The O.A.R.S trip takes guests down Idaho’s Lower Salmon River. // © 2017 Getty Images
Feature image (above): O.A.R.S. trips allow for plenty of playtime. // © 2017 Erin Kirkland
Feet propped casually on the gunwale of a wooden dory, my tween son flipped his fingers in the cool water and sighed.
“This is actually pretty relaxing,” he said. “Who knew?”
We were on day two of a four-day float down the lower portion of Idaho’s Salmon River, a dry, craggy canyonland that straddles portions of the Oregon border. Leading our band of 22 guests were guides from O.A.R.S., one of the longest-running guide companies in the river-running business. Operating on water around the world, O.A.R.S. not only dedicates itself to a thriving mission of safe, comfortable float experiences, but also to promoting conscious detachment from the day-to-day busyness most people face in 21st-century life.
This combination of adventure and serenity, by the way, is also a hot segment of the travel industry, especially within the scope of family travel, as parents seek to engage and reconnect with their kids.
The Lower Salmon itinerary is a popular one with families, according to Steve Markle, vice president of sales and marketing for O.A.R.S. Not only is it a shorter duration (about 70 miles over four days), but this section of the river also offers terrain perfect for youngsters.
“Kids have plenty of fun swimming in eddies, playing on the wide, sandy beaches and exploring nature, but we also have lots of beach games that keep everyone busy and happy,” he said.
The trip departs from Idaho hub city Lewiston, where guests arrive by air or car and meet up at a local hotel for pre-trip instructions and gear distribution. Then it’s off to the river after a quick stop at the museum in Nez Perce National Historical Park for an introductory session on Native American life over the past 10,000 years.
Five yellow rafts and two dories hold passengers and supplies, with a guide for each vessel, offering a recreational and historical method for floating on one of the West’s most iconic waterways. Our days were spent navigating the serene and sometimes whitewater sections of the Lower Salmon River, then stopping along the shoreline for lunch or a bit of hiking before settling in on the stretches of beach for which the river is famous. Guides are also chefs, porters and overall amusement-makers for the long, warm summer evenings, plucking guitars or fiddles and telling stories around the flickering campfire. The entire experience places an O.A.R.S. trip somewhere in between “glamping” and “roughing it,” with all the best attributes of both — especially for children.
“We hire guides who enjoy working with kids and families, and each takes a turn as ‘fun director’ every night,” Markle said. “A lot of our guides also grew up on the Salmon River, and they appreciate how the early interactions with nature can be formative experiences.”
Indeed, my son and his young counterparts learned about currents, archaeology, geology and local wildlife. He also learned the value of teamwork and how to man the “fire line” to load and unload boats. Plus, he helped set up our tent each night.
Who Should Go?
Clients who most enjoy O.A.R.S. adventures are those with adventurous spirits who enjoy connections made in the outdoors, according to Markle. That doesn’t mean families need to be experienced campers, he says — just comfortable with exploring outside spaces that may be different from their usual vacation plans.
“We cater to active travelers of all ages, including families with kids as young as 4 and seniors who have never camped a night in their lives,” Markle said.
That said, O.A.R.S. guests should be able to swim while wearing a personal floatation device and be prepared for a variety of conditions that can change in an instant.
“Mother Nature does sometimes throw us a curveball,” Markle said. “But at the end of the day, we can help even the most novice campers be comfortable.”
Agents should relay the O.A.R.S. philosophy and itinerary to clients ahead of booking and encourage them to peruse the company’s unique video series, which covers everything from safe water travel to packing appropriate clothing. Adventure consultants are also available to answer questions and refer families to the trip that best suits their lifestyle and timeline.
“O.A.R.S. has been a trusted name in adventure travel since 1969,” Markle said. “More than 1,500 families trust us with their vacation every year, and 70 percent of our guests are returning or were referred by others who have taken a trip with us.”
It’s easy to see why. Over the course of four days, my son and I ditched cellphones, newspapers, television and the grind of daily must-do lists for simple, unfettered fun that we enjoyed together. We laughed at the amount of river sand that ended up in our sleeping bags despite all efforts to the contrary, and we ogled the panorama of stars that appeared at bedtime each night. He and his new friends dug in the sand, floated on the gentle waters and hummed new tunes in time with the river’s constant flow.
It was a cadence that satisfied us both.