SUN VALLEY, Idaho -- Stuffed morel mushrooms and braised free-range chicken with fennel purée and blackberry compote. Served on linen tablecloths with a carefully matched wine. Pineapple upside-down cake for dessert.
This is wilderness camping?
It was a delightful shock for my wife and me as we took our seats at the table streamside on the middle fork of Idaho’s Salmon River, known in folklore as the River of No Return. Both of us are experienced wilderness campers, but we’ve sometimes defined camp luxury as dry socks.
Not on this trip.
Our host for the six-day rafting expedition was a family-owned company based in Sun Valley called Far and Away Adventures. It has carved a niche in the crowded field of whitewater guides on the middle fork, one of America’s great wilderness rivers.
They call it “glamping” – glamour camping – and it attempts to re-create the type of experience Ernest Hemingway might have had on a classic African safari.
In other words: No roughing it.
No wedging into a tiny backpacking tent for the night. Each couple has a stand-up, six-person tent with cot, mattress and pillow, a lantern on the night table and a rug on the floor.
No crawling bleary-eyed from your sleeping bag, hoping someone has hot water for instant coffee. Instead, a guide delivers fresh-brewed coffee to your tent door with your wake-up call, along with a steaming-hot wet washcloth to wipe away the sleep.
Need a good stretch to get going in the morning? Join the yoga session held after breakfast.
Shoulders sore after a hard day of whitewater paddling? The masseuse awaits you at her streamside massage table.
Want a hot shower? Just ask; it will be arranged.
And the food? Four-course gourmet dinners every night, with organic ingredients and a chef’s eye for presentation. Gourmet breakfasts as well. And a hot lunch on the river, unusual among rafting companies that usually offer cold cuts.
All of this, of course, is only a complement to the central purpose of the trip – running whitewater rapids on one of the wildest, longest and most remote stretches of river in the United States.
The middle fork of the Salmon is one of the eight original rivers protected by Congress in 1968 in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It runs 100 miles through the wilderness of central Idaho, flowing between towering cliffs and forested mountains.
In that 100 miles it drops more than 3,000 feet , a steeper gradient than the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It has more than 300 rapids, mostly class III and IV (“difficult” to “very difficult”).
Shooting the rapids from top to bottom takes six days. Camping is on sandy beaches or in groves of ponderosa pine. Campsites are assigned by the U.S. Forest Service before departure, so rafters don’t have to worry about sharing a site or not finding a vacant one. They can concentrate on the water.
And the water is awesome. We plunged through long wave trains of 3- and 4-foot standing waves. We shot through rapids with 8-foot drops and standing waves of 6 feet or more that slap you in the face with icy water. We skirted giant whirlpools that stand ready to suck down the unlucky or unskilled boatman.
In the short stretches between rapids, wild cutthroat trout lurked in deep turquoise pools. I cast my fly rod from the rear of the raft, and those in the rafts behind cheered as scrappy trout hit the fly.
I was on the raft of Steve Lentz, co-owner of Far and Away with his wife, Annie. He has been running this river for more than 30 years, and he knows by heart the most thrilling yet safest line to row through each of the middle fork rapids.
Still, getting wet is half the fun; we whooped with joy with each icy splash – including the 82-year-old who shared my perch in the front of Steve’s raft.
Like most middle fork outfitters, Far and Away offers a variety of trips to its clients. There are oar rafts, in which a guide sits in the middle and rows through the rapids while the client sits in front and enjoys the thrill.
There are paddle rafts, in which kneeling clients on each side paddle as a guide in back shouts instructions and steers; my wife, Joyce, quickly became a paddle raft addict.
And there are “duckies,” solo inflatable kayaks that the intrepid can take through some of the easier rapids on their own. Guides make certain that a ducky client does not get over his or her head – figuratively and literally.
The final 20 miles of the middle fork flow through the aptly named Impassable Canyon, between sheer granite cliffs. No trails penetrate the canyon here, and the only way out is through the whitewater.
Then it’s into the main stem of Salmon River and a short float to takeout, where a bus will carry us back to our starting point at Sun Valley.
Dry socks will never seem like luxury again.