by Sheri Boggs & r & Six Rivers You Need To Meet & r & I'm by no means an experienced river rafter. I've been on four rivers -- the St. Joe, the Clark Fork, the Grande Ronde and the middle fork of the Salmon River. I've gone with experienced outfitters and with friends (one friend actually owned her own raft and could read rivers like a hawk). Despite my inexperience (and at times -- especially on the Clark Fork -- my terror), on each trip I learned something. I learned to look for the tongue -- the little V of water that indicated the path of least resistance and the right route down which to take the raft. I learned to be careful of the riverbanks in desert country and to look first before pushing off from some random rock (I still remember the low rattle and hiss of the rattlesnake I never did see). Most of all, I learned to love the terror of being only marginally in control. Whitewater rafting is like an amusement park ride with better scenery and a sense of the unpredictable; at times, you feel like you're strapped onto the back of some vast, slippery animal. Senses are heightened - beer never tastes as good as it does after you've plowed through a Class IV rapid without getting tipped over. The sunburn you get from being on the Salmon River all day is something you'll wear with pride.
For a piece like this, however, I needed a professional, and so I decided to ask Peter Grubb, founder of Coeur d'Alene's River Odysseys West to recommend five good rivers in the Inland Northwest. Our criteria were simple: rivers with a nice mix of rapids - some easy, some alarming -- and located within 200 miles of Spokane. With 27 years under his belt, Grubb not only gave great advice, he recommended not five but six regional rivers, all within a few hours' drive.
"Well, you've gotta mention the Spokane River for obvious reasons," Grubb says right out of the gate. It's true, no river is closer than this one and the Spokane has areas of absolute peril (Class III rapids) and stretches perfect for a lazy afternoon of gently tubing along (Class I and II). "From Barker to Sullivan [roads], you've got some nice easy stretches for beginners. But you get over by the Bowl and Pitcher and you're looking at some serious rapids. That area of the river you need to treat with a lot of respect." The time of year makes a big difference as well - the Spokane River is most dangerous in spring when the sheer water volume can make Class III rapids seem more like IVs.
Coeur d'Alene River
The Coeur d'Alene River from Enaville to Mission Flats is excellent for beginners and features some pleasant little riffles to make things exciting. There aren't any real raft-eating holes or monster rocks lurking just under the surface. That's true especially now that most of the spring runoff is over and the water is low enough for a smooth float but not so low that you'll get run aground.
"The Coeur d'Alene has a really short season and as far as whitewater goes, it might be over for this year," says Grubb. But it's still a great tubing river. In July and August it's really easy and you don't necessarily need a guide service to navigate it this late in the season."
Middle Fork of the Clearwater River or the Lower Selway River
"Both of these are around 80 miles out of Lewiston in the foothills of the Bitterroots. They're both simply amazing experiences," says Grubb. In fact, River Odysseys has just built a camp and retreat center near the Selway for future spiritual and/or whitewater adventures. "I'm next to the Selway right now," Grubb says. "It's crystal clear water. You get hot summers here, which means the water temperature can be 80 degrees in places. The area sits in beautiful old cedar forests and there's good fishing to be had too."
Grande Ronde River
The Grande Ronde is one of my favorites. You can put in at a number of different places, but I like starting in the forest near Minam, Ore., and ending up in the desert country of southeast Washington. Also, the drive there includes a stretch of grades and switchbacks that will make even people who think they're not acrophobic a little nauseous. Its season is a little short but parts of it are still easily navigable.
"You can canoe the Grande Ronde at any time. As for rafting, it's still probably raftable if you put in at Bogan's Oasis and float to the Snake River. That's about 50 miles, which is perfect if you're looking for a nice overnight trip. There's some whitewater, some floating. It differs from the other rivers I'm mentioned in that the majority of it runs through southeast Washington, so you get that really arid, high desert environment and lots of sun."
St. Joe River
For a colder river experience, check out the "Shadowy St. Joe" in the Idaho panhandle. The upper stretches near the Montana border are a little too rocky for this time of the year; its season is really May and June. "But below Avery," says Grubb "you can still float tube and run canoes." The scenery here, as with the Lower Selway and the Middle Fork of the Clearwater, is mostly groves of cedar, white pine and fir, offset by beaches of mica-rich sand perfect for quick picnic lunches or a bit of fly-fishing for native cutthroat.
Clark Fork River
Of all the rivers mentioned here, the Clark Fork is perhaps the most difficult, but it's also one of the most worthwhile. Not far from the put-in point east of Superior, Mont., you meet some rapids right away. In fact, you can hear them coming. "It's intermediate whitewater," Grubb confirms. "Of all of these, it's the most difficult, with Class III and IV rapids. It gets pretty complicated in places." What makes it difficult of course, is the fact that the river travels through the Alberton Gorge, which constricts the water flow and makes for a punchier, faster paddling experience. The gorge is also home to some of the most amazing purple hills - rich with the mineral argulite -- that you'll ever see. "The scenery's amazing. You're traveling through the old Lake Missoula seabed and you're surrounded by those purple cliffs. No other river that we run has purple cliffs."
For more information, visit River Odysseys West at www.rowinc.com or call (800) 451-6034.