By Jason Rackley
How easily we forget that the river god has two faces, one bright and cheerful and the other dark and cruel. We forget that we can be swept away on a whim, like a ripple of light across the water.
Roaring River is a great run near Portland that I've decribed in the past as a 'mini-expedition right in our backyard'. I think lots of paddlers have wanted to run Roaring, but 'wanting to run Roaring' and 'actually running Roaring' are separated by a gulf most never cross. Some get put off by the remoteness. Many get lost. Some don't want to do the hike. Some just aren't up for it. But some, a few, manage to get on the river at good flows and have a great time.
Pete lives near Roaring River canyon, so he know the river like no other. Flows, access, current wood updates, Pete's a regular Roaring River encyclopedia.
So, we get on this one a few times a year. The shuttle is long and confusing, but Pete's got it dialed. So, this last spring a few drainages were getting hit by thunderstorms and Pete called me: "Roarings gonna go.."
It was kind of a last minute deal, an 'after work' run. Pete was already running early season rafting trips on the Clackamas with his company Blue Sky Rafting, so I met him around five p.m. after his last trip and we saddled up.
In order to save time, Pete had arranged to have his car dropped the the mouth of Roaring River, when it emerges from the canyon and joins the Clackamas, miles upstream of our meeting place. "Did you get a look at the outflow?" I asked him. "Yeah." he said. "Around noon today it looked solid. Holding steady, medium-ish."
My spidey sense started tingling a little at this point because he had five-hour-old visual beta. I knew that there had been some big thunderstorms moving through, and we had at least an hour before we would be on the river, at which point our last flow check would be six hours old.. Not ideal. But, we were pressed for time so we loaded up and started the long drive up into Roaring River canyon, the river far below us and out of sight.
Our troubles started before we even got to the river. About a mile from where the road ends and the 1.5 mile hike usually begins, we were stopped by a tree across the road. It was now nearly six p.m. and we had about three hours of daylight remaining, and we now had an extra mile to hike to reach the river.
We got out of the car and got our gear together. Moving fast on the hike down into the canyon, no stops, no breaks. I was soaked with sweat and my legs were burning by the time we finished the last mile of steep switchbacks down to the river.
When we emerged from the wall of trees and got our first look at the river, and I felt a chill go down my spine.
"Aww noo.." I muttered to myself.. "It's high.. Really @#$#ing HIGH.."
The river was big and brown. No rocks in sight. I'd never seen it like this. Of course, Roaring is a tricky beast because at the put in it is all class two as far as the eye can see, so it lures you in: "C'mon.. I'm easy.. come and get it.." you don't find out the truth until its too late to back out.
We reached a wordless consensus. We were NOT going to hike back out of the canyon. We were gonna go down swinging.
I grimly started putting on my gear, trying not to think about another day, a few years back. We put on at high water ( but not even close to this high ) and it was wall-to-wall carnage. Everyone swam but Garr.. Not a good day, unless your name was Nate.
Don't think about that. Center and Focus.. focus.. Pull Right elbow pad on. Adjust. All set. Pull Left elbow pad on.. Adjust. Center and Focus. Ok, All set. Helmet on. Tighten chin strap. It's cool. It's cool. No problem. You can do this.. I've run way harder #@#$ than this.. I think.
We started downstream, and when we arrived at Head Knocker we got out and stared in awe. It wasn't even runnable, because you couldn't get under the limbo logs.. Standing at the top of Head Knocker I felt a twist of vertigo, because we were at the top of the steep section. Below us were two miles of rapids, and the entrance rapid was way, way, way too high to run. What the hell would the rest of it look like?
Common sense made a rare appearance at this point, and we discussed how much it would suck to carry our boats back up to the trail and hike back up out of the canyon. Consensus: No way, that would suck. Finish in the dark? With our tails between our legs? No way. No way we hike out of Roaring. No way.
I've never portaged Head Knocker, but there's a first time for everything. Not recommended. Big logs down everywhere, falling, slipping, getting separated, finally getting around it, and not liking what we saw below it. The river was smoking downstream, BIG.
Life is divided into chapters, often separated by seconds.. There is Before and After.
I rapidly approaching my eleventh year of kayaking, and I was about to start another chapter.. This was thirty seconds before it happened, me sitting at the bottom of Head Knocker as the daylight slipped away, watching Pete peel out above me and go by in a flash, punching big holes and charging hard to the right, disappearing around the corner and then I was in the current getting pushed around and the river felt big, oh man, oh man, and then I rounded the corner in the middle of the flow with nothing but crashing waves and whitewater as far as the eye could see and I saw:
A new log, spanning the river.
Pete hit the log at full speed, it was like a car crash, big impact, body snapping back, going under. His hand, reaching up for air, then gone.
Nowhere to go. Charging right, don't know what's there, the log is river-wide, crashing into the right wall, against a boulder, the water surged up and I leapt out of my boat, my mind refusing to process the last five seconds. Onto the boulder, my boat like a feather in my hand, where's Pete, no sign of Pete, he's not under the log, he's gone.. Flip my boat around, into it, balanced against the wall, all reflexes now, not thinking, seal launch and charge downstream, into a hole, pull through, another hole, slowing me down, paddle churning, head down.. GO GO GOGOGOGOGOGOGOOOO!!! where is he where is he's gone..
A quarter mile before can find an eddy, I hit the eddy and I saw something in the water, leaped out of my boat into the water, grabbing it, pulling it out of the water.. Pete's shoe, still laced.
My mind started processing again. Run the numbers. Don't panic. Panic kills. Ok. If he's still in the river he's dead no way he survived all of the stuff I just came through but if he made it out of the water he's probably working his way downstream and he'll probably need his goddamned shoe because it's about to cliff out downstream and he's going to have to do some serious climbing.. And then, ten seconds of pure darkness and despair came crashing in on me. Struggling against it, then back in control. No time for that now. #$@ing freak out later. Stay focused now. THINK.
I waited. One minute. five minutes. Finally, after about ten minutes, I saw movement upstream and relief flooded through me. Pete limps up, shaking his head and looking sheepish. "That's a new log!" he pointed out unnecessarily, sounding a little offended. "Got your shoe." I said, holding it out to him. "Well, at least I have one now." He said glumly, looking down at his bare feet.
The plan: Stay within sight of each other if possible. I would move downstream and try to provide support to Pete if possible. His boat and paddle were long gone, so he had no head lamp. I dug out my head lamp and gave it to him. Ok, lets get moving.
I started paddling downstream as the walls started to close in. I was now less concerned about the river, more concerned about getting out before dark.
I caught a glimpse of blue downstream. Pete's boat, vertically pinned on some logs in the current.
I got out and worked my way downstream along the cliff wall, out onto a rocky bench above his boat. No way to get it, too much water, and just below his boat another new log, an old-growth cedar blocking 95% of the flow, only a four-foot wide slot making it through on river-left eight feet below me. The rest of the river was surging into and under and throught the tree and the root wad.
I heard a faint sound, far above me. Pete, way up, hanging off the cliff wall, waving his arm, wanting to know about his boat. Me thinking: Jesus man, hang on with both hands! Waving him off.. no way, no way, not at this flow, gotta come back later. Focus on climbing, forget the boat.
I had problems of my own. No way around the cedar, because I was cliffed out and the bench I was on ended just upstream of the rootwad. It was maybe an eight foot seal launch, but I was just upstream of the rootwad but it looked reasonable for me to hit the slot if I dropped in just right.
Went back and got my boat, balanced on the bench and tried not to if-else-if the situation too much. Just go. I pushed off and.. there were some bushes growing out of the rock below me that concealed a finger of rock sticking out about five feet down, my bow hit the rock, kicked my boat out into the current. I hit the water completely parallel to the log and I went sideways into the rootwad, just like that.
I threw my paddle over the rootwad so it wouldn't go under and hurled myself downstream into the roots, grabbing on and pulling with all my strength, lifting myself up and over, barrel-rolling and dropping headfirst into the hole on the other side of the log, rolling up, no paddle, hand surfing in the hole, you-gotta-be-#$@ing-kidding-me as I look over my shoulder downstream and see big boulders and water flying everywhere, then my paddle shoots out of the hole like a rocket and takes off downstream and again you-gotta-be-#$@ing-kidding-me!!!! as I peel out and start hand-paddling downstream, into the big boulder garden below, dropping into the meat, make a desperate grab for my paddle, flipping as I grab the blade, lose it, miss a hand roll, then I get kicked in the head really hard, seeing flashes of light, pulling, and swimming for my life.
I made it to the bank and pull myself out of the water. Pop my neck and check my helmet for the newest gouge. A good one. Check everything else, everything works. Ok, get moving.
I start working my way downstream and it is hard going, very rugged terrain. I'm trying to stay down at river level in case my boat or paddle appears.
About a hundred yards downstream I see my $400 AT X paddle swirling around in an eddy on the other side of the river ( the river-left side ), the side Pete is on. Of course. As I watch with nearly unbearable frustration it goes around, around, and around in the eddy. Slow and easy. So easy to grab IF YOU WERE ON THAT SIDE OF THE RIVER. You-gotta-be.. I wait, hoping Pete will show up, but after about a minute the eddy kicks my paddle out and it heads downstream, slowly at first but then gaining speed, dropping out of sight in the churning brown water.
I continued downstream, and about a hundred yards downstream I say my paddle sticking out of some logs on the other side of the river, with the blade just barely touching the surface of the water. It looked like it was stuck pretty solid, so I continued downstream.
The walls started to close in on river right and I had to go up high, into the woods, darkness falling, slipping, stumbling, so tired. Just kept putting one foot in front of the other, that's the only way to get there. No rest for the foolish.
Towards the end there were several heartbreakers, deep crevices in the rock walls cut by small tributaries that required downclimbing, then upclimbing, moving fifty feet downstream but oh-so-slowly. Trying not to fall. No one will be coming for you tonight if you hurt yourself.
Finally I got near where I thought the trail must be, the trail that extends a few hundred yards from the primitive campground on river-right near the highway. Dark now, maybe a trickle of moonlight to guide me. I plunged down into the thick brush, slipping, stumbling, half sliding down the hill, then I saw.. a faint yellow light in the distance.
I popped out of the brush, and I saw: A guy sitting on the little trail on a four-wheeler in the dark, facing away from me. The four-wheeler idling. He seemed to be relaxing. "Hey." I said, and you'd have thought I hit him with a cattle prod. He jumped and gave a kind of a yelp. "Where'd you come from?!?" he said, looking at me like I was a ghost. I occurred to me later that there was literally nothing behind me but hundreds of miles of forest, so his reaction was justified..
A quick explanation, and he offered me a ride. No encouragement needed, I hopped on and rode the last couple hundred yards up to the road. No sign of Pete, or Pete's car at the take out. Ok, that's not good. The guy gave me some food and water, which I wolfed down and settled down to wait for Pete.
After about a half hour, I started wondering what had happened. Pete's car wasn't there. So, had he arrived first and driven out to get help? Maybe to get cell reception to arrange a trip the next day? Confused. I asked the guy and he said he had been there all day and hadn't seen a a car. Ok, not sure what was going on. Just have to wait.
Finally after about forty five minutes Pete ghosted out of the darkness, to my great relief. "Man am I glad to see you." I said. "Where's your car?". Turns out he had left it about a mile downstream on the Clackamas, figuring we could just paddle down to it at the end of the day..
Damn. More walking.
As we walked back to the car, Pete said: "I saw the stick gauge on my hike out. Or, I should say, I saw where I thought the gauge should be.. It was completely covered.. So, I'm not sure exactly how high the river was." Nice. So, definitely not Medium-ish..
That's for sure.
It ended up taking three days to paddle three miles, give or take.
Turns out Pete took so long to hike out because he actually found my boat in some logs and pulled it out of the river. So, we were only down one paddle unaccounted for.
The next day I went back in with my girlfriend, hiking up on the river-left side on the trail. The river was now just high, within a reasonable runnable range but healthy. After the old growth stand the trail petered out and we had to do some cliff traversing, and after much climbing we got to the area I had last seen my paddle. I started looking around and after much searching finally found my paddle, which was a good two feet out of the water. After digesting the fact that the river had been two feet higher the day before and wondering what we hell we were thinking putting on at such an insane level, I got my paddle and hiked out. Didn't have time to get the boat.
The following weekend I went back in for the boat rescue, this time alone, with a paddle. After about an hour of hiking and cliff traversing I got to my boat. Suited up, ferried across the river to the river-right side, and dumped my boat. Hiked up on the river-right side until I got to Pete's boat, which was still vertically pinned on the two logs. The only way across the river to the bench where I had done my disasterous seal launch was by walking across the giant cedar, so I climbed across to the root wad, which was now only slightly under water.
Had a bit of a problem there, but ended up just jumping from the rootwad across the slot and then spidered up onto the bench. Now I was in good shape to rescue Pete's boat. Waded out onto the logs and got a line on his bow loop. A little nervous about falling in and having round two with the rootwad downstream but it went well, and I got the line on. Used the boat for tension to balance as I worked my way back to the bank.
Once I was set on the shore I pulled hard and of course the boat popped out and went under the log, dragging my rope with it. That ended up working well though because it the log acted as a pulley, allowing me to corral the boat as it filled with water. Got the boat out and the rope, then headed upstream. At this merely healthy flow there was a way to ferry across to an eddy above the logs to the river-right ( there was no possiblilty of that at the super-high flows we had ), which allowed me to portage the cedar. I then paddled Pete's boat down to my boat, left his boat where mine was ( just past the cliff band on river-left, accessible at river level ) and then I paddled my boat out.
Pete went in the following weekend and got his boat. He hiked the river twice, top to bottom, at very low summer flows but never found any trace of his paddle.