Real Adventure in the American West
She expressed no interest in big cities; Ela was keen to explore the American West. In the 20th century, its legend and lore had spread worldwide; even Poland and other countries in the shadow of Communism were fascinated by its culture. Like kids everywhere, Ela and her friends in the village watched movies and played ‘cowboys & Indians’ all summer. Like adults everywhere, she got caught up in family and career, and never had time to chase those daydreams. But when we committed to our relationship, she agreed to be my partner in a lifetime of new adventure, so I booked a whitewater river trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon where it flows through the Frank Church Wilderness. I’ve been on lots of big adventures; the only thing more fun than going is taking someone who has never been.
Ela and I both needed someone with whom to grow younger, to partner with on adventures in the second half of our lives. Amazingly, that Great Organizing Power of the Universe matched us up. As soon as I got here, Ela took me hiking in Polish mountains similar to the Rockies but, to my surprise, the Euro culture created a more civilized outdoor experience. Recreation in the Tatras and other ranges on the Czech border was more social, closer to town, and the trails were better maintained. The Rocky Mountain experience was more remote, especially where I planned to take Ela.
The Frank Church Wilderness (known to locals as The Frank) is the largest contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48. Almost 2.4 million acres are preserved and protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964 as
‘..a place where man himself
is a visitor who cannot remain’.
And through the primal paradise runs one of the country’s longest designated Wild and Scenic Rivers. Ela had taken day-trips on quiet Polish rivers, but nothing as primitive and remote as the five days we would spent on whitewater rolling through The Frank.
Months ahead of time, we discussed our objective, and how much time and money we could invest. We imagined a trip to Idaho and made a list of things to do. We fit the pieces of a travel schedule together and watched the plan take shape. Step by step, we stayed on plan until the day came to leave on our adventure.
How do you describe the great bigness of America to someone who has never seen it? The Frank Church Wilderness is almost twice the size of the state of Delaware. The Middle Fork is 100 miles long, but hidden in the vast expanse of the Idaho backcountry. By comparison, the Bialowieza Forest spreads across the borders of Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland. Covering over 3,000 km², it is the largest forested area in Europe but less than one-third the size of The Frank.
There are no roads, no motorized travel, no machines. Backcountry travellers have to walk or ride horses, or float the river to move around in The Frank. And you can fly into a backcountry airstrip; not an airport, but a relatively flat spot in the dirt with absolutely no support. There are charter services that use 4- and 6-passenger single-engine aircraft to carry passengers into the backcountry and that’s how we started our river trip.
Ela could see how deep into the wilderness we were travelling as our bush plane flew over mountains, through canyons, and along the river to the beginning of our adventure. We flew over the Salmon National Forest to Indian Creek… at 4,650 feet, one of the longer dirt airstrips in the backcountry. There were a half-dozen 6-man rafts and a sweep boat with crews waiting for us on arrival. Our guide (who I knew from my life in the backcountry) helped us stow our dry bag of clothing and snacks, and we were on the river in less than an hour.
As the years go by, the word Adventure evolves for me. My first adventures in Idaho were solo affairs fraught with challenge and risk. It was a transitional period in my life and I knew it was temporary, so I lived those years with wild abandon. I wanted to test myself, expose myself to extremes of habitat and season before Time caught up to me. At 65, I joined my friend Todd on his raft for a 10-day hunting trip on the Middle Fork with another boat and a couple of his buddies. It was November in The Frank, late in the year and long after the tourist season ended, and we were virtually alone on the wild and remote river. Big weather came in, the adventure morphed into something more serious, and we were faced with decisions of consequence. It was on the ragged edge of fun; maybe hanging off the edge a little. For most of my life, I lived for trips like the last one with Todd. I lived for learning about all the places that excited me and The Frank piqued my interest for many years. I shared its moods in every season, some trips harder than others; I experienced every kind of adventure. Older now, and I have a partner; I don’t want to struggle as hard, but I still need adventure in my life.
On our Middle Fork adventure, Ela and I opted for ‘glamping’ – glamour camping. I was able to share with her the wilderness about which I’d written four books but in a much more comfortable situation. We slept in sleeping bags in tents, but the camp, tents, and toilet were set up by the advance team on the sweep boat. The sweep boat was a large cargo raft piloted by the most experienced guide; it was loaded with all the gear immediately after breakfast was served each morning and departed to set up the next camp. Participants split up into those that fished, those that rowed, and those that lounged… and we rotated guides and boats daily. Every meal was prepared from fresh ingredients and served on long tables with wine and bread; we had perfectly grilled duck breasts with plum sauce the first night. Food and beverages were prepared and served by the same six people who steered the rafts through the rapids; four men and two women did everything together. Their teamwork, enthusiasm, and professionalism left an indelible impression on Major Ela, the retired Polish Police Officer with very high standards for performance. They made her feel safe and comfortable on her first big backcountry adventure.
Ela spotted a cinnamon bear on the trail during the first twenty minutes of the trip. It was a sign of things to come; she travelled to The Frank to see her first bear and it was the first bear the guides had seen that season. Later, we slipped up silently on families of bighorn sheep and other wildlife along the river. Human beings had inhabited the primitive area for 8000 years and we studied their pictographs in caves along the shoreline. The landscape surrounding the river changed as the days passed and we were swept through the high desert into steep mountains that became the Impassable Canyon. The rapids were bigger and more frequent which was Ela’s biggest concern. She confided too late that she was afraid of the water, but overcame her fear and grew more confident. We made great memories on the Middle Fork and seek more; large or small, each adventure adds to our personal collection of Best Days In Our Lives.