Get On A Wilderness River

Rafting the Bruneau with Wilderness River Outfitters

Click Photo

Hang on tight!
Your breath is about to be sucked
right out of your lungs —

and that's just from the scenery.

Get On A Wilderness River

Idaho's Bruneau River offers
scenery and exhilaration.

When you look across the vast sagebrush prairie of southwestern Idaho, the Bruneau River Gorge looks like a small arroyo in the distance. From the floor of that gorge, however, the world looks stunningly different. The red-brown horizon is almost directly above you, so steep are the towering cliffs carved out by the river. By the way, don't stare upward too long, or that big wave in the rapids directly ahead will tip you out of your raft for a nice, uh, invigorating swim.

This ribbon of snowmelt, fed by the smaller Jarbidge River upstream, flows through the southwest corner of the Gem State. Wilderness River Outfitters operates trips on these and many other rivers worldwide, although their home base is on the beautiful Salmon River in east-central Idaho. Joe Tonsmeire, a soft-spoken cowboy with a bushy grey mustache, has been guiding here with his wife Fran for 33 years, and they clearly love what they do.

Our adventure began in Boise, a pleasant capital city with its own scenic river. After a trip briefing and introductions all around, guides and guests went to a local brewpub restaurant for steaks and marionberry cobbler. One river guide, Kyle, collected on a wager: Tom, another guide, had bet that they couldn't fit all of their gear into the pickup truck before a previous river trip. Sounds more fun than video poker...

An unexpecte delay gave us
time to appreciate the prairie.

Speaking of trucks, Joe told us a tale from a past trip: the dirt road climbing out of the Owyhee River Gorge is so steep and rough that the rear axle in one truck completely stripped its gears, and the vehicle had to be towed out of the canyon. Trips like this are tough on vehicles. The story was evidently well known in the town of Mountain Home, where we stopped for gas and a stretch during the six-hour trip to our put-in point. The man at the register asked, with a knowing chuckle, how the truck was doing. Kyle reassured us that Joe had seen every kind of unplanned event in his time, and I joked about jinxing our group by saying, "Great! Nothing can happen to us, then."

The spring sunshine warmed our shoulders as we waited by the gravel road for the other pickup truck to come to our rescue. Two simultaneous flat tires - what are the odds? Our driver Brad, an experienced wilderness survival instructor, helped pass the time by showing us how to start a campfire without matches. We hoped this wasn't an indication of how long we might be here. Brad was here to deliver the Suburban to the take-out point after we had unloaded it at the put-in. Soon the replacement pickup arrived, equipment and supplies were transferred, and as we got moving again, we elected to speak no more about unplanned events.

Camp 1 viewed from above.

I like this group! Bill and Jim, businessmen from Boise and Seattle, respectively, are brothers who enjoy hunting and rafting trips whenever they can get together. Anna, a nurse from California, had rafted with WRO the previous year and proved to be an experienced paddler with a wry sense of humor. Clint, a baker from Sun Valley, Idaho, displayed great skill with a Dutch oven as well as with a paddle.

Things aren't always what they seem. Tom explained that the pronghorn antelope grazing on the sage by the road weren't true antelope but were a different species. In fact, the sage they were nibbling wasn't the same as the sage with which we flavor our food. Pioneers had named the plant after deciding it reminded them of the European sage that is used as a seasoning. Tom went on to say that the meadowlarks we saw were not true larks, either. Is nothing sacred? Next someone will tell me that Douglas Fir isn't a true fir! Guess I'd better not open that "field guide to trees" on my bookshelf.

Anna and Jim at
Indian Hot Springs.

The last mile or so down into the canyon was so steep and rough that it was more comfortable (and faster) for the passengers to get out and walk. At Indian Hot Springs, the small stream that issues from the steep bank is spanned by a small wooden footbridge, and with good reason: if you tried wading it, you'd parboil your feet. The spring raised the river temperature just a skosh at our put-in, and that's a good thing. (Remember the term "snowmelt?") Full of turkey burritos, we inflated the rafts and paddled out into the current. For this trip we had four boats: one raft propelled by four paddlers, two rafts rowed by guides using long oars, and an inflatable kayak, which I paddled today. Its maneuverability makes it a lot of fun, although the smaller size of the craft renders it more vulnerable to big rapids.

The oar-raft attacks the first rapids.

The gorge soon narrowed into a stunning slot canyon, and we hit our first major rapids. Submerged rocks in the stream are an ever-present hazard, and one raft got hung up briefly before its driver freed it. As the sun sank in the west, we stopped to gather firewood for the evening's cooking. The Bruneau is not heavily used due to its inaccessibility, so wood was plentiful. Farther downstream we stopped at a nice grassy spot with fragrant juniper trees. The cliff behind provided a good vantage point for a photograph, and soon we were casually talking politics over fresh grilled salmon and fruit salad. Kyle's Dutch-oven pineapple upside-down cake was perfect. He told us how on one trip a guide had proudly flipped his Dutch oven over onto the tabletop, only to discover he had picked up the wrong one. Tamale pie is a little too liquid to be served that way.

Cave Draw offered us a
challenging side trip.

WRO's list of gear that guests should bring does not include wristwatches. When you're on "river time," you wake up in the morning to the melodic, laughing call of the Canyon Wren, and you retire at night when you're so tired and full of good food that you can no longer keep your eyelids up. Most of us had pitched tents, but many decided to sleep out under the stars on this cool, spring evening. The canyon lit up later when a gibbous moon rose over the cliff, and eventually the moonlight gave way to growing daylight in the east. Time for another day of paddling and exploring!

Joe's 'quick hikes' are legendary," said Anna with a grin. After we had stuffed ourselves with scrambled-egg casserole and paddled for about an hour, Joe led us on a hike up Cave Draw, a big side canyon whose seasonal stream feeds the Bruneau. The wild raspberries and currants weren't ripe yet, but the miner's lettuce tasted a bit like spinach and might make a great salad. The group had a snack at the mouth of a large cave and took photos of a spectacular rock arch. Then, while Anna and the other smart ones relaxed in the shade, a few of us followed Joe up to the canyon rim to get a view back down into the gorge. After 1,800 feet of elevation gain, we were there. Wow! Looking down into the huge chasm, I could hardly believe we had just been at the bottom. "And for a 'Joe hike', that's as easy as they get," Kyle remarked later.

Kyle grills the evening's dinner.

Outdoor guides are an unusual breed. They seem to have paddled, climbed, or skied before they could walk. During this trip, Kyle and Tom and I discussed trekking in Nepal, caving in Borneo, climbing in the Sierra Nevada, and traveling throughout the western States. People in this field have to work hard, and you won't see them driving fancy cars. However, they do what they love and are far more interesting to talk to than most millionaires I've met. I concluded that between the two of them, Kyle and Tom have seen the entire planet.

By now the sun was on the river, and the warmth felt terrific. I rode in the bow of Kyle's oar-raft, and he explained the geology of the canyon as we drifted downstream to our next campsite. Colorful layers of volcanic rock and ash were exposed by eons of gradual erosion. Pillars stood next to the walls where the softer rock around them had washed away. We agreed that the landscape was right out of a "Wile E. Coyote" cartoon. Tonight was "fajita night", and afterward Clint tried his hand at Dutch-oven baking and produced a delicious spice cake. This is roughing it?

Four paddlers and a lot of gear.

Hey, where's that wren when I need him? I lay awake watching the early-morning sunlight creep silently down the far wall of the canyon until I realized that everyone else was already up and preparing to attack a huge plate of pancakes. The warming trend had already raised the water level a bit, and we hit some healthy rapids that morning. In the paddle-raft, Anna wondered why Tom had suddenly stopped giving commands until she looked back and discovered him climbing back into the boat! He had gotten thrown while struggling to save his craft from getting turned sideways to the large waves. Getting turned is the biggest danger to a raft, and it's even worse for the kayak, which I was again paddling. Did I mention how maneuverable it is? You can get into trouble almost instantly, but you can also recover quickly as long as you pay close attention. A big standing wave turned me suddenly and almost dumped the kayak over, but after a ferocious battle lasting all of two seconds, I had the bow pointing downstream again. Whew! I hate invigorating swims.

Evenings in camp are
relaxing and social.

After another tasty lunch, I took a turn in the paddle-raft while Joe's teen-aged son Seth did tricks in the kayak. Seth is a river-lover and is considering becoming a guide himself. Just above the towering canyon walls we saw a golden eagle soaring, and farther above, an F-15 Eagle from the nearby Air Force base could be heard roaring by. A view of majesty and the sound of freedom - can it get any more perfect?

We stopped early that afternoon, but the gorge was so deep and narrow that we were in the shade before we had camp set up. Almost everyone helped with dinner - cutting up vegetables, mashing potatoes, preparing the brownies. Joe grilled the steaks, and Seth sautéed the mushrooms and onions. The air was much warmer this evening, and we were glad for the light breeze that drifted down the canyon as we drank our after-dinner tea and noticed how heavy our eyelids were getting.

"If I point to one side, go that way, and if I make a helicopter motion, pull into the eddy and wait until my raft has cleared the rapid." It was our final day, and Kyle was instructing me in avoiding a violent demise in the kayak. They were letting me take the small craft through Five Mile Rapid, the highlight of the trip. This section of the river could also be described as "five rapid miles" because it's a non-stop race with no truly calm sections between rapids, some of which are Class IV in size. If I tipped the kayak, there would be very little time to climb back into it before huge waves tried to capsize me again.

Get Your Outdoor Gear HereThe larger rafts were somewhat more stable, but even they can capsize. That didn't happen on this trip, but Clint got thrown from the paddle-raft right in front of me when he leaned out to bring the stern around. He later said my eyes got a little big as I raced by, trying not to collide with his boat. The raft had briefly lodged against a rock, and he was hurrying to climb back in before the boat broke free. Things happen quickly in the rapids. I got turned sideways once more and decided it was faster to complete a "360" to get pointed downstream again. It's a funny feeling, rushing down a rapid while momentarily facing upstream. I recommend it.

Can you spot the author at
the Cave Draw Arch?

We made it! After a long, constant battle to stay upright in Five Mile, we stopped for lunch in the shade of the trees as the desert sun heated up the lower gorge. Continuing downstream in the afternoon sunshine, we saw the canyon give way to low desert hills with narrow strips of marshland along the riverbanks. Red-winged blackbirds clung to the reeds briefly before taking flight, their scarlet epaulets opening as they spread their wings. A lesser heron kept moving downstream to avoid us, and a yellow chat sang a beautiful song while hiding in a nearby tree as we drifted by. A Harrier jump jet cruised above us, and a couple of mallards took flight, probably hoping we didn't have shotguns. Back in the canyon we had seen coveys of chukar and heard their animated squawking, and I enjoyed watching the plucky little ouzels that alighted on rocks near the rapids. This place is truly a bird watcher's paradise. Heck, we even saw pigeons.

As wilderness gave way to desert grazing land, we saw fences, then a few beef cattle, and finally a power line. A particular bend in the river looked familiar, and suddenly we realized that we had reached the take-out point where we had dropped off a vehicle three days earlier. We deflated and folded the rafts, loaded our gear into the Suburban and its trailer, and headed north for Boise. All too soon, the trip was over.

Loading up at the take-out.

This part of rural Idaho is sparsely populated, and mostly by farmers. The lower Bruneau Valley is an idyllic greenbelt of alfalfa fields, tall willow trees, and scattered homesteads. It makes a colorful contrast with the vast sagebrush plains all around. Someone remarked that perhaps the best thing about this trip was our utter isolation; we saw nobody outside our own group while on the river. How many places in this world contain more birds than people? Rafting gives a person the opportunity to see places he could not access any other way - hopefully without killing himself in the process.

If you go rafting, remember that weather conditions can change quickly in mountain environments. When I arrived in Boise, it was about 55 degrees; when I left three days later, it was 95. Wilderness River Outfitters and other experienced guides know about all the contingencies, so follow their recommendations for what to bring and what to leave behind - including wristwatches. - Photos and feature by Robert LaGrone, Las Vegas Correspondent.

Bruneau River Photo Page

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