I started a river trip tale and, along the way, a culinary story broke out.
Unlike the explorers of centuries ago we have maps. We have satellite imagery! We know where rivers start and where they end. However, there’s a big difference between knowing and understanding. And when the invitation to explore one of the west’s most famous rivers was extended on short notice, we didn’t hesitate to answer, “we’re in!”
Our trip would span four days with six of us, along with three guides, exploring the lower canyons of the Salmon River in western Idaho. All from Denver, two of the other couples would fly to Spokane and then drive to Lewiston, Idaho which was our meet-up point. Being seasoned RVers, we saw these four days on the Salmon as the centerpiece to an extended late summer outing in our Navion that would start with visiting fellow Winnebago owners in Boise before, and afterwards, some exotic rails-to-trails bike riding.
The part of the Salmon we would float is best known by another description, “The River of No Return.” In 1958 Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe starred in a film of the same name. While it was filmed mostly outside of Calgary and Banff, some actual location wide angle scenes were shot on the Salmon and cut into the picture. Director Otto Preminger was clearly enamored with Ms. Monroe and one critic pointed out that he chose many camera angles that featured her ample charms. The River of No Return earned it’s nickname by pioneers who built boats upstream to send supplies down the river. The steep descent and current of the river made it a one-way trip.
Our own one-way itinerary would float nearly fifty miles of river ultimately merging into the much larger Snake River. That would mean three nights of camping, multiple rapids to negotiate, and a few fascinating diversions. And though all three couples had some river and camping experience, we wanted to go with an experienced river company. Our group’s organizer, David, did the requisite due diligence to identify and arrange a private trip for us with ROW Adventures.
And wow, did he hit the jackpot. ROW is a premier adventure travel company, not only in Idaho, but for international destinations too. Travel and Leisure has recognized ROW as the #1 Tour Operator in their World’s Best Awards. Pretty fancy! That’s a lot to live up to and we were off to a good start with their detailed on-line information, videos, and pre-trip checklists.
David had cooked up the idea of the trip as a wedding anniversary trip for his wife Katherine. They’re adventurous folk with many international travels including a trip to Burning Man a couple of years ago. They invited another couple who they had traveled to Africa with, Stuart and Debbie. And the biggest surprise for us is that, for over three decades, Stuart has been our family ophthalmologist. He’s seen me through glasses, contacts, and Lasik. For years at my annual check up we’d vaguely talk about getting together. Now, we were about to seriously catch up on past promises.
Our four soon-to-be rafting companions were booked into the Red Lion Hotel in Lewiston, Idaho. We were, as usual, comfortably established in a quiet part of the hotel’s parking lot and ready to host a wine and rig tour so our friends could finally see the Navion. As we’ve observed many times before, visitors to our Navion are impressed with the space, completeness of features, comfort, and contemporary interior.
Lewiston, Idaho is on the east side of where the Snake River meets the Clearwater. On the west side is the similarly sized town of Clarkston, Washington. When the Lewis and Clark expedition worked their way to the tail waters of the Missouri on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, their westward push required them to portage over the divide and come down the Clearwater, into the Snake, and then the Columbia on their way to the Pacific. Over the years I have crossed the Lewis and Clark trail many, many times and still shake my head in awe at their accomplishment with such rudimentary boats and zero modern comforts.
The evening before the trip we met our two young guides Jonah and Jonas (pronounced yo-nas as his mother is from Denmark). Jonah was our team leader and walked us through what to expect in our new river life. Standing more to the back next to Jonas was another staff person named Betsy who was introduced to us as someone who would be helping out and, because of a knee injury earlier in the summer, this would be her first trip of the season.
It would also be the last trip of the season for ROW who, throughout the summer, guide over forty trips generally with numbers from 12-24 guests on several different Idaho rivers, with some trips lasting over a week. So there we were. The last voyage. . .on the River of No Return. Ominous? Not even close.
On our first day we started figuring out clients and crew. What the crew learned was that their six guests from Denver were fun-loving, quick to laugh, take-it-as-it-comes adventurers. We were completely capable of setting our own tents up and helping unload the rafts. We might have been guests, but we all wanted to pitch in and pull, or more accurately — row — our own weight.
What we learned was that our trip leader, Jonah, was the son of ROW’s founders Peter Grubb and Betsy Bowen. Yes, that Betsy, the co-owner, who had stood pleasantly in the background the evening before. We also learned that Jonas grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, is a die-hard Broncos fan, and both a skilled chef and river guide in his own right.
Within a day we had gone from staff-to-guest, to friend-to-friend interactions to the point that there were moments I’m sure all of us “guests” felt a little guilty in wanting to help more, but happily accepted pampering, with the culinary rotation of meals that were all carefully crafted to ratchet up in impressiveness with each daily cycle.
After a couple hours on our first day Jonah guided the boat to the north bank of the river where we walked up to an old abandoned orchard. It was there that our crew of urban dwellers fell into harvest mode. Ripe succulent blackberries, sugary golden plums, crisp sweet pears, newly ripened figs, and manly hand crushed walnuts. What a haul.
We could have called it good for a lunch snack right there as we boarded the rafts, but just a little further down river we stopped again and the first of our amazing meals was assembled on specially made long tables that fold and fit as seats for the supply rafts. Atop was a monster spread of artfully plated sandwich meats, pickles, condiments and fruit slices galore. A cooler with beer and soda offered everything from a PBR to diet Coke. And for all the sophistication of multigrain breads and wasabi infused mustard, there was the school lunchbox comfort of Oreo cookies at the end.
A few hours later when we made camp for the first night a kitchen was set up with three work tables, propane grills and a couple of dutch ovens. Folding tables were quickly unfolded along with nine comfortable camp stools for everyone.
A separate bar table was set up with ROW supplied wines and a couple of personal guest additions. There were also a variety of dips, chips, cheeses and hot hors d’oeuvres. Oh, but that was just the prelude. Dinner that night included made from scratch glazed baked salmon, a fresh salad, and then a baked fruit cobbler made from our earlier orchard harvest.
By the end of the trip I’m surprised our girths didn’t sink the rafts. One breakfast featured a rotation of two types of french toast (multiple syrup choices). Another offered blueberry pancakes, or ones with pecans. Alongside were plates of bacon, sausages, and plenty of hot, hot coffee. On our second morning it was a build to order omelette bar where a table full of ingredients was laid out for us to choose, put on our plate, and then walk over to Jonah who deftly rolled them into a perfect omelette.
Then there was day two’s dinner of chicken tangine, with savory sides and a from scratch chocolate cake, fully frosted, with a candle to celebrate David and Katherine’s anniversary. Whaaaat? A cake? Moist and delicious with a secret ingredient: pudding mix. My appreciation for dutch oven cooking was rapidly growing.
On our final night Jonas was deftly dicing potatoes with his holding fingers properly folded under and rocking a French chef knife back and forth like a guillotine. This guy had skills. After numerous little business chats with Betsy on the river I was beginning to catch on to how exquisitely designed their trips were. I knew something big was coming for the finale and team ROW did not disappoint with hand carved prime rib, fresh mashed potatoes, and another desert wonder: pineapple upside down cake.
This completely unexpected journey of guiltless gluttony yielded two things, a high motivation for some calorie inducing rowing and a heightened awareness that all that consumed cuisine had to go somewhere.
Now this is the part where any RVer out there in Winnebago nation is surely familiar with. When you go — where does “it” go? At our pre-trip evening session Jonah explained that number one could go in the river. “The solution to pollution is dilution,” he said laughingly. The solids, on the other hand, had to come out with us for delivery to the local wastewater treatment plant back in town.
And this is where the term “groover” got added to our lexicon. For many years guides used military ammo boxes for “the pot.” Of course in the process of sitting, the thin edges of the ammo box would leave a fleshy imprint, hence the name groover. Mercifully, the boxes have given way to a self-contained privy, complete with seat. Jonah and Jonas carefully scouted discrete groover placement locations that were both private and view worthy. So now you know.
Our flotilla consisted of four inflatable rafts. There were two big oar rafts for cargo, one paddling raft for us (up to six plus a guide in the back to steer), and one “duckie” kayak. Most of the time all of us were in the main paddling raft and occasionally folks would take turns in the duckie with a couple of our more risk-tolerant souls shooting the rapids solo in it.
For camping, ROW provided the tents, sleeping bags, flannel liners, pads, and dry bags for our clothes. We all had quick drying nylon clothes for the warm days and fleece and light down for the cool evenings. Every night we camped on fine sandy beaches which made sleeping much, much more comfortable than regular forest camping.
If you’re not sure a trip like this is for you I can offer a little insight. The whitewater we encountered were mostly class 2 and 3 with a couple of exhilarating 4’s. Thrilling? Yes. Scary? No. If you’ve had a little camping experience you’ll feel right at home and rather pampered with all the additional staff help. If you’ve never had a wilderness experience this is a perfect trip to start with given the guides’ knowledge, high quality gear, and superior service.
You’ll get wet. You’ll laugh a lot. Your clothes may pick up the faint aroma of campfire woodsmoke, but you’ll get wet again and that will wash away. You’ll be on a first name basis with mother nature. You’ll be thinking of a nice hot shower after you get off the river. And you’ll start immediately playing back memories of tranquilly drifting by towering canyons formed by ancient volcanos, mouth filling drenches of whitewater waves, campfire companionship, and a dense canopy of stars twinkling above it all.
On the evening of our return, the ROW team hosted a dinner for us in a private room at the Red Lion. It was a lovely meal, but not to the same exceptional quality of what our chefs Jonah and Jonas had provided. As the entree plates arrived we all laughed at the two young guide’s matching choice of deep fried chicken fingers and fries. Definitely not river trip cuisine. However, my hunch is that if a guest requested french fries on the river. . .I’m sure the inventive minds at ROW would figure out how to make it happen.
(A special shout out to both Jonah and Jonas who occasionally rowed ahead to get some great action pix of our whitewater encounters.)