By Jason Rackley

Last year I met Don Sessions, one of the visionary pioneers of Washington hairboating. John Whaley and I were scouting Lyle Gorge on the Klickitat and we ran into Don, who was camping after a long day of windsurfing the Columbia Gorge.

We headed back to John's place, and talked late into the night.

Don moved to Washington in the 1970's from the Southeast, where he had pioneered some serious class V creeks. He arrived in Washington looking for action, but he hit a brick wall.

"Nope, it's all been run." one boater told him. "The Skykomish is the run for you if you want something hard."

Don took one look at the Sky and headed into the mountains...

First Descent: Robe Canyon
First Descent: Upper Upper Cispus
and the list goes on and on...

Somewhere along the way Don met an energetic young kid named John Whaley and a partnership was born that would span many years. Don has settled down now and doesn't really kayak anymore. He has a wife and family, and his sport is windsurfing.


It was dark now, and late. Everyone was tired and getting ready to hit the sack.
"You know, Jason." Don observed, in his quiet southern drawl..
"You paddle class V long enough you'll have some near death experiences."
he paused. "and you might just have somebody die on the river too."

There was a terrible certainty in his words, and maybe a little sadness. I wonder if he was thinking that I might not be long for this earth. I wonder if he knew that his words would come true in a very short time.

I wonder if he knew that we would lose Chris only three months later; that I would come very close to losing my own life only a month after that...

Five months after that conversation took place, Steve, Gabe, John and I were running the Coal Creek Canyon section of the SF Coquille. I was boating strongly, running stuff others were portaging, and generally asking for trouble... I guess it was high time for a reality check, and it came in the form of a nasty rapid we have since come to know as 'Lost Paddle'.

We worked our way downstream and eventually the river narrowed dramatically and entered a nasty class V section that is often portaged. Here most of the water funnels down a fast, bouldery chute into a huge boulder sieve. The boulder in the middle of the river that the water was flowing into was relatively small (car sized) but it was dwarfed by two massive boulders on either side. Much of the water was going into a 12 inch wide crack between the boulders that was jammed with wood. In addition, there was no pillow where the water was hitting the boulders- it was all going under. Basically you had to cut right to avoid this mess at the bottom of the boulder slalom or you would get pushed up against the boulders. It was an 'easy move', or so I thought.

"Looks like a death trap from up here, huh?" Gabe said grinning when we caught the eddy in the pool above this drop. We scouted and Steve portaged while Gabe got ready to run it. Gabe did fine but wobbled a bit just above the sieve in the weird currents as he turned.

Now, Gabe has been paddling class V for over ten years and is a far better boater than I, so his bracing should have set off alarms in my head, but it didn't. It looked like such an 'easy move'.... John went and did ok as well. Steve and Gabe headed downstream to scout the next drop while I came down.

It was a deceptively difficult drop, and I missed a key paddle stroke. I misjudged the speed and power of the current, which was a lot stronger than it looked. I think a lot of this can be attributed to the fact that the boulders were so undercut that they weren't slowing the water down much, so there was a counter-intuitively powerful current (ie: there was no reaction pillow at all to slow the water). Anyway, before I knew what was happening I was pushed up against the boulders right at the crack. As I flipped I thought: I'm dead.

I tried repeatedly push off of the boulders but the current was too powerful and said a little prayer and pulled. I would have been gone for sure if I hadn't hung onto my boat- I was going under the boulders but I grabbed my cockpit and pulled myself to back to the surface. I could hear John yelling "Hang onto your boat!!!" as I gasped for air and was repeatedly pulled under as I began a fierce, brutal struggle for my life. The boat kept rolling over as I desperately tried to hang onto it but it kept shifting and moving around and I went under again.

I surfaced and pushed my kayak between me and the crack where it wedged solidly but it didn't matter- the current was going under the boulders with terrifying force and it pulled me under the surface completely... (my legs actually went totally under the boulders and there was nothing there.. )
Again my boat saved me as I used it to pull myself to the surface. Now it was wedged in the crack and I had something to hang onto, but I didn't think I had long before it was sucked under, taking me with it. My paddle was swirling around next to me and then suddenly, to my horror, it got sucked under the boulders and was gone, never to be seen again.

The wood saved me. There were several pieces of wood stuck in the top of the crack and I grabbed onto them and held on for dear life. I could hear everyone yelling and whistles blowing but they seemed far, far away now. Unless someone got to me quickly, I had seconds to live, and I knew it.

As is the case in paddling accidents the river grew impatient and decided to finish me off. As my boat filled with water it lost floatation and abruptly slipped down into the crack, pulling me down with it. Trying not to panic, I took my chances and climbed up onto my boat as it sank. I slowly eased myself out of the water, climbing up on the top of the boat onto the smaller boulder using the wood.

It was not my time...

After I got it together (it took a minute or two, I'll tell you what!) John threw me a line from upstream which I attached to my stern, which was sticking out of the water. I then attached my throwrope to my grabloop as well and while Steve and John pulled from upstream I pulled at an angle, and rocking it back and forth we popped it free.

Gabe makes 'the move' at the bottom of the rapid to avoid the sieve/undercut. The sieve/crack that I ended up in is highlighted. You can see the small pieces of wood that I held onto when me and my boat got stuck in the crack. If that wood hadn't been there, You might be calling this rapid 'Lost Paddler' ! One more thing: Steve later mentioned that one thing this photo doesn't show very well is how fast the water is going into those boulders...

The same rapid shot from upstream as John was running it. As you can probably see from here the river funnels you right down into the sieve. This is an easy portage, and since my near miss I have gotten several emails from good boaters who said they ALWAYS portage this drop.

This accident came only a month or so after we lost Chris on the Nisqually, and I must admit both of these events were a pretty big reality check for me in terms of where I want to go with my boating. I still paddle lots of class V, but I am a little more careful and less willing to take risks than I used to be. I am especially less willing to run trashy, highly consequential drops if an easy portage exists. To me, it has become less a matter of "can I make the move?" and more a matter of "do I really want to??"

Jason, January 29th, 2001.