Transcript of 30 minute program

Bruce Reichert, Host
For almost 150 years, we have made them work, forcing them through flumes and pipes, turbines and canals. In fact, the authors of Idaho's Constitution actually prioritized how rivers were to be use, and nowhere does it mention rafting.

But don't tell these people. For them, Idaho's rivers mean only one thing: a grand outdoor adventure.

Peter Grubb
It's the fact that we have so many mountain ranges and vertical relief that makes for all the great rivers.

No other state in the continental U.S. has as much running water or as much whitewater.

And there's really no other state that even comes close.

Tom Long
Whitewater has the unique ability of equalizing life. If you can negotiate and be around rivers that are definitely stronger and never conquerable, it makes the rest of life seem somehow manageable.

I still remember my first major whitewater experience. It was in a rented raft on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. It was the first of June, it was raining and snowing. The water was very high. And just before we went over our first major rapid, Velvet Falls, I managed to lose an oar. But the river gods were smiling that day. Actually they were probably laughing.

Hi, I'm Bruce Reichert.

You know, once you've experienced the thrill of a raft full of friends crashing through a big wave, well, you're probably hooked. The only thing better may be the solitude and the serenity that naturally comes from time spent on a wilderness river.

The Outdoor Idaho crew has had the good fortune of visiting many of Idaho's famous whitewater rivers.

They are Idaho's most vital natural resources. The engine that propels us onward. For all their diversity, they speak a language which can unite us but which often divides us.

The relationship we have with our rivers has evolved, has changed, as we ourselves have changed.

At first we worked them, with little regard to the consequences. We trapped them, and diverted them, and drained them because we could, because we felt we had to.

Now, we already knew that Idaho was the home of famous potatoes. And that those russets were the product of pouring a lot of river water onto what was once sagebrush desert.

Was it possible that Idaho could also be the whitewater state?

Well, we decided to ask someone who had spent his early years searching for the nation's best whitewater.

Peter Grubb, River Outfitter
Through the guide grapevines, the places I heard to go were either Idaho or the Grand Canyon. So I came to Idaho in 1979 and worked a full summer on the Main Salmon, and the Selway, and the Middle Fork and fell in love with the state and the whitewater here, and never left.

So Idaho is an amazing state in that there are over 3500 whitewater river miles that are runnable. And there's really no other state that even comes close. California I believe is in second place with about 2000 miles, and then it drops dramatically.

And what's amazing about Idaho is not only the sheer volume of mileage of free flowing rivers and whitewater but also the variety. In the south you have the desert rivers, like the Bruneau or the Owyhee that are a part of the great basin ecosystem and tributaries to the Snake. And as you move north and into central Idaho and the Sawtooths, you have the Middle Fork of the Salmon, which is an alpine river. And moving further north you have rivers like the Selway and the Lochsa which flow through almost rain forest, temperate rain forests with giant cedar groves.

There's dozens of floatable rivers here and I think people can find just about any kind of scenery they might want.

And any kind of rapid. If you spend time on Idaho's rivers, sooner or later you're going to run into some of the West's most famous rapids, like Ladle and Wolf Creek on the Selway,

Lochsa Falls on the Lochsa River,

Wild Sheep and Granite in Hells Canyon,

Jacob's Ladder on the North Fork of the Payette,

Five Mile Rapid on the Bruneau,

Milner on the Snake River,

Powerhouse and Rubber, Elkhorn and Big Mallard on the Middle Fork of the Main Salmon.

Each rapid has its own special characteristics, a product of river flow, gradient, and obstructions. And how you run a rapid at high water may be completely different from how you'd run it at low water.

Rapids are rated on an international scale of one through six, six considered unrunnable.

Most of Idaho's famous rapids are usually considered Class IV rapids, intense and powerful, with hydraulics capable of flipping a raft or stopping a kayak.

And needless to say, it pays to scout a Class IV rapid.

Denny Mooney, River Guide
When you start your rapid, you want to look for a safe way through, the easiest way through, and after a couple of times down, once you're familar with it then you can start taking other routes through the rapid, a little bit more exciting after you've judged the rapid for your own personal abilities.

The is the top of Staircase. It's a good Class IV rapid on the South Fork of the Payette. We've come down through the top, past Jerry's Landing, and we hit this big hole right above Whale Rock. That's something to be avoided. Inexperienced paddlers will come down and hit that and then they hit the Whale Rock, these two big rocks that we see here, and those are to be avoided. People hit those and they flip and then people swim the rest of the rapids.

One reason people can safely navigate rapids like Staircase is because of companies like this one, in Garden City, Idaho. The AIRE Raft Company manufactures about 300 inflatable boats a month.

Alan Hamilton, AIRE Raft Company
We've been the number one selling brand of whitewater inflatables probably for the last six years. We're building as fast as we can. And are right now trying to figure out how to put on a swing shift this fall to meet the demands.

These rafts are different in design, in material, and in color from the World War II models.

Well the original Army surplus boats were flat and were hard to maneuver. They were very stable and typically they had a glued in fabric floor. The glued in fabric floor would fill up with water and the boat would become hard to maneuver in the rapids and the old bail buckets would come out.

In the '70s raft companies began experimenting with laced in floors. They called it a self-bailing raft. Then they began experimenting with individual pontoons held together by a metal frame.

The self-bailing raft and the cataraft have revolutionized the sport in being able to allow people to run more difficult rivers and to take less risk really because the boats are more maneuverable and can handle the heavier water with less chance of flipping with their high tech shape. The fact that they can punch through and the fact that they are still highly maneuverable.

But whether today's river runners are having as much fun as some of those early pioneers is anybody's guess.

The put-in for the Lochsa River is along Highway 12, not far from where 200 years earlier Lewis and Clark had bushwhacked their way through the Bitterroots on an historic journey to the Pacific Ocean.

The Lochsa is quickly gaining a worldwide reputation as one of the premier whitewater trips that there is. There's a fine line between really great whitewater that is runnable and whitewater that is off the edge and really only suitable for extremists in the sport. And the Lochsa is one of those rivers that just has nice solid Class IV water that's reasonably forgiving and therefore is approachable by a fairly wide audience of people.

It helps to be able to easily scout rapids like Bloody Mary and the Grim Reaper, both Class IV rapids in the peak June rafting season.

River Runner
What we're going to do is we're going to come just right of the rock, okay, about 20 feet off. Literally we'll be about four or five feet from the rock when we go into that first hole. What the key is, is we don't want to come over into this one funky, we want to just miss it. Just along the side of it. And then shoot hard into that hole and hold on.

But if you make it through Bloody Mary and the Grim Reaper, you're not done yet. There's always Lochsa Falls.

The word pristine was meant for rivers like the Selway, easily one of the most beautiful stretches of water in America.

Flowing through the heart of the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness, this wild river can be a deadly reminder that river rafting is a serious business.

There are no roads for almost 50 miles. If you flip in Ladle rapid, you better be prepared for a long swim.

Doug Tims, Northwest River Co.
I have a very personal respect for this river. I've taken a swim in it a couple of times and it has reminded me that I need to continue that respect. I think I'll always have it.

It's a foolish person that approaches this river thinking I can just wing it and get by. It deserves a lot of respect. This is a well deserved reputation for some of the most difficult whitewater in the country.

Garrett Brown, Guide, Northwest River Co.
It's fast moving water. It's 37 degrees. There's been a few nights that I haven't slept were I've woke up at three in the morning watching the river rising, and then pace back and forth.

When you come up on Ladle rapid, it's not far after Moose Creek has come in and doubled the volume of the river. So all those categories, the gradient, shape of the stream bed, volume of water combine at Ladle rapid to make it a very difficult place to get through. At higher levels it's power and speed, at lower levels it's obstructions and technicalities. It's never easy.

Sheldon Coleman, Client, Northwest River Co.
The first time I ran the Selway was 12 years ago. It is amazing. The Selway is the same quality, experienced the same quality river as it was back then. The campgrounds are clean, untouched. It looks like nobody's ever been there before. And that's the same way it was. The clarity of the water is unbelievable too. A lot of fish.

The Selway is one of these places that early on was captured in its pretty much primitive state and preserved in that manner. A lot of the management policies were in place were designed to continue that. The use levels are restricted so that the Selway I think will be 100 years from now just what it is today.

It's well worth the effort. There's no experience that can parallel it now in America. It's a lot of heaven, it's pure paradise.

It was August, 1805 and the first men of European descent to enter Idaho were about to have their dreams shattered.

"The river is almost one continued rapid. The passage with canoes is entirely impossible," wrote William Clark.

These rocks, several miles outside of present day North Fork, Idaho convinced the Lewis and Clark Expedition to abandon the national obsession with a waterway connecting the East and the West.

Twenty-seven years later, in 1832, two Hudson's Bay Company trappers did try to run the Salmon River. The boat flipped, they drowned.

However, by the 1920's adventurous men had begun hurtling themselves through the rapids of the Middle Fork, just for fun.

This is the first color film of a Middle Fork trip, led by Doc Frazier in 1939. It shows how little has changed on some of the famous rapids like Pistol Creek.

It also shows how much has changed. Once there were giants swimming against the current. In one generation, these magnificent ocean going fish, the salmon, have virtually disappeared.

For the state's centennial celebration in 1990, Idaho outfitters guided a scow through the precarious rapids of the Salmon, all the way to the Snake River. In honor of Captain Guleke and others who had made their living hauling freight to the downstream mines.

Today, the Salmon and its tributary, the Middle Fork, remains the most famous whitewater in Idaho.

Every summer more than 10,000 people float the 96 mile Middle Fork section, flowing through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

And the Main Salmon sees thousands more, including jet boaters on certain sections of the river. There really is something for everyone here.

Jack Carlson, Salmon River District Ranger
People who come here, they enjoy a wilderness experience, they enjoy, you know, meeting nature on its own terms, and just having a fun time. It's fun to run through the whitewater.

It's fun to come here and look at mother nature and what she's done. This is a very unique resource here. And it's fun to learn about the history of this area too.

There is probably no better teaching river in the world than the Payette.

In fact, some have compared the Payette River system to the nation's educational system.

The Main Payette, where one receives a basic education in whitewater technique.

The Cabarton section, a bit more challenging, akin to high school.

Then there's the South Fork of the Payette. Some of this is definitely college material.

And finally, graduate school, Class V rapids of the North Fork of the Payette.

Tom Long, Outfitter, Cascade Raft & Kayak Co.
It's the classroom of all classrooms, with Class V all the way down to a mill pond that we can train in. It's a family sport, it's a lifetime sport. Kids as young as six can come out here and go rafting with us and as old as 85-90, it doesn't seem to matter.

We come up here and in an hour and a half or an hour from Boise, we're able to tackle some of the most difficult whitewater in the country. And as a result, people get to share in that escape. It's like human Nintendo, you know. A lot of kids and adults alike sit around playing video games. But what we're doing is human video games out here. You've got to go past this little diagonal wave, tee up to the hole, everybody has to paddle, and you celebrate at the bottom because you've mastered that level.

Rafting is one of those unique sports that's for everybody and you're a participant; you get to go out and be the little figure on the screen. It's a great sport.

The Payette, so close to the state's population center, has many ardent defenders, who do not want to see the river change.

Rob Lesser, Kayaker
The North Fork of the Payette, particularly the section that I focused on between Banks and Smiths Ferry, is an unbelievable arena of challenge, whitewater challenge. It's like having Yosemite Valley in your backyard. The chance to go out and excel and constantly challenge yourself. From the point of view of whitewater, this is world class. There's no question about it.

Scott Montgomery, Rafter
The trouble with losing this section is this is the most pristine section of the South Fork. And the South Fork is very pristine, but we are now are a mile and a half from the road. Either side of us, there's nothing. Man has not touched anything in here.

This is definitely a Class VI rapid. The rating system goes from one to six. The reason it is a six is it's totally unrunnable. But there isn't a good boater around that doesn't look at it and wonder if it can be run. And down at the bottom of that we've see logs and sticks stay in there for days. So it's all reversals, all four to five, six foot drops. Definitely a class VI. You don't want to be in there.

Rivers are like life, you have your really slow spots, and you have the forks in the rivers where you have to make decisions, and you have the rapids which are the trauma and excitement in your life. I love them.

Idaho's desert rivers, the Owyhee, the Jarbidge, the Bruneau all have one trait in common, solitude. It's almost as though the desert conspires against those who want to explore its rivers. Access is difficult. The short and often unpredictable floating season limits the number of boaters.

But anyone lucky enough to get on these river is rewarded by outstanding scenery.

Over the centuries the rivers have carved deep canyons through rhyolite and basalt.

And for the whitewater enthusiasts there are rapids, like the Bruneau's Five Mile Rapid, where the gradient briefly reaches 80 feet per mile.

Keith Taylor, Kayaker
It's almost like someone tips the river down. And it just kind of takes off and begins with one very nice shot going by some big rocks that you kind of run right to left, then go through a rock garden, and work your way on down. And you can eddy out as you are going but if the water is moving at all, it becomes fairly technical.

And there's Jarbidge Falls.

Chuck Pezeshki, Kayaker
There's kind of a common little idiom that we say, you know, kayaking gives one the opportunity to die in a very, very beautiful place.

There's a huge death trap in Jarbidge Falls. It's really quite the obvious that where basically the river goes underground, underneath a huge boulder. If I thought that for a minute that there was not a good line far away from that, I wouldn't have run it.

But there was and it was fun.

You know, if we just wanted to run rapids, we'd be up on the North Fork of the Payette or on the North Fork of the Clearwater, Lochsa, the places like that we usually to go. But the thing the Owyhee and the Owyhee country and especially the Jarbidge Bruneau offers is that solitude and travel through what is really a, you know, one of the last vestiges of primitive America.

All of Idaho's famous whitewater eventually flows into the Snake River, the nation's tenth longest river, one that carries more than twice the water of the Colorado.

Perhaps the most famous whitewater on the Snake can be found in Hells Canyon, along the Idaho-Oregon border.

But as turbulent as Wild Sheep and Granite rapids may be, this is not the biggest whitewater. That distinction belongs to this section of the Snake near Twin Falls, Idaho, called the Milner.

For a couple of weeks in the spring of certain high water years, this 1.3 mile stretch is a wild freight train ride, the most powerful hydraulics in the state. The last rafter to attempt it died. This is only for expert kayakers.

Pat Harper, Kayaker
It looks big. It's going to be a ride.

I mean, basically it's bend over and take your beating.

During that eddy, it's going to be a little bit, a little bit tense.

Well, let's go do it.


As I drop down into the first entrance way, there's kind of a real choppy wave and you're kind of keying off these two big waves coming off the sides diagonally. And once you cross it you can see this hole and it's big. It's just a big wall of white. You know, it's like driving into a snow bank. You just take a big deep breath and hit it, lean way forward on the deck of your boat and try to reach down with your paddle and grab some green water.

The next big thing would be the V wave. The V wave is very, very squirrely to approach. It changes before your eyes. All of a sudden a wave catches me and then it kicks me around and then I fall over upside down.

It's some of the biggest water that I've run in terms of just real powerful takes, steep water with a lot of gradient. In fact, I believe it's the steepest, largest volume of water in the West. It's an amazing canyon. You know, when you're driving out through here you never see it. But boy it's definitely worth checking out. It's an overlooked place.

Closed captioning: Kelly Roberts


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