Rapid Musings: Otter’s Playpen on the Lower Klamath

4 Min. Read
Otter's Playpen Rapid Lower Klamath River

The Lower Klamath River in Happy Camp, CA is where most new OARS Oregon guides go to learn how to better navigate the river and grow as a guide. It’s a low-stress stretch of river to run, with the exception of one rapid, Otter’s Playpen, which I was about to row solo for the first time.

Not having quite mastered my bowline yet, my newly-calloused hands quickly laced together knots to safely secure my boat—named BigFoot 2.0 after the well-known mythical beast that some claim roams the area.

After finishing these final preparations with my helmet on, life jacket buckled, and throw bag in hand, it was time to scamper up to the scout rock with the rest of the group. The hot, jagged-rocked spot loomed just above Otter’s Playpen, one of only two Class III rapids on the Lower Klamath section we run.

Many of the senior guides had often recounted their earlier guiding days to me, which included some thrilling stories about the narrow slot BigFoot 2.0 and I would soon need to squeeze ourselves through once back on the water. They talked of how either their rigs, or other boats they had witnessed going through, would get wedged between two rocks, make a taco out of their vessels and launch the guide from their seats. I had been to the scout before and looked down on the river below, except this time was different. This time I would be the one in the rower’s seat.

At first glance, moving from the right side of the river to the much wider channel on the left seemed to be the best maneuver, but the other guides explained to me that the strong turbulent water pushes boats much too quickly to make this crossing possible. Instead, the goal was to hug the right wall so tight that it renders your right oar practically useless, while at the same time ensuring your craft remains straight through the two drops.

The paddle boat was the first to go down river. We watched from above as the lead boat and a pod of inflatable kayaks ferried across. Then, in one seamless simultaneous motion, they made the move. The lead guide glided past the obstacles as easily as a mother merganser meanders through rough waters with ducklings all in line. Swift and precise, it was the perfect line that all the onlooking guides hoped to replicate once it was their turn to go.

Otter's Playpen Rapid on California's Lower Klamath River

The line was clear, and I knew what I had to do. However, my first small challenge would be to escort the youngest of the bunch to the spot just below the rapid, since they were not yet old enough to join us as passengers. Except it was not much of a challenge at all. The little rafters happily scurried over the sometimes slippery terrain, only occasionally holding onto my hands for some extra support, but mostly trudging on with sure footing. Their confident feet and unwavering fear of the unknown reassured me that I too could accomplish this new obstacle before me.

Soon after this, I found myself back by the parked boats, and untying the many knots from my line to the nearby willow tree. As an extra precaution, I would row without guests my first time through Otter’s Playpen. I slowly made my way toward the right channel, calculating how many strokes I could get in before I would be too close to the wall to use both oars. I rounded the boulder that had initially blocked my view of the rest of the rapid, and not a half-second later plunged through the first drop. In the middle of this whirlwind experience, the front tube of my Avon raft clipped the right wall with enough momentum to swivel me off course. It was the equivalent of a toe stub sort of hit I had thought to myself, but still enough to offset the proper angle I needed. I was now completely sideways, and had only enough time for one more solid stroke to correct the position before it would be too late. In an instant, I decided to continue with this spinning motion, and let my boat slide down the slot backwards rather than forwards. It worked! I had successfully avoided the potential pin or chance for a flipped rig. I couldn’t believe it had all happened in no more than five short seconds.

Now, I often credit Otter’s Playpen as being the one rapid that has taught me the most in terms of the fast decision-making skills needed to be a good guide. And, how handy a “spin to win” move can be at times.

Photos: Lower Klamath River rafting – Cindi Stephan

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