Rolling on the River: A Gluten-Free Whitewater Trip Through Idaho

“Spin to win!” yells our tanned guide, Lenore Perconti, from her perch below Loma Lulu, a Class II whitewater rapid that is doing a remarkable job chewing me up along the right wall.

It’s obvious I’m fighting the current, and experience informs the buff 24-year-old with a quick smile that the water’s pull trumps effort almost always.

And here I am, thinking if I just paddle a little faster, a little harder, my inflatable kayak will do my bidding. I’m dripping sweat, tense, leaning forward into each stroke when I register her meaning: Quit fighting the water. Go with it.

I snap my paddle out of the water and go into reverse, paddling lightly, backward. My kayak responds as if it wanted to do this the whole time, spinning me around and out of the powerful flow into the river’s calm pool below.

It’s day three of five whitewater rafting with Row Adventures on their Family Magic Rafting Trip. We — my 11-year old son Nicholas and I — are kayaking down the Lower Salmon River Canyons in Northwestern Idaho with four other families.

Guide Peter PiIcetti Rudders a raft through rapids.

Gluten-free a common request

I’ve chosen Row Adventures not just because they are widely known for running some of the best rowing adventures around, but because they also advertise their ability to accommodate different diets, gluten free being one of the more common requests.

While I’m the only guest dining gluten free on this particular trip, several of the guides are as well, and their competency creating three stellar meals per day over five days is impressive. In fact, every meal is mostly gluten free, and I’ve given up the idea I might lose weight on this trip.

Salt-rubbed prime rib makes a delicious last night’s dinner.

As for the rafting, it’s not the rapids as much as the eddies that require constant vigilance, areas where water is still or pushing back upstream. Mastery over them means scanning forward beyond the kayak and down river. It’s all about anticipating rather than reacting. While eddies are generally calmer areas, they’re also dead zones where I work twice as hard to get anywhere. Fortunately, the river’s relentless pool and drop feature provides an excellent backdrop to hone this skill.

Perconti is rowing the lead boat in our little flotilla of two self-bailing oar-powered rafts and two inflatable kayaks, or “duckies,” slicing down the river as we maneuver through the basalt and limestone cliffs of the Lower Salmon River Canyons. Single and tandem duckies are launched as father and son, brother and sister, and singles shoot down rapids with names like Devil’s Slide and Eye of the Needle.

A follow boat strapped with potable water and safety gear takes the rear, the cargo boat having gone ahead to scout and set up camp. July and August are busy on the river, but not packed. A nod or wave to an occasional group of kayakers is the extent of our experience with the outside world for one magical, unplugged week.

We’re paddling through Cougar Canyon this morning, notable for its long, fun “wave train” and Class II rapids like the Lower Bunghole and Pipeline. Further downstream, bouncing, splashy rapids like the Class IV Snow Hole and Class III Gobbler await. The lower the class number, the less difficult the rapid is to traverse, generally.

It’s a long day; we log 17 miles on a river dubbed “The River of No Return” for its sometimes harrowing rapids and narrow canyons, which have proved nearly impossible to navigate upstream. A few guests are decent paddlers, but no one is gung-ho enough for Snow Hole, so the guides scout the rapid on foot before we tackle it in the safety of the big boats. The duckies are tied behind, and we watch as they bob and splash through the roiling water.

According to seasoned guide Peter Picetti, a rapid’s class designation can be misleading. “It’s a lot about the technical aspect, not just its size,” he tells me before we head down Snow Hole. In fact, the water’s width, presence of rocks, irregular and numerous waves, congested passages and maneuverability are just some of the factors taken into account when determining what class a rapid should be labeled.


Lunch on the beach

Guide Lenore Perconti serves green beans with a smile.

As usual, lunchtime involves a stop on a glistening sandy beach for a dip in the 70-degree water to cool off while the crew sets up a quick kitchen.

Thankfully simple, this meal is always almost entirely gluten free. There are, of course, the obligatory pb&j sandwiches, a hit with the littler ones and, well, me. The trip’s shopper has purchased a crazy delicious gluten-free bread. Nutty and heavy, it’s just dynamite as the peanut butter melts into its recesses. Lunch is more than enough with fruit wedges, tortilla wraps, excellent salami, fresh veggies, chips and ready-made dessert-like cookies set out for noshing.

This day is  particularly hot and dry, into the 90s, making Nicholas irritable. He’s also looking dozy, which I take as fatigue. While the guides make a point of taking drink breaks, singing drinking songs with the kids or having competitions to see who can chug the most water, Nicholas has slacked off, and now they have their collective eyes on him. After he shows little interest in lunch, head guide Landon Moores won’t take no for an answer and takes him to the water’s edge to dunk and hydrate.

It dawns on me just how critical safety on the river can be. The guides are so competent that we, as guests, have been a little lulled into not worrying about what might go wrong. Guide Neil Comeau explains that all the guides have medical training: one is an EMT, the others are certified Wilderness First Responders. And while they don’t advertise it, their medical kit includes a satellite phone for extreme emergencies, and guides are keenly aware where we are on the river in the event of an emergency extraction.


Triumph and tragedy

White sandy beaches along the Salmon River.

The history of the Lower Salmon River is rich with triumph and tragedy. In the 1860s, gold was discovered along its banks, leading to a large influx of miners. As was common through the West during the gold rush era, poor Chinese emigrants arrived to both mine and service the needs of the miners. Their modest rock houses are still scattered along the river today. Telltale rock piles, vertical banks and ditches left just as if they were mined yesterday are further evidence of the miners’ system of using pressurized water, or hydraulics, to separate gold from the rocks.

Perhaps the most tumultuous period was during 1855 when the Nez Perce Indians, long-time inhabitants of the area, signed a treaty with the U.S. government providing the tribe would retain control of the area they had used for centuries, including the lower portion of the river. But greed prevailed when gold was discovered, leading to demands that the treaty’s boundaries be reduced in size. The disagreement eventually led to the rather short Nez Perce War.

For five long months, the tribe moved more than 1,170 miles, zigzagging their way northward toward the Canadian border in an attempt to outrun the American army. Just a few miles from the border, they were captured. Today, the same rugged trail they navigated has been designated the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.

The 425-mile Salmon River is one of the country’s longest free-flowing rivers. This rare dam-free status means that rocks and debris tumbling downstream create natural sediment, replenishing the river’s white sand beaches. Infinitely more comfortable than sleeping on rocks or in the woods, the beaches are also great spots for camp, lunch breaks and swimming.

The Lower Salmon River, the section we have been journeying down, meanders nearly 110 miles on its way to the confluence of the Snake River. Named “Natsoh Kooh,” meaning “Chinook Salmon Water,” by the Nez Perce, the Salmon River is an important habitat for Chinook salmon and steelhead trout.

The river jester

River Jester Audrey Larkin officiates a balancing game.


Our group for the week includes five families with children ranging from ages 5 to 14, four very energetic and athletic guides, and the wildly popular river jester. The jester is a dedicated babysitter of sorts who accompanies all Family Magic trips, keeping kids entertained, allowing parents down time from the constant vigilance required with children near water.

Other parents with young children tell me that the idea of the river jester was a big part of their decision to take this particular trip rather than any of the other rafting trips offered by Row.

Our river jester, Audrey Larkin, rides ahead with the cargo boat. When we arrive at our destination in the late afternoon, tents will have been set up, tables and chairs with umbrellas organized, and our only job will be to tote our waterproof bags up to a tent, roll out our sleeping bags and relax with hors d’oeuvres until dinner is served. Larkin is waiting for our arrival, ready to engage different age groups in games, nature explorations and, on occasion, prevent the inevitable meltdown.

This is the best of two worlds, where a full day of activities ends with an epic dinner prepared by someone else. Kitchen duty? Not here.

Breakfasts are as abundant as lunch. Both gluten-free and regular pancakes and waffles are made to order on separate grills with separate utensils. Eggs, bacon, cold cereal, including a well-marked gluten-free variety, and fresh fruit are ready by the time we’ve had the morning’s first cup of coffee.

Despite being the solo gluten-free guest, I’m never made to feel as if I must make the best choice from a selection of bad ones. I’ve had more choice on this trip than in many restaurants. The nifty thing is the guides tell me it’s just as easy for them to prepare gluten free as gluten filled.


No fashion show

Tents offer a front row view to nature.

When it comes to vacation wear, this is no fashion show.

It’s mid-summer and sweltering in the sun. As the week wears on with no shower in sight (the guides bring a hand-held gizmo, but it’s complicated and just doesn’t seem worth the hassle), the warm river seems a reasonable replacement, and throwing the same shorts on every morning becomes downright sensible.

Our group has bonded. Faces and personality are what we seek as we stumble out of sleeping bags each morning. Three day-old shorts are as irrelevant as makeup and iPhones. In fact, a consensus grows among the adults that next time, eliminating 75 percent of our gear will be a top priority. This may be luxury rowing, but that doesn’t mean we need to look the part.

Dinners are complex affairs prepared in Dutch ovens. Masterful in quality and quantity, they include chicken tagine with fresh green beans and chocolate cake with a coffee chocolate ganache, seared salmon with mashed potatoes and stuffed Portobello mushrooms.

The cake is good but the ganache is stellar, and I ask Picetti for the recipe. Most of the food is gluten free, but in the event something is not, the guides make sure that I am aware. In fact, they seem delighted to be able to show off their gluten-free meals and happily inquire how I liked each meal. Our last evening’s meal is salt-rubbed prime rib with a Chilean salad, followed by a pineapple right-side-up cake compliments of Moores.

I have never had some of the more obvious symptoms of celiac disease save for one. When the upper portion of my stomach bloats and feels sore after a meal, I suspect I’ve eaten something I shouldn’t have. This is rare, because I am insanely cautious. As promised, my trip was entirely gluten-free and I wasn’t “glutened” once. I rowed, ate, laughed and relaxed for the week safely gluten free.

Row Adventures, named by Travel and Leisure as the World’s Best Tour Operator, has been running kayaking trips for more than 30 years. That goes a long way to explaining why they are comfortable offering gluten-free and other allergen-sensitive dining.

And true to their words, they understand that kids are relentlessly hungry, so a nutritious, kid-friendly dinner is served well before the adults eat, quick relief for rumbling stomachs and tired parents. The guides tell me it is equally easy to create children’s gluten-free meals.

Kale Elmhorst picks up a few hoola hoop tricks from guide Lenore Perconti.

At the later adult dinner, kids wander in and out for a hug or busy themselves with the river jester and each other. In the morning, the river jester and any early risers go quietly from tent to tent with a canteen of hot coffee and hot chocolate, filling up the personal mugs they’ve given us to leave by the door of our tents. Coffee in bed and a babysitter — what’s not to love?

After an initial safety briefing and demonstration on how to paddle, use the portable toilet, and adhere to the Boy Scouts’ “leave no trace” philosophy, life gets into a rhythm. Row’s policy of requiring a child come with each family ensures the week has a strong family-focus.


Under the stars

Camp routine is easy to follow as the guides manage just about everything other than the goings on in family tents. During our week, a family decided to sleep under the stars, and it caught on.

By the last night, nearly everyone has pulled their tarps and sleeping bags outside in front of their tents to watch an incomparable stellar display, difficult to come by with today’s light pollution. With a soft sandy beach underneath and nighttime temperatures dipping into the 60s, sleeping conditions are near ideal. Watches become an afterthought, and we’re now on river time.

The smaller oar-powered raft, nicknamed “the party boat,” is where most of the kids spend their week. Here they can opt in or out of paddling through rapids with the safety of a guide doing the bulk of the work and navigating through sometimes tricky rapids. Our flotilla makes an occasional stop on the river when guests feel peckish, and snacks are passed from boat to boat, including gluten-free cookies or chips.

The joys of an afternoon power nap aren’t lost on Kurt Elmhorst.

Our fourth day on the river is spectacular. Golden eagles soar across the water and river otters sun themselves on a distant bank. More remarkably, I stealthily paddle underneath a solitary tree with a bald eagle perched on a branch just above me.

Increasingly competent with whitewater rafting, the adults are taking the duckies out more regularly. Toward the end of the day, we meet up with the Snake River and turn north before camping for the night.

It’s a big night, and the guides produce a trunk with fun, funky clothes and accoutrements for a sort of “formal” river dinner. Larkin takes the kids aside to help them create a post-dinner talent show. Silly yet endearing, it’s perhaps one of my favorite memories because by this time, friendships have been forged and people who a week ago were strangers are now close friends.

As we move down the Snake River on our final morning, we are now paddling on twice the volume of water. The river begins to form state lines with Oregon and Washington on our left side and Idaho on the right. Our final stop is somewhere ahead. Civilization is calling. Do we really want to answer?


Andrea Kitay was not a paddling neophyte when she started her trip on the Salmon River, but she did discover she had a thing or two to learn.


This article was originally published in our May/June 2014 issue. All information was correct at time of publication.
  • Kale