By Jason Rackley
Every kayaker experiences it, but when you paddle class five regularly you start to spell carnage with a capital C and the stories inevitably end with "yeah, I got pretty lucky that time.." or "man, that's too bad, I wonder if he'll take up playboating now.." or my all-time favorite: "Do you think they'll be able to pry his teeth out of that paddle?!?"
Now I've definitely gotten my share of beatings in my kayaking career, and I guess my all-time favorite kayaking truism is: "We are all between swims." ( A close second would be: "The time after kayaking is the time before kayaking", but that doesn't go very well with this story...)
But, I digress.
All of my most severe thrashings involve broken bones or near-death experiences, but they don't faze me that much. At this point the words "Slow learner" might come to mind, but I actually prefer "Dedicated Creekboater", which is synonymous in most dialects..
There was that one time I was got stuck in that wicked hole on the Green Truss
that just wouldn't let me go; the damned thing was having a great ol' time pounding the livin' bejezus outta me, and I'll never forget how helpless I felt.
It tore my elbow pads off, recirculated me too many times to count, pinned me and my boat to the bottom of the river, and damned near drowned me for good. Heck, I probably would've drowned if John hadn't been there. He said later that I was throwing 'Body Cartwheels' in that hole, and though we laugh about it now, I thought I was a goner at the time. That was the only time I have ever lost my composure on the river, and I was wheezing and gasping like a newborn when John finally pulled me out...
Sometimes, things happen that are out of your control. A couple of years ago we were running the Upper Upper Cispus in the dead of winter. This drop is known for the unportagable 30 foot falls towards the end, and as we approached the 'Behemoth' the excitement level rose. I remember that I did scout the drop on the left, but the tiny ledge at the lip of the falls was coated with a half inch of ice, and I had to slither out of my boat onto the ledge in order to peek over the lip of the falls. Dave Mcneil went first, and had a good line. After I saw that he was Ok I slithered carefully back down to my boat and peeled out into the current, aiming for the center of the falls. I launched off of the top and had good boat angle, and I landed well, with a solid 45 degree angle, but when I surfaced something was wrong with my boat, because my stern was sinking and It took me one awful second to realize that my skirt was blown, and that just downstream was an unswimmable class five boulder garden, and that I was being pulled back up into the hole at the base of the 30 footer, which meant I was about to have one of those days..
Well, the falls dumps into a 'room' with overhanging rock walls, with
no way out except down the river. As I was being dragged along the wall
back up into the falls I kicked my boat away and leapt onto a frozen pile
of scree underneath the right wall.
Well, at this point I was in big trouble. It was damned cold, I wasn't wearing a drysuit, and my boat was getting pounded at the base of the falls. I had no way out..
But Dave Mcneil was there, and he is not the kind of guy that is going to let his buddy down. As I watched, he charged up into the huge pile at the base of the falls and corralled my boat as it came out of the hole, pushing and battling with it, trying to get it over to me. After an agonizing minute he was able to get the boat over to me, at which point he was swept downstream.
Well, I wasn't out of it yet. The spray from the falls had coated the steep scree pile I was clinging to with an inch of ice, so I spent the next five minutes or so chopping a ledge out of the ice so I could get back into my boat. It was brutally cold, but better than the alternative..
Then there was that other time I almost sucked into a huge boulder sieve in Coal Creek Canyon, my paddle went under but my fat Gradient saved my bacon when it went into the crack before me and wedged in there just before I did. Then of course I broke my back running Spirit, which wasn't too life threatening but sure hurt like hell..
Of course, I didn't stop paddling creeks after Spirit. The whole time I was laying around in my metal torso brace I was dreaming about boating, and mostly about the Clear Fork of the Cowlitz, which is my all-time favorite creek. I vowed I would run it again, but deep down inside I sometimes wondered would ever be able to get into a boat again.
Well, in the end I did get back on the Clear Fork, but it was one of those weekends where it seems like everyone's number was up...
Five months after I crushed two vertebrae on the Little White I was on the river again. I spent all summer in my playboat, tuning up my skills and getting ready for winter. I was hoping that we would get an early winter rain so we could do the Clear Fork, and I got my wish. Early in the Fall of 2001 we headed up into the Cowlitz drainage, planning on running the Clear Fork and the Ohanepecosh, two Washington Classics.
I remember I was thrilled to be there and I couldn't wait to get on the creek again. There had been a time when I thought I would never be able to paddle class five again, so as you can imagine I felt very lucky to be there.
Of course, the Clear Fork is not the most forgiving run around, and I hadn't paddled
anything hard in over eight months, and it was the beginning of the season so everyone was feeling a little rusty, so you can pretty much guess what happened next.
John and I met Steve, Gabe, and Josh at the primitive campsite near the put-in. We hiked down to the creek below Entrance Exam, and got ready to go. I was so happy to be there, I just got in my boat and took off downstream. I was ready for anything.
Except the Clear Fork.
Now, I really shouldn't have been there. My state of mind was all wrong, and I was seriously out of practice and out of shape. I remember that I wasn't feeling very focused, and so what happened next was pretty much inevitable. It didn't really help that the only must-make move I had made in the last eight months was out of an eddy and onto a surf wave, which is really no substitute for real kayaking, as I was about to learn..
Anyway, back to the story. The first few drops went smoothly as we worked our way downstream. I was boating well and feeling strong, and soon we arrived in a pool above a drop that is often portaged. (I've seen people run it in a kayaking video, but never in real life.)
Here the creek forms a moving pool with no eddies above a steep bouldery cascade that drops out of sight to the left. On the left side of this drop much of the water goes under an overhanging boulder, and then flushes into a wall twenty feet downstream, turns ninety degrees to the right, drops over a blind twelve foot falls between vertical walls followed by a sticky five foot ledge, and then a six foot ledge.
Not the kind of place you want to screw up, or miss a move, or both, which is what happened to me...
Now, we always portage the first part of this drop (the bouldery cascade which has the nasty overhanging boulder on the left) and run the lower falls and ledges, which are unportagable but generally pretty clean.
I remember I spotted what looked like a tiny eddy right at the lip of the drop, and I paddled over to it. The eddy was small, but I saw a rock outcropping that I could grab while I got out of my boat. I couldn't see around the corner, but I remembered this drop and knew I would be walking it along with everyone else. I nosed into the eddy and totally misjudged the speed of the current as I reached out to grab the rock and it just slipped away.. as my stern swung around into the current and I had about a second to think: "Oh Shit I'm going over backwards.." and then I dropped out of sight and immediately flipped, leaving my stunned friends in the pool above.
Now, anyone who has ever run the Clear Fork is probably squirming in their seats right now because you know what is coming...
In retrospect it was good I was backwards when I flipped, otherwise I might have been knocked unconscious from the blows I sustained. I accelerated down the drop, hitting the submerged boulders so hard that they knocked the wind out of me. I flushed under the boulder at the bottom, felt it bash the bottom of my boat, and then I was clear. Below this first drop all of the water piles up against the left wall as the creek turns ninety degrees to the right and goes over the first twelve foot falls, all in a vertical-walled gorge.
Before I could react I was immediately pushed up against the wall and held there by the force of the current while I vainly tried to get upright again. The wind had been knocked out of me so my lungs were screaming for air but I couldn't roll on the right because the wall was there. I couldn't roll on the left because the current was pushing against me. I tried to roll four times, both ways, but I just couldn't get up no matter how hard I tried. I was quickly losing strength but I just couldn't get up...
I remember I stopped struggling for a moment and opened my eyes. I could see the light filtering down through the green, foamy water, through the delicious, life sustaining air I wanted so badly and I thought: This is it. Get up or die. I set up and rolled hard against the current and I WILLED my boat to be upright, and suddenly I was up, bracing against the wall, the roar of the creek in the air and not the water, and air never tasted so sweet but I was totally spent, exhausted, slumped over, gulping air like a fish out of water..
My neck and shoulders hurt, and my arms felt like lead. I had no strength left, but before could get oriented the creek swept me remorselessly over the first falls. I dropped blindly over the twelve-footer into the swirling punchbowl below, angling right and going deep into the foam at the bottom. I surfaced about ten feet downstream and caught the eddy against the left wall above the second ledge. And rested. And Breathed.
Eventually the rest of the fellas got done portaging the first part of the drop and came down, dropping into the punchbowl with me.
We ran the next two ledges and then relaxed for a moment in the pool below while I joked around about it like it was no big deal, which it was of course but nobody said so..
We were just getting started.
Downstream Josh ran a drop blind on verbal instructions, flipped, and hit his head on a rock so hard his upside-down boat stopped and hopped halfway down the chute, but he rolled up and shook it off.. He was ok but like me I think he was just grateful he wasn't hurt. Well, then the next day we did the Ohane and I think Gabe had one of those feelings because he opted out, deciding instead to go hiking with his wife.
Well, it was more carnage from the word 'go'. John flipped in a bouldery drop and got wedged upside down between two boulders and swam, and there was this river-wide log downstream to add to the excitement as everyone tried to keep him and his gear from going under the log.
At this point I started joking to Steve that he was the only one who hadn't wiped out yet, but he just laughed it off, though his turn was coming..
So everyone had just finished up portaging a drop with a log in it, and Steve and I were the only two left. There wasn't much room to get in our boats and the ledge was kind of sloped and slick, so as I was getting into my boat and Steve was getting into his, we were kind of using our boats to support each other on the ledge. I remember I said something like: "wouldn't it suck if we fell off this ledge before we got into.." and I never got to finish my sentence as our boats shifted, and we tumbled into the creek with a clatter of flying gear. Luckily I pretty much had my skirt on, and managed to hang onto my paddle with my free hand, but Steve wasn't as fortunate and fell out of his boat when he hit the water, and ended up swimming the next drop, where his boat immediately wedged between two boulders (of course!). It took us a half hour or so to free his boat, which was firmly pinned in deep water, but in the end it popped out with minimal damage.
There were a couple of other swims that weekend too, but those were the highlights. I guess every so often you have a trip like that, where everyone takes their licks. The beginning of each season is always good for carnage, I suppose, which means this story should probably be renamed: "Carnology, Volume I..."