Rapid Musings: Wild Sheep in Hells Canyon

“This is the only rapid we run that scares me,” one of my crew members mentions at the scout. Her words flit to my ears, though my eyes are squinting at the jumble of water and metamorphosed rock below me.

Rapid Musings: Wild Sheep in Idaho's Hells Canyon

My PFD is cinched as tight as my teeth are clenched. I look into the rapid and am lost.

Normally, I love the puzzle of scouting a rapid. My analytic mind melds with my creative spirit, and I anticipate the crests, the drops, the beat-downs. I’m methodical in my approach: I find where I want to end up, and work my way backward, noting features and the moves and angles necessary to avoid them. I pick my markers. I plan what to do if (and when) I get knocked off-course. Responding to dynamic environments is one of my favorite parts of boating. Scouting provides an essential framework, but finding your fluvial flow unparalleled. I’m fascinated by examining lines; enthralled by visualizing my run.

Usually, my brain clicks through options, weighing potential risks and optimizing outcomes. This time, I have nothing. All I see is churning white. I don’t have a line.

After only five-and-a-half miles of mellow water, entrenched in the deepest river canyon in the continental United States, Wild Sheep Rapid maws through rock to make one of the most challenging rapids in Hells Canyon. Fluctuating daily water levels due to consumer power demand on the dam mean the rapid can change from hour to hour. What worked at 10 a.m. won’t necessarily work at 3 p.m. What worked the past week won’t necessarily work this week. What worked in a raft won’t necessarily work in a dory.

Did I mention this is my first time rowing a dory?

These boats ride the waves of river history, and I’m honored — a little wide-eyed, lots of nervous — to be rowing one. The Tuolumne is beautiful. Her metal body might carry the welds of 30-plus years, her latches might be more squeak than sleek, her brilliant red sheen might have a few chips, but she is phenomenal. I love her already.

Top Dory Trips in the West | Snake River through Hells Canyon, Idaho

The roar of whitewater rackets though the canyon, bursting through the August afternoon.

As much as I love the T, as we affectionately call her, I am new to her. I’ve been plowing rubber boats through waves for years, huffing as I lug them across currents. I understand more their mechanics, their transport loads, their weight distribution. I know what I can do in a raft and what it can handle — usually. The river is always in control. But this time, in a dory? I’m still understanding the fineness, still reminding myself to let the boat respond. As my friend and fellow guide told me before I left, “The dory is on your side.”

Even in Wild Sheep?

Most of the crew walks off, confident in their line. One stays back, sensing my trepidation. Seneca is an accomplished trip leader and dory guide, full of vivacious laughter and a can-do attitude. She’s been supporting me as I lead my first trip for O.A.R.S. Dories Idaho. I’m entirely grateful to have her here, for more than just her dory knowledge. She whips out some bright red lipstick, and we talk through the dory line once more.

It’s time.

I set a precarious downstream ferry angle, not wanting to get sucked too far center. It’s not steep enough. I try to pull into the so-called slack water beneath the first behemoth boulder. I don’t have enough momentum. Thwack. Lateral waves pummel from the left and now the bow is pointed horizontally, exactly where I don’t want to be.

High side!

The water claims the oars from my hands and I’m splayed across the deck. A combination of mettle and frenetic urgency helps me propel myself back into my seat. The three guests with me high-side admirably, intuitively embracing the physics of this little boat in big water. They bail with glee as I slot my oars back in place. We cheer as the rest of the boats surge through the waves, wild with exhilaration.

Wild sheep, indeed.


Top photo courtesy of Emerald LaFortune

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