2006 White-water rafting the White Salmon River
by Jacqulyn Diteman
No doubt about it: The mercury's rising and it's time to get wet. We love taking a dip as much as the next person, but why stick to the same old five-foot deep chlorinated pool? Instead, head out to one of the Northwest's glorious rivers—the Deschutes, the White Salmon, the Klickitat, to name a few—and get an adrenaline rush while cooling down. White-water rafting is like riding a roller coaster of cool, crisp water, and it's an ad venture that's suitable for everyone from the worst dog paddler to the most avid swimmer. To prove it, we shot the rapids on the White Salmon River in South Central Washing ton—two writers and a designer, one who had never been rafting, one who hadn't been since childhood, and one who prefers soaks in a bubble bath to excursions in the wet ‘n wild great outdoors. There are many rafting tours through the White Salmon River, but we decided to put our lives in the hands of the first company to ever professionally float the Class 3 and 4 rapid river—the 2005 Washington State Family Business of the Year, ZoIIer's Outdoor Odysseys (zooraft.com). The history of the Zoller family and how they came to be river guides is as fascinating as our half-day run down the river (which we'll get to shortly, hold your rafts). The founder of the company, Phil Zoller, and his son Tracy were avid fishermen who took many clients on trips down the Tootle River 30-odd years ago. This body of water, however, once so full of life, was forever changed when Mount St. Helens erupted on May r8, 1980. When the national and international media inundated the Northwest after that historical day, the Zoller family members were the ones who took all of the cameras and reporters through the destruction and flooding along the Toutle and Cowlitz rivers. On a scouting plane trip to see where they could refocus their business, Tracy spot ted an unknown river from the sky. "Because of the tight canyon walls and the white rapids, he couldn't take his drift boat down," Mark Zoller, Tracy's brother and current owner of Zoller's Outdoor Odysseys, remembers. "He lowered a raft 130 feet off the BZ Corner [a small town along the White Salmon Bridge, climbed down the cliff and into whitewater history." The fishing guide company quickly turned into the area's first white-water rafting outfit, and 20 years later, in 2001, Mark Zoller purchased the company from his father to bring it into the 21st century. Although I knew I was in good hands with the Zoller crew, that didn't settle my nerves (yes, I'm the one who had never been rafting before). Putting on the provided wet suit, lifejacket, booties and helmet should have reassured me, but I felt like a fish out of water. The extent of my river experience had been floating the Yakima River. Rivers are rated as Classes 1 – 5+ in terms of rapids, and the Yakima is a low level 1. And even then, my friends and I had a mishap. But that's another story. After careful instruction from Mark Zoller, we were ready to roll—the three of us, Mark and his daughter Rachel (who, it goes without saying, grew up on the river—and we were instantly swept up in fast-moving white water. Sitting in the front of the boat, I wish I could say I was graceful and athletic with my paddling, but I screamed like a little girl and cursed like a sailor through the first couple rapids. Once I saw that I wasn't thrown out, however, I regained my composure and began to enjoy the rush of the rapids and the unbelievable natural splendor that surrounded us. Most parts on the White Salmon found us rowing, and rowing hard, but there are several calm moments when you can look around and realize that each part of the river has a story to tell, Many members of the crew are second- and third-generation river guides, with their parents or grandparents working for the Zollers. They know the intimate tales along the river's edge, pointing out a 1906 electric turbine system powered by the river's current and the geological changes as we emerged from the lava tube portion of the river. They are aware of every turn and rock (many with nicknames) along the way. I felt comfortable and completely safe within the first minute of the two-hour tour. So comfortable, in fact, that during the second most intense rapid, Rattlesnake, t decided to "ride the bull." That's right—my now cocky self perched on the nose of the raft like a hood ornament, feet dangling over the front of the boat into the river in front of me. And then we dropped into the swirling belly of the rapid. I hung on and stayed in the raft but was completely submerged in the frothy white water. Mark wasn't lying when he told me, "You'll feel water where you never knew it could go." By the end of the trip, we were all suitably soaked, even through our wetsuits, but exhilarated from the run. And it didn't hurt that our drive time back to Zoller's private launch spot was a mere five minutes, where we were greeted with a comfortable and warm family atmosphere—and changing rooms—upon our triumphant return. Yes, we had conquered the White Salmon. In addition to the White Salmon River, Zoller's Outdoor Odysseys was also the first outfit on the mostly Class 3 Klickitat River, where they offer an all-day tour with plenty of snacks along the way. During this trip you'll flow through the gorgeous high desert canyon, which has basalt walls towering two hundred feet above the riverbed. Waterfalls (that you go over) are plenty, and the river is action-packed. "These trips are great for individual, for family, for corporate retreats—anyone," Mark notes, Zoller's also offers a new three- or five-day adventure along the Snake River in Hell's Canyon, along the border of Oregon and Idaho, which is the largest tributary of the Columbia. Not only is it the most extreme white-water adventure, it's the most luxurious; Zoller's makes sure everything is provided— delicious meals and snacks (lattés, smoothies, muffins, salmon), shuttles, tents, equipment and insight into the history and geography of the area. "This river is known all over the world for its length and wave size," Zoller says. "You are going to love it." After our mere half-day trip into the great wet outdoors, we aren't going to argue with that. And we'll be back very soon.