I had the opportunity over the last week to go on a six day rafting trip with my family and some friends down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. We went with Mackay Wilderness and let me tell you, the experience was amazing.
My family and I are used to the outdoors, backpacking and hiking and whatnot. Compared to our standards of the typical outdoor experience, this trip was glamorous. We called the experience ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping).
The guides would pack and unpack everything from the boats for us. A guide would go ahead of the rest of the group in the morning, and set up the camp and all of our tents. We had cots provided so we did not even have to sleep on the ground. Sleeping bags, pillows, and pads were all provided for us. All we had to bring were our clothes.
The guides also made every meal for us. And not just back country meals, I mean….gourmet. This food was better than what I typically eat at home. We had freshly cooked eggs (we literally saw the eggs, no powered stuff) every morning, lunch laid out for us complete with Pringles and cookies, and dinner…don’t get me started on dinner. Every night was a magical feast. We had meat every night (we had a vegetarian in our group too, and she got her own separate delicious course to replace the meat), and we had warm desert after every dinner. There is even a cook book containing all of the recipes used on the trip that you get just for going on the trip.
All in all, it was a completely relaxing, hassle free experience. The only decision we had to make was which boat to ride that day. The price tag for glamping is steep, but if you are looking for an awesome outdoor experience with less strain than a typical backpacking experience, you certainly cannot go wrong with this sort of package. I highly recommend it. Although its my first and only rafting/camping experience, I still feel confident recommending specifically Mackay Wilderness if you have the option. Our guides were the most helpful, fun, competent, accommodating, and enthusiastic people I could have imagined having as guides. We had an absolute blast, a perfectly memorable experience, and it was all thanks to Mason, Alex, Sam, Wallace, Drew, and Mike.
Pre-Trip: Sun Valley and Orientation
My relatives have a place in Sun Valley, so we stayed there for a couple days before the trip. Overall a beautiful place. Being from Colorado, we kept calling it the Aspen of Idaho. On the first day there we went for a hike up to a beautiful lake.
The next we went mountain biking. Though it was really fun to try, David (my boyfriend) and I decided mountain biking was just not for us. The evening before the trip we congregated at a friend’s house. There, we got to meet the rest of the group. All told we had about 23 people.
Mason, one of our soon to be guides, came out to the house to give us all an orientation. It was simple and short but informative, basically just telling us the river rafting etiquette, how to pack, and what to pack.
The main body of our flotilla would consist of 7 boats. Six of the boats were each steered and paddled by a single guide (Though they switched up which boat they were each in every day). The remaining boat was brought and steered by Joe, one of our fellow guests.
First was a large sweep boat, so named for the giant oars that one would sweep across the river to steer. This boat would go ahead of the rest of the flotilla in the mornings to set up our next camp down the river.
We had a fishing boat, and 3 Champagne boats (I was never quite sure why they were called that. I was told it was because they were so big, you could store the champagne on them and it would not pop.). These were the rest and relaxation boats. About 2-3 people could fit on the fishing boat. And about 3 people could fit up front, and another 3 in the back of each Champagne boat. When riding these boats all we had to do was sit back and relax and enjoy the river, and occasionally hold on and get splashed through rapids.
We also had a lighter paddle boat, which could accommodate about 6 riders, not including a guide. People riding the paddle boat would need to wear helmets and help steer the boat through the river. You rode this boat if you wanted the ‘rapid riding’ experience.
On the second day of the trip, the guides brought out the ‘duckies’, which were 6 inflatable kayaks. These would follow in a line behind the paddle boat, the mamma duck. We also had two of our party bring their own hard shell kayaks.
What to Pack
Mackay provided us with a day bag and an overnight bag. The overnight bag (a duffel with the Mackay logo that you get to keep once the trip is over) went on the sweep boat in the morning. Those bags would be waiting for us at camp a the end of the day. They were also the most important for us to pack up in the morning, so the sweep boat could get on its way.
Our day bag, also known as our dry bag, was a water proof sack in which we stored all the things we would want access to during the day. These would be clipped in on whatever boat we were riding that day.
All told, the main thing we needed to pack were our clothes. Swimsuits, a couple pairs of quick drying shirts and pants. Water shoes, an extra pair of comfy shoes for camp. A headlamp, a lightweight jacket for the night. And some entertainment. We had our own books, cards, and someone brought backgammon and cribbage. A couple people, including one of the guides, even brought guitars.
Day 1: Launch
We woke up early on the first day and drove to the Mackay Wilderness outfitters. We got a quick to-go breakfast at the Stanley Baking Company and Cafe, excellent eats. Then we loaded up on a bus for an hour and a half bus ride to the rBoundary Creek Campground and Launch site. The launch site was a zoo!
We got on our boats and we were on our way! The water in the first part of the river was a little low, since it was late in the season (end of July). There was talk before the trip of just flying us in lower down the river. But we wanted to see the first part of the river, so we got to be one of the last groups of the season that would get to do this section. It was well worth it.
My mom, David and I champagne boated with Sam our first day and had a nice splashy float. We stopped for lunch. David and I decided we needed more action so after lunch we switched to the paddle boat with Drew. Notable rapids of the day were Velvet Falls, The Chutes, and Powerhouse. That evening, we stopped at the Sheepeater campsite, at river mile 13.
There were a few mosquitoes here, but the inconvenience was more than made up for by the hot spring a half mile from the campsite. We had a nice float in the hot spring, an amazing dinner of pork tenderloin, then got some shut-eye.
Day 2: The Duckies Come Out
The second day was going to be long. We ate breakfast and broke camp, and hit the river. My mom, David and I rode a champagne boat with Mike the first half of the day. At lunch we stopped at Indian Creek Camp and Airstrip. A lot of supplies were flown in so that the boats would be lighter and higher in the water for the first part of the river where the water was low. The guides loaded up the boats, and inflated the duckies.
The second half of the day, David and I were in duckies. It was a pretty casual easy day to learn the ropes. The only notable rapid we got to go over in the duckies that day was Marble Creek falls.
I don’t remember the name of the second campsite, but it was on the left side of the river, within walking distance of the bridge to the Middle Fork Lodge around river mile 33.
That night we ate an amazing rainbow trout seasoned with what could only be magic fairy dust. We were treated to a skit by my uncle called Palindrome, about a cowboy who rolls into town and only speaks in palindromes. It was ridiculously entertaining.
Day 3: Middle Fork Lodge
The previous night, the caretaker at the Middle Fork Lodge came down to our campsite and offered to give us a tour. Our guides said they had never had a tour before, so everyone on the trip was super excited. The morning of the third day after breakfast, we all went up and across the bridge to the lodge.
The lodge was beautiful. It hat two hot tubs as well as a pool all heated by hot springs. Inside it was immaculately clean and well tended. We were told that various celebrities had come here over the years to get away, and we could see why.
The place even had its own orchard. We got to pick fresh ruby red cherries. My uncle filled two water bottles full, and made cocktails with them that night at camp.
On our way back from the lodge, we also saw an old railroad mile marker carved into a tree.
We ate lunch, then loaded up into the boats. David rode in the paddle boat, while I rode with my mom on a champagne boat piloted by Mason. My aunt went in a ducky and flipped going down Jackass rapid. Luckily the mother duck paddle boat was on the scene, and they got her out of the water with no problem. David took her place in the ducky.
When Drew brought out the water cannon, an epic water fight erupted between the duckies and the paddle boat.
Eventually we made it down to Big Loon campground at river mile 49.3. Big Loon was right were a creek merged with the Middle Fork. Sam brought out an inflatable stingray he called Sheila, and I got to float Sheila down the creek.
That day was hot, and our campground had very little shade, so we set up our chairs in the water and played circle games.
Big Loon was a mile away from another hot spring, so after a heavenly flank steak dinner, we suited up and headed down to soak.
Day 4: Flying B Ranch
Big Loon was next to a ranch, so in the morning, we were greeted by a beautiful white horse just milling about our campsite.
After breakfast we packed up and got on the river. Sam was the captain of the paddle boat and had tied Sheila to the prow, so naturally, my mom and I started our day off in the SS Sheila. David started his day off in a ducky.
We stopped at the Flying B Ranch at mile 67.7 and the guides bought us all ice cream. It was a welcome treat. I also got a bandanna with a map of the Middle Fork. After lunch, my mom and I switched over to a champagne boat with Alex. David jumped on the chance to continue ducking. He fell out on gnarly rapid called Haystack, but got back in his duck with no problems. On our float down we saw some big horn sheep.
I think our camp that night was Grassy Flat 1, at about river mile 73. That camp had some gnarly bugs we were warned had a super bad sting. So we left them well alone. That night we had delicious capered chicken.
My mom woke up early the next morning and went for a hike. She got a great picture of our sleepy little campsite.
Day 5: Veil Falls and Partay
We woke up day 5 and hit the river. The first half of this day would be the last opportunity for duckies, as the remainder of the river was to dangerous. So David and I started our day off in the duckies. My mom went in the paddle boat with Mike. On our way down, we saw some bald eagles.
At the end of the rapid just before we stopped for lunch, I almost fell out of my ducky, but luckily, I did not! For lunch we stopped at Veil Cave at river mile 80.6. Veil cave has a waterfall spilling over it that is absolutely beautiful.
We had a long photo shoot there during which everybody took pictures under the water.
We returned to the riverside to eat some lunch. The duckies were deflated, since the remainder of the river was too dangerous. At this point we were rafting through what is known as the Impassable Canyon. I rode a boat with Drew and a couple of my cousins.
I don’t remember the name of our very last camp. We spent a lot of time down on the rocks by the river waiting for the sun to go down. While we waited, we saw some pine grouse. They were so close we could have touched them.
For our final meal, we had, I kid you not, prime rib. It was incredible. Since this was our last night, we had a party. We tried to finish off all of the beer and alcohol we had brought. We sang sea shanties, had some opera, and some folk music. The guides even had some special treats of their own. Mason whipped out his guitar and played us Never Getting Over Jolie. Sam whipped out his fire poi and gave us an awesome demonstration of his skillz. We talked and laughed and generally had a great time. It was very fun.
Day 6: Petroglyphs and Goodbyes
We started off our final day (after breakfast of course) by walking to see some petroglyphs nearby. They were made by the Sheepeater people for which one of our first campsites was named.
Once we got back, before we left camp for good, we took a parting group photo.
David, my mom and I rode the paddle boat with Mason for the final stretch. It was dicey, but we were a stalwart crew. We stopped at the confluence of the Salmon River and the Middle Fork and disembarked.
The rafts continued on without us down the Salmon a short ways to the boat zoo of the take-out point. The guides made us a final lunch, and we said our farewells to all but Sam. We loaded up the bus, and embarked on a 4 hour bus ride back to the Mackay Wilderness outfitters. We said our farewells to Sam, to our fellow guests, and then went our separate ways.
All in all, it was a fantastic trip. I had a wonderful time, and I recommend anyone who has the chance to go, to jump on it like a kangaroo. Most outdoor trips, by the time its over I am rearing to get home, but this one was so much fun I felt like I could have gone another week on that river.
The other guests I met on this trip were an awesome and fun group of people that I hope to have the opportunity to hang out with again in the future. Our guides were amazing, and even though I did not get to know them as well as many other people on our trip, I am still wholeheartedly glad to have been on this trip with those guys. Thank you.