You Never Forget Your First…Flip

I was in the water before I knew what was happening. I looked up and saw the blue rail of the dory coming towards my head. One thought went through my mind: “Don’t get trapped under the boat.”

I reached up and pushed off the overturned boat. The first wave crashed over me and I saw nothing but bubbles in the green water. I came up in the trough and spluttered a breath before splashing through the next whitecap.

Hells Canyon river trip | Wild Sheep Rapid

As the tail waves petered out and we drifted into one of the Snake River’s calm pools, I had a moment to clear my head. It was the first day of a three-day Hells Canyon river trip. I had been riding with 50-year Idaho dory veteran, Curt Chang, in his beautiful hand-crafted dory, Poi’Pu. Now, we were floating separately in the cool water. As I locked eyes with Curt, hanging onto the edge of the dory, it hit me: This was my first flip. And I’d never forget it.

Flipping a dory or raft holds a sacred place in the whitewater world. Most try to avoid it. Similar to the wipeout in surfing, a flip often means that you’re charging, that you’re really going for it. There are good ones and bad ones, yard sales and wraps, funny ones and sad ones. Overall, the flip is generally respected and woven throughout river lore. For a first-timer, it’s usually thrilling enough to be unforgettable.

I had been on several whitewater trips before heading to Hells Canyon, mostly one-day trips in California. I rafted the Middle Fork of the American River and the daunting Class IV Tunnel Chute. My family and I paddled the Trinity River and its largest drop, Hell Hole. We even did two South Fork of the American River rafting trips with my 85-year-old grandmother-in-law without a swimmer or a flip. But there’s a saying among those who travel rivers frequently: “There are two types of boaters. Those who have flipped and those who will.”

Legendary Idaho Dory Guide Curt Chang

Riding in a dory with Curt, I didn’t expect to join the Snake River Swim Team. Between Grand Canyon and Idaho’s Snake and Salmon Rivers, he has over a half century of experience, hundreds of trips under his belt. In all that time, he’s flipped less than five times. To put that in perspective, Martin Litton, the famed conservationist who helped save Grand Canyon, once flipped three different dories in Lava Falls in a single day.

Curt’s skills are legendary, but he knows that sometimes the river decides it’s your turn. We entered Wild Sheep Rapid towards the back of our pod, watching two rafts and one dory glide through easily. As the water picked up its pace, Curt pulled on his oars, rowing us from left to right. His line looked great and we expected to hit the hole dead center. After the initial drop, a wall of water on our right hit us like lightning. I was still looking straight ahead as Poi’pu rolled into the foam.

Luckily, our flip in Hells Canyon was clean. We dodged all the rocks. The dory didn’t get so much as a scratch. We were able to flip Poi’Pu back over within minutes. We only lost a pair of sunglasses and a water bottle. Without even thinking about it, I even held onto my GoPro the whole time.

After we were back in the boat, I was a little rattled. But the more I thought about it, the more I cherished those exciting moments. By the time we pulled into camp, Curt and I were laughing about our swim together. Looking back at it now, it always makes me smile. I know there will never be another flip like my first.

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