“Forward 3. Forward 3. Back 2. Left, back 2. Now, forward 6. Stop.” We threaded our boat through class III and IV rapids, avoiding submerged hazards with tight synchronized strokes. For five days our guide Jon Barker had delivered curt paddling instructions with the calm precision of a Swiss watchmaker. Or vital organ surgeon. After all, our safety was in his hands.
The boulder-strewn waters, or river Frogger with consequences, proved standard fare for Barker, a quiet confident man who had led this trip for 40 years nearly every week of every summer.
Our group, strangers molded into a temporal ersatz rowing team of six, were on the penultimate day of a weeklong sojourn run by Solitude River Trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Eons of wild, rushing water from its start high in the northern Rocky Mountains had sluiced a navigable canyon through this remote stretch of the Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness Area in Central Idaho. At over 2.3 million road-less acres, the Frank Church Wilderness remains the largest contiguous federally managed wilderness area in the United States outside of Alaska.
Seasons on the Salmon start with the gushing log flume of late spring meltwater, evolving into into the scenic pace of water depletion come fall. A dozen permitted outfits like Solitude organize whitewater rafting and fly-fishing expeditions throughout. For those who know, the Middle Fork, The Middle Fork, bears a near mythical status as the one of the best multi-day rafting trips in the world, in part because of the access to nature in absolute with little residual impact.
The search for solitude on a river of no return took four years to initiate, from my first communication in July 2017 with Willi Cannel, the owner of the company, to eventual departure in August 2021.
Life, scheduling conflicts, and a 2-year pandemic spanned the period in between.
During that time, reportage on the environment and its demise had escalated. Climate change ravaged the West earlier, faster, and harder from spontaneous wildfires triggered by hot rogue winds to tinder-dry vegetation wrought by ceaseless drought.
In a Catch-22, heat domes and thick humidity suffocating the Midwest, Southeast, and East Coast, pushed Americans into the arms of power-hungry air-conditioners for longer stretches. We had exited the Holocene for the Age of the Anthropocene.
As a Notes & Articles editor for Fordham’s Environmental Law Journal and the travel editor at a wine magazine—wine is agriculture, after all—I’d long tuned in to these crises before news sources like The Atlantic, The Guardian, or the NY Times committed full-time desks to climate coverage. As the rest of the world caught up, each broadcast, documentary, and article stoked fears for the future. Were the halcyon days of summer in the Great American West over, writers posited?
I silently succumbed to an emotional arc, moving from denial, anger, to bargaining, finally slipping into the trough of depression.
I consumed a diet of news clips and scientific reports. Headlines like Nature’s Unprecedented Decline, Coral Reefs Decimated by Acidification, Microplastics Found in Human Blood and Lungs, stole my attention from day-to-day life.
I shared articles with friends and family yet felt isolated in my worry. A search on Dr. Google turned up a diagnosis: I suffered from climate grief and eco-anxiety. The first, a mourning for ecological loss due to climate change; the second, a chronic fear of environmental doom.
In the weeks leading up to departure, images of unruly fires and jaundiced skies stretching across California, Wyoming, and Idaho, dominated news cycles. I wondered, for a minute, about the wisdom of floating down an isolated river, without cell service or electricity, for seven days through tree-dense wilderness.
Then I caught a train to Newark and boarded a plane to Boise.
On a frosty morning in August, I met with fellow travelers for a trip briefing in the tiny town of Stanley, pop. 263. Tucked into the rugged peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains, most Salmon River expeditions originated in this fur-trapper outpost turned adventure capital.
I finally put a face to four years of correspondence. Willi Cannel, his shoulder length blond hair pulled back into a ponytail, greeted us with a calm, low-key smile. He would not travel with us, as his wife was days from having their first baby. Instead, he shared safety tips and rules, all his wisdom clearly imbued with a love for the land. The most important policy, “leave no trace,” underlined the privilege we would share by floating through one of the country’s most remote and awesome wilderness regions. But for a footprint in the sand, no evidence of our ephemeral passage would be tolerated.
The next morning, we dropped our car at a Stanley motel, then boarded a bus to the airfield. Our bush plane pilot, an old-timer with decades of airtime, gave us the safety speech. “Don’t touch shit, don’t walk into the propeller, and we’ll be fine.”
The plane lifted gently off the airstrip. We had to alight on the river at a point below the notorious rapids of Velvet Falls, a wide shelf with a large drop reserved for experienced paddlers.
Peering out the tiny window at the surrounding mountains, I noted the charred thrashings of fire and tried to guess the age of each scar. Thousands of spindly trees, limbs long torched into atmospheric carbon, had fallen like spilt match sticks atop the pates of peaks.
Wild, but not untouched.
The pilot tipped the wing, angling towards the dirt landing strip of Indian Creek. Nearby, a frothy bend in the river hosted a flotilla of teal blue rafts, our transport for the week.
At river’s edge, we packed our dry bags which guides loaded on to the sweep boat, a raft outfitted with large blades at the end of long arms at the front and back of the boat. Manned by one pilot, these boats carry large volumes of gear from tents, sleeping bags, food, reusable plates and silverware, to waste from the “groover,” the portable river toilet.
Leave no trace.
The days started clear and bright. A nip to the morning air reflected our alpine start. The Middle Fork is over 116 miles long, has no dams, and descends over 4,000 feet in elevation. In fact, the Salmon River holds the second deepest river canyon, surpassing the Grand Canyon in vertical relief. The temperature would rise as we moved downstream.
Beneath the glinting sun, we floated through stands of orange-scaled ponderosa pines scenting the air with vanilla and cinnamon; past mule deer and their offspring munching on forbs and scrubby tufts; and beneath bold bald eagles and regal osprey, both weightless on the wind. Until called to action, I fell into a reverie induced by the timelessness of the ancient rocks and infinite air.
While most boat passengers fished, casting lazily for cutthroat trout while their guides paddled through obstacles, our crew confronted rapids with quirky names like Haystack, Devil’s Tooth, and House of Rocks.
Between exertions, I snapped photos, my phone a brick but for its camera. Expansive river scenes, tight canyon shots, and kayakers rolling into the rapids filled my frames.
Along the way, Barker, not just a guide, but a hunter and naturalist, and apparently, industry celebrity, explained the history or geology of points of interest. One afternoon, he took us hiking to hot springs. Another, to ocher-hued pictographs. He shared stories of his weekslong winter hunts which required pitching tents in the snow while stalking Bighorn Sheep.
Too modest to tell us himself, another guide named Dano, also legendary for his intimate knowledge of the river gleaned through decades of service, told our rafting squad that a book had been written about Barker and another whitewater guide, Clancy Reece. Anything Worth Doing: A True Story of Adventure, Friendship and Tragedy on the Last of the West’s Great Rivers detailed the duo’s 1996 pursuit of a 24-hour rafting record on the Salmon.
The rest of us shared origin stories. One couple hailed from Boise. Another from New York. A hand doctor, a NASA scientist, an entrepreneur, then the real nuggets. Why were you here? What do you hope to find – or leave behind? We agreed, the spartan life came easier than expected. Why did we need all that stuff back home? All that noise?
By the fourth day, faint swirls of smoke seeped into the valley. One night around 3 AM, several in the group coughed in their tents. “Did everyone have Covid?” I wondered, sputtering quietly so as not to alarm my sleeping neighbors. In the morning we learned that a drift from a California fire had passed through our campsite.
Wild, but not untouched.
The following day, we entered a wide, placid stretch where we floated quietly, soaking up the majesty of the moment. Then thumping reverberations broke across the air. We looked up. A black speck grew into a helicopter, fast closing the gap to a watering hole nearby. An orange bag swung from the chopper’s belly. The pilot lowered the bucket below the water line, filled up, and sped off to a nearby drop. Fighting a fire, a guide said. Not far away.
Wild, but not untouched.
We finished the day high on adrenaline, our hearts racing from conquering a set of churning rapids for which Barker had prepped us perfectly. As the raft shot into flat water, Steve, the group’s self-appointed second captain, jumped out to tug us ashore.
“More accidents happen getting in and out of the boat than on the water” we’d been warned during our briefing. Cautiously, I picked my way across the slippery rocks, leaving my yellow paddle and black helmet strapped inside to dry. Barker tied up the boat while we strode towards dry ground to pick a tent for the night.
We scanned the dozen green domes comprising our temporary village. Each day, the sweep boat landed early to set up the campsite as part of the outfit’s glamping offer. My husband and I settled on a domicile tucked between two lofty pines standing sentry over a triangle of stony beach. Dumping my dry bag in the tent, I exchanged my Tevas for water shoes and my wicking shorts for a bathing suit. I beelined for an eddy where several in the group were cooling off.
At dinner, we tucked into thick-cut grilled pork chops, wild salmon, scratch made skillet corn bread and Dutch oven cobbler, a repast to shame any fully staffed and fully-equipped restaurant. River guides by day turned chefs at night, I suggested the Solitude team open a floating pop-up restaurant.
After eating, we read books, took notes on the day’s discoveries, or studied the glittering celestial canvas above us. Central Idaho has one of the darkest skies in America. But mostly, we drank beer and talked.
The small-group wilderness experience – we had about 30 in our cadre – recalled travel from the 90s or early aughts. The era before Garmins, then smartphones, Google maps, and social media, ruled our lives. Rather, paper maps, printed guidebooks, and tips gleaned at dive bars while passing time waiting for a rambling old train, informed an itinerary. It was travel that demanded engagement with your surroundings and facilitated friendships with strangers. Travel that required presence. Today, we call that mindfulness. Back then, it just was.
Over the course of a week, the nervous tic of checking my phone for messages, headlines, or Facebook arguments, dissolved into nothing. We joked that a zombie apocalypse could be unfolding outside the sanctum of the canyon’s walls, and we wouldn’t know it. It had been years since I’d felt peacefully adrift, untethered to stuff. To noise. To worry.
Though we never encountered any immediate danger, we saw signs of planetary distress. Haze. Fire scars. Depleted water levels from diminishing snowpack. Rapids that changed as new rocks surfaced. On the hottest days, anglers packed up their flies to avoid harming the fish. Catch and release strains trout when river temperatures surpass 70 degrees.
Wild, but not untouched.
Even where humans tread lightly, our collective impact touches everything.
But rather than suffer despondency from bearing witness to humanity’s irreparable harm, my real-world reaction spurred by this rare taste of solitude, proved the opposite. The world, though fragile, remained beautiful and worthwhile and I needed to value that.
Acceptance, the fifth stage of grief, settled in. Communion with others, away from society, immersed in nature, were exactly the coping strategies prescribed for this growing form of existential angst. It turned out an eco-friendly float down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River with Solitude River Trips filled the prescription.
Solitude Rive Trips runs five and six-day rafting and fishing trips.
Five days of rafting (June 5) costs $2950 per person
Six days of rafting (June/July/August) costs $3250 per person
Six days of fly fishing (June/July/August) costs $4550 per person
Trips book 1-2 years in advance. Solitude is taking reservations for 2023 and 2024