My parents often joke about how I used to lead with my head as a child. My first 'header' happened at age three, when I fell onto the hearth in front of our fireplace, requiring several stitches. At age five, horsing around with the neighbor kids, I fell backwards off a guardrail, hitting my head on the concrete. That time, the doctor had to shave part of my head and did quite a few stitches. Another time, my mom took a corner too fast while I was riding in the back of our pickup, and I slid into a sharp corner of the bed, slicing my ear. Again, stitches needed. Yet another time, I took a serious blow to the head as I tried to cross behind my cousin on the swing set. Given my luck, the swing had a rectangular wooden seat, and I got clocked just above my right eye with its corner. The force was great enough to lift me off the ground, turn me in mid-air, and bloody my knees as I hit the ground. Again, stitches needed. Each time, I received good care despite my childish carelessness, and I'll never forget all the hugs and kisses and milk shakes to make it all better. But did I ever learn my lesson? The following account pretty much clarifies that I never did. And with all that dain bramage, how could anyone expect me to?
My medical records indicate that the Bilyeu Creek fiasco occurred sometime in early February of 1999. At the height of our quest for new creeks that winter, and the day after a fairly non-eventful, supposed first descent down Rock Creek (generally Class IV, fairly continuous), Dan Coyle and I decided to scout nearby Bilyeu Creek on the way home. The water was high and all the local creeks were cranked-up, so we decided to drive over the ridge and get a peek at the upper-section. Our topo maps showed a substantial gradient near the top, with decent road access along the south side of the creek. We were astounded upon some of the first views of the creek, which revealed a totally continuous stretch of whitewater, as far as the eye could see. The sad fact, was that our view was only afforded by way of a massive clearcut extending across both sides of the creek. We almost instantly decided that nobody in their right mind would attempt such a thing, which meant it would likely be another first descent. Of course, we vowed to return the following day.
Rain continued through the night, and most 'normal' runs were flooded. We were happy to have a plan for such a fine creek-boating day, and headed back to Bilyeu Creek the next morning. We planted Dan's car at the bottom and headed in my truck up the logging roads toward the put-in, finding some melting snow along the way. The creek was tearing down the hill over a seemingly endless trail of boulders, and from our vantage point, there were no eddies to be found. The creek was small, getting smaller as we headed up the canyon, and it was running clear, so we forged on. We chose a clearcut landing for our put-in, which involved a descent of several hundred feet to the creek, though slash and logjams. Once we made it to the water, Dan immediately began looking upstream, and I looked downstream. This was a revealing indication of our respective states of mind, both here, and throughout our boating relationship.
What we faced was a mind-boggling gradient of well over 400 feet per mile, and over 600 feet per mile for the first half-mile or so. Class V. The gradient did appear to taper off near the end of this three mile run, but not much, and getting there would surely be interesting. The creek showed obvious signs of being overgrown due to typically low water and a small streambed, and boating this portion of creek seemed to be dependent on the type of flood event we were having at the time. Even so, we were looking at maybe 150 cfs; mostly rock, and a little bit of water. It's hard to describe the chaos involved, but the creek was like a ramp choked with boulders, it had no real pools to speak of, and clean lines were hard to come by. Surprisingly, there was little wood to speak of in the creek bed itself. After a quick assessment and careful choice of entry points, we launched and began bashing our way down. It didn't take long before we realized that the only realistic way to stop was either to pin 'safely' in midstream, or flail toward the bank and impale one's self on a boulder. It would have been nice to have grappling hook! We progressed rather quickly, as one might imagine, and soon we had dropped several hundred feet in the first few turns from the put-in.
In the lead at this point, I had stopped momentarily using our patented Bilyeu-boulder-method, river-left above a 6-foot drop. The boat scout looked good, and I remember looking upstream at Dan, also temporarily impaled and waiting for a sign. I pointed to the line and shoved off, getting two good strokes as I entered the drop. In an instant, my bow was pushed up in the air as my stern began to rotate underneath me, and I shot off the ledge as my stern met the brunt of the current. My bow had hit a small rock to the left side of the chute, completely visible but seemingly inconsequential from the top. It was enough to slow my progress and push my stern down and into the current, so the force as I came off the drop was tremendous and everything happened in a flash. One moment I was looking at sky, and the next, as my boat began to corkscrew off the drop, I was upside down in mid-air. Given the character of this creek, what happened next seemed to be inevitable.
My boat was completely upside-down, still falling, and as I began to tuck toward the deck, I was splayed out on a rock just underneath the surface. There was really no way for me to tuck my face in time, and I instantly saw stars. Completely disoriented at this point, and beginning to feel unbelievable pain, I ditched my boat. As I came up, the aerated water around me turned from white to blood red. There was a lot of blood all at once and I knew something was terribly wrong. I was very glad to be conscious at that moment, and proceeded to push my boat to the opposite shore.
There, I tried to do a self-assessment by taking my helmet off, and feeling my head and face. I was bleeding too much to tell exactly what happened, but I knew it was my face, so I immediately dunked my head into the water for some back country first-aid. The cold water was a blessing in getting the bleeding to slow, and it seemed to help a bit with the horrible pain. So I crumpled up at the side of the creek, with my head in the water, for intervals as long as I could stand it. Soon, Dan made his way down to me and was frantic, asking me what had happened. I explained that I had broken my nose, and asked him to take a look for me. The expressions on his face were awful, and I knew it was bad. But again, I was glad to be conscious, and my mind was already wandering as I thought about how the hell we would get out of this place.
I was in no shape to move for at least a while, working on stopping the bleeding and using the cold water to help with swelling. The pain was almost unbearable when I had my head out of the water, so we stayed there, alternating between gauze and cold water. It was also a blessing to have Dan there, as I knew he was capable of most any feat in an emergency situation, regardless of how dangerous it might be. At some point, we discussed our options, as the day was beginning to wear on. One was to split up and have Dan boat out to his car and get Search and Rescue, which I discarded because it involved splitting up and the fact that it would be dark by the time anyone got back to the area. The second option of walking out was also discarded, given the amount of uphill groveling that would be involved, and the distance to the road. We estimated that we were at a point on the creek farthest from the road; it would be dark before we made it even to the road, let alone either of our vehicles. I was in particular need of the cold water to help me through the pain, so staying in the water seemed like the best place to be.
It wasn't too long before I was back in my boat, determined to get down the creek another mile and a half, where a paved road came right down to the creek. From there, it would be an easy walk to Dan's car at the bridge. From where we were, however, there was over a mile of Class IV-V torture before me. I don't remember much of that stretch, except that I couldn't see very well. The sun was now in our faces, and I had to stop repeatedly to wipe blood from my face and dunk my head for a while. I don't recall the whitewater, except that it was relentless, rocky, and really scary at the time. It was a blur, literally. We eventually made it to the road, and ran the shuttle right at dark.
It was a harrowing experience, simply driving home that night. The rain picked back up, very heavy, along with some very strong wind. Just staying on the road was a task. It was probably foolish not to stop sooner, but I headed to urgent care back in Eugene. Along the way, I managed to scare the hell out of a store clerk in Scio, by stopping in for some ice. She was nice and didn't charge me for the cup. When I got to urgent care, they also had horrible expressions on their faces. My nose was very much broken, in several spots, and displaced significantly to the right. I had several lacerations, and the swelling and discoloration was beginning to get pretty bad. All they could do was give me pain killers (which were too weak, of course), do some basic clean-up, and send me home for the night. The next day I met with a plastic surgeon, and I was again told that they could do nothing for at least a week, due to the swelling. She did give me some heavy painkillers though, to get me through. Once the swelling went down, I would need extensive rhinoplasty (i.e. a nose job). The surgery involved breaking my nose in four more locations in order to move it back in place, along with some grafting of cartilage to rebuild one side and balance things out. Thank God for anesthesia!
Not long after my surgery, I was given a facemask and a new helmet with full coverage. I am very thankful for that facemask, as well as good medical insurance. The facemask has saved my new nose more than once since deployment. I'd also note that I needed a second surgery to deal with restrictions to my breathing. If anyone is considering whether or not to get a facemask, I hope this story helps convince you to get one. The pain involved with a broken nose, the pain following surgery, and the time it takes to heal, all contribute to a generally miserable experience. If you compare the $8,500+ in medical costs to the $30-40 for a face-mask, the decision seems easy.
Anyway, now you know why I wear one. There's only so much one can do in Class V to protect the face and other extremities; in this case, there was no way to effectively cover my face given the speed and direction of the blow. Another moral to this story, if you didn't already pick up on it, is to bank scout if there's any doubt! I would have run this drop anyway, but probably having a slightly different line with a more thorough scout. This run also helped to convince me of the benefits of elbow pads, which I now wear religiously. If you are interested in trying your skills on Bilyeu Creek, good luck. I won't be heading back unless it is to take pictures to add to this story. Let me know if you do try it, and I'll arrange for some pictures and a quick call to 911. Bilyeu Creek is a tributary of Thomas Creek, located east of Scio, Oregon.
Copyright 2001 Gabe Flock