On a recent afternoon in Smith's Ferry, train conductors and engineers helped raft guides load a 16-foot, bright-blue paddle raft on the flatbed car of the Payette River Flyer, a locomotive owned by the same company that runs the Thunder Mountain Line. The Flyer's cars, built in 1956, feel like a cross between a roomy airliner and a glorified Greyhound bus, and are now a way to shuttle up the Cabarton stretch of the Payette River.
I took my seat on the river side of the train and watched with anticipation as we rolled past the Cabarton's Class II and Class III rapids: Howard's Plunge, Francois (named after Francois Payette, who discovered the river) and Trestle. The ride showcases a rare glimpse into the wilderness, where no highway runs along the river.
This stretch of railroad was taken out of service in 2009 and since then Idaho Northern and Pacific Rail engineers have been working to open it again. Engineer Jeff Short got his job on the railroad when his dad worked as a mechanic for Idaho Northern and Pacific. He said it took heavy equipment ditching, working on the tunnels and fixing the tracks to reopen the 17 miles of railroad between Horseshoe Bend and Cascade.
"We worked really hard the last few years to make sure it's going to happen," Short said. "And it did, so we're very excited. It's a proud day."
The train doesn't move fast--maximum speed is about 20 mph--but Payette River Flyer staff offer a box lunch with turkey or ham sandwiches, chips, grapes, cookies and soda for $8... and beer, to calm your nerves as you watch the river rip at 3,700 cubic feet per second. (Quick cfs lesson: a cubic foot of water is about the size of a basketball. Now imagine almost 4,000 basketballs per second flowing between the banks of the Payette.)
But the Payette River Flyer dropped us off in the more-than-capable hands of TJ Kauth, a raft guide for Bear Valley Rafting Company, who has 16 years experience guiding on the Payette. The train stopped at a secret platform on the bank, a few miles downstream of Cabarton Road, the usual put-in.
"It's a cool trip combo," Kauth said. "We do this on the Main Payette, too, where the train picks folks up at Horseshoe Bend and drops them off at Banks, then we raft down."
The Cabarton is a stretch of whitewater on the North Fork of the Payette great for families, with large flat pools for swimming, warm summertime water and a few rapids.
The train runs every Saturday and Sunday through the end of August, departing at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. from Smith's Ferry. Tickets are $25 per person and an additional $60 per person to raft with Bear Valley. The Payette River Flyer can also be used strictly as a shuttle for boaters who don't need a guide, and it saves the $5 take-out fee at Smith's Ferry, not to mention the hassle of shuttling cars. Payette River Flyer hopes to offer a season pass for paddlers in the near future.
As for railroad engineer Jeff Short, he has rafted the Cabarton before, but, "I want to do it again, off of this train."