I wasn't sure if my yellow-bellied grasshopper dry fly would lure any fish, but I didn't really care. The scenery was enough to hold my interest. Steep, gray canyon walls jumped straight out of the water, and I could see a herd of bighorn sheep delicately moving along impossibly rocky crags. A cloudless azure sky provided the perfect backdrop for the mature bald eagle elegantly posing on a tree branch. This was the third day of a four-day rafting trip through Idaho's River of No Return Wilderness Area, the largest roadless wilderness area in the US. The famous Middle Fork of the Salmon River wound through rugged country, a surprise around every turn: a small shady beach here or a multi-tiered hot spring there.
I'd rafted the Middle Fork before, but only in summer, when the trip is a rollicking whitewater adventure and it's fun being in a larger group. But this year I decided to try a different pace: traveling solo for a September fishing trip with Middle Fork River Expeditions. The company focuses exclusively on the Salmon River, and, for fall fishing, they ensure a two-to-one fisherman/guide ratio. I was a bit nervous, since I am not an expert fisherman and rarely fish more than once a year. Would I be the only woman on a rowdy, male-bonding getaway? Would the guides be annoyed when I needed help tying on flies? Would my 58-year-old body rebel against being in a boat and casting all day long? I needn't have worried on any of those counts.
The trip began with a short morning flight from Stanley, Idaho to an airstrip at Indian Creek, one of the first big tributaries downstream from the high-country headwaters, where the guides would meet us. The plane banked steeply in the narrow canyon, providing a straight-down view of the river and our launch site. In September, the snowmelt that feeds the river is depleted and the water levels drop precipitously. This meant the famed rapids would not be a cascade of whitewater, but rather, a maze of boulders to dodge and navigate. But it also meant that we'd be in rafts instead of the drift boats normally used for the fishing trips.
It had been twenty-five degrees in Stanley when we left the airfield, and although Indian Creek was several hundred feet lower in elevation, it wasn't much warmer. The boats were covered with a thin layer of ice and our guides wore their finest down parkas to greet us. But shortly after our arrival, the sun crested the top of the deep canyon, and we soon shed our coats while the heartier among us put on shorts.
I was thrilled when I realized I would get my wish for a small group since there were only seven of us. The three guides, Kate, Scott, and Mark, were all seasoned river runners. The other guests included Mike, a 29-year-old expert fisherman from Pennsylvania who had never been to the West before, and Jennifer and Jim, a septuagenarian retired couple from Michigan; he was an ardent fisherman, she was just learning.
After a safety talk (don't fall in the river being the main advice), we hopped into the boats. Mike and I would ride with Kate; the married couple would be with Mark. Scott, who spent the off-season working as a nurse and hang-gliding around the world, would maneuver a large sweep boat that carried all the gear. Kate was an expert oarswoman with a philosophy degree who assured me she'd help with anything I needed – from advice on flies to releasing the fish when I caught them. The Middle Fork is a blue-ribbon cutthroat trout catch-and-release fishery.
Throughout the day, we floated at a leisurely pace in warm sunshine, sometimes in sight of the other boats, sometimes completely alone. We occasionally saw other groups, but none were as small as our little band. Kate, Mike and I made easy conversation, but we also listened to the silence of the wilderness. When we stopped for lunch, there was time to hike up a side canyon and later, to scramble up the hillside to view ancient rock petroglyphs.
Our camp for the night (pre-assigned by the Forest Service to avoid disputes and ensure protection of the environment) was a flat sandy beach with a hot spring pool at the far end. Each person had been provided a dry bag for personal belongings as well as a larger bag that included a tent, sleeping pads, pillow, and down sleeping bag. The tent was easy to put up, even by myself, and I decided not to add the rain fly so I could watch the symphony of stars through the mesh roof. Solo travelers are provided the same four-person tent as the couples, so I had plenty of room to spread out.
After a soak in the hot springs, I came back to find the sandy beach transformed into a cozy site with a fire, camp chairs, kitchen, and bar. Wine was provided with dinner, and guests brought their own alcohol. Before I could finish making a drink, an appetizer of baked Brie and smoked salmon appeared. Speaking of food, this trip was a wilderness gourmet treat. The robust breakfast included pancakes, eggs, bacon, cereal, yogurt and fruit. We'd stop for lunch at a pretty spot and enjoy dishes like curry chicken pita, Capresi salad, or gourmet sandwiches. Dinners were miraculously produced from scratch and included wild Alaskan salmon, lasagna, and, on the final night, prime rib.
After dinner, I indulged in the Dutch-oven apple crisp for dessert while sharing stories with my new friends and listening to Scott strum his guitar. As a woman traveling alone, I had never felt quite so safe and accepted. I could enjoy the evening and not have to worry about getting back to a hotel room without incident. I could have as much or as little solitude as I liked. Without cell phone coverage, I was freed from checking emails or surfing the Internet. Feeling completely unplugged from the urban daily grind, I drank my glass of wine and wondered how I could retain this feeling when I got back home.
By the third day, as I watched my yellow-bellied grasshopper fly drift along, I knew that this small-group trip was something special that few people get to experience. The water was so clear that I could see the rocky bottom. Suddenly, a large trout came up from the depths, and I heard a huge smacking sound when it took the fly. As I brought it to the side of the boat, I could see the brilliant purple and pink spawning colors flashing. The fish was beautiful. I released it with an apology for not giving it real food, then thanked it for sharing a piece of its magnificent world.