ROWing Down The Salmon River In Idaho - My Family Travels

Experience a luxury family vacation when you row the Salmon River in Idaho with the tour company ROW, and meet a crew of other whitewater rafting families.

The Salmon River's warm water makes water play fun and safe.  Photo c. ROW Adventures
The Salmon River’s warm water makes water play fun and safe. Photo c. ROW Adventures

We sat with 21 wind-blown city slickers, including 11 skittish souls between the ages of 5 and 12, around the pool of the Clarkston Quality Inn. It was me, my husband and our 6-year-old son, as concerned as others about the impending adventure. As the wind howled off the Snake River, we pondered the question asked by a deeply tanned, ruggedly handsome young man in frayed shorts, our leader, Lynn: 

What are your expectations for this trip?

Why Do People Row the Salmon River?

Families paddle an Inflatable ROW raft down Lower Salmon Canyons as the guide pilots through the rapids. Photo c. ROW Adventures
Families paddle an Inflatable ROW raft down Lower Salmon Canyons as the guide pilots through the rapids. Photo c. ROW Adventures

That was more than 20 years ago and families still ask themselves the same question. Our guide wondered why five couples from across America paid several thousand dollars to hurl themselves and their children down the south fork of Idaho’s Salmon River on inflatable rafts?

From parents came dreams of sleeping under the stars and viewing incredible scenery, from children, expectations of wild whitewater rapids and plunging waterfalls. Others cited the novelty of both the camping and the riverrafting experiences, and a desire to spend more relaxed time as a family.

And the phrase which recurred most often was, “now my kids are finally old enough to enjoy this kind of adventure.” 

Expect Adventure When You Row the Salmon River

Families sit around a bonfire on the sandy shore of the Salmon River in Idaho.
After a day of rowing Lower Salmon Canyons, families enjoy the put in near Whitebird in Region II and the after-dinner bonfire. Photo c. ROW Adventures

As I paddled opposite Carol Marine, a Lexington, Massachusetts rental housing consultant with two preteens, she told me her other priorities for a family vacation: “First was finding a family trip whose activities would work for everyone, with varied side trips, then a range in age of kids to provide companionship.” She hoped a river trip would meet her criteria.

My family, with prior camping and rafting experience close to home, was hoping to learn about the West. We wondered how rowing the Salmon River would connect us to the explorers Lewis and Clark and the Nez Perce Indians. 

Other families had different interests. “We’re active, but we pale in comparison to real outdoorsmen,” explained Minnesotan Mark Hayes, father of three of our group’s most enthusiastic kids. “That’s why I thought this river trip would be outstanding, because ROW offers ‘luxury camping’ and we didn’t have to know much to succeed.” 

Family Magic Rafting When You Row the Salmon River

When Peter Grubb founded River Odysseys West (ROW) in 1979, he wasn’t yet a father of two. Perhaps that’s why he focused his first family trip for adults and kids 5-16 on adventuring together: shooting whitewater rapids in safety, sleeping under the stars in comfort.

He discovered that the Lower Salmon’s water is warm enough to swim. Its broad, fine sand beaches provide ideal camping and play spaces. The longest undammed river in the Lower 48, the Salmon River’s water volume creates rolling waves. Those gentle waves make a safe, ‘pool and drop’ whitewater run that gives kids recovery time after each rapid. 

Since those early days of family-focussed Family Magic Rafting trips, ROW Aventures now trains families to succeed in either a paddle boat (four to six guests paddle with a guide), oar boat (only the guide rows), or Daring Duckie (one and two-person inflatable kayaks.)

ROW Adventures = Rustic Luxury Camping

The Salmon River's sand banks provide beautiful camping spots. Photo c. ROW Adventures
The Salmon River’s sand banks provide beautiful camping spots. Photo c. ROW Adventures

At each stop, ROW’s guides work together to set up camp, cook wonderfully varied meals, and cater to guests of every age. They happily instruct guests in general camping protocol. Participation is welcome. To sustain the pristine desert-like environment, parents and children are gently made aware of regulations regarding trash and waste. (We won’t explain what a Groover is so you can enjoy the surprise.) When not midstream, ROW staff do anything they can to keep kids happy and busy.

Barefoot over coffee one morning, our tent neighbor Dana Hopper, a New Jersey mom of three (ages 5½, 7, 10) watched as one guide flipped blueberry pancakes. “It’s great to camp with the kids without doing all the work these guides are doing. It makes it far less stressful.”

Her husband, Peter, emerged from their tent to add: “This has been a great introduction to the outdoors for the kids. I thought they would complain a lot more about things – the sand, being in dirty clothes – it doesn’t bother them.”

Eli Rivkin (8) of Santa Monica, California, said the trip was “Cool. I could see the stars from my tent, so I didn’t need to sleep outside. Also, you get to see wild animals: deer, eagles, footprints.” What did bother him? “If you don’t like bees, it’s not a good thing to do.” 

Row the Salmon River Ten Hundred Miles Away

Boy jumping into the river off a rocky ledge as others watch him from the water.
Cliff jumping from the Salmon River shoreline is part of the fun on a ROW Family Magic River Rafting trip in Idaho. Photo c. ROW Adventures

Everyone’s expectations of scenery were met by the stark cinematic beauty of the Salmon River Canyons, so arid, steep, and uninhabitable that they embodied the feeling of wilderness. Dana’s daughter, Mia (7) gave the trip a ‘thumbs up’ because “we are like ten hundred miles away from home.” “Even though we were in the wilderness, camping was not at all scary,” Kate Smith (10), Carol’s daughter, added. “I liked just making do with what you have.” 

By day three, what did the girls find most bothersome? Kate said, “It can be annoying to pack up and carry everything and not be able to watch TV or listen to music. But when I’m on the raft, I just concentrate on what we’re doing. You just have to try to have fun the whole trip.” 

To Row, Ask Yourself Are You Tough Enough, or Not?

Families paddle an Inflatable ROW raft down Lower Salmon Canyons as the guide pilots through the rapids. Photo c. ROW Adventures
Families paddle an Inflatable ROW raft down Lower Salmon Canyons as the guide pilots through the rapids. Photo c. ROW Adventures

That attitude prevailed. Kate may have inherited it from her dad, Rick, an avid skier, mountain biker and eager-to-learn kayaker who confided, “I was afraid it wouldn’t be a very active vacation, but it’s turned out to be one, particularly if you’re in the Duckies.” 

Other families chose to spend most of their days lounging under colorful umbrellas, on oar boats propelled by cheerful guides. For investment banker Susan Tolson, film executive Charlie Rivkin, and their children (Eli and Lily, age 6), the trip was above all, a chance to spend relaxed time together as a family.

One sunset, as we sat with wine and guacamole, Charlie said, “I don’t want my children to grow up thinking someone will always do everything for them, but if they enjoy it now, when they’re older we can do some real camping on our own.” 

ROW Advetnures Focus on Kid-Friendly Staff

Two girls smile as the kneel on the mud at edge of Salmon River, Idaho.
Break up days of rowing the Salmon Canyons with mud play and treasure hunts. Photo c. ROW Adventures

On our trip, the unflappable Lynn presided over five guides and a kids’ counselor, all river veterans with only e-mail addresses to call home. Each was well trained in the region’s history, flora and fauna, and sensitive to every guest’s needs. “The ROW guides are what makes it,” said veteran rafter Dana Hopper. “I’d thought about the experience as a whole with my kids, but didn’t consider how important the guides were.” 

On the last day, as rain fell on our lashed-together rafts, Carol Marine announced her expectations had been exceeded. “The first night, when I saw a guide pull out nail polish, then the next day, when the water guns and the football came out, I thought, they’ve got this all figured out.” 

Salmon River Memories Made to Last.. . and then some

Couple smiling at the camera while standing on the shore of the Salmon River, Idaho.
Parents enjoy their down time as much as watching their kids have fun when you’re on a ROW family whitewater rafting trip. Photo c. ROW Adventures

The farewell dinner at Tomato Brothers in Clarkston, Washington, brought everyone back together in clean clothes, not necessarily clean-shaven. Mark Hayes, now a true outdoorsman, summed up the group’s response well: “I think this was a great family trip because my objective was to do something that we would talk about for years. I remember when my wife, who’d been concerned about the risks, went through that Class IV rapid in a Duckie and said, ‘I did it!’ She was so excited.” 

We all nodded, recalling our own personal triumphs.

And his kids?

“Sometimes the absence of TV and electronic games makes things more memorable. For them – to go five days without bathing – how neat is that?”

Since this family trip, ROW Adventures, the company with a focus on whitewater rafting in Idaho, Montana and Oregon, has grown into an adventure travel company that offers an eclectic collection of trips to top destinations around the world. Every ROW Adventure is meticulously organized and enthusiastically conducted.

Together with sister companies Adventure Unbound and Sea Kayak Adventures, they’ll lead you in fun in the Galapagos, Peru, Turkey, Albania and Montenegro, Croatia, Corsica, France and other far-off realms. For more information on whitewater rafting and other family adventures, contact your travel agent or ROW Adventures.

Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.