SALMON RIVER, Idaho -- Dick Hauff has navigated Idaho's “River of No Return” a hundred times and obviously returned to tell about it. In fact, he was telling us about it while we lulled along with the current not far above the Big Mallard falls.
Little did we know that our comfortable stream made famous by Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum in a move of the same nickname would soon cascade into dizzying, whitewater space. From there no return would truly rule our travel.
''In the old days we'd camp just above Big Mallard and spend most of the night worrying,'' recounted Hauff, who retired as Forest Service supervisor of this Idaho wilderness area to return to the Salmon River (the River of No Return) as a raft captain. We were currently at the midpoint of a 79-mile, six-day float through the heart of a wilderness area three times larger than the state of Rhode Island.
At just about the same point where our little expedition first put oars into the river, explorer William Clark in 1805 assessed the watery fury frothing over its granite jaws -- and turned back! Early in our journey someone asked the team leader what he thought about Clark's opinion. ''I quit reading Clark's journal ... it scared me,'' he quipped. ''Your attitude can change from 'Wa-Hoo!' to 'Uh-Oh!!' in the blink of an eye.''
No roads worthy of the name traverse this wilderness. The mail for scattered ranches and settlers arrives via air, delivered on impossible airstrips sometimes curving at a 90-degree angle. If you decide the going is too rough, this is how you are evacuated.
One of our most unbelievable experiences came when we were invited to jump into the 61-degree roller-coaster swells for 100 or so yards of body-surfing. Exhilaration--briefly interrupted by gasping heights of terror. We even stopped in the outback to put our toes in a hot tub behind a dam that someone had thoughtfully stuck in the middle of a hot spring. Hauff says the Forest Service turns a blind eye because it’s virtually unaccessable to the general public.