For an instant, just before my inflatable kayak launches into space, on its way to smashing headfirst into what looks to me like a giant saucepan of boiling water, I wonder if this was such a good idea.
Maybe, a voice inside my head silently screams, I should have stayed on the raft, where an actual guide would now be steering me through this churning cauldron.
But here I am, piloting what suddenly feels like a pool toy into a mean-looking rapid on the Salmon River. I lurch up, then down, then up, take a bathtub full of ice cold water to the face, then another, stab my paddle into the froth, slam into another series of standing waves, start to spin sideways, wonder who shoved ice cubes into my swimsuit, and then, somehow, emerge triumphant. The whole ordeal lasts maybe 2 minutes, but it feels like a couple of lifetimes have scrolled past in that span. I hoist my paddle in the air in victory, and after my heart rate returns to normal, and all I can think about is how much I want to do it again.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure about this five-day, all-women’s whitewater rafting trip to Idaho with AdventureWomen, a travel company that organizes between 80 and 85 adventures around the globe each year. I love spending time with my girlfriends as much as the next person, but I also crave adventure — dirty, gritty adventure that involves peeing behind bushes and hopping over stray tarantulas that saunter past my tent (yeah, that happened in West Texas once). Not all my female friends share my preference for sleeping bags over high-thread-count sheets, and besides, I’m essentially an overgrown 13-year-old kid, with a sense of humor to match. What if I got matched with people who wanted to take it too easy?
Turns out I shouldn’t have worried. A few days in, I’d climbed a ridge with a female U.S. Naval commander who was also on the trip, floated through a canyon in my lifejacket, and hiked to an old stone hut where a Chinese miner lived in the 1860s. By the last night, after the one-on-one battles to pitch each other off a rocking, overturned boat and all-out Super Soaker wars, I’d whooped and hollered and plunged into the river for a moonlit skinny dip. Then I’d gotten out, rolled in the sand to turn myself into a human-sized "churro," and leaped back in.
Back home and dry finally, I’m still brushing sand off my gear. I can’t shake the memories of the trip, from unrolling a tarp and spreading out my sleeping bag under the stars to climbing a hillside with my morning cup of tea to watch bighorn sheep tiptoe along the canyon wall across the river.
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The adventure marked my first group travel since the pandemic hit. I masked up for the flight, used enough hand sanitizer to mop my kitchen floor, and did my best to maintain social distance on the way there. The next morning, our group of about 15 rode a bus (windows open, masks on) to the put-in, where an all-female crew met us and loaded our tents, sleeping bags, portable poop box, and tubs of food onto five crimson-colored rubber rafts.
We’d have our choice, over the next five days, of paddling in a raft or taking it easy as a guide propelled us downstream in an oar boat. (We were encouraged to coordinate strokes so we’d "look like the crew on a Viking ship, not a drunken spider.") We could even hop in an inflatable kayak — solo or tandem — to tackle some of the easier rapids ourselves.
Our group of women, ages 30 to 70, included a hospital chaplain and a retired New York City police forensics detective, several nurses, a politician and Judi Wineland, co-owner of AdventureWomen (and, I found out, once the singer in an all-girl band that performed at USO shows during the Vietnam War).
"We consider ourselves a relationship company," Wineland tells me over a glass of wine one evening on the beach. "It’s about getting to know each other."
And we do. It’s not uncommon for guests to travel together after meeting on an AdventureWomen trip, Wineland says. "We want them to walk away with a sense of camaraderie with other women — as well as joy and a sense of accomplishment."
That happens incrementally, as we take turns kayaking through rapids, sharing meals, sitting around a campfire, and even putting on our own "no talent talent show."
But the river is our focus. We slice through Green Canyon, Cougar Canyon and Blue Canyon on the Lower Salmon, hitting rapids with names like Snowhole, Checkerboard, Bodacious Bounce, Sluice Box and The Slide. Much of area we see was once inhabited by tribes including the Nez Perce. This river provided food and life for them; today it’s one of the largest rivers in the continental United States without a dam on its mainstem. It flows for 425 miles through grassy mountains and charcoal-colored cliff walls in Idaho, dropping 7,000 feet as it goes.
Betsy Bowen, one of the co-owners of ROW Adventures, which is handling the raft guiding duties for our trip, hopes the women who make the trip will leave with an appreciation for all the river represents. "If we can ingrain a love for the river, we can inspire people to protect it," Bowen says.
Martha Krupp, 70, of Newport, Oregon, a retired nurse, signed up for the trip as what she called a "last hurrah" with her California-based sister, a former river guide. The sister had to cancel because of the wildfires, but Krupp came anyway. A former Mariner Scout, she says the adventure brought back "the feeling that I can still do some things."
Rabia Halim, 30, who works at a bank in Chicago, says she never considered herself a nature person, but too much time stuck inside during the pandemic made her want to get outdoors and active. She slept in a tent, swam in the river and met new people — and one thing surprised her about this all-women’s trip: "Ironically, there’s less drama," she says.
After five days without computers or smart phones, with nothing but the moving water and surrounding cliffs to draw my attention, I don’t want to get off the river. I turn toward it one last time before we leave, dip my hand in and splash my face. I love the outdoors; it makes me feel human, like I’m living the way I was meant to live. It challenges me and reassures me, and fills me with confidence. And along with the sand that sneaks home in my shoes, I know I’ll carry home the memory of how I felt when I conquered that rapid in an inflatable kayak.