Saturday, February 28th, 1999
I think that everyone who paddles long enough is eventually going to have one of THOSE stories. I'm not talking about beautiful floats down obscure canyons with descriptions of unending waterfalls and water so clear that you can count every stone on the river bottom. No, I'm talking about the kind of stories that make experienced boaters sweat. The kind of stories that you are fascinated to hear about while you pray it never happens to you. Stories of man eating holes and big, mean water that you know will tear you a new one if you let it...
I'm not sure what the water level was that day. It had been raining
month and the Sandy was swollen and brown. Pete Giordano and I were
fun and decided to R-2 a raft down the Bull Run.
The first warning sign came early in the day. As drove up to the put in we saw a kayaker walking on the side of the road far from the river and we knew something was up. We stopped and discovered that the stranded boater was part of an ill-fated kayaking group that had attempted the Bull Run earlier in the day. He spoke of big hydraulics and how one of his group had gotten pummeled in the first rapid (there are only six rapids on the run) and lost his boat while swimming to shore. This guy had attempted to hike downstream to find the boat, but eventually gave up and headed out of the canyon for the main road.
We gave him a ride down to the put in, where the rest of his group was waiting. Once there, I had a conversation with the kayaker who lost his boat and tried not to notice the small amount of blood on his head and knee. We then gave the group our best rendition of "bad ass rafters" and headed down to the put in. Once on the bank, we again were confronted with a sight that should have made us change our minds. The river, many feet above normal, was booming through the canyon. The beautiful, technical drop above the put in was an explosion of whitewater, with no rocks to be seen except the normally huge, dry boulder on the left bank, which was now acting as a fan rock for the river. The area on the bank we normally used for setting up the raft was nowhere to be seen.
What happened next remains one of the most profound moments in my boating career. As soon as we put in we got tossed around like a cork as we quickly realized that we were too light for the power of the water. Because of this, we had to use all of our paddle strokes to keep the correct angle in the rapids and none on forward momentum. I knew immediately that we had walked into a dog fight and getting to the bottom of this canyon was no longer completely in our control.
Bull Run at normal flows is a beautiful, intimate canyon, with technical class 3 rapids. In previous trips down the canyon, I never imagined that the big boulders that dot the run (given enough water) could create the fierce hydraulics that existed that day. But there we were, in the middle of wall to wall whitewater. Did we make it past the second rapid, or was that the bottom half of the first drop? The last thing I remember is Pete saying is "Oh shit, hold on!" and then the bottom dropped out from beneath us. Somehow the huge hole we entered let us go, but in doing so, it surfed us up against the right wall into an eddy that was surging about two feet at a time, just above a strainer.
We only had about enough time to realize we were screwed before the boat flipped against the wall, tossing both Pete and myself into the path of the downed tree. When I hit the water and went under and time felt like it stood still...
I knew the tree was downstream and I the only thing I could think of was how I might be able to stay under and swim beneath the strainer. I popped up looking upstream to make sure I cleared the nasty tree. What! Where was the tree? Then it hit me and I twisted to face downstream (slowly, like in those horror movies when you know something bad is behind you) and found myself being swept into the strainer! Everything happened so fast as I hit the tree... I remember being angry, clinging onto every branch I could, refusing to get sucked under. Eventually the force of the river shoved me under the strainer and (luckily) I emerged on the other side bruised, scratched, but alive.
Pete, with the grace of the river, had been swept past the tree and was swimming for the only eddy above the next rapid. It didn't take much motivation for me to catch that eddy with Pete and I couldn't help but laugh at the sight of our raft running the river without us, while we were left standing on the bank- bloody, bruised and pissed off. We had been on the water for about fifteen minutes!
Pete eventually retrieved the raft. I think he found it the next morning in a bunch of weeds on the lower Sandy. As for me, I am still getting out on the water as much as I can, but I will never forget that day on the Bull Run. The lesson I learned is a simple one, but for me, had to learned first hand. Never, never lose respect for a river just because you have been down it a couple of times and never underestimate the power of a river at high water.
The same weekend this story took place a local kayaker was swept into a strainer on the Bull Run and lost his life. When I think about our experience, I realize that very well could have been one of us. Running rivers at high water is a very risky undertaking, and the consequences of a mistake (or a swim) are greatly magnified. This is clearly demonstrated by the many excellent paddlers who have died doing high water runs on rivers they were familiar with. In these situations always paddle as part of a strong group, and be sure you pack all the appropriate safety equipment!
Marc, November 28th 2000.
(Editors note: The Sandy was running at 18,000 cfs on the day of this story, which translated into 6,300 cfs in the Bull Run. This is almost ten times the recommended flow for this section.)