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Riding the Thunder Mountain Line

Northern Pacific Railroad Books

Around the rest of the world, trains are an everyday mode of transportation — whether it’s the high-speed bullets of Asia and Europe, or the achingly slow, rustic rides we’ve endured in Sri Lanka and Bolivia. But in the States, nobody takes the train anymore. In fact, American train rides are such a rarity that they’re now sold as touristic experiences.

Train Is Coming

The Thunder Mountain Line offers such an experience, billing itself as Idaho’s only scenic train ride. We joined a Sunday morning tour and rumbled along the edge of the Payette River, enjoying the scenery between Horseshoe Bend and Banks.

Before the train set off, we took a quick tour of the cars with Larry, who would be the official greeter/guide/storyteller during the ride. Most of the cars that make up the Thunder Mountain Line come from a rather unexpected source: Long Island. They’re decommissioned commuter rail trains which have been stripped and refurbished for comfort and charm. The attentive passenger might notice that the ceiling pattern still features New York’s state seal.

There were about five cars making the trip on our journey. First-class passengers got their own section with dining tables and a full-service bar. One car had been transformed into a souvenir shop, and another held the kitchen. The coolest car, though, was The Texan, which can be rented by private parties. It’s fully outfitted with a living room and bedrooms, and Larry told us that, for a baherlor party, they’ll often drive this car up to Banks, leave it for the night, and then pick it back up the next day.

The train lumbered slowly along the river for an hour and a half, each way. We disembarked for a short pause in Banks, where, to my confusion and terror, the crew tried to get us to participate in a Chicken Dance. I thought they were kidding at first, but nope — there were even costumes. We politely demurred. All good fun, I suppose, but a jarring interlude in what had been a morning marked by class.

Back on the train, we washed the memory of the Chicken Dance away with drinks from the bar, and settled down onto the outside benches to better enjoy the view. For train enthusiasts, or anyone looking for an enjoyable and unique way to admire some beautiful Idahoan nature, the Thunder Mountain Line offers a great day out.

Thunder Mountain Line – Website
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September 18, 2012 at 2:46 pm Comments (5)

The Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway

Don’t Come To Idaho Without Binoculars

33 miles of paved road between Banks and Lowman constitute the Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway. Although we didn’t see any elk during our trip, they’re a common sight during the winter. Along the road, there’s even a turn-out with binoculars pointed at a large plain called Gallagher Flat, where they especially like to congregate.

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The road hugs the South Fork of the Payette River, passing waterfalls of varying sizes and breathtaking canyon scenery. Sheer walls of rock infused with pitch-black streaks lava tower overhead, while far below the river winds its way through the valley. There are frequent turn-outs at spots of special historic importance, as well as at places with particularly beautiful views. And we took advantage of every one.

Check out the route on Google Maps

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September 14, 2012 at 5:44 pm Comments (2)

In the Water with Cascade Raft & Kayak

Everything you need to know about Whitewater Rafting

“Do you want to go whitewater rafting with us?” I had only asked out of politeness. Never did I suspect that my mother’s response might be “Sure, why not?!”

In business for 27 seasons, Cascade Raft & Kayak is the largest whitewater company operating on the Payette River. They had invited us out for a day of rafting, and I had just assumed that my parents — who had come up from Ohio for a short visit — would be content to wait around and read a book while we got wet. Nope! Although my dad had to sit out due to the flu, he only did so very reluctantly. And my mom didn’t hesitate at all.

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As she strapped on her life jacket and climbed into the raft, I looked at her in bewilderment. Who was this lady? My mom’s most exhilarating pastimes included jigsaw puzzles and afternoon naps.

Under the direction of Lauren, our guide for the day, we set off on an adventure called “The Splash”, starting at Banks and ending at Cascade Raft & Kayak’s offices just north of Horseshoe Bend. Neither Jürgen, my mom, nor myself had ever been on a raft before, and this moderately easy route proved to be a perfect introduction to the sport.

Within minutes of disembarking, our raft hit the rapids known as Whitewater 101. And right away, we were soaking wet — especially Jürgen and I, who were sitting in the front of the raft. We didn’t have much time to recover before hitting the next set: Whitewater 102. True to their name, these were a bit rougher. But this time, it was Mom who got it. I turned around and laughed at the sight of her, shell-shocked and soaking wet. But she was laughing, too. Getting drenched with freezing water doesn’t sound amusing, but when you’re on a raft, laughter seems the only reaction possible.

The water was cold, but the sun was shining bright. In between rapids. Lauren let us float slowly down the river and we’d almost dry off before hitting the next rough patch. The rapids were manageable — only once did I feel the fear of flying off. We paddled on Lauren’s commands (“Forward Two! Back One!”) and while tackling one reasonably calm set of rapids, she had us do the “Teacup”. Those on the left side of the raft paddled forward, those on the right backwards, and we spun around furiously while crashing down the rapids.

Idaho is known as the “Whitewater State”, and it’s not hard to see why. There are a ton of operators to choose from, but we couldn’t have been happier with Cascade Raft & Kayak.

Cascade Raft & Kayak – Website
Location on our Idaho Map

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September 13, 2012 at 10:16 pm Comments (5)