Six days on Idaho’s Main Salmon River this summer with OARS

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Laura Croghan never had any interest in camping. 

“After 35 years of marriage, I finally ran out of excuses not to go camping,” said Croghan, who works in human resources for the Veterans Administration in Tennessee.

“She’s totally out of her comfort zone,” added her husband, Jerry, a retired Army officer.

But despite her reticence, Laura was thoroughly enjoying an OARS whitewater raft trip down the Main Salmon River in Idaho, getting soaked in the rapids, sleeping in a tent, digging through a waterproof duffel for her belongings every night, peeing in the river. By the last day of the five-night trip, Croghan was already thinking of another whitewater trip, perhaps to the Grand Canyon. (While the Salmon River trips end in September, Grand Canyon rafting lasts into October.)

 The guides work so hard “like a well-oiled machine,” one guest said admirably, and are required to have qualified in swift-water rescue, as wilderness first-responders and even food handlers. Their expertise is impressive. 

Laura Croghan never much liked the idea of camping, but she's a river rafting convert now
Laura Croghan never much liked the idea of camping, but she’s a river rafting convert now

The entire trip was wonderful, Croghan said, adding, “If I had to say one thing that was my favorite it was seeing all the bald eagles flying overhead.”

 “I’ve seen more eagles in the last two days than I’ve seen my entire life,” said San Franciscan Rich Vincelette jubilantly, noting he was glad to get back to adventures he had enjoyed when he was younger.

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There is something to be said for getting out of your comfort zone on vacation whether it’s away from electronics (we had no cell service or Wi-Fi), challenging yourself physically (how about riding the rapids in an inflatable kayak?), or pitching in with a group of strangers paddling a raft, hauling gear, putting up and taking down tents, navigating a hill to where the “groover” is placed (where everyone poops in a box overlooking the river) and living with strangers for a week. 

“There is a very visible transformation for a lot of folks. People open up more, form deep connections … there is something about working together and being out here in the wilderness,” observed Ethan Nelson, one of our guides. 

Our group of 22 plus guides on the OARS Salmon River trip
Our group of 22 plus guides on the OARS Salmon River trip

 “People are a lot more resilient than they think,” said his fellow guide, Dylan Alberson. 

There are 22 of us on this bona-fide adults-only adventure. (Another OARS trip for families left the same morning we did from McCall, Idaho, flying in small planes to where we started our journey in Salmon, Idaho, on the so-called “River of No Return”. There are also trips on the Lower Salmon and the Middle Fork, each offering a different experience. (The trip, which includes the needed gear, starts at $2,399, plus well-deserved tips for the guides.) 

We come from across the country – Californians, Arizonians, two young women on a girls’ trip, from Denver and San Francisco, a woman traveling solo from Florida; a group of three friends from Seattle, a grandfather of 13 from outside Chicago. 

Many in our group have river-rafted before. We range from 30-somethings to 70-somethings. The group includes five former guides, including Patti Mulvihill whose daughter, Dory Athey, is one of the seven guides on the trip. Her three children, she said, grew up running rivers with their parents. “I taught them since they were little,” Mulvihill said. “And I love that now Dory is taking me down the river.” 

“I learned from the best,” said Athey, who publishes a journal called Thalweg with contributions from those in the outdoor industry and also has a full-time job working at the Missoula Montana Public Library. She gets away for just a few guiding trips a year.

“For a lot of us guides the river is our home,” Athey told the group at our last lunch, tearing up. “Thank you for being here,” she told us. “Without you wanting to be here, we couldn’t be here.”

For me, just being able to go on this trip was a huge milestone. I had a knee replacement in June 2022, and by September I could tell something wasn’t going right with the recovery. Finally, I was diagnosed with a staph infection which required another surgery, intravenous antibiotics for six weeks, months of physical therapy and oral antibiotics. I took my last dose on the river, celebrating that I now had enough mobility for this adventure.

Dory Athey and her mom Patti Mulvihill reunite at embarkation point on Main Salmon River
Dory Athey and her mom Patti Mulvihill reunite at embarkation point on Main Salmon River

The days had a kind of routine as we made our way 90 miles down the river through large and small rapids. (Read my daily travel diaries here.) We’d wake up early to coffee, tea and breakfast (blueberry pancakes one day, omelets another) prepared by our guides, took down and packed our tents and sleeping bags, put our belongings back in the waterproof duffels we’d been issued at the beginning of the trip and chose which boat to ride in. Did we want to paddle?  Conquer the rapids in an inflatable kayak? Ride in a traditional wooden dory boat piloted by our trip leader, Kale Cimperman, who regales his passengers with tales of the early Idaho rafting guides – the subject of his master’s thesis. 

Choosing the inflatable kayak certainly was out of Rich Vincelette’s comfort zone. But even overturning in a rapid didn’t dim his enthusiasm. “My favorite part was those swims,” he said. Vincelette works in tech in San Francisco. “That made me more confident to do it again, that I knew what to do.” And he did. 

Often we stopped for a side hike to see pictographs on rocks painted thousands of years ago, to soak in a hot spring, to meet a couple who live largely off the grid, growing their own food. “People are shocked to see that people can live successfully off the grid,” Cimperman said. “People fantasize about doing this.” 

There would be a lunch stop (the Thai chicken salad was a group favorite) and more rapids before we would make camp for the night, helping to get the gear off the boats; finding a place to pitch our tents, dinner (salmon the first night; steak the last) games (horseshoes, perhaps?), stories (the guides told tales of misadventures on trips) and poetry. 

OAR Guide Ethan Nelson in the aluminum dory boat on Main Salmon River
OAR Guide Ethan Nelson in the aluminum dory boat on Main Salmon River

“A raft trip is the perfect thing to do as a solo woman,” said Dorothy Pernu, enjoying her sixth raft trip in the last decade. “You are in a safe place, not wandering a city alone or on a beach alone. … There is no cell service … and you don’t have to be anywhere at any time. You can fully immerse yourself in nature.”

Besides all the bald eagles flying overhead, the steep rock walls and the towering fir trees, there are ospreys catching fish, geese waddling on the beach and Big Horn sheep at our lunch spot.

We compare notes on which rapid we liked best – Stinker, where we got soaked; Vinegar that seems to go on and on; Dried Meat or Devil’s Teeth.

“ Riding rapids,” suggested Alberson, who would burst into song at any opportunity, “is kind of like life. Sometimes you just have to hit it straight on.”

(For more Taking the Kids, visit and also follow TakingTheKids on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments. The fourth edition of The Kid’s Guide to New York City and the third edition of The Kid’s Guide to Washington D.C. are the latest in a series of 14 books for kid travelers published by Eileen.)

©2023 Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.