We’re All Between Swims…
5 River Guides Share Their Most Memorable Flip Stories
There are two types of boaters: those who have flipped and those who will. We train hard. We respect the water. But sometimes, we go under.
My first flip happened in 2017, a notable high-water year for a landscape often defined by water shortage and drought. Water was abundant across most of the West, and its power was palpable.
That same season, the intense water reworked one of the most infamous rapids on the Middle Fork of the American River: Tunnel Chute. Because of the high water, the entrance and structure of the rapid changed, and flips became a common occurrence. Natalie Haber, who has guided for OARS for six seasons, flipped there twice. Though all flips can be challenging, recovery in Tunnel Chute is often manageable. “It’s like flipping into a swimming pool with a lot of current,” Haber said. “For this river, it’s not a matter of if you swim, but when.”
Flips are not restrained to high water though. They can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone. Andrew Goetting guided for OARS for seven seasons before he flipped for the first time in Satan’s Cesspool on the South Fork of the American River. As we all can be sometimes, he was in the wrong place at the right time. While paddlers typically tuck into a hole at right, that day he followed a tongue on the left that pushed into a wall. After the flip, he climbed on the overturned boat, re-flipped it in current and quickly pulled guests in for a slick recovery.
Jasmine Wilhelm, who has guided for OARS Dories in Idaho, recalled being a passenger on a private trip when she flipped on the Selway River at Wolf Creek. After hitting a wave sideways and getting knocked toward a wall, they highsided, but were stuck vertically for a few seconds. They clutched thwarts like koalas clutch trees, but “were deluding [themselves] with the highside at that point.” They took the tube down with them and floated with the upside-down boat through the tail waves.
She has yet to flip a boat while helming the oars, but knows how the river operates in that regard. “I always try to ride the line of conservative and bold, but I know the day will come,” she said.
Paddle boats are typically more likely to flip, mostly because they have less mass. Oar rigs, when fully-loaded, can be behemoths of boats. This means they are less likely to tip, but when they do, can require thoughtful logistics and mechanical advantages to right.
Still, 2017 was a banner year for both high water and oar-rigs flipping. In the Big Drops of Cataract Canyon, Izzy Garcia, who guides for OARS in Idaho and Utah, flipped in the biggest water year there since 1984. In mid-July, the river was still raging at 40,000 CFS. Izzy recalled how the Big Drops frothed in anger and frustration, and guides hugged each other solemnly and with focus during the scout at Poop Rock. After a clean run in Big Drop 1, slackwater ripped the oar out of his hand and his ferry angle misfired. The boat plowed into the Claw Wave. Everything went silent and dark. He swam Big Drop 3 down the middle, avoiding Satan’s Gut to the left and Brahma’s Wave and Frogg’s Hole to the right. His brain was clicking through options rapid-fire, but swimming Class V rapids is serious business. Fortunately, there was a motorized sport boat that picked him and other swimmers up. Out of seven boats, three flipped and two dump trucked, but everyone was safe, no gear was damaged, and they were able to proceed to camp unscathed.
It was flipping in big water that inspired OARS Dories guide Dakota Goodman to become a guide. While rowing on a private Grand Canyon trip when she was 18, she flipped during a run on the right in Lava. It was her first time rowing the Grand, and her first time boating without her family. The balance of her entrance timing and power was off, and she spun sideways on a rooster tail. After attempting a pull, she hit backward and flipped bow over stern. The event was so rapid there was no way to highside, and her passengers were washed out downstream. Goodman, however, was sucked into the depths and touched bottom twice, in what she remembered as, “The most gnarly swim.” After all of the pieces were put back together, she sat on her boat and realized she wanted to go into guiding as a job instead of just private boating.
“I want to work in these places and show these places to people who wouldn’t have the chance because it’s so special and so powerful,” she said. Lava, “I forever have a lot of respect for Mama Lava.”
Being scared and apprehensive about flipping is completely understandable. Water is power, and it’s nothing to be cavalier about. However, as guides, our utmost focus is on safety, and we share this with you on the water by teaching the skill and value of risk management and self-rescue in remote river canyons. We train and prepare to be able to respond to dynamic situations — like an unexpected river dunk!
Photos: Raft flip – Picture This; Tunnel Chute – Natalie Haber; Selway River – Jasmine Wilhelm