helpful to those with foot blisters and scrapes from rocks.

Once all of the gear for the week was fully loaded, Kate introduced us to our other three guides for the expedition: Ben, Sebastian and Sammy (more on these amazing young people later) and assigned us each to one of four rafts. Each raft had a set of large oars in the back which were used by the guides to steer and maneuver the rafts.

The “gear raft” was used exactly as the name implies, heavily loaded with gear and one guide who would travel ahead of the rest of the group to each night’s campsite to begin setting up camp. We affectionately referred to the two “oar rafts” as the “Queen of Sheba” rafts as the passengers in front weren’t expected to do anything other than relax and enjoy the ride, while the guide did all the work from behind us. The final “paddle raft” allowed 6 passengers the opportunity to paddle through the rapids under the direction of the guide, which made for an exciting experience, as well as the opportunity to be cooled off by the splashing water.

In addition to the rafts, there were two inflatable kayaks available for use by anyone interested in trying their hand at pursuing the rapids in an extra daring way. Karyl and I, being slightly more “risk averse” enjoyed a relaxing time reminiscing about memories from our youth while kayaking down one of the calmer sections of the river.

Each morning, we were given the opportunity to decide which type of raft we wanted to be on that day. I loved having the chance to try out the different options throughout the week. Although I came into this adventure with a very deep-seated fear of white water rafting, it wasn’t long into the first day on the river that I was able to relax and begin to laugh and actually enjoy the excitement of going through the bumpy rapids. Kate’s safety briefing before heading out the first day (and several online rafting safety videos I will admit to watching at home beforehand) along with the obvious skill of our guides, helped me to feel more confident and able to enjoy the experience.

There is no cell phone service or electricity and very few roads with access to the river within this vast wilderness. It was a bit unnerving while at the same time freeing to feel so completely disconnected from the world outside of our experience.

One of my favorite aspects of the trip was the time spent relaxing, and savoring delicious meals with friends on the beautiful sandy beach camps. Mornings were surprisingly leisurely, drinking coffee and eating a hot, homemade breakfast before packing up our tents and belongings. Most mornings we weren’t on the river before about 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. This strategic timing allowed us to be at the white sand (aka HOT) campsites during the milder parts of the day, and on the cool river during the warmest times. We would arrive to each new camp location in the late afternoon or early evening, with a warm welcome from the gear raft guide who had gotten there well ahead of us to set everything up. Soon after, we’d be enjoying delicious pre-dinner appetizers consisting of treats ranging from fresh tomato bruschetta to homemade spinach dip with pita chips to a beautifully displayed charcuterie board.

The four guides rotated cooking and cleanup responsibilities. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that food just always tastes better when you’re camping or if it was the incredible cooking skills of the guides, but we were genuinely blown away by the impressive and delicious dinners we were treated to each night! The variety of downright tasty meals that they were able to quickly produce utilizing a grill and some cast iron dutch ovens was beyond anything I could have imagined. We enjoyed a variety of delicious meals including salmon, enchilada casseroles, lasagna, barbecue ribs and southern side dishes, and even a fancy steak dinner on our last celebratory evening together.

Besides the gourmet food, all of the little special touches they thought of truly created a magical ambience each evening. Candles on the table, twinkle lights draped across nearby branches and even music on occasion were lovely touches that we noticed and genuinely appreciated. As if the savory dinners weren’t enough, each night we were excited to see what sort of sweet dessert was to come. Two of my favorites were the delectable carrot cake (who knew you could produce that in a dutch oven?!) and the s’mores night where we gathered around the campfire, laughing and roasting marshmallows.

In addition to being incredibly good cooks, our guides on this trip continually impressed us in more ways than I think I can properly describe. Kate is in her early thirties and Ben, Sebastian and Sammy are in their early twenties, but all are incredibly mature and highly skilled despite their youth. Each one possessed such impressive talent in strategically navigating all of the ever changing nuances of the river, while under especially challenging circumstances this particular week. Several days prior, a massive storm had caused a blowout due to a mudslide on the upper portion of the river. This caused the normally clear waters of the Salmon to be murky and somewhat brown due to stirring sediment that went on for almost the full 80+ miles that we traveled. So, while the guides are normally able to view the rocks beneath the water’s surface to help them navigate the best paths, this time they were forced to rely much more on their instincts and their ingrained knowledge of this particular section on the river. If they had any qualms about the situation, they certainly never let on, but instead remained relaxed and confident throughout.

Besides being able to prepare delicious meals and skillfully navigate a wild river, the guides each also possessed an incredible ability to connect with us guests in a way that made us feel like a family for that one very special week. We loved Sammy’s attitude of enthusiastically cheering everyone on, and the way (wise beyond his years) Ben genuinely enjoyed chatting at length with everyone, especially Karyl’s dad Bob. Sebastian had a way of making everyone laugh with his playful attitude. Their cheerful demeanor never seemed to waiver in the least bit despite the incredible amount of hard work they put in with little sleep and very few breaks.

Kate truly exemplified the perfect characteristics of someone in her position, always the calm, confident leader. She had a way of making everyone feel protected and cared for. I’ll forever remember and smile at the vision of her gently washing and bandaging poor Bob’s blistered feet (sidenote - make sure your new water shoes fit well and are broken in before a trip).

Kate did a lot of other little things that added up to having a very big impact on our overall experience. Some days she would gather us around to listen as she read excerpts from books detailing the stories of the rugged individuals who made their homes on the Salmon River in years past. She would then follow up by taking us to see their homesteads where we could witness in person the places she had taught us about. Her efforts in sharing such relevant information really made the history of this river and its former residents come to life for us. The Buckskin Bill museum and homestead was definitely a favorite stop. We were able to see the stunning oasis this genius man had created in the woods and as a bonus, the small store onsite sold ice cream!

Other trip highlights were stopping to view rust-red pictographs left behind many years ago by Indians, and also the day we visited a hot spring along the river. We waited our turn at this spot which is very popular among all the different rafting outfitters, until our entire group was able to climb up and into the large natural hot tub carved into the cliffside. Near the end of the trip, we experienced another unexpected, special location during a lunch stop. Kate asked us to follow her on a short hike away from the riverside beach which led to a stunning oasis. We saw a creek that filled a shallow, crystal clear pool of frigid (yet unbelievably refreshing!) water that we soon took turns submerging ourselves in. These were the types of little surprises that made this adventure all the more unique and special.

In addition to the places Kate took us and the things she taught us, she also wove in other meaningful experiences throughout the week. There were activities that helped us to bond as a group and to fully appreciate the gift of such a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I found myself laughing and claiming that Kate really just wanted to see how many times she could start a conversation or ask a thought provoking question that would lead to making me cry.

The two questions I’ve been asked most about since returning home from my adventure have related to our sleeping arrangements and perhaps most intriguing… the bathroom situation. I’ll admit, these two issues were probably highest on my list of concerns before this trip, even more so than my fear of drowning on the river. First I’ll discuss the sleeping. We were each provided a camping cot, pad, and sleeping bag. We had access to camping tents that some, including myself chose to sleep in. Many others simply used the tents to store their personal belongings in, and as changing rooms, while they actually slept out under the stars. I feel like I sort of got the best of both worlds as I kept the angled walls of the tent open most of the night, allowing pretty much a full sky view, with the option to zip the tent closed when I began to get chilly in the mornings. I’ll be the first to admit that I am an extremely high maintenance sleeper. You might say I’m a bit of a “Princess and the Pea” type. If everything is not exactly perfect and comfortable, I will most likely be laying awake all night. Which is exactly what I did the first night on the river. I don’t believe I actually slept at all, but rather I “rested” a bit, while enjoying the ever changing night-sky view of the brightest stars and moon I’ve probably ever seen. Thankfully as the week went on, my ever increasing level of tiredness helped me to actually sleep a bit, in spite of the sweaty sleeping bag beneath me and the metal cot bars poking into my body. The rest of our group, who I believe were much less fussy sleepers than me, seemed to do fine.

Next is the answer to the questions regarding the bathroom procedure. I learned that the official term for the camp potty is the “groover.” The guide who sets up camp daily is responsible for selecting a very specific location for the groover. Ideally, it is placed far enough away from camp to be hidden from sight, while simultaneously allowing one to enjoy a beautiful view while using the facilities. (I have personally never felt that a good view was one of my priorities in that situation, but apparently it’s an important tradition.) Each new camp day brought a fresh adventure in traipsing, or in some cases what felt more like hiking, to the groover. By the end of the week, I was barely phased by the idea of sitting on a bucket in plain view to all of the nature around me and the often times wide-open river in front of me. However, I never did get comfortable with having to leave my tent to go hike to the potty in the pitch dark silence of the middle of the night. Unfortunately my uncooperative bladder never would allow me to make it through to morning without having to brave the terrifying night time trek. And yes, there are bears in this forest, (not to mention the poisonous snakes!) but we were told that these particular bears generally have no interest in people, so I had to just trust that as truth and pray for my survival each night.

Our final day consisted of half a day on the river (including one more especially wild and fun rapid) followed by a five hour drive in the van back to Boise. Kate stopped for gas in the adorable lakefront town of McCall, allowing us the opportunity to run into one of the cute shops along the quaint main road for some ice cream.

Although it had been nearly a full week since any of us had showered or washed our hair, it was dinner time upon our arrival in Boise and we were hungry. We shared one last special evening meal together at the stylish Matador (contemporary Mexican) restaurant. It was in a chic and lively area with gas-lamp lit outdoor seating areas that reminded me a bit of parts of Italy. I think several of us commented about how nice it was to once again use flushing indoor toilets (and without fear for our survival while rambling to the facilities.)

Speaking of survival, upon my return home the next day, I realized that my family seemed to have been just about as worried about how I might do in the wilderness as I had been. I think we were all pleasantly surprised that I emerged not only physically unscathed, but emotionally enriched by the experience. My husband Rob picked me up from the airport and I’m pretty sure I chattered non-stop throughout our Cracker Barrel dinner break on the way home. It truly felt a bit like experiencing the reintegration I imagine astronauts go through upon returning to earth. It genuinely seemed as though I had been in another world altogether. The noise of traffic and the feel of air conditioning were jarring reminders that I was indeed back.

While I missed the joys of being in nature, seeing the darkest skies and the brightest stars, feeling the splash of cool water on my sun-parched skin, drinking morning coffee with sand under my feet and having lovely conversations with even lovelier people…it sure felt spectacular to sleep in my own comfy bed that night! Why is it that it always feels so good to come back home, even from a really great trip? I think for me, it’s partly due to the fact that it means I can start planning for the next adventure. Onward ho!

Scroll down for trip photos! …