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Hike Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

River rats wait years to ride the wild Selway River. Hikers can taste its raw beauty right now.

We soon encounter one of the only signs of civilization along the trail: the Selway Lodge. First homesteaded in 1898, it has no phones, no TV, and no road access (it changed ownership after we visited and is no longer open to hikers). “Forty-two elk the other day in the meadow, and bears like mad,” says then-owner Pat Millington. “Bears, bears, bears.” We hike on into the growing night, scanning the shadows for shapes with teeth.

The only teeth we see are the jagged rocks of the rapids that begin near the confluence of Moose Creek. Boaters call this dangerous stretch “Moose Juice,” because the Selway drops 150 feet in just 3 miles while rumbling through rapids with names like Double Drop, Wa-Poots, and Little Niagara. Three years in a row, boaters died along this stretch of river, caught in the power of spring floods. After a night camped by Ladle Falls, hardly talking over its roar, we hike on, both of us silently glad to be walking, not rafting.

In the lower reaches, the wild water calms, with only the silver streaks of trout flashing in the shallows; the ridges untangle themselves in the morning mist. We haven’t heard a rattlesnake for days, the sound a distant, if not forgotten, memory. Instead, we savor the subtler rhythms of the Selway, a river worth hiking.

route: Forest Trail #4 is easy to follow, except for a few unsigned trail crossings. Be respectful of private in-holdings and packhorses.

drive time: Boise: 6 hours

the way: Several river companies will shuttle you from Race Creek Campground just outside of Lowell, ID, (park your car here) to the trailhead at Paradise Landing, which is north of Salmon on US 93 over Lost Trail pass.

season: This can be a sweltering midsummer trip. Plan to hike early and late in the day when the heat is least intense. In spring, don’t expect to gain access until the roads are plowed. Call ahead.

cautions: Carry a snakebite kit and know proper wilderness travel procedures for bear country.

guides: Hiking the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, by Scott Steinberg ($19). USGS quads Burnt Strip Mountain, Dog Creek, Fog Mountain, Gardiner Peak, Mink Peak, Moose Ridge, Selway Falls, Shissler Peak and Spot Mountain (www.backpacker.com/mapstore; $10 each).

contact: Bitterroot National Forest, (406) 363-7117; www.fs.fed.us/r1/bitterroot/.

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