Rafting Heaven in Hell’s Canyon

My non-fishing son was hooked. “I got six!” he shouted in that elevated voice teenagers use when they are actually ecstatic but have to hide their excitement to remain cool.  In the hour between pulling our rafts out of the Snake River and hearing the dinner bell clang, West had pulled out a half dozen smallmouth bass – many nearing 18 inches long.

The kid who couldn’t tie on a lure 48 hours before had become a fishing freak.  Over our four-day, father-son trip with America’s Rafting Company, West caught so many fish that we lost count. He fished from the raft; he fished from the rocks; he fished before breakfast; he fished before bed.

There’s nothing like great fishing to make a kid into a fisherman – and there’s nothing like great rafting to spark a lifelong love of being on the river.

Hell’s Canyon is a heavenly spot for families to experience the best of river rafting in the American West: fun rapids, calm floats, riverside camps and wildlife galore. Our America’s Rafting Company trip also came with epic home cooking, professional guides, attention-to-detail, and genuine enthusiasm.

The Cambridge, Idaho-based team did pretty much everything for its guests. In fact, my camp-making effort consisted of grabbing my dry bag of gear, a sleep mat, an icy microbrew and a seat at the table.

ARC runs full-service, camping trips through the stunning, uncrowded Hell’s Canyon.  This stretch of the Snake River remains inaccessible to cars and day visitors, which helps explain the fantastic fishing.  Though we caught mainly smallmouth bass and some trout, we set a few nets hoping to catch one of the massive sturgeons that ply those waters. We got shut out but one boat got lucky a couple weeks earlier.

We had riverside campsites to ourselves  – after the bighorn sheep/deer/chukars moved along, of course. We saw few other rafts and heard only the rush of the Snake – except when the occasional jet boat tour zoomed past. Compared to the crowds on other rivers I’ve rafted, Hell’s Canyon was like our own private river playground.

The Snake River actually “snakes” back and forth through the canyon for 34 miles. The water could look deceptively mellow but definitely delivered big river thrills.

The trip encounters several stretches of Class III and IV “drop-pool” rapids – big water followed by calm pools – which results in roller coaster-type fun. (They often felt like hitting the bottom of the drops on Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. I kind of expected to hear that “yo-ho” song…)  

Our guides would often walk us up on a bluff to scout upcoming Class IV rapids and recommend strategies to ensure a successful run. Throughout the trip, ARC’s guides worked hard not only to keep the guests satisfied but safe as well. At one point on the first day, I heard West ask our guide, Lauren, if he could swim across the river. She told him not to because even the calm-looking stretches can be fraught with strong, unpredictable currents.

“Um, why is West over there?” Lauren asked later. Mortified, I looked up to see West on the other side of the Snake. Here was my son on Day 1, misbehaving before dinner and disobeying the world’s nicest rafting guide. Ugh. Luckily, West returned safe but exhausted – he knew she was right about that swim. Lauren forgave him but also made it clear that the rules must be followed to keep everyone safe – a must-have atmosphere for rafting trips with kids. West was on his best behavior after that and always checked with the guides before taking a swim – and only when wearing his life jacket.

After a big breakfast, each day began with a few hours on the water, a lunch stop, then a few more hours before stopping to camp around 4pm. ARC also brings “duckies” (inflatable kayaks) for guests to use.  As soon as West realized that was an option, he spent as much time as possible in the ducky – even flipping twice in Class 4 rapids. For a teenager, the flips were utter bliss.

Hell’s Canyon made for a ruggedly handsome backdrop to the Snake’s wet wildness. Its craggy peaks give way to golden grasses and scrub trees as land meets river. Smoke from regional forest fires occasionally drifted into camp but didn’t dampen the beauty of the setting.

Our group stopped to hike to vista points, see Native American petroglyphs and visit old homesteads with long-abandoned plum trees, farm equipment, and hand-hewn log cabins.

We watched deer sneak down for a sip from the river and bighorn graze the beach. Bald eagles perched in pairs on the cliffs near the river.

At night, the sky exploded with a snake of stars framed by the black walls of the canyon. This was especially true at our Oregon Hole camp where even though the canyon was very narrow, somehow, the Milky Way lined up perfectly in the gap. West slept outside the tent but with such a comfy setup, I usually ended up inside before falling asleep. The only bit of nature we missed were the mosquitos: rolling rivers gather no biters.  

Lauren Duggan and Jarrett von Jess took over America’s Rafting Company three years ago, moved the headquarters to one-street Cambridge, Idaho, and run river trips through Hell’s Canyon, as well as on the Salmon River. Though they seem like they were born on the river, the couple originally hails from Massachusetts and arrived in Idaho via Jackson Hole where they ran a catering company.

The union produced an expert and delicious expedition – but what do you expect when a chef and a rafting guide team up?  Lauren’s commitment to homemade ingredients and from-scratch cooking elevates ARC’s riverside camp cuisine to an uncommon and unexpected level.

Out of the Dutch ovens came rosemary beer bread, blue cornbread, chocolate zucchini cake, and s’mores pie. Pork loin, tri-tip, and chicken exited the grill and met home-canned jalapeno pickles, honey mustard, and salsa verde. Fresh salads and fruits were served at every meal. Drinks emerged from a cooler stocked with soft drinks, wine, and interesting local microbrews. And, of course, happy hour brought a daily cocktail with appetizers before dinners even started. It was like I was eating at the farmer’s market – not a day’s float from the nearest road.

My favorite is always breakfast, and Lauren did not disappoint: Huevos rancheros, biscuits, and gravy, eggs with potato hash and banana-bread french toast. Hot coffee, yogurt, and homemade granola were always at the ready. We were constantly stuffed.

As someone who prides himself on superior packing skills, I watched Jarrett pack Lauren’s stack of Dutch ovens into the gear boat each morning with Tetris-level precision. He would raft ahead of us and have the entire evening camp ready to go when we arrived.

Despite the feast, afternoons and evenings were not just for eating and drinking. There was plenty of time to relax, hike around, fish, catch up with fellow rafters, and play cards, bocce or horseshoes – more items Jarrett pulled from the gear boat like a magician drawing rabbits from a hat.

Our favorite night was actually the last one. After days of catch and release, Lauren promised she would cook up our Day 3 catch during dinner. The afternoon’s rapids and scenery were lost on West: He spent all day with his line in the water, snagging 10 for dinner.  Lauren dusted the filets in spiced cornmeal and then lightly fried them to perfection.

West pronounced it “The best fish ever.” And I agreed.

 

The ROAM Report:

Hell’s Canyon Rafting with America’s Rafting Company

  • Travelers: Don & West Thompson (17)
  • Date: August 2018
  • Itinerary: Four-day/three-night father-son river rafting, fishing and camping trip on the Snake River through Hell’s Canyon, departing from America’s Rafting Company headquarters in Cambridge, Idaho
  • Cost: Approximately $1,200 per person for equipment, meals and full-service camping

The Good Stuff

  • Fun Whitewater The rapids were a perfect mix of thrilling and chilling. The first day progressed from Class II to III and ended with a couple Class IVs in the early afternoon. The next day we had a lot of whitewater in White Water Alley. The river was fun for first-timers and experienced rafters, with plenty of action to hold everyone’s attention.
  • Effortless  The full-service aspect of the ARC trip made a big difference. The guests didn’t have to pack, cook, clean or set up. We all felt very well taken care of which let us focus on the excitement of the river rafting.
  • Good Gear – ARC provides all the rafting equipment, duckies, tents, sleeping bags/mats, dry bags and fishing gear (unless you bring your own). I  appreciated that all the equipment was in great shape and high-quality; I did not miss the older, smellier gear I’ve been loaned by rafting companies in the past.
  • Patient Experts – The pre-trip overview gave rafters an intro to technique and guidelines about safety. Our guide Aidan provided endless fishing guidance for West – where to cast, what lure to use, and how to carefully release the fish. He also let West fish from his raft, even driving it into small eddies he knew were hiding lots of fish.
  • Groovin’  ARC sets up a “groover” – a portable camp toilet – at each campsite. The groover is strategically placed to optimize both privacy and river views. It is a glorious improvement over typical camping outhouses. 
  • Technology Free Long before you put into the Snake, cell reception begins to disappear on the road to the river. Rafting in a canyon virtually guarantees your kids will not be on their phones – and a complete lack of charging spots means no phone games either. The fishing, rafting, and camping were more than enough entertainment for my teen.

The Not So Good

  • Fishing Licenses Because the Snake River slices two states, fishermen legally need two licenses, which is expensive. ARC helps you avoid this by camping most of the time on the Oregon side, which means you can fish from the boat and from the western shore with just an Oregon fishing license.
  • Deepest? – Hell’s Canyon is known as the “deepest river gorge” in the U.S. Our group discussed this “claim to fame” and wondered if it set incorrect expectations for visitors regarding the riverside scenery. To be sure, Hell’s Canyon’s walls were very steep in spots and it is definitely a gorgeous place. But the canyon did not appear as deep as the Grand Canyon or other gorges we could think of. We realized its “deepest” status as has something to do with the nearby peaks of the Seven Devils.  
  • Hot & Smoky – August is hot in Hell’s Canyon. Our daytime temps were over 90 degrees. As mentioned earlier, smoke from regional wildfires made the skies hazy in a few spots.  But the river was a pleasant 75 degrees, the breezes were cool. 
  • Sleepy Cambridge – This one-street town is friendly but small. There is a basic motel, a B&B, one restaurant, coffee shop, market, some shops and even hot springs nearby. It isn’t an outdoor destination town like some others in Idaho (or at least not yet).

Good to Know

  • Kid Friendly – ARC recommends kids be at least 7 years old, experienced in the outdoors, and good swimmers before joining a rafting trip.
  • Group Friendly – Check with ARC for pricing for multiple families or multiple father-son/mother-daughter pairs. The more families, the more fun for the kids – and the parents. The team is great about accommodating custom trips and itineraries.
  • Arrival/Departure ARC’s holds an orientation the night prior to departure at their headquarters in Cambridge so book into the convenient Frontier Motel or the B&B nearby. The drive is less than two hours from Boise airport and ARC can arrange transfers if needed. The start of the trip takes about 1:45 to the river from Cambridge. The rafting trip ends after lunch and the transfer to ARC HQ in Cambridge takes about 3 hours so it is not recommended that you try to fly out the same day. Our flight home left very early the next morning so we left HQ and drove directly to Boise to stay near the airport.
  • Packing I overpacked pretty severely. Days on the river require few changes of clothes. It wasn’t too cold at night so my layers went unused. It was a trip you could – and probably should –  use a small duffel to pack in. ARC has a good packing list that explains the ins-and-outs of how they’ll keep it all dry.
  • GoPro Bring it – and bring a mount. Our best photos were taken on the river but we had to stuff the GoPro into our vest to get good rafting shots. I got a cheap plastic sleeve for my iPhone and the combo of that and the GoPro was perfect. I also borrowed a dry camera case from ARC and brought my DSLR camera but mainly relied on my phone and GoPro.
  • No Reception/Charging I love being offline but like to know in advance so I can let work and others know. Also, there are no charging spots for GoPros or phones so bring a powerpack for overnight charges and a car charger for the rental on the way back to the airport.
  • Season Earlier in the summer, the water is much colder and many rafters wear wetsuits while rafting. ARC can advise you on when best to raft.

 

by Don Thompson, August 2018

The Thompsons rafted Hell’s Canyon as guests of America’s Rafting Company but paid all other trip expenses. ROAM contributors do not accept media discounts or free travel in exchange for positive reporting.

Want more family trip ideas? Read more ROAM
Got feedback or more ideas on this story? Email ROAM
Want to write about your family trip? Contribute to ROAM

© ROAM Family Travel 2018 – All rights reserved

ROAM WITH US.

Don’t miss a single trip! Enter your email address in the box below to subscribe to ROAM and receive notifications of new posts by email. Check your inbox for an email to confirm your subscription, click the link and you’re ready to ROAM!