Three Rivers River Rhapsody by Laura Stavoe


Western Journey - The Magazine for AAA Members
March/April 2006
"River Rhapsody"
by Laura Stavoe

A river enthusiast shares her love of whitewater and wilderness with her father
We launch at Paradise.
Four guides, 12 guests and enough gear for five days on the river slip downstream away from the forest service guard station just west of the Idaho/Montana border. I am paddling my own kayak and the rest of the group is split between four rafts.
Idaho's Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness lies to the south and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the north. Together they make up over three million acres, the largest contiguous wild acreage in the lower 48. Conifers carpet the mountains so thick that Lewis and Clark's journey through this rugged country two centuries ago seems nothing short of miraculous. On the way to the put-in, I see my first moose ever, a baby, standing in the river. The clouds have just broken open, brightening the forest on either side of us and sending a glistening sheen across the current.

But what thrills me most about this trip is that my dad, Ron Stavoe, who has the heart of a western explorer but with roots firmly planted in Chicago, is paddling in the raft ahead of me. My dad took me fishing in Canada when I was three, water skiing when I was nine and scuba diving when I was 11. Now it is my turn to take him down his first western river. As we approach the first churning white rapid, my father turns to me and grins before paddling hard into the waves.
"What do you think?" I ask him when we make it to Archer camp and choose a tent spot in a huge meadow. "I have no idea what I'm doing," he replies, "but it's fun." As we fumble with the poles and stakes for our shelter, I ask him about the last time he camped.
I credit my dad, who is in his mid sixties, for my own semi-outdoorsy tendencies that manifest themselves in a love for nature but limited skills at setting up an unfamiliar tent. When I was young we spent summers roughing it in Wisconsin and fishing on cool blue lakes in Minnesota. As the two of us stumble through the process of erecting the shelter, I ask him when was the last time he camped.
"Lets see… you were about 10."

That would be 30 years ago. Luckily, this is rather posh camping. Three Rivers Rafting provides thick sleeping pads and prepares three meals a day plus generous snacks. A portable toilet is set up behind a curtain a short walk from camp. Our only responsibility, other than packing our own belongings, is putting up our tent. Jimmy, one of the guides, comes to help us do that.
That evening we eat Cornish game while listening to the soft patter of rain come and go on the tarp. A whitetail doe and fawn make their way through the meadow behind us. Ron from Missoula lets us know that not every wildlife sighting is so welcome and describes the thick rattler he sighted near camp. "I hate snakes," he says as we begin eating pineapple upside down cake still warm from the Dutch oven.

"Didn't know you were afraid of snakes," says his friend Fred.
"I'm not afraid of them. I just don't like them." The rest of us laugh. "No, really. Bettie was married to a Green Beret before she married me and they had a huge pet boa. They let him have the run of the house. When the snake died, they ate him."

Which brings me to another favorite thing: On river trips, you always meet interesting people. Despite having reportedly eaten a pet snake at one time, Bettie is charming and fun and an excellent hiker. In our small group there are also Jennifer and Tony from Oklahoma and their teenage son, Dayton. Neil is a lawyer and David an accountant; both live near Detroit. This is David's 21st trip down the Selway, which we figure is a record for someone who isn't a professional guide. Joe, a retired game warden from North Carolina, plays a Native American flute and can recite The Cremation of Sam McGee in its entirety.

When the rain stops we gather around the fire. It's a week before the solstice and light lingers late into the evening. A bald eagle soars overhead. My father stands to watch it as it disappears up the canyon.

A Spell is Cast
The next day Goat Creek rapid, a class III, becomes my new favorite. Some rapids are fun in an out-of-control way. But in Goat Creek, the river does all the work, and I feel graceful as I catch an eddy and turn and drop down through the foam, and then catch another and turn and drop again.

Later, at camp, there is the bear grass in bloom, the low notes of Joe's flute, and the mating call of a grouse. And lots of food. Dad and I eat lasagna, and I ask him again, how he likes the trip, and he answers, "Good, good." I am expecting something, I realize, though I'm not sure what. Maybe it is my river evangelist tendencies. Ever since moving to Idaho, I've felt certain that if I could only pry friends and family away from their busy schedules, they too would come to love the rush of whitewater and the magic of sleeping beneath a starry sky. Yes, my dad's enjoying himself, but I want to know that he gets this river thing the way I do. I open the river map. My dad moves his chair closer, so we can look over the rapids we'll take on tomorrow.

At our third camp, Moose Creek, my dad walks to the ranger station, and I opt to join Neil and David on a more strenuous climb to the fire lookout atop Shissler Peak. The trail is shady muddy. We start classifying the puddles using the whitewater scale (I-VI), based on how much slide and splatter through them. David entertains us by reciting "the Raven" and Neil performs "A Red, Red Rose," complete with a Scottish accent. I wish I hadn't let my memory of Frost's "Mending Wall" lapse, since poetry seems to be the thing on this trip. I don't know what the odds are of running into an accountant, a game warden, and a lawyer, all of whom can recite classic poems (some quite lengthy), but this former high school English teacher is rather impressed.

We follow hairpin turns upward, and Moose Creek became a fine thread of silver below us. We are tired, but we keep going because we have made it this far already and David has promised to share his Dove chocolate at the top. We arrive at the abandoned look-out two-and-a-half hours after we started. Soft piles of wildflowers blanket the ground, and the view is breathtaking and ballad worthy, all "purple mountains majesty" and snowcaps in the distance. I can see 360 degrees from where I sit on a boulder eating my chocolate square and think about how easy it would've been to miss this moment. In a world of multi-tasking and high-speed connections, you could go through an entire life without ever knowing a poem by heart, or floating a wilderness river, or spending a week bonding with your father.


Whitewater Rush
When people talk of the Selway being an exceptional river they mean two things. First, it's pristine. The U.S. Forest Service allows only one group of 16 or fewer to launch each day, making it the most protected river in the lower 48. The result is a sense of extreme solitude. The second thing has to do with day four, when we run a section of seven rapids in a row known as the Moose Juice.

Truth be told, my passion for kayaking outpaces my skill. I'm afraid if I flip over in Double Drop I'll end up swimming through Ladle, Little Niagara, Puzzle Creek, and No Slouch. The guides strap my kayak to an oar boat, and I climb in the paddle raft with my father.

After a clean ride through Double Drop, we paddle ashore so the guides can scout Ladle, a legendary class IV. All of them have years of experience, and none of them take the Selway for granted - not the power of the water nor its beauty. Mike, the youngest guide, who normally wears a boyish grin, returns with a serious look and barks commands like an old army sergeant. "Together! It's important you all paddle together. We're going to try to make that chute," he says pointing to a narrow opening between two rocks in the midst of the swirling mess. When we climb back in, I am relieved to see Dad is smiling. My own heart rate seems to be keeping pace with the current's increasing rumble.

I watch David's paddle in front of me and dive the blade of my paddle deep into green water, which quickly turns to white foam. The bottom of the raft drops down as we enter the rapid. I keep marking time with David until suddenly he disappears and the front corner of the boat seems to be swallowed right up to my knees. Mike shouts a command that I can't quite hear above the roar, and I soon realize that David has not fallen out but has rolled onto the floor of the raft to avoid being sucked into the rushing water.

"Get up and paddle," I yell in an adrenaline-spiked outburst. The rest of us back paddle, and the boat turns and finally releases from the hole. Once the waves mellow, we high-five one another with our yellow blades. David, having returned to his post, says to me, "Has anyone ever mentioned you're kind of critical?"
"Twenty-one Selway trips and you stop paddling in Ladle," I rib back. We are all laughing. Then Mike calls "Forward paddle," and we do, remembering Little Niagara and four more rapids lie just ahead.

The Pull of the River
On our last morning, we linger at camp. "I've gotten used to this," Dad says, lounging in a camp chair, his brown eyes fixed on the current. We've sunk into what guides call "river time," a term referring to the phenomenon where time slips away and life becomes wherever a river takes you-through corridors of lush trees, into big waves, and to calm places. "My tennis buddies would love this," he adds, and I recognize the signs of another river evangelist in the family.

What is it we love? Certainly it is the river's motion and the beauty everywhere. It is an intense sensory experience. But also, a wild river takes us through a swath of Earth where our perspective changes, where the boldest headlines fade next to the stars in the sky and the ancient cedars growing on the beach.

It is almost noon when we finally push offshore. We have one big rapid, Wolf Creek, and then an easy float to the take-out. Dad climbs in the paddle raft, and I in my kayak. I take long strokes out to the middle of the river, watching rocks slip beneath me. Even in deep water, the Selway is so clear I can imagine reaching down and running my fingers along the rounded stones. I follow my father's boat. We let the current pull us the only direction the river goes - towards home.
Freelance writer Laura Stavoe is based in Boise.

Three Rivers Rafting offers guided trips on the Selway, Lochsa, and Lower Salmon rivers. Call (888) 926-4430 or visit Plan early, as June trips fill up as early as the previous October. For TripTik routings and lodging information, visit your local AAA office or


Resort Picture