The next day, we check into a cottage at Tamarack Resort. We're here to find out what The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have been so excited about, why Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf were inspired to pony up funds for a planned hotel here, and ― more recently ― how the ambitious resort has had to scale back its plans in the face of a hurting economy. We stand atop Tamarack mountain, feeling out of our league. The steep slope disappears into a pile of boulders and then who knows what. John asks the question on all of our minds. "People ride down this?"
A man pedals past us and then drops off the ledge. The wheels of his muddy bike hopscotch from one boulder to the next. John reaches in his pocket for the trail map. At dinner the night before, we were certain we were a "blue" family ― not mountain-biking experts, but relatively fit, and gutsy, Idahoans. Certainly we could handle blue-designated terrain. Now John points us to the "greenie" run, and we follow. I make generous use of my brakes.
Waterfalls rush down gulches lined with spruce, fir, and the signature tamarack, and the air is pungent with the scent of recently melted earth. As I careen down the trail, much of the scenery turns into a vibrating blur, but up ahead the boys wait for me where the forest opens. On one side rises the incline of the Payette River Range. On the other lie the curve of Lake Cascade and the Salmon River Mountains beyond the valley. I'm reminded of how huge this rugged country is, and how many mountains are beyond the ones I can see.
That night we dine on seared elk medallions and delicate scallops at Morels Restaurant ― it's hard to object to fancy new restaurants where the food is as good as this ― then soak our battered muscles in the hot tub on our resort cabin's deck while staring up at the crisp starlight, grateful for clear skies. In the mountains, you never know what season June will be, and tomorrow we take to the river for our final leg of the "race."
Thousands of miles of whitewater tumble down from the central Idaho mountains, so it's no wonder my boys have ridden far more rapids than roller coasters in their lifetime. Today Dylan sits in front of me in a double ducky (an inflatable kayak for two) on our favorite day trip, the Cabarton stretch of the Payette River. We love this stretch because the current slips away from the road and into lush forest, offering a sense of solitude that's rare on a day trip anywhere.
On past Cabarton trips, Dylan has been in the raft, and we're both aware that just around the next bend is Trestle, the longest class III rapid of the trip. As we curve around the canyon wall, the railroad bridge spanning the river comes into view and the current quickens. "Hole is on the left?" Dylan asks in a dry, whispery voice.
"You paddle hard, and I'll steer," I answer. There's a glassy pool after the rapid, but June is not ideal swimming weather.
For a moment, the calm clarity of our plan is lost in the chaotic force of white-water and adrenaline, but then Dylan plunges his paddle into each huge wave just as it's about to overwhelm us, as if he were a pro. I'm relieved when, out of the corner of my eye, I see the gaping reversal slip by.
"That was huge," Dylan yells. And we laugh as the final waves lift and then release us. We all pull onto a sandy beach where we rehash our various versions of surviving the Trestle Rapid.
After our picnic on the shore, the boys toss stones in the river, and John and I lie on warm boulders looking for eagles and listening to the rush of the rapid. I recall the post-race high I used to feel back during my triathlon days, thinking, This beats it by a mile. An orange raft from the outfitting company rounds the corner carrying another family. We wave to one another as boaters always do on rivers - kids, parents, river guide ― all of us wearing that particular aren't-we-so-lucky-to-be-here grin. And I notice that even though McCall now has fancy restaurants and spas and plush hotel rooms with lake views, I'm happy to share this big, wild place that really does still feel like home.
Next: How to get to McCall