A rafting experience you won’t soon forget

On this river, you’re swept downstream and into a new, fresh existence.” (And what a great place to social distance!)

I have rafted rivers from the Russian Arctic to Alaska, but I was never more in awe than when I first experienced Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River. It was in the summer of 1986, and it was spellbinding.

Looking up at immense cliffs, I saw rare bighorn sheep peering down on our passing raft. I remember soaking in natural hot springs along the river and gazing up at an inky sky ablaze with a million stars.

I also recall the feeling of utter calm that overcame me the day after we launched. When you are on the river, you’re living on its terms and are part of its cycles. You are swept downstream and into a new, fresh existence. There is no turning back.

David Cline and his son, Charlie.
David Cline and his son, Charlie.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon flows through the three-million-acre Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness. In 1968 the Middle Fork was one of only eight pristine freshwater streams included in the original National Wild and Scenic River Act.

Approximately 10,000 visitors raft the river each year, from late May through early September. This is the so-called “lottery season,” when the U.S. Forest Service awards specific launch dates to private rafters and commercial outfitters to protect the river from overcrowding and assure everyone a quality wilderness experience. A typical trip includes six days on the river and five overnight camps on bars. 

Over 104 miles, 102 named campsites are assigned in advance to each group. Campers must practice a strict Leave No Trace principle—all firewood must be brought in and lit in steel fire pans; all human and food waste must be contained and carried out.  

David and Heidi Cline of Middle Fork Adventures host visitors on weeklong raft trips. “You could spend 10 lifetimes exploring this vast wilderness and never see it all,” says David. He and his wife welcome young and old guests from all over the world, including many families, and provide delicious riverside meals. 

“We met on a river in Colorado, and we were married on an island,” David recalls. We were young whitewater guides.” Several years ago, he says, they came to the realization that they could either spend the rest of their lives as dirt-poor rafting guides, and likely never have a family, or start their own outfitting operation. They moved to Idaho.   

“Most of all,” David says, “I want to share this wonderful place with our two sons.” Charlie is four and Dylan is one. Last summer, Charlie experienced his first trip on the river, camping under the stars and feeling the thrill of racing through the rushing rapids. Since then, he has been asking, “Daddy, are we going back?’

A Bit of History

For some 3,000 years, the nomadic Tuka-Deka or mountain sheepeater people lived along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. They subsisted mostly on bighorn sheep, which skilled hunters killed from talus rock blinds as the animals came down to the river to drink. They also gathered freshwater mussels and steamed them in ovens. On sheltered rock walls and hidden caves, the curious explorer can still find their ancient written history: astonishing red ochre pictographs painted by shamans using dehydrated iron oxide mixed with clay—sacred visions of the animals and the hunt.