It’s all about the gradient. And the rock gardens. And, of course, the snowmelt.
Take all three, surround them with soaring mountains, from the Rockies to the Sierra and even off to the Northwest where the Alaska Range rises, and you have a whitewater playground that won’t disappoint.
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The Middle Fork in northern Montana, the Main Salmon in central Idaho, and the Nenana in Alaska are just three of many watery options in the West that rafters and whitewater kayakers and canoeists can choose from. These are not artificial water parks or lazy rivers. Rather, they’re adventure grounds with a variety of experiences set against stunning scenery.
They’re landscapes where you might float past a bear or bighorn sheep come down to river’s edge for a slurp before you go bucking through the next rapid. These are places where the piney aroma comes not from air fresheners but from trees themselves, where the tweeting you hear is from birds, not Twitter.
In other words, deciding where to dip your paddle is your first challenge.
Western rivers are not like the Mississippi or the Delaware. They’re not broad and meandering, but instead steeply pitched in spots, pinched by canyons in others, and rimmed by towering mountains. They often come with the occasional placid stretch where you revel in the excitement of the last rapid before bracing yourself for the next.
“Everyone needs to realize these are not Disney rides on a track, so go with experience,” Glacier Raft Co. owner Darwon Stoneman, of the replies when asked how to choose a whitewater outfitter.
“We gear most of our trips to families with the ability for the thrill seekers to add a little challenge and excitement,” he says.
Look to the West and you can find tranquil paddles or float trips that turn you into a whitewater cowgirl (or cowboy). You can head out for half a day or half a month, depending on your schedule and desires.
In Montana, Glacier Raft Co. guides show off the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, a “wild and scenic” stream that jumps and leaps along Glacier National Park’s south boundary. If you’re not sure how you want to experience the Crown of the Continent, as this part of the state is referred to, spend half a day in the saddle followed by an afternoon on the river.
The River Co. in Idaho offers day trips on the Main Salmon, a river that takes snowmelt from the Sawtooth Range and transforms it into the longest free-flowing river in the Lower 48. Near Stanley the float trips tackle rapids named Piece of Cake and Shotgun, the latter which served as the rapid-filled backdrop for a beer commercial back in the 1980s.
Head to Alaska, and the guides at Denali Park Village in Denali National Park can lead you on a leisurely 13-mile float on the Upper Nenana River that leaves you free to take in the surrounding scenery. Or you can grab a paddle and lend a hand as they guide you through Class III-IV rapids found in the Nenana River Canyon.
Along with bucking rapids, Western float trips take you back in history, past prospectors’ diggings and homesteaders’ cabins. They can steep you in Native America lore and lead you into places far enough away from Wi-Fi so you really can unplug from the grid and unwind.
If that’s not enticing enough, consider savings from 20-50 percent you can cache simply by showing your Alaska Airlines boarding pass when you book your float.