Surf the main Salmon River.
It’s mid-July on Idaho’s Salmon River, and native Hawaiian Christian Bradley is riding atop an 11-foot standup paddleboard, surfing a wave in the main current. Bradley, 27, practically grew up in the water, but he has never run a river. He is clearly loving this weeklong trip through the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness. After a few laconic turns, he peels off downstream, past the boulder–lined shore, and into a flotilla of a dozen other paddleboards and rafts.
“The concept of waterman in Hawaii means you are a master of all watercraft,” Bradley says, smiling, when we reach camp. “Apparently that now means using them on mountain whitewater, too.”
Standup paddleboarding certainly isn’t the easiest way to run a river, but it’s the only way for this group — a who’s who of SUP pioneers, including Bradley’s father, Todd, a founder of C4 Waterman, which has taken a group down the Main Salmon for more than four years running. For a week, Idaho outfitter Middle Fork River Expeditions ferries the crew’s gear downstream, sets up camp, and lays out big, hearty meals — leaving the paddlers free to play on the river’s waves and swirling eddy lines. Happy hour starts whenever the SUP-ers decide to pull off for the night.
These sorts of multiday SUP trips are increasingly popular, even among novice paddlers, because SUP boards are more maneuverable and durable than ever before. SUPs offer a fresh way to experience classic river trips, and there are few better places to do that than the Main Salmon: The 82-mile section is an easy Class II–III. Eagles and ospreys fly above the canyon; bears and sheep traverse the forested banks; and at night big sandy beaches make for blissful camping. In July, the river runs cool and clear, with long, peaceful sections punctuated by big but straightforward rapids, which newbies generally run on their knees rather than standing up.
Life jackets and helmets are mandatory, but a wetsuit is not. We’re in surf trunks and sun shirts, and the air temperature is in the 90s, so when we fall off — as we frequently do — it’s little more than a dunking. In the calm pools below the big rapids, most of us swim back to our boards and climb on belly-first, ready for more.
On our last night, as we sit around a roaring fire eating slow-cooked prime rib, conversation turns toward what it’s like to go back to paddling on the ocean after a river trip.
“Paddling out, you see that whitewater coming and you just blow right through it. This river running is really good training for the Molokai,” Todd says, referring to the 41-mile ocean-crossing race in Hawaii.
Just then, a double rainbow appears upstream of camp, low light from the setting sun reaching beneath receding storm clouds. “This is every day in Hawaii,” says Bradley, keeping up his hometown pride. But then as we sit there in the sand, plates balanced on our knees, a bald eagle flies directly over camp heading downstream toward the sunset. “I don’t know,” says his father. “This is pretty nice.” –Frederick Reimers
. . . Or Go Here
Rio Chama, New Mexico
Tucked in a desert canyon, the Chama is one of the best places to learn SUP, and New Mexico River Adventures offers easy, three-day floats (newmexicoriveradventures.com).
Deschutes River, Oregon
With River Drifters, you get personalized instruction on paddling techniques and wave surfing while exploring 50miles of the scenic Lower Deschutes (riverdrifters.net).