Mike McKenna is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor based out of Hailey, ID. McKenna is the author of Angling Around Sun Valley, winner of the 2014 Best Book of the Year award from the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association, and currently at work on a second book, Casting Around the Eastern Sierra. For more information, please visit
Going Wild for the Middle Fork
Families bond, new friends are made on Idaho's wild river.
In the whitewater rafting world, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho is the stuff of legend. It offers nearly 100 miles of some of the best whitewater, fly fishing, and scenery on the planet, all while carving its way one through one of the deepest canyons and the largest continuous wilderness area in the lower 48 states.
But what really makes the weeklong river trip so special is that it appeals to people who’ve never been rafting—or even gone camping—before. There is something magical about the experience that calls to people from all over the world.
Each summer, thousands make the trek to the mountains of the Gem State to take a river trip through the massive 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area. It is some of the wildest and most remote terrain left in America. The type of raw beauty and utter isolation that’s tough to find nowadays. And there’s really only one way to see it, feel it and truly experience it, and that’s from a raft.
On a crisp July morning in Stanley, Idaho, our group of 20 guests began to meet one another as we started the first leg of our adventure, a short van ride to the town’s tiny airport. The host of our seven-day, six-night adventure was Solitude River Trips, the only Orvis-endorsed company on the Middle Fork and one of the most highly respected and longest tenured outfitters in Idaho.
With a slightly lower than average snowpack the winter before, the Middle Fork was running low (about 1.8 cubic feet per second), meaning our group had to fly into Indian Creek instead of putting in higher upriver at Boundary Creek.
While this does cut some miles and fun whitewater off the float, it makes up for that by taking guests on a backcountry plane flight.
There were eight of us guests in the twin prop plane, and it’s doubtful any of us will have a more impressive view at takeoff. We began our adventure by flying straight towards the mighty Sawtooth Mountains, before banking and heading into the wilds of Idaho.
After a 20-minute flight over miles of forested mountains, much of which has burned over the years, we were the last of a handful of planes to land on the dirt strip alongside the river.
The nervous and excited energy of our group was palpable as we mingled and admired the river ripping by. This was my second trip on the Middle Fork, the first being a private trip for my honeymoon 13 summers before. After Solitude’s well-seasoned crew of eight introduced themselves and gave us all a quick safety speech, we donned life jackets and loaded aboard the fleet.
Our trip consisted of one wooden drift boat, three rubber oar rafts, a paddle raft, several inflatable kayaks or “duckies,” and a 24-foot-long sweep boat, a large cargo raft with long oars at the bow and stern. Sweep boats aren’t used in many places besides the undammed, free-flowing Middle Fork.
The trip was essentially divided into those who wanted to fly fish and those who didn’t. Being of the first variety, I boarded the drift boat with professional photographer Kat Smith, and before all the boats had even launched I was lucky enough to hook into a healthy, native and wild Westslope cutthroat trout. The game was on!
All images by KatSmith
Grooving on a Summer Afternoon
One of the things that makes Solitude special is that they do a great job of running mixed-interest trips. There is literally something for the whole family to enjoy. While some folks like me are hooked on trying to catch trout on a fly, others want the excitement of a paddle raft or a duckie through the rapids, or to stop and hike to points of interest like waterfalls and Native American pictographs.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon is also ideal for those who don’t want to do much more than enjoy the scenery. The river and its surroundings are home to all kinds of wildlife, including big horn sheep, black bear, deer, elk, beaver, otter, waterfowl like great blue herons, upland game birds like chukars, and birds of prey like ospreys and bald eagles.
The boat rowed by 66-year-old Daniel “Dano” Hawley was dubbed the “champagne cruise” and was usually taken by those who wanted a little more rest and relaxation, at least for a day or two. Just about everyone on the trip spent some time on Dano’s “champagne cruise.”
“There’s something special about people who want to run a river,” said Dano, who calls Ketchum, Idaho, home and began running trips on the Salmon River in 1972.
Dano said that even though the river is always changing in subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—ways, the experience of it doesn’t. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s beautiful. You get to meet lots of interesting people from all over the world. Who wouldn’t want to run the river? I’ll keep running it for as long as I’m having fun,” he said.
The people on our trip traveled from Michigan, Tennessee, Nevada, Colorado, Montana, Texas, Washington, and Arizona. My hour or so drive from over the mountains in Hailey was by far the shortest trek anyone on the trip had to make.
As we sat down at the long dinner table that first night for drinks and appetizers it quickly became apparent that our collection of strangers wouldn’t stay that way for long. The group was made up of a couple of families, several couples, and a few single folks. Photographer, Kat Smith, also had her Australian Shepherd, Brooke, on the trip as a fury mascot.
What was immediately surprising to a somewhat seasoned Idaho river rafter like myself was that quite a few members of the group had never rafted or even camped before in their lives, let alone for a week in the wilds of the Northern Rockies. But it didn’t seem to take long for them to acclimate to everything but the groover.
The groover is what they call the toilet on river trips, and since the Middle Fork is in a national wilderness area everything that’s packed in must be packed out. So each night the groover is set up slightly away from camp and usually offers the best views you’ll ever find while you’re taking care of business. While it can take some getting used to, the entire group eventually got into the groove of it and it soon became the butt of many jokes.
The Wow Factor
“One of the things that makes this experience so special is that when you’re out here, everyone is out of their elements. We’re way out here, 60 miles from the nearest paved road. There are no cellphones or TVs. There are no titles out here. Everyone’s on the same page, everyone is equal, so it’s easy for them to connect with each other and the experience,” Solitude’s owner and member of the Social Register Association, Willi Cannell, explained.
Willi was born in Maine of German heritage—thus the spelling of his name—but really grew up in Sun Valley, Idaho. Willi went on his first river trip on the Main Salmon when he was in ninth grade and was instantly hooked.
“It was really eye-opening,” he said. “It’s such an impactful thing for someone that age.”
Willi spent the better part of a decade working as a guide for a couple of different outfitters, including summer breaks from college at St. Lawrence University, before buying Solitude River Trips a couple of years ago. Though only in his late 20s, Willi has a wisdom and knowledge of river life beyond most. He also has a passion for sharing the place and the experience he loves so much, rafting the Middle Fork.
“What I enjoy most about being an outfitter is sharing this,” Willi said, as he guided the sweep boat down the cascading river. “It’s unbelievable to see the variety of reactions to the wilderness. It really impacts people. The more people who experience the Salmon River, the better the world becomes.”
Most guests on a Middle Fork trip don’t know exactly what to expect. Whether guests have been rafting before and have some idea or they’ve never been and don’t have a clue, the objective of any good outfitter is to surpass any guest’s expectations. And that’s always the goal at Solitude.
“When you’re out on the river, you want things to be special. You want things to be big, like a pork chop the size of your head,” Willi said, referencing several jokes made about the size of the mouthwatering meal the night before. “You want that ‘wow factor.’”
We Are Family
Rhett Harris and his family are from “Nashville America,” as the former radio announcer joked. His family of four, including a college-bound son and another still in high school, had never rafted or camped before. They weren’t exactly sure what to expect from the trip, but they were quickly wowed by the experience, the service and the food.
“Nothing compares to this. This is ‘oohing and aaahing’ to the max. Nothing gets boring out here,” Rhett said in an accent that still has traces of his Louisiana upbringing. “The scenery, the hiking, the fishing, the conversations with interesting people from all over America, the food. They have a gourmet kitchen in the wilderness. I was hoping this would be a good time, but it surpassed all my expectations.”
Rhett and his family often go on cruises—which are similar in price and the main competition for Middle Fork trips—but heard about the wild and amazing river trip in Idaho from some friends. Part of the appeal of the Middle Fork was to “get `em away from the TV and the phone,” Rhett said. Both the Harris boys, 19-year-old Drew and 16-year-old Joe, couldn’t remember a single day in their lives before the trip when they didn’t have phones in their hands. But they said they soon forgot about them and got swept up in the charm of the river.
“We didn’t know what to expect, but it’s better than we thought it would be,” Joe said. “It’s just such a cool experience.”
“To be honest, we’re probably enjoying this more than our folks have and more than we thought we would,” said Drew, who had never fly fished before but got hooked on it during the trip.
“The one word to describe a Solitude River Trip is ‘family,’” said Joe, who enjoys cooking so much he helped the crew out in the kitchen most nights. “Everyone takes care of each other. Everyone here is experiencing the same things together. It feels like a big family.”
It is nothing shy of amazing how spending a week on a river trip can make people who had been complete strangers only days before feel like family. It’s also impressive how the trip can reconnect families and couples with one another and with what’s really important in life.
Moving water carving its way through some of Mother Nature’s finest work is pretty powerful stuff when you can spend some time in its midst.
Amy Tremper and her family of four, plus their youngest son’s longtime girlfriend, all made the trek to Idaho from Michigan. They have long enjoyed taking family trips to hike, fish and raft throughout the West, though they’d usually eschew tents in lieu of hotel rooms. What appealed to Amy about taking a trip with Solitude is that they not only offered all three activities, they also do all the cooking and take care of just about everything else as well.
“I said I’d go as long as I didn’t have to cook or set up the tents, then I’m golden,” said Amy, who is a successful gynecologist, as we enjoyed drinks and watched the river roll by one evening.
For Amy, another enticing thing about a rafting trip on the Middle Fork was the appeal to the whole family. Her husband, Kevin, a professor and chair of the anesthesiology department at the University of Michigan, is a gifted fly fisherman, so she knew he’d enjoy the trip. Her sons, 26-year-old Tyler, 23-year-old Connor and his 24-year-old girlfriend, Lindsey Holland, were all up for the adventure of a whitewater trip in the wilderness. So if they were all happy, Amy figured she’d be happy, too. But she never thought she’d enjoy the trip as much as she did.
“It was beyond my expectations in a positive way. I liked all the local color the guides had to offer. It was fun to learn how to cast. I didn’t realize it before but I really like to fly fish,” she said on the last night of the trip. “If you didn’t feel comfortable doing something there was so much opportunity to find something you were comfortable with. You never get bored out here.”
Like the rest of us, Amy also enjoyed getting to know and connect with like-minded people.
“It’s been a real pleasure to meet all these people. You bond. You bond with them and a lot more with family members. They have absolutely loved this,” she said.
“Dad made us do it,” Connor joked.
“We were definitely a little apprehensive,” Lindsey agreed. “But it was awesome.”
“It was a great experience. I don’t know how you could do anything that can match this, the sense of excitement,” said Tyler, who also got hooked on fly fishing during the trip.
“I thought it would be great, but it was better. The people, the scenery, the fishing, the food, you can’t beat it,” Kevin said.
“And the wine was really good, too,” Amy added with a smile.
Hooked on the Middle Fork
While a lot of companies offer trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon only one of them meets the rigorous standards that earn an endorsement by Orvis.
One of the big reasons why Solitude River Trips is connected with America’s premiere outfitting company is the quality and experience of their guides. While the average Middle Fork guide for most companies is about 20 or so years old, the average Solitude guide has been on the river long enough to be the other guides’ dad, or even their granddad.
Mike Gehrman grew up on the McKenzie River in Oregon and built his first boat with his dad when he was just 10. Mike began guiding in 1968, taking his first trip on the Middle Fork in 1978.
At the tender age of 72, he still handles the wooden
McKenzie-style drift boat he made himself with an ease and skillset those 20-somethings can only dream of. Mike seems ageless with the oars in his hands. It’s not until you see him slowly shuffling across the rocky banks that you realize he’s no longer a young buck.
“Being out here is like having a sponge that soaks up everything that’s been stressing you out: work, family, whatever. After one day it kicks in. After six days it’s weird to see a car again. Nature therapy,” Mike said. “These memories and these moments out here last. You can keep them in that place in your mind you need to go to when you’re having a tough moment.”
At 33, Derek “DK” Kellenbeck was the youngest guide on the trip. He also grew up as a “river rat” in Oregon and first swam whitewater when he was just five. DK has spent most of his life on water, from guiding drift and jet boats on the Rogue River, to earning his captain’s license running scuba diving trips in the Caribbean, to guiding rafts on the Middle Fork. He even met his wife on a river trip.
“It’s about getting out and getting away,” he said about the beauty of river trips. “I love seeing people unwind into river time.”
DK explained that it’s the diversity of the ever-changing landscape and the true wilderness experience that make the Middle Fork so special. “It’s so unique because you go through such a variety of terrain,” he said about a river that starts as a small mountain stream cascading through pine forests, then meanders through the sweeping sagebrush of the high desert, and finally carves its way through a canyon deeper than the famous Grand.
“It’s too awesome out here to not appreciate it,” he continued.
Awesome is a word Cole Majors used a lot during the trip. Cole is originally from Texas and still has the accent to prove it. He now lives in Las Vegas and had only rafted once before the trip.
Cole is a big fan of fly fishing and found out about the trip through Orvis. He said he booked it for a combination of reasons. He wanted to totally disconnect from everyday life, he wanted to do something that offered a sense of adventure, and he wanted to do some good fishing. As the Middle Fork emptied into the Main Salmon River and our nearly 80-mile trip came to a close, Cole talked about how much he enjoyed the experience.
“I was totally blown away,” he said. “The people on the trip, the staff, the sights, the sounds, the fishing, the food. Looking up at the stars at night. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places and artwork before, but nothing is more impressive than that.”
Cole then added a line repeated by just about every one of us on the trip: “I want to do this again!”