In spring, or after heavy rains, the Mill River can develop a pretty impressive current, and it's possible to ride a canoe or a kayak from below the Samp Mortar dam all the way to Southport Harbor. Someday I'm going to give it a try, but I need some practice. Recently, I got more than enough in Idaho, on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
Idaho, like all western states, exists on a scale that is hard to grasp. At 84,000 square miles, it has plenty of room to accommodate its 1.5 million inhabitants. Our 5,500-square-mile state could be tucked away almost anywhere in Idaho without anyone noticing, but the 3.5 million people crammed into our puny state would bump Idaho's population to 5 million. In fairness, Connecticut has a two-century advantage in populating itself with non-indigenous Americans, and a big chunk of Idaho is taken up by the Rocky Mountains. Even so, if Connecticut feels overcrowded to you, may I suggest Idaho as one place you can really spread out.
A highlight of the pre-trip day in Boise was the Idaho State Capitol. An imposing domed building rivaling Connecticut's, its interior is finished entirely in marble. But there the formalities ended. There was no security in evidence at the main entrance, or anywhere within, to keep an eye on our disheveled group of four, even as we showed ourselves around the Senate and House chambers. We walked into the outer office of Gov. "Butch" Otter to ask if we could take photos under his portrait. His secretary said sure, but wouldn't we rather go in, as the governor was out of town? Go in? Stunned, we were waved unescorted into the wood-paneled, cowboy-chic office of the governor of Idaho. We took turns sitting behind his desk. I vetoed a few bills I didn't like the looks of, and declared a state of emergency because Idaho was experiencing a critical shortage of decent bagels.
The next day we went to the mountain town of Stanley to meet up with the rest of our group (10 in all), and our four superb young guides from ARTA River Trips. We stowed our gear in watertight sacks and set out on a six-day, 100-mile rafting journey.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River takes a northerly course through the Rockies to its confluence with the main Salmon, winding through a remote, unspoiled alpine wilderness. Don't bother bringing your smartphone-- there will be no contact with the outside world beyond the majestic cliffs and massive hills of Ponderosa pine. Our only company besides a few other rafting groups was bald eagles, bighorn sheep, deer and river otters, to name a few.
The river exacts a price for its beauty. The Middle Fork descends from 6,200 feet above sea level to 3,900 feet, a drop sufficient to create a string of whitewater rapids with endearing names such as Powerhouse, Artillery, Jackass and Devil's Tooth. Rapids are generally classified I through VI, VI being reserved for fools, experts or foolish experts. We had a lot of III's (plenty exciting enough for me) and a few IV's (where you explore the thin line between excitement and fear).
We had our choice of inflatable river craft: a large, stable equipment raft, powered by a guide with heavy wooden oars, with a few seats in the front; a smaller, more challenging paddle raft that held a team of up to six paddlers and a guide at the stern; and two inflatable kayaks, called IK's or "duckies." So, on any given day you could proceed down the river like a pharaoh in the equipment raft, get a workout and real thrills on the paddle raft, or see your life repeatedly flashing before you in the duckie. I spent one morning in a duckie, and although I have repressed all memories of it, I'm told I did well and enjoyed myself.
Life vests and helmets are required at all times, and you're taught how to "swim" rapids if you're tossed overboard (always a possibility). Even after a few days, with each approaching rapid there is a brief and desperate reconsideration of the risks and rewards, but of course it's far too late for such thoughts; there's no emergency cord to pull, and you're going in. You hunker down, paddle like your life depends on it, and whoop and pump your fist when you come out the other side, drenched and gleeful.
Six days of rafting and camping get you right back to basics. If you get wet (and you will), you get dry again. You dispense with formal bathing, relying on a dip in the river or a rinse provided by a natural hot spring. It is pointless to pay any attention to your hair. You can wear the same quick-dry clothes over and over. All food, cold or hot, tastes great, even "cowboy coffee." You can sleep on the ground (OK, we had pads). Your "bathroom" is en plein aire with spectacular views.
So, bring on the Mill River! You can practice up in Idaho, too, but be sure to stop off in Boise and take a turn at being governor.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at email@example.com.