The Middle Fork Revisited
Credit: Photograph by Susan Meiselas / Magnum
Called the crown jewel of the protected wild rivers in the American West, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River lives up to this travel brochure cliché. A central artery in the Frank Church Wilderness, the Middle Fork is one of eight rivers originally designated "Wild and Scenic"by the federal government, a distinction it received in 1968.

As we readied to launch in 1970 we were the only party at Indian Creek. Today Indian Creek in summer is a riverside D-Day, with kayakers, sweep boats, whitewater rafts, and McKenzies (wooden dories with high bows and pinched sterns that were popular with old-timers on the river) crowded along the shore as eager clients and guides – bronzed, ponytailed, and sandaled – load up the waterproof containers of camp furniture, stoves, food, water pumps, Porta-Potties, beer, wine, and soft drinks. Small planes line up overhead, awaiting their turns to land on the dirt strip at river's edge to drop off clients and supplies before taking off again for Stanley, Idaho.

At the time of our original trip the Middle Fork of the Salmon averaged a little more than 3,000 boaters a year; today the average is almost four times that. The Middle Fork remains a wilderness experience, but not entirely. Because of its popularity a thick set of regulations governs everything – acquiring a float permit, campground reservations, human waste ("pee in the river, not on the campsite"), fires, and fishing. And while the Middle Fork's primal setting and raw character constantly remind you that you'll enter it on nature's terms – two kayakers died on a tributary in 2005 – many tour operators offer what is more or less room service on the river, with comfort and pampering the priorities. Private, noncommercial trips run by locals for their own pleasure are a little closer to the mark, but they too are more about beer coolers and less about living lightly on the land, as Buddhists say.

For our reunion trip we decided to gather first at the Montana ranch that my wife and I share; as Karp, Stone, and Doumani arrived I knew for sure that this was a good idea. Harvey Karp is now 79 and the chairman of Mueller Industries, a prosperous metal fabricating company; he lives in fastidious, elegant style in the Hamptons and Beverly Hills, ever the urbane intellectual and medical science patron. He's justly proud of the fact that he has never spent a night in a hospital. Martin Stone, 79, is the aging jock and an entrepreneurial spirit with a home in Tucson and one on Flat Head Lake, Montana. He has made big money in real estate and other investments over the years, but his passion always has been and remains baseball. He owned the minor league Phoenix Firebirds and threw batting practice for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox until he was 50. The Red Sox were so grateful for his help over the years that they gave him a ring after they won the American League championship in 1975. Marty survived prostate cancer, and he has an artificial hip, but he still walks four miles a day with his dog.

Marty and Harvey have been close friends for more than a half century. Harvey is meticulous and cautious; Marty is happiest working up a big sweat and swinging for the fences. Privately I've always thought of them as Oscar (Marty) and Felix (Harvey).

Roy Doumani, 71, lives in Venice, California, in a stunning home designed by his friend, the artist Robert Graham. He has recovered from serious health problems as a result of radical prostate cancer treatment, and he's still physically active despite two artificial hips. Roy was a partner of the late Bill Simon, the former Treasury secretary who made a killing in the leveraged buyout business. Roy also invested around the world for Middle-Eastern royals, so he has the means to indulge his passion for modern art from the likes of Graham, Dale Chihuly, and Ed Moses.

As for me, my circumstances also have changed greatly since 1970, when I was a local anchorman in Los Angeles and part-time correspondent for NBC News. I was making about $45,000 a year then, so the cost of a week on the Middle Fork, $600, was a big consideration. We had three small children, and I remember wondering if I was being selfish by indulging myself. This time we flew from my ranch to Stanley, in a chartered jet, and the trip's $2,000-a-head charge, while not cheap, seemed to us about what it would cost a similar group to have a big night on the town.

On the river in 2006 we'd be in the hands of four veteran guides who balanced the scales between indulgence and self-reliance, three men and a young woman who run rivers throughout the West for OARS, a California-based outfitter. We had four long rafts to carry all the gear and a couple of kayaks for sport. As we floated away from Indian Creek this time the conditions could not have been more different from how they were in 1970, when the river was swollen with runoff. Of course, we had no idea when we launched back then that the runoff would do anything more than add to the excitement. In fact, the night before the accident, we were eager for more action, having grown bored with our mastery of the river. Be careful what you wish for.