Halfway to Paradise

The author leads you on a horseback trek to Idaho's Paradise Basin.

Sweat runs down my husband Scott's face like the mountain stream flowing next to the pack trail. Wood chips are plastered to his wet cheeks, stuck in his eyebrows and littering his sweat-saturated hair. Sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree, we peer at the map. We've just spent four hours cutting windfalls in the trail and both wonder how much longer it'll take to get to our destination: Paradise Basin.

Putting a filthy finger on the map, Scott looks up at me.

"I'm not sure," he says with a chuckle creeping into his voice. "But I think we're halfway to Paradise."

"Well, that's good,"I retort, "because we've sure been in hell all morning!"

Wild and Scenic Rapid River

We'd spent the night before camped alongside the Rapid River, a federally designated Wild and Scenic River east of Idaho's Hells Canyon Wilderness. This frigid mountain river is one of the best streams in western Idaho for native west-slope cutthroat trout, endangered bull trout and wild chinook salmon. My husband and I carry lightweight pack rods when we go into the canyon and have never failed to catch trout for dinner.

The Rapid River joins the Salmon River near the town of Riggins, Idaho. Although the Salmon is legendary for whitewater thrills and superb steelhead fishing, and contains one of the last healthy chinook runs in the Snake River system, the Rapid River is an undiscovered gem.

Well, that's not completely true: Rattlesnakes know all about the river canyon.

"Snake!" Scott yells.

His saddle horse, Hustler, quickly sidesteps as a big rattler crawls uphill off the trail. The mule and horse following also do the sideways shuffle. Luckily, by the time my saddle horse and I arrive with three pack mules, the snake has prudently slithered out of harm's way.

We never know what we'll encounter in this wilderness area, so we pay strict attention to where we step in the Rapid River canyon. When we encounter the snake, we're traveling past aptly named Rattlesnake Basin midway up the canyon. The trail leading upriver from the end of the road at the fish hatchery just south of Riggins is the most popular trail – for riders and snakes. But even though rattlesnakes abound in the canyon, they're infrequently seen.

The sheer granite walls that soar up from the ice-cold water on both sides of the steep canyon trail grab our attention, as do the deer, elk and ruffed grouse–all more numerous than rattlers.

Read the complete story in the September issue of Western Horseman