Whitewater rafters discover historic Thunder Mountain train

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SMITHS FERRY, Idaho - The historic Thunder Mountain train creaked back and forth as it meandered up the tracks through a silvery-gray granite canyon following the North Fork of the Payette River.

Whitewater rafts were piled on the open cars to the rear as passengers in coach cars looked at the splashy rapids north of Smiths Ferry. They peered out windows anticipating a whitewater-rafting adventure that was about to unfold.

''I love this train,'' said Susan Isaac of Boise.

She and her husband, Andy, watched the river's changing moods, from quiet pools, crystal-clear trout waters and churning rapids splashing water three feet in the air. An osprey glided above the river looking for a quick meal. Rafting outfitter Idaho Whitewater Unlimited and Idaho Historical Railroads are offering a unique experience, Rivers and Rails, for the first time this summer - a seven-mile ride on the Thunder Mountain Line from Smiths Ferry to the top of the Cabarton section of the North Fork of the Payette River and a float through a hidden river canyon. The trip combines the nostalgia and excitement of a historic rail trip with the thrills of whitewater rafting.

It is the only such operation in Idaho and the second in the nation, according to Idaho Whitewater Unlimited. The trip is generating interest across the country since a story appeared in Sunset Magazine.

''They're saying, 'My husband and I love trains. We're coming West,''' said Cheryl Kaley, who takes bookings for the train ride. She is getting calls from as far as Iowa and Wisconsin. The Idaho Northern and Pacific Railroad train swayed back and forth along a 30-minute ride where passengers sat at tables and enjoyed pop or coffee and snacks.

The ride takes visitors into a river canyon that leaves the highway and is only accessible by dirt road. Few travelers ever get to see the canyon after it leaves the highway. The river canyon is a place to see trout jumping in river pools, deer in deep-green grass lining the river and birds of prey hovering above.

The Thunder Mountain Line has a lot of history. It was built in 1914 and used to go from Nampa to McCall. It was supposed to go to the mines at Thunder Mountain northeast of Cascade, but ended up being a major hauler of logs for the mills. The coach cars now being used were built in the late '40s and the rustic interior only adds to the nostalgia of the ride.

The train is pulled by GP35 diesel engines (the squarish kind that were built in the '70s). The train chugs along at about 10 miles an hour.

It goes slow enough that riders can really concentrate on the scenery and not miss anything.

''You get to see stuff at that slow pace,'' said Jim Mayfield, chief of operations with the Thunder Mountain Line.

He wore a conductor's outfit during the trip. The line will soon be adding two engines, F10s, the round-nose type that were built in the '50s. An open-air car will be added so passengers will get a fresh look at the scenery, Mayfield said with excitement.

After the train crossed a river trestle, it came to a stop at a launch spot in a rich, green meadow. There, passengers disembarked, donned life jackets and got a quick lesson in river safety and paddling.

''Don't hit your friend in the head,'' guide Jeremy Meador said, holding a paddle and giving instructions on paddling.

He went over quick tips on what to do if someone gets bounced out of the raft. Soon the ice was broken and everybody was laughing and itching to hit the river.

The Cabarton run of the North Fork is one of Idaho's premier family float trips. It has a few miles of quiet water where there's time to relax and take in the beauty of a meadow - and a tree-lined river. But suddenly, the river changes its mood and paddlers have to be on their toes in splashy three-foot walls of water. The river becomes a series of bouncy, drenching rapids that push the bow of the raft skyward. Screams can be heard as each raft hits rapids like Trestle, Wet Spot, Cocaine, Francois and finally, the heart-stopper, Howard's Plunge.

''It's great. I love the big rapids,'' said Rashelle Vidrio of Middleton, who was taking her first float trip.

As if a train ride and splashy rapids weren't enough, there was a surprise ending. How about a Dutch oven lunch at riverside in a meadow across the highway from the Payette River Lodge in Smiths Ferry?

It was a time to lean back in a lawn chair, gaze at the river and munch on Dutch oven enchiladas, salads, chips and dip and dessert. After the hearty meal, there was a time for relaxing and reminiscing about an old train, big rapids and a wild river canyon.

It doesn't get more Idaho than this.


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