Cliffside on the Middle Fork of the Salmon
By Michael Lanza

Towering walls of ancient rock and steep talus slopes crowd the river on both sides. On the fifth afternoon of our six-day, guided rafting trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, in Idaho’s vast Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, we have entered the Middle Fork’s Impassable Canyon, a two-day stretch where the canyon grows narrower and the river sinks deeper into the earth. Bighorn sheep look up from their riverbank grazing as we float past. Bald eagles give us a glance from their perches in tall snags, and then ignore us, seeing no potential meal for themselves in our group.

MFRT owner Grant Porter and I, sharing one of the rafts in our small armada of rafts and kayaks, plunge into the class III Cliffside Rapid first. A thunderous series of tall, standing waves separated by deep troughs racing hard alongside a vertical wall of rock, Cliffside looks daunting to me. But Grant, focused and calm at the oars, pilots the raft through looking like he’s mowing his lawn—if mowing his lawn somehow brings him immeasurable joy. I’m reminded that he has run the Middle Fork about 160 times since he was eight years old, when his parents owned MFRT; Grant guided his first MFRT trip on the Middle Fork the day after he turned 18. He eventually became the lead guide, and he and his wife, Kim, now own the company.

Bracing water crashes repeatedly over the raft’s bow as we crest each wave and nose steeply down into the next trough. Perhaps 30 thrilling seconds later, below Cliffside, Grant steers us into a big eddy.

I’ve spent much of our time on the river this week paddling one of the inflatable kayaks with various adult and child partners in our group of 23 families and couples, all friends or extended family of my wife, Penny, and me. Now I’ll get to enjoy one of the most entertaining and deeply gratifying pleasures of an adventure like this: watching everyone else run Cliffside’s snarling line of waves.

Ironically, although we’ll leave this six-day trip with many lasting memories of crashing through exciting whitewater, standing beside Cliffside, doing nothing, will bring, for me, one of this week’s most priceless moments.

One of our guides, Matt Leidecker, slowly lines up his boat above Cliffside. Matt’s something of a Middle Fork Salmon River celebrity. A guest guide on our trip, he guided the Middle Fork for more than a decade—he estimates he’s run this river over 130 times—and has authored the definitive, mile-by-mile guidebook to the river. Matt has the “kids raft:” His passengers are four children from three families, 14-year-old Carl Bell, his 12-year-old sister, Annika, 13-year-old Sarah Butruille, and my 12-year-old daughter, Alex. All four of them now crowd into the front of the raft—ready to take the full brunt of Cliffside’s whitewater.

I watch as the rapid’s first wave completely engulfs the front of Matt’s raft; for a second, all four kids disappear underwater. When the raft’s bow tilts upward again, I see four wide-eyed young faces streaming water, mouths open, howling with delight. They scream and laugh all the way through Cliffside’s wave train, as Matt laughs maniacally along with them.

We’ve come to float the Middle Fork of the Salmon, one of the iconic, multi-day, wilderness river trips in America, if not in the world. Carving a deep canyon some 100 miles long through the second-largest federal wilderness area in the Lower 48, the Middle Fork stands out not only for remoteness and natural beauty, but for its continuous steepness—dropping from 7,000 feet above sea level at its headwaters, about 20 miles northwest of the tiny town of Stanley, to 3,900 feet where it meets the Salmon River. The result of that unique topography: some 300 ratable rapids, a number of them class III and IV. The excitement meter registers high for most of the week.

With a group including several kids, and our whitewater experience ranging from many years to virtually none, we liked the idea of taking a guided trip with a company that has been in business guiding only the Middle Fork of the Salmon for more than three decades. (And as my wife put it, “I like having someone make me great meals every day.”)

The trip delivers much of what we expected: thrilling (but manageable) whitewater, incredible scenery, beautiful campsites beside the river, and really scenic side hikes to spots like Johnson Point, a craggy overlook a thousand feet above the river, with a view up and down the canyon and out over a big swath of the Salmon River Mountains that Grant had told us is “the best view on the Middle Fork.”

But as each day slides into the next and we slowly wash the grime of civilization’s constant digital connectedness off of us in the Middle Fork’s crystalline waters, a transformation takes place. Our group of 23 friends and family—some meeting for the first time—begins to act like we’ve all known each other for years, including our six guides, who join us on hikes, laugh with our kids, and initiate a game of Bite the Bag one evening. One of the guides, Topher Moehringer, a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts with a degree in music education, plays his vibrantly orange, plastic slide trombone all week—on the water, calling us to meals in camp, and in the cavernous amphitheater of Veil Cave.

Long before we reach the takeout on the Main Salmon River, it feels like our guides have become a part of our private group, rather than just the people who are leading us safely down the river. (In the interest of full, honest disclosure, I have to acknowledge one important distinction and give credit where it’s due: Our guides are still doing all the work in camp, from pitching tents to laboring in the kitchen, while we guests laze around in camp chairs. Life’s good as a river guide, but it’s still better as a guest.)

I’ve been an outdoor writer for 20-plus years, and I’ve taken a lot of guided trips—almost always beautiful, fun adventures, to be sure. But few have combined all three of the elements that I consider the markers of the best adventures I’ve ever enjoyed in my life: world-class scenery, a feeling of big adventure, and a group of people who bond and make it special. With MFRT on the Middle Fork, all of those elements came together—in no small part because of their guides, a skilled but also wonderful group of people who do not make their job look like work.

Michael Lanza runs the blog and website The Big Outside, where he writes frequently about outdoor trips with his family. His book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, winner of a National Outdoor Book Award honorable mention, chronicles his wilderness adventures with his wife and their young son and daughter in national parks threatened by climate change. The former Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, he has hiked and climbed extensively in the U.S. West and Northeast and published many stories in magazines and online about his adventures on four continents.