By Jesse Coombs
On the previous day we had run the Clear Fork of the Cowlitz, which had also gone very well for everyone, only one swim and a few rolls, but nothing too serious. I must admit I was happy to see less wood on the Clear Fork, as the last time I had run it there it had been loaded with wood and Dan Coyle and I had been forced to run some big drops that had logs in some bad spots; not too fun.
Anyway, back to the Ohane. The river was running at a good medium flow, which was nice after relatively low flows on the Clear Fork the day before. I was pretty excited about being on the river with my friends and looked forward to a great day of paddling. The run was going well with a couple of challenges along the way. Jon Fowlkes broke his boat on a drop very early in the run in a surprisingly tricky drop that careens between the walls in a left-right-left move. Three of us flipped in this drop, and Ben broke his paddle there. Ben had a breakdown, but I enjoy going C-1 so I used Benís ĺ length paddle for the next few pitches until we reached a place where Jon could hike his boat out. We got to the first big drop that is often portaged, and Leo and I both ran it without problems.
After an hour or so of paddling we reached one of the last major rapids, known as 'Elbow Room'. This drop is usually portaged, but I decided to give it a look anyway.
Elbow Room is one of the few gorged-out sections on the Ohane, where a paddler has no options for safety or portaging at river level due to sixty-foot vertical walls on either side of the river. Historically, paddlers have taken out upstream of this drop and hiked up and around the gorge, or you can do a nerve-wracking tightrope traverse along the cliff immediately above Elbow Room.
Once I got a look at Elbow Room from above, I saw why people usually portage it. A large slab of rock has fallen from the wall overhead, landing flat on what was once a fairly straightforward class four boulder garden. The flat slab of rock and the boulders underneath form a dangerous sieve that much of the water flows under; not a good place to be.
Ben and Leo know the Ohane well and gave me beta on the drop and the flow. They decided to portage, but they thought it would go. I wasn't so sure I was going to walk it. I had heard of people running this drop down the left side, but that channel was now blocked with wood. The right side has also been run, but much less often because of the undercut and the large, powerful hole next to the sieve.
Now, I have three criteria in running a rapid:
1) I need to see the line.
2) I need to like the line.
3) I need to be okay with the consequences of missing the line.
Elbow room passed all three criteria. I could clearly see a line on the right side; it was tough, but I had certainly made harder moves. The main concern was the hole on the right, next to the boulder sieve. It looked pretty bad, and I knew that if I got stopped I would be on my own. That said, I was feeling very strong and knew I could hit the line, which was on the far right side, through the weakest side of the hole.
The key to making the final move was driving left to right. As I scouted I saw that in order to reach the necessary speed I needed to run the first five foot drop, move to the middle of the river, run the next two drops down the middle, then be far right at the bottom.
I got into my boat, and peeled out into the current, working my way right through the class four lead-in to the crux move around the flat rock. I hit a large hydraulic just above the main drop, which slowed me unexpectedly, then a surge of water pushed me to the left. The next two drops passed very quickly and now I was fast approaching the bottom hole without the momentum I needed.
As I approached the hole on the left I put in a draw/sideslip stroke on my right, which moved me just enough to the right to miss the worst of the hole, but I stalled out on the pile and I fell back into the worst part of the hydraulic.
I started getting pounded. Ben was shooting video and after I watched it later; it is amazing how things happened so much more quickly in the hole than on the video. I threw a couple of cartwheels, but it didn't seem to be getting any air because hole was so deep and violent. I was able to get one roll and one extended brace, but the narrow, powerful shape of the hole conspired to keep me upside down.
I knew I wasn't coming out of the hole in my boat, and I knew if I continued to fight I wouldn't have any air or energy left when I swam, so I made the call: With a clear head and plenty of strength left I pulled.
I wasnít sure what would happen when I came out of my boat. I fully expected that I was going to flush under the boulder from river right to river left and surface on the left side of the river below the wood, but I thought there was also the potential that I might just go deep and flush downstream.
But that's not what happened.
It was very loud, and confusing, I was tumbling in the white chaos and something hit me but without force, then something hit me again with a glancing blow and I realized it was my boat, and then I realized that I was still in the hole.. I was still in The Hole...
I flailed around for my boat, then I was able to grab it, my one best chance. It was hard to hang onto, as we were both getting recirculated in the hole, heavily aerated water, flashes of light and then dark, and always the thunder of the strong, cold arms of the river, reaching from the deep, pulling me down. I was now running low on air, and I knew that the hole wasn't going to let me go, and suddenly I knew I only had one chance to make it and everything was clear:
I had to Get One More Breath before I passed out.
Then Go Deep and swim like hell..
I grabbed my boat and started trying to climb on top of it so I could get a breath, but it was extremely difficult. Now all those years of hockey came into play as I seized the cockpit and with a powerful lunge I launched up towards the light, shoving my boat under me as I rose up in the hole and for one wonderful moment my face broke the surface and I took a huge, delicious breath of air, oh so good in my burning lungs, and then I was in the water again, tumbling and twisting, going nowhere.
I still had hold of my boat, and but now it was time to go the other way. I seized the cockpit again and shoved the boat up over my head, pushing the boat towards the surface and myself down... as deep as I could into the green water coming down into the hole.. .. deep, not resisting any more.. letting the river take me..
Suddenly the lights went out, things got a little calmer and I felt myself slide under the boulder. I pulled myself along the bottom of the rock, trying to stay with the current and not get snagged. I slid another couple of feet, then the water surged and I stopped again, pressed against the underside of the slab rock, held there by the floatation of my PFD and the swirling currents.
It was very dark and disorienting; I had no idea where I was and the thunder of the river overhead only added to the confusion. I twisted, kicked, pushed and pulled myself along the underside of the boulder, hopefully downstream, I'd had enough of that hole, thank you very much. I had to pull through calm spots twice and I bumped along the bottom a couple of times as well, and each time I pulled my feet up to avoid entrapment.
I remember being a little confused that the boulder seemed to be a lot longer than I remembered, but what I didn't realize was that I was actually swimming under it lengthwise, not across the narrowest part, and after a few more pulls I was spinning away, deep in the green water, headed downstream. I could see the light filtering down from above, and with a burst of energy I swam for the surface, popping up 20-30 feet downstream of the boulder.
Later Ben said I spent a long time under water, but honestly it seemed to pass relatively quickly. I swam down into the deep pool below Elbow Room just breathing and looking up at the sky.. beautiful, cold dry air in my lungs and the sun on my face...
A friend later said that after a swim like that he would have walked off the river. I told him that I chose to run the drop with a clear conscience and happy disposition, and that I love my life and activities. A swim of that nature certainly has significant implications and delivered a big piece of humble pie, but it didnít change who I am..
The author, gettin' worked...