Dropping in: Burnt Ranch Gorge, on California's Trinity River
Dropping in: Burnt Ranch Gorge, on California's Trinity River

Into the Flow Zone

Go overboard this summer on 32 of North America's wildest waterways

Dropping in: Burnt Ranch Gorge, on California's Trinity River

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

ONE MUGGY JULY evening in Vermont, I met my friend Billy Nutt on a leafy bend of the Connecticut River. Billy had spent five years on the U.S. Kayak Team, and now he paddles for sheer fun. The current swept into a rapid called Sumner Falls, in the middle of which was a honking, glassy wave with a curling top.

Dropping in: Burnt Ranch Gorge, on California's Trinity River Dropping in: Burnt Ranch Gorge, on California’s Trinity River

We surfed. We took turns windmilling up out of the eddy and onto the wave’s smooth face, getting kicked to the top, spinning and skipping down fast into the trough, the whole motion arcing and quick like the dive of a swallow. We played for hours—blowing enders, rolling, yelling. I didn’t realize it had gotten dark until a south wind blew a warm rain over the river and the sky rumbled. A thread of lightning cracked the night and in the instant’s glare I saw leaves blowing over the water and the far hills, and felt the whole river slipping with tremendous speed under the shivering kayak, and I thought, There is no more than this.

And there isn’t. Rivers and boats are God’s compensation to man for all the really dry stuff—like taxes and work and August. Americans are discovering this in astounding numbers. Between 1995 and 1999, the number of us whitewater kayakers increased by nearly 40 percent, to five million paddlers. Seventeen million people canoe; nine million like to raft. And what a place to live and boat: From the glacier-fed, grizzly-haunted rivers of the Yukon to the icy, bell-clear streams of California’s Trinity Alps, from the desert canyons of Utah to the steep, lush ravines of West Virginia, North America is particularly blessed with rivers of great beauty and wildness—and kick-ass whitewater.
This summer, as the mercury rises and the days parch and curl, don’t get mad. Get in a boat. Cool off and splash around. Get a bunch of snow-melt up your nose. Here are Outside‘s favorite runs in every part of the continent and for every taste—wilderness expeditions, raucous Class Vs, perfect day runs, gentle family canoe trips. But be forewarned: River running is a terminal condition. It gets in the blood and makes you do dumb things, like take annual canyon trips in blizzards. Like quit your job, and neglect your pets and your piano lessons. So paddle at your own risk.

Class V: Enter the White Room

Get lost in the froth of Colorado’s Gore Canyon

There's no place like foam: Gore Canyons Tunnel Falls There’s no place like foam: Gore Canyons Tunnel Falls

JOHN JAYCOX’S ’71 Volvo is a river runner’s machine, cluttered with paddles and congenitally musty with the smell of damp polypropylene. He gunned it up the broad-pastured valley of the Blue River, beneath the rugged escarpment of the Gore Range. It was late July, and a furnace wind poured through the open windows. Everywhere, the creeks and rivers were low, showing their bones. But not the Upper Colorado.
Gore Canyon is a six-mile chasm with a half-dozen distinct drops packed into about three miles. It’s quintessential, accessible Class V, and relatively remote—the only things keeping you company are the railroad tracks bedded high above the river.

We parked by the tracks—they smelled of creosote and scorched sagebrush—and put in off a high rock. I just followed John, the undisputed Lord Gore. One of the best boatbuilders in the world, he won the upstart Gore Canyon Race six times in its first eight years. He even built a kayak just for the event: the Gorepedo. We flew over the first big drop, Applesauce—a ten-foot fall cascading into an ugly foam pile. John hammered for a tiny gap in a horizon line strung with boulders—Gore Rapid. He disappeared and I launched off the Shaq-high ledge into a pocket eddy hemmed in on one side by rock, on the other by a tearing, funneling current. I took a deep breath and peeled out hard, slamming into a curling haystack. I shook the water off my face and yelled with pure glee.
The next two hours were filled with unremitting speed, and the strange joy of moving rhythmically in a world comprised completely of dark rock, boisterous water, and a swath of sky. In the gentling tailwater, John paddled next to me and grinned. His hair stuck out of the holes in his homemade helmet. He never tired of this. We paddled out past ponderosas, willows, a single fly fisherman, and the sudden, surprising swales of green ranch land.
DETAILS: Put in at the confluence of the Blue and Colorado Rivers near Kremmling; take out at the Pumphouse Recreation Area. No permit needed. Timberline Tours (800-831-1414; www.timberlinetours.com) runs full-day raft trips through Gore Canyon for $155 per person, from August through October.

Easy Drifting: What, Me Paddle?

Pack the cooler, then float and bloat on Montana’s Smith River

The mild river: slow mo on the Smith The mild river: slow mo on the Smith

IT’S 58 MILES from the Smith River’s Camp Baker put-in to the Eden Bridge take-out—a lazy five-day float, if you want it to be, which I always do. That’s because halfway through the canyon in a kayak or raft or canoe or inner tube, after two and a half days of bumping off rocks and drifting in circles, of casting for brown and rainbow trout, something mysterious begins to happen.
Five days of laziness requires a bit of surrender. On day one, while the river bends through cottonwood groves, I crack open a beer to prepare. In a few hours, when the canyon swallows us, there will be no turning back. Rock walls rising 500 feet soon sprout from the river’s edge. We pass high caves and trees rooted in ledges. We see red cliffs and gray cliffs and cliffs growing crystals, like thousands of white teeth, in their fissures. In places the river widens and ripples over fist-size rocks, and then collects itself in deep turquoise pools. If I’m guiding, I suggest tossing a fly there. Or maybe here, in the big boulders. We pass clearings in the thick Douglas firs, boat camps, an occasional cabin. The river turns and braids, and we can pull over and hike to see ocher cave paintings left by the original Smith River floaters.
Or maybe not. The river can quiet your ambition. This is how it works: I once guided a woman from southern California who’d just turned 40. She liked to catch fish, and she did, but for the first few days she was lonely. She said she missed her children, she missed her husband, and when it got chilly and the wind blew, she wondered aloud how she ever got here. But late on the fourth afternoon, when half the canyon lay in blue-green shadow and the caddis flies were hatching so thick they looked like mist coming off the water, I found her lying on the bank, curled up in the grass. I asked her if she was all right.
“Yes,” she answered. “I’ll be ready in a moment. I’m having a really big feeling right now.”
DETAILS: Montana Outdoor Sports in Helena (406-443-4119) rents rafts and canoes for $27-$29 per day. For a permit, call 406-454-5861. Lewis and Clark Expeditions (406-449-4632) offers fly-fishing trips on the Smith from May through July.

Expeditions: Lewis and Clarking It

Discover the real frontier on Quebec’s Bonaventure River

AHH TABERNAC, I swore, as my boat ricocheted from one rock to the next, pinballing its way down the snaky headwaters of the Bonaventure River. It had been less than an hour since the put-in, and already I was spinning 360s and popping water-wheelies in my solo canoe. “Tricky little devil, eh?” said Claude, one of the two French-Canadian brothers who were my guides. “Look dar,” he said, pointing. “An eagle.”
Sure enough, a bald eagle with a wingspan the length of my paddle was glaring at me from a low stump. I swear the bird cackled when, in the nanosecond I took my eyes off the river to watch it take flight, I heard a thunk and was whipped over the gunwales. The next thing I knew, I was bobbing boatless through Class III froth. They don’t call it the Bonaventure, or Good Adventure, for nothing.

True, you’ll find more harrowing whitewater on, say, Quebec’s Magpie or Rouge, and the Feuilles has bragging rights to the most Arctic wildlife. But the Bonaventure lays claim to an eerie timelessness; you half-expect to see tepee settlements from 16th-century Mi’kmaq Indians lining the shore. I felt almost silly in my fire-engine red canoe and wanted to trade it in for a birchbark version. In the six days it took to paddle 76 miles to Chaleur Bay, we passed only 12 other humans: seven fishermen and five paddlers. And that’s a crowded week. Fewer than 100 people paddle the Bonaventure River each year.
By the fourth day, I had reached the most Zen-like state of blissed-out harmony I could achieve while still being lucid enough to paddle. The river lacked the things that can turn canoe trips into heinous nightmares: mosquitoes, portages, and hypothermic weather. But it still proffered up enough of the raw elements—icy whitewater, old-growth forests, and guides who stood up in their boats while navigating the fray.
Other than my clumsy canoe exit, the only catastrophe was losing four bottles of chilling chardonnay to the swift current. The loss would have put a dent in cocktail hour that night, but Ulysse, the other brother, pulled out a bottle of cognac left over from the chocolate flambé he’d prepared earlier in the trip. “You gotta have that French taste on this of all rivers,” he said, winking.
DETAILS: Quebec Adventures (888-678-3232; www.quebec adv.com) runs six-day canoe trips on the Bonaventure from May to early July for $995 per person.

One-Day Blasts: Workman’s Comp

New Mexico’s Taos Box, a better way to spend your 9 to 5

I FIRST HEARD about the Box at the end of a cold, rainy Gauley season in West Virginia. Six of us river guides were sitting under a tarp in a rafting company’s gravel parking lot, playing poker and talking about rivers we were dying to run. At the top of most everyone’s list was the Rio Grande through the Taos Box, a sheer, 800-foot-deep canyon cutting 17 miles through a lava plateau west of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. We agreed to kayak it the following summer, but three years went by before we actually made it to New Mexico.
We put in at the crack of dawn and let the silty water carry us past blooming cholla cactus and sage. After several miles, the riverbed constricted and the rapids began dropping steeper and faster, now Class III-IV. We corralled in the calm water above Powerline Falls, a 14-foot cascade, to hear instructions from Jake, who’d run the Box before (“Start center. Angle right.”), and again above three-quarter-mile-long Rock Garden (“Look for the munchy hole in the center, halfway down.”). And we cleaned ’em. With four miles to go, the canyon walls had turned almost black in the afternoon shade, and we charged the continuous rapids Blue Angel-style, hopping between eddies and boofing small ledges without stopping.
In the final half-mile, the Rio squeezes through one last channel, rounding a sharp bend. I entered the rapid and, with no eddies to catch, aimed blindly downstream. Harv, a 200-plus-pounder who favors tiny kayaks, took it straight on, just to the right of me. Midway through, he dropped over a surging pour-over and disappeared. “Harv!” someone yelled from upstream. I turned, fighting the current. But within seconds, Harv popped to the surface, helmet askew on his big round head, grinning and cackling. The Box will do that to you.
DETAILS: Sangre de Cristo Mountain Works in Santa Fe (505-984-8221) rents kayaks for $25 per day. Kokopelli Rafting Adventures (800-879-9035; www.kokopelliraft.com) runs one-day raft trips through the Box for $95 per person from May through July. The World Outdoors (formerly The World Outside) runs a six-day multisport trip in New Mexico, including a day on the Taos Box, in June, August, and September, for $1,650 per person (800-488-8483; www.the worldoutdoors.com).

Urban Renewal: Escape from New York

…and Boston, and Chicago…Six wet weekend getaways

Three hours from Boston:
The Saco River, New Hampshire

Tiny rapids, miles of sandy beaches for swimming and camping, rope swings, excellent fly-fishing—PG-rated family entertainment. Contact Saco River Canoe and Kayak (888-772-6573, www.sacorivercanoe.com).
One hour from Atlanta: The Cartecay River, Georgia

Smaller, less-crowded, and, uh, safer than the Chattooga, the Cartecay snakes through rolling pastures and thickets of flowering mountain laurel. No banjos anywhere. Contact River Right Outfitters (www.riverright.com; 706-273-7055).

Four hours from New York City: The Deerfield River, Massachusetts

The city’s closest big-water fix. Don’t miss the four-mile Class III-IV section between Monroe Bridge and the Dunbar Brook Picnic Area. Contact Zoar Outdoor (800-532-7483; www.zoaroutdoor.com).
Three hours from Chicago:
The Lower Wisconsin River, Wisconsin

The Lower Wisconsin hosts nearly 300 species of birds, more than 45 species of mammals (river otters, badgers, and the occasional bobcat), and myriad fish (from walleye to American eel). Who cares if it’s only riffles between Spring Green and Boscobel? Contact Bob’s Riverside Resort (608-588-2826; www.bobsriverside.com).
Two hours from Portland:
The White Salmon River, Washington

Flows from dark to light in ten miles, from BZ Corner bridge through shadowed, 150-foot lava cliffs to Northwestern Lake in the high-desert sun of the Eastern Washington plateau. Contact River Recreation (800-464-5899; www.riverrecreation.com).
Six hours from San Francisco: The Trinity River, California Must-make moves on eight- to ten-foot chutes and falls test your agility on the ten-mile Class V stretch from Cedar Flat to Hawkins Bar. Contact Tributary Whitewater Tours (800-672-3846; www.white watertours.com).

Schools: Current Curriculum

Immersion course in kayaking, rafting, and canoeing

Otter Bar Lodge
Forks of Salmon, California

Otter Bar’s weeklong whitewater kayaking programs are held on California’s remote Salmon River—but comfortable cabins and gourmet meals obliterate any sense of roughing it. All-inclusive courses start at $1,790 per person (April-September). Details: 530-462-4772; www.otterbar.com.
Nantahala Outdoor Center
Bryson City, North Carolina

Like some addled university sponsored by Red Bull, this place has it all: courses in kayaking, canoeing, and raft guiding on rivers like the Nantahala and Ocoee—plus cozy cedar cabins for recovering from the day’s lessons. All-inclusive two-day canoe or kayak classes cost $380 per person; four-day classes, $750 (March-October). Details: 800-232-7238; www.noc.com.
Madawaska Kanu Centre
Barry’s Bay, Ontario

Canadians know canoeing. Let hotshots from the international whitewater canoe circuit show you how it’s done on the Class III-IV Madawaska River. Two-day canoe courses run $225-$245 per person, including shared accommodations and meals; gear rental starts at $13 per day (MayÐearly September). Details: 613-756-3620; www.owl-mkc.ca.
Zoar Outdoor
Charlemont, Massachusetts

Zoar is based in the bucolic Berkshires, but their kayak and canoe courses on the Class I-IV Deerfield River are anything but laid-back. Two- to five-day programs run $255Ð$525, including lunch and equipment (April-October). Details: 800-532-7483; www.zoaroutdoor.com.
Canyon River Equipment Outfitters (REO) Flagstaff, Arizona

Some of the country’s top rafting guides are graduates of Canyon REO’s expedition-style courses on the Upper San Juan and Chama Rivers. Six-day courses run $550 per person (in May and, when demand is high enough, August). Details: 800-637-4604; www.canyonreo.com.

Tickets to Ride

When there’s only one thing between you and your dream river: permission

Trying to score a permit for a restricted-access river? You’ll up your chances if you aim for weekdays and keep your group size small. Consider having a permit party with potential tripmates in December (most applications are accepted from December through February). Each of you fills out an application; if even one person gets lucky, everyone can go. Here, the country’s hardest river permits to land.

The Selway River
Northern Idaho
Class lV
Paradise Launch to Race Creek Camp- ground; 47 miles, four days Sixty-two noncommercial permits available for around 3,000 applicants; one launch allowed per day. Go early in May, before permit season (May 15-July 31). By August, the Selway is usually too low to run. West Fork Ranger District, Bitterroot National Forest, 406-821-3269 Idaho’s Class III-IV Lochsa River. Looks and feels like the Selway–but with U.S. 12 running alongside it. No permits required. Call the Lochsa Ranger District, 208-926-4275.
The Grand Canyon, Colorado River
Northern Arizona
Class II-V
Lees Ferry to Lake Mead; 277 miles, 18-21 days The average wait is–gulp–more than 12 years. Persistence and a flexible schedule. Once you’re on the waiting list, program your speed-dial to call in weekly for cancellations. Grand Canyon River Trip Information Center, 800-959-9164 The Colorado through Utah’s Cataract Canyon, a 98-mile stretch with Class III-V rapids similar to those found downstream in the Grand Canyon. Permits are required year-round on a first-come, first-served basis. Call Canyonlands National Park, 435-719-2313.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River
Central Idaho
Class lll-IV
Boundary Creek to the main Salmon River; 104 miles, six days 9,406 applicants for 371 permits. Toughest in July. Aim for autumn. Though permits are required year-round, the lottery only runs from June 1 to September 3. After that, it’s first-come, first-served. Middle Fork Ranger District, Salmon-Challis National Forest, 208-879-4101 Idaho’s Lower Salmon–53 Class III-IV miles, relatively little river traffic, and permits that are yours for the asking. Call the BLM office in Cottonwood, Idaho, 208-962-3245.
Gates of Lodore, Green River
Northwest Colorado/ Northeast Utah
Class lll
Through Dinosaur National Monument, from Colorado’s Lodore Ranger Station to the Split Mountain boat ramp in Arizona; 44 miles, four days About 4,500 applicants vie for the 300 permits available for both the Green and Yampa Rivers. Toughest in May and June. One-third of all permit holders cancel their launch dates. Call regularly; you might pick up a canceled date. Dinosaur National Monument River Office, 970-374-2468 Desolation and Gray Canyons on the Green–84 miles of mostly Class II water and permits that are much easier to land. Call the BLM office in Price, Utah, 435-636-3460.
Yampa Canyon, Yampa and Green Rivers
Northwest Colorado/ Northeast Utah
Class III
Through Dinosaur National Monument, from Deerlodge Park in Colorado to the Split Mountain boat ramp in Arizona; 71 miles (46 on the Yampa, 25 on the Green), five days See above–4,500 applicants, 300 permits. Aim for the low-use seasons–April, late July, and August–and pray for a runoff that coincides with your permit dates. Dinosaur National Monument River Office, 970-374-2468 Westwater Canyon on the Colorado, a 17-mile, Class III­IV desert run just north of Moab, Utah. Permits are required and tough to get, but apply for a weekday launch in May, June, or October and you just might get lucky. Call the BLM office in Moab, 435-259-7012.
–Tom Bie