By Michael Long
Sanity | Insanity...
Safe | Deadly...
Beer (So good to the palate | So bad for the waistline)...
Class Three move | Class Six consequences...
This is a story of what happened when I fell on wrong side of the razor's edge..
Rock Creek is small stream that drains into Stevenson, Washington from the hills above. For several years I'd visited the two huge waterfalls near the cemetery in town and wondered what epic adventure lay upstream. The opportunity to find out finally came on December 6th, 2003.
Jon Fowlkes, Jesse Coombs, James Bagley and I met at Lewis and Clark State Park. We all knew it had rained hard, but with the sun shining we were all hoping for a great day of creeking. After taking turns at trying to clog the toilet at the mini-mart, (and getting strange looks from the cashier) we headed upstream.
Crossing the bridge in town we could see the stream was in the trees, but still fairly clear. Good sign: Lots of water, but not flooded out. Parking at the takeout we could see the stream was full, and the anticipation for a fun day was growing. Jon was smiling, James was jumping, Jesse was wondering why he didn't bring his Forplay... Nothing out of the usual, that is except for me. Earlier in the week I was in a car accident that had me on edge. Not antsy or gripped, but not on my game. I knew I would be ok in the rapids and I had a solid skills, but I wasn't on top of my game for the big drops. OK, that's cool, I'll portage. Music blaring, stories were told, and testosterone flowed thick as we scouted our way up the gravel road to the put-in.
Things were going well for all of us. I portaged and filmed Heaven and Hell while the others styled both drops. Pushy rolling class IV rapids were setting the tone for the day and carving smiles on all our faces. Jon had made a point of telling us that the rapid above the 20-foot drop known as Three Swim Falls was easy, but the run out was bad as it went over Three Swim, a V+ drop that is almost always portaged. He also mentioned that immediately downstream of the falls was another class V rapid.
Jon made it clear that we had to punch the hole and catch the small eddies on the left or right above Three Swim, but the portage was on the left. On this day the eddies were small and flushing above the Falls. Everyone eddied out on river right while Jesse made the move to the eddy on river left and had some trouble getting out of his boat. Eventually he signaled he was ready to catch our boats. Jon went first and made the eddy above the smoking horizon line marking Three Swim Falls.
I worked upstream and made the ferry. I realized that I had gone too far to river left to get over a rise of rock that was in front of the intended eddy. I made for a small eddy just upstream that looked like it had a nice hand hold. Rounding out in the eddy I placed my hand on the rock. Trying my best to dig my nails into the moss covered rock I knew things were moving to a bad outcome fast. Not able to hold my position in the moving eddy, I tried to paddle against the current and make Jesse's eddy. My stern bumped the rock and pushed me away from the eddy and into the current. Trying to steer my boat to Jesse's voice was pointless, the creek now was in control.
As I swung my bow around to run the falls head on I heard Jesse yell, "HOLD TIGHT!!"
Then I saw the kind of sight that makes your stomach sink and your butt more water tight than a frog's. I was falling blind over a 20-foot falls into a canyon that was long, deep, turbulent, and with a backed-up fold. OH $#&^! Take a deep breath and hold on... Keeping my eyes open I could see the world disappear as I melted into the seam. Much later, upon deep reflection it was a rather beautiful sight watching the steam rise above my horizon as the beast I was about to wrestle alone closed its arms around me.
It started with a good old-fashioned hydraulic beating. After several underwater cartwheels and loops I found myself in what felt like a point of neutral buoyancy, upright and rising. Amazed that I might have gotten out of the worst of it I got ready to start paddling. I steadied my paddle, tilted my head back, and craned my neck to reach the surface. This was only the beast winding up for round two. Whatever energy was wasted in the moment I was stable, it was making up for it now. Again cartwheels underwater. Too bad I was underwater 'cause nobody could count the points.
My paddle was ripped from my hands and after a couple hard hits to the head my mouth filled with water. My nose hadn't gotten filled yet as I was humming trying in vain to keep water out, but not waste any precious air. Knowing I didn't want to try to hand paddle the run out I figured it would be best if I parted ways with my boat. I also had a feeling that the way out of the fight was deep. Up until now I was seeing alternating light and dark flashes, and I didn't think I was going downstream. After the eject handle was pulled the boat was ripped off my legs. Enraged by my resistance the beast started a new tactic, the rock beatings.
Every part of my body soon found a hard surface to hit. Shoulders, knees, back, head(facemasks rule), feet, arms(elbow pads too)... Not having any control of the situation I regrouped my thoughts and told myself to think about the situation. Still thinking the way out was deep I was determined to find the dark water. Coaxing my rag doll limbs to stay in a fetal position took strong determination, but once I locked my arms around my legs I felt the bottom of the canyon. I was willing to do everything short of exhaling or taking off my helmet to get lower. Somewhere in there I found time to reach up and burp the neck gasket on my drysuit. It worked.
After a couple more good hits I felt that I was moving fast downstream. I grabbed at any rock I hit and pulled myself downstream. Feeling that I had fallen into the moving eddy below the falls and so wanting to take a breath I tried to swim for the surface. Seeing a flash of blue I tried to inhale through my still clear nose. I found that I was not on the surface, but being pulled deep with a fully water clogged head. Knowing I had a set of lungs growing full of CO2 I would have ample opportunity to exhale once. I had to make it count. Hunkering down for the long haul, I resisted the temptations to breathe until I was in a stable place.
Swimming the Class V immediately below Three Swim Falls was at best very painful. Any body part that wasn't beat at the base of the falls now got a second chance to get bruised. Boulder dodging and swim-scouting rapids were a nicety I didn't have. I felt like I had just run under the legs of a dragon and it was now beating me with its tail. I didn't stop fighting or holding my breath until the rapids were run out. Bear hugging a rock around the corner I breathed out as hard as I could to get the water out. And finally I could breath in. I crawled on shore and through my coughs thanked the God for letting me still be here. Sore, tired and out of energy I gave a limp tap on the head to my buds for OK and wondered about my gear.
My boat was stuck in an eddy. Paddle was lost. Eventually the boat freed itself and drifted downstream. James and Jesse jumped in their boats and ran after it while Jon helped me swim\hike downstream. Not quite through with me, the river took one more cheap shot. Drifting downstream feet first trying to get through a rapid a stick went in between my legs and nailed me where it hurts. Half laughing\half cringing I pushed the stick aside and groaned as I floated around the next rock.
Its OK though, the stick loosened the stitching enough in my drysuit that water could now slowly leak in the crotch, so the cool water was keeping the equipment from swelling. When I finally caught up to my boat I gave big hugs all around, and exaltation for life. My boat had gotten a pretty good thrashing as well, lots of new scratches. The waterfall had ripped the paddle from my hands, my breakdown from underneath my float bags and had torn a hole in my pin kit stealing all the hardware. I didn't care much about the gear. I would have offered much more to the river gods to get out of that situation.
After getting out another breakdown and paddling to the takeout we headed to Stevenson. Beer from the bootie was consumed, along with a great burger and Mmmmmmm water. Good Times.
Not really sure what this was to mean for my paddling career I decided on the long drive back to Corvallis to take some time off. I went skiing instead of partaking in the fun of the December 13, 2003 floods. I got my head back on straight and am eager to get back on the water. We all have bad days, bad lines, and some of us bad swims. I believe it is how you play the cards that you are dealt that matter.
I choose to ante up and play the next round.