The River Swirls Madly On: Reconciling Fear and Whitewater
“Hang on!” I yelled as I punched the hole in Allison Ranch Rapid at 28,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) in late June, knowing very well my boat was about to go over.
I’d boated thousands of river miles, from Canada to Colombia and across the Western United States. I’d been in boats that had flipped, but before now, I had never unintentionally flipped one of my own.
It was a banner year for high water across the West, with the Columbia drainage boasting massive snowpack. So-called “Idaho flatwater” chopped both irregular waves and colossal logs against our rafts and dories on a late May training trip in which the Main Salmon River surged to 85,000 cfs.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a lot of carnage this trip,” my friend and river mentor told me as we bumped along in a 12-passenger van to the put-in at Corn Creek.
“It’ll be good practice,” she continued. “We have a lot of senior guides who have never flipped a boat, never flipped a dory.”
Two days earlier, she and I were on an all-women charter trip on the Snake River in Hells Canyon. One of our fully-loaded 16-foot oar rigs went over on the right side of Wild Sheep at 31,000 cfs, where an intense and unreliable rooster tail broke. The guide and our safety kayaker immediately moved the boat and everyone in it to an eddy, where four of us lady guides climbed on top and flipped it right-side up while chanting, “Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, come on ladies, it’s flip a boat time!
This particular June morning the sun seemed less than ominous as we pushed off from camp ready for a day of classic Idaho rapids. Our trip leader reviewed the whitewater lineup: Bailey, Allison, Five Mile, Split Rock, Stinker, Big Mallard, Elkhorn. The water was high, and we ran tight. Our PFDs were snug. Our loads were rigged to flip. Our rescue gear was accessible. Our boats hugged inside corners, cautiously proceeding.
If you’ve floated the Main Salmon at moderate flows, Allison Ranch Rapid is probably a blip in your memory, another grey-black rock standing up in the river.
My previous memory of this rapid was at water levels below 10,000 cfs when dory guides stood up and meticulously sliced around rocks that yearned to ding their craft. Earlier in the season I had also seen it around 60,000 cfs. At that level our boats blasted down the river and we all marveled at the trunks of ponderosa pines under so many feet of water. Around 30,000 cfs, it’s current flow, however, Allison Ranch Rapid was a tremendous hole.
As we swung out of camp, I briefed my guests on safety procedures.
“We have a lot of big rapids today, but anything can happen anywhere,” I told them, unconsciously foreshadowing our soon-to-be swim.
After a quick cut to the right and some powerful pushes in Bailey, we cheered and kept moving. Our three-boat trip had miles to make.
The straightaway above Allison loomed unfamiliar. Water that typically shines glassy blue-green was a muted beige.
“Inside corners,” I thought to myself, reinforcing the boater’s mantra for unfamiliar sections and big water. “Okay, what’s next: normally this is a low-water maze, a high-water split-second.”
My eyes flit back and forth between the dory in front of me and the crests of white on the horizon. Wave or hole?
I thought I wasn’t much for gut feelings, preferring logic and pragmatism. I brush off superstition, but I never taunt Mr. W(ind) – I make sure to acknowledge and appreciate the breeze. I say I don’t have any big rapid rituals, but I never turn down glitter or lipstick at the scout.
Still, I couldn’t shake the heaviness that had loomed in my stomach since May: the weight of flipping. It seems absurd to say, but I knew it would happen this season. I knew it would happen, and I knew I was afraid.
Hand signals can’t talk, but if they could, the trip leader’s aggressive point would have certainly been a deep-throated barrel proclaiming the channel.
I set an aggressive boat angle and pulled with all my power. I wasn’t going to make it.
I’ve heard people say time slows down in moments like these, but my split-second decision was anything but slow. Just like the river, it was fast and purposeful.
Left has a recirculating aspect. Right is more forgiving. Push hard.
Simple is smooth and smooth is fast. The rescue philosophy from the swiftwater safety course I had taken earlier that spring permeated my thoughts all season. On many trips already, rafts had flipped, paddle boats had dumptrucked, and dories had filled gunwale to gunwale.
I take pride in running lines that are both conservative and fun, though the river demands honesty. After getting tossed around in a few too many eddy lines trying to avoid obstacles, I knew I had to be willing to take bigger hits. There isn’t cheating in rafting, but there is lying, and I had circled the boils long enough.
“That hole would flip a boat in a second,” the trip leader loudly remarked over the roar of the rapid as they slid past it.
A moment later, it did. Our PFDs floated us, and my guests held onto the boat. I swam to the outer tube, using my pre-rigged strap to climb on top. Other guests helped the trip leader load the swimmers into the dory, while the other raft hauled me and my upside-down boat to the rocky shoreline. The two crew members on the final boat were trainees in Idaho, but incredibly accomplished and experienced on many other Western rivers. Swift current destroyed any notions of an eddy recovery, and we stopped the momentum along a cobble bank.
We continued to move with purpose and intention, acknowledging the reality of our situation: more than a half a ton of rubber and metal needed to move 180-degrees. We set up a mechanical advantage, using the rescue gear we carried on our persons.
Maybe it was an eternity, maybe it was ten minutes, but just as another commercial group turned the corner that is forever cemented in my mind, the boat responded to our system and returned to its standard position. We cheered.
“How are you?” the crew asked me.
“I’m okay…the adrenaline is here,” I answered. “I want to check in with the guests, and then we can keep going.”
“We have to run some whitewater, but I’ll look for the first camp I can find,” the trip leader responded. “It’s okay!”
Rivers entangle us with others, fostering camaraderie from moments that could break you — but don’t. They purge you of selfishness, reap humility. Without my crew, without my guests, without my river mentors and supporters, without my instructors, I would not have been able to respond to this unexpected “Oh, shoot!” moment with confidence.
After a flip, the interpersonal response to the scenario is just as important as the logistical one. We sat as a group around the fire that night, sharing our feelings and processing the experience, knowing our perceptions would continue to change — and that was okay.
To close the communication loop, I called my boss via satellite phone.
“Everything’s all right, but I flipped in Allison,” I said.
After verifying everyone was safe, and all was well, he told me I would lead my next trip for the first time.
Understanding the dynamic nature of whitewater from the bottom of my boat forced me to be a better guide. It forced me to exercise my training, utilize my crew, and address my fear.
There are two types of river guides: those who have flipped, and those who will. The river swirls madly on.
Photos: Chad Ehlers, Bram Role