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Whitewater Women
Whitewater Rafting Down Idaho's Salmon River

Words by Margaret Hundley Parker

A four-day women's retreat down the Lower Salmon River is an eye-opening experience for this city dweller.

I'm in an inflatable kayak, paddling in the gentle current when I see the guide in the raft in front of me put on her lifejacket and I brace myself. I watch her raft plunge into waves, negotiate rocks and disappear around a corner.

Then it's my turn.

I remember what they told me -- follow the raft's path, hit the waves straight on, and keep paddling. My stomach flips and for some reason I start singing "The Devil Went down to Georgia" as I dig into the first of many waves. Churning white waves crash into my face and I'm tossed and turned as I zing past a giant rock and suddenly, the waves die down and the current is forgiving again. Remarkably, I'm still in the kayak.

I hear cheers from the raft in front of me and I feel like a rock star.

On Holiday

Kayaking through the Lower Salmon RiverThis is not a normal day for me. I live in New York. You'd sooner find me teetering around in a pair of high heels holding a martini than hoisting a kayak onto a sandy shore. In fact, I've never been on a river, much less in a tiny kayak. What enticed me here was a four-day all-woman retreat on the Lower Salmon River. The Lower Salmon River is a striking stretch of river that runs up northwestern Idaho and passes through four beautiful canyons. During high water, the whitewater is a challenging Class V, but at low water in late summer (when I went), it's a more beginner-friendly Class III.

I went with Holiday Expeditions, who offer co-ed as well as Women's River Retreats in Idaho, Utah, and Baja. You can get your own posse together, or go alone and meet wonderful women when you get there. The trip I went on was a mother-daughter trip, but anyone could go (I couldn't bring my mom on this one, unfortunately). There were 15 of us all together, and that included the guides and facilitators, many of whom were mother/daughter units, too. We ranged in age from 12 to 76 and got along splendidly.


Before I left, Holiday sent me a checklist of river necessities. I was renting a sleeping kit, so I didn't need a tent or sleeping bag, so I looked over the list and thought, yeah right, I really need long underwear in the summer.

But it began to dawn on me that maybe my sequined platform sandals might not get me through the week. There aren't going to be little shampoos or showers or mints on the pillows. There would be… no toilets!

I called my friend Aaron, a frequent paddler, for advice. When he heard what I was bringing, he asked, "Have you ever been on the Salmon River?" No. "Prepared to get wet."

I bit the bullet and went out and bought Tevas, fleece, polypropylene long underwear, rain gear and a strap for my sunglasses. I needed all of it.

River Time

Racing from New York to Idaho, I was stressed out about making all my airline connections. I mean, knot-in-the-stomach, hassle-the-flight-attendants stressed out. But after the first night in calm and beautiful Grangeville (where the main Holiday office is), I began to forget my worries. River time would soon seep into my pores. I left my watch in my bag that wasn't coming on the boat. The morning of the trip, we gathered at the Holiday office, and rode to the river together.

We had three oar rafts and two inflatable kayaks. The guides paddle the oar rafts, while the passengers can kick back and chat-but still be prepared to hold on and get splashed on the rapids. I admired the guides -- these women have arms of steel. I tried paddling one of the oar boats in a calm spot and I could barely move the heavy wooden oars. When I sat in the raft and let the guide paddle, I felt like Nefertiti, cruising down the Nile.

The inflatable kayaks were available to anyone who wanted a more hands-on experience. I recommend trying the kayak, even if you're scared, because it's a better way to get an appreciation for the tremendous power of the river.

Typical Day

Here's a typical day: wake up to the gentle ting of Terri'lynne's (the yoga facilitator) Tibetan prayer bell, do your morning ritual by the side of the river and watch a gaggle of geese appear from behind some rocks. Enjoy coffee, tea, juice and fresh fruit and granola if your belly grumbles before breakfast. Bring your sleeping pad to the yoga area for yoga and meditation.


It's a wonderful thing doing yoga outside-when you're in the tree pose, you can focus on an actual tree! After about an hour of that, it's time for a delicious breakfast of made-to-order omelets and potatoes. Pack up your tent and belongings, and hit the boats. Float down the river for a few hours, then stop at a beautiful beach for lunch-a build-your-own Dagwood sandwich, salad, chips and a homemade chocolate chip cookie.

Hop back in the boat for the rest of the afternoon, chatting with your boat-mates or paddling on a kayak, until the guides pick out some perfect spot to camp. Set up your tent on the sandy beach, while the guides mysteriously recreate the functional kitchen. Enjoy the magic of the river, then have appetizers while Deanna (the massage facilitator) teaches us how to give a foot massage, which we then try out on our partners.

Another fabulous meal magically appears-a dinner of tuna steaks with ginger carrots, with chocolate cake for dessert. As the sun dives behind a canyon wall, the light becomes orange then gray, we move back towards our tents. By the time the sky is dark blue, we are all asleep.

Schedule, Schmedule

Rafting in the Snake RiverTowards the end of our trip, where the Snake River meets the Salmon, the water is calm. The rafts are tied together, the kayaks deflated, and we motor the last leg of the journey. Along the way, we hit a rock and the motor died. That's too bad, I thought, but no big deal. We stopped for lunch and the guides managed to get the motor running again. As we cruised to take out, I found out that if the motor hadn't been fixed, we would have been very late getting in and I probably would've missed my plane. I didn't even care. That's when I knew I had adjusted to river time. I wasn't ready to go back! I would miss all the people I grew to love, the physical challenge of kayaking, and listening to the gentle trickle of the river at night.

If You Go...

Word to the wise: book your airline tickets early to get a good deal. I didn't, and the cheapest thing I could find was $800. That's because it's hard to get there-the closest airport is in Lewiston, Idaho and only Horizon Air flies there. That means if you're not from the Northwest you have to coordinate two different airlines-I flew into Seattle and changed to Horizon there. In Lewiston, you can arrange for a ride to Grangeville in a Holiday van. The trip begins from Grangeville at 8am, so it's smart to stay there the night before. On the last day of the trip, if you're flying out of Lewiston, catch a ride back there and stay in a hotel one night and leave the next day. That leaves a little room for error-the river is hard to predict-and you won't miss your flight (unless you want to).

For more information on Holiday Expeditions, check out their website at

Photos courtesy of Holiday Expeditions