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July 07, 2008
Up the River (Without a Paddle)
This week's blog has nothing to do with real estate notes. If that's why you're here, please read some of my prior blogs - they almost all focus exclusively on our business. This blog will give you a peek inside my life outside the corporate realm, spending time in the great outdoors.

The Lower Salmon River in central Idaho is a place of tremendous beauty and isolation. Cell phones don't work there, and roads into the canyon are few and far between. Most whitewater outfitters won't take their clients down this stretch during high water, as it is too dangerous. One rapid, The Devil's Slide, is the reason nobody will run it.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) monitors the Salmon River canyon. At river levels of 20,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) or higher, the BLM says the "Slide" is a Class VI (6) rapid, or unrunnable. This means you are certain to get flipped out of your raft, and the consequences could be a matter of life or death as you struggle to get your raft righted and back into it before you're swept down the river or worse, into the craggy rocks lining each shore.

When my friends and I began planning our trip, we fully expected the river to be at levels lower than 20,000 cfs by the time the 4th of July weekend rolled around. Due to above-average snowpack in the mountains, however, the river continued to run much higher than its annual averages. When we launched on Friday, the river was at 26,300 cfs. On the trip were Nick, a former guide on the Salmon and a very experienced boatman; Pat, a veteran of river trips, but never at high water like this; Doug, a 20-year boatman on the Salmon, and myself.

On Friday alone, we covered more distance than we did after the first three days of last year's trip over the same weekend. We hit some big water, but all in the Class III and IV range. We were running a 14 ft self-bailing raft, and a 16 ft dory, or drift boat. We all took turns rowing, and had some great rides through some of the bigger rapids.

I guided the raft through a rapid called China. There is a big wave train to the left, and a HUGE pour-over on the right that the river tries to push you into at the bottom of the wave train. It requires a hard pull backward on the oars to keep you out of the hole on the backside of the pour-over. Just as it was time to make my big pull back, I glanced over to my left and watched in disbelief as that paddle disengaged itself from the oar and sunk into the river. "So this is what it feels like to be up the river without a paddle", I thought to myself before turning to the task at hand, which was to somehow stay out of this huge hole when the only thing I can do with the raft is spin in circles. I pulled back hard on the right oar and managed to spin away from the big hole, only to smack a rock on the left with the bow. Somehow we managed to make it through without any carnage. "Never seen that happen in all my years on the river", Doug informed me.

Saturday morning we awoke to sunshine and a sense of foreboding, knowing what awaited us some 16 miles downriver. As we pulled into the eddy above the Slide, we started preparing for the worse, expecting the best. We rigged the boats to keep their cargo in the event one (or both) of them got flipped in the turbulent water below.

We climbed up above the rapid and scouted it. I swallowed hard, trying to dislodge the lump I felt when I saw the madness we would shortly be attempting to conquer. The first wave was probably 18 feet high and looked like a rooster-tail. Behind it were two of the most violent waves I've ever seen. How we were going to make it through upright was beyond me. After trying to figure out what line to take through the rapid, we shrugged, figured we'd give it our best effort, and headed back to the boats.

Nick took the raft in first. We followed fairly closely behind in the dory. Nick's line was true, and we all thought he'd made it. One last lateral wave shooting in from the right side of the cliff had other ideas. In what I termed a "sucker punch", it surged up and flipped the raft in an instant. I was able to ascertain that Pat was hanging on to the raft and therefore OK, and that Nick had been pushed downstream about 30 feet from the raft and therefore unable to get back to it. (people float a whole lot faster than rafts)

I quickly had to focus on the task at hand. Doug hit the rooster-tail just as I determined Nick and Pat weren't in danger. Up, up, up we went, until I was standing almost vertical, even though I was flat on my stomach on the front of the dory. We then crested the rooster-tail, and like a high-spreed rollercoaster, screamed down the other side into what I dubbed "the Devil's Yawn"; a dark green swirling abyss of raging water surrounded by furious waves 14-16 feet high. We broke through the second wave, and the lateral that flipped Nick came flying in from the right. Fortunately for us, a lateral from the left came flying in at almost exactly the same time. We were dealt a one-two punch, but since they came from opposite sides, they counter-acted each other and we busted through upright.

Pat was stuck in an eddy to our left, which was spinning he and the raft around and around. Doug nosed the dory toward the raft and yelled at me to jump on the bottom it. I leaped across and quickly pulled Pat out of the eddy and onto the (relative) safety of the raft. Doug then headed downstream to try and catch up to Nick, who was trying to get to the shoreline so a boat could eventually pick him up.

Meanwhile, Pat and I were stuck in a boiling eddy that kept spinning us around, always dangerously close to the cliff on the left. We couldn't attempt to flip the raft over, because we were too close to the rocks and the water was too violent. I noticed the raft was beginning to spin in larger and larger circles, and felt we would eventually be pushed back into the current and on downstream. After approximately 60 seconds, that's exactly what happened.

Pat and I attached our flip straps to the frame of the boat and started rocking the boat, attempting to get it flipped back over upright. Considering all the gear on the raft, it was extremely heavy and we were expending tremendous amounts of energy (and adrenaline) trying to flip it back over. We had the boat almost vertical and ready to complete the flip when my strap broke and sent me backside-first into the river. Still upside down, Pat pulled me back onto the bottom of the raft. With only one flip strap for both of us, there was no way to get the boat upright, and we'll still getting washed downstream, going through Class III rapids and always worried about the possibility of getting slammed into rocks jutting out into the current.

As all this was happening, Doug managed to get Nick onto the dory and quickly rowed over to where we were struggling with the raft. Nick hopped onto the raft with us, and with an additional flip strap and the strength of all three of us, were able to get the raft flipped upright and we all piled in. Meanwhile, Doug saw one of our coolers that had broken loose and was chasing it downstream. Since he also had to attend to his oars and the big rapids we were still having to contend with, it was up to me to pull the cooler out of the water once Nick rowed up to it. (the handles had been ripped off while the raft was upside down) We finally caught up and I hauled it out of the river. The lid, although not strapped down, never opened and our cargo was safe.

We all looked at each other, letting what had just happened sink in. There was a combination of wide-eyed alertness and weariness, equally attributable to the adrenaline and the effort required to pull off our rescue. We breathed a collective sigh of relief and gave a quick thanks to both God and the river for allowing us safe passage.

That night at camp we built no campfire, and we settled for bratwursts and chips instead of the elaborate dinner we had planned. We sat in the dark and talked about the day's adventure. We were prepared, focused, and had discussed our plan of action before we plunged into the abyss. We all had a job to do, and each of us executed it flawlessly even though the river threw us a few curveballs.

We took some valuable lessons from that experience. Surrounding ourselves with competent people and a plan of action for any obstacles placed before us, nothing can throw us off the road to success. Did we take risks that nobody else was willing to take? Yes. Did several people tell us we were making a big mistake by running the river at that level? Yes. Was the reward worth the risk? ABSOLUTELY.

The four of us are now forever bound by that trip. We faced our fears and we conquered them together. If I can pass along anything from this, other than just a pretty good story, it's this: Measure the risk...and take it. Don't let anyone else define your limits. You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

Most of all...have fun.

Make it a great day.

Clint



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