"It is difficult to find in life any event which so effectually
condenses intense nervous sensation into the shortest possible space of
time as does the work of shooting, or running an immense rapid. There
is no toil, no heart breaking labour about it, but as much coolness,
dexterity, and skill as man can throw into the work of hand, eye, and
head; knowledge of when to strike and how to do it; knowledge of water
and rock, and of the one hundred combinations which rock and water can
assume -- for these two things, rock and water, taken in the abstract,
fail as completely to convey any idea of their fierce embracings in the
throes of a rapid as the fire burning quietly in a drawing-room
fireplace fails to convey the idea of a house wrapped and sheeted in flames."
Sir William Francis Butler ( 1872 )
Sir William Francis Butler ( 1872 )
At high water Silache starts to assume the classic characteristics of class five whitewater, and has been the scene of many long, dangerous swims. The large boulders that are scattered throughout the rapid at regular flows form huge, powerful holes at high water, and swimmers almost always lose gear, pride, and sometimes the desire to kayak entirely after emerging from the raging clutches of a supercharged Silache...
Were we in a drought? Technically I don't think we were, but it was December 14th and the classic winter rains of the Northwest had only just started. It seemed like ages since any of the local boaters had experienced anything at high water. Yet here we were on the banks of the Siletz River staring at a muddy torrent. There were ten of us that day, only three of which had run the Siletz before; I had possibly run it the most, but the last time had been about four years ago. The river had been climbing from 3000 cfs when we had left Eugene at nine a.m. It was noon and I was to find out that the river was at 5500 cfs and would climb to 6200 cfs (about 9.5 feet) by the time we started the drive back home.
Regardless of the actual flow, we were staring at a flooding river; even the whitecaps were tinged brown, and yet we were all quite happily going about the tasks of readying for play on the five miles above Silache, known as the Elk Creek section. The locals driving by thought we were either stupid or insane, and I probably would agree with them that there is at least a little insanity in choosing to do what we were about to do.
The five miles below the put-in were a joy. A multitude of enormous waves and perfect surfing holes. It was not quite the consistent paradise that is Lake Creek, but it was just as good in a different way. One person swam out of a powerful hole after everyone followed the leader (like brightly-colored lemmings!) into the maw, but other than that we had a great time. Soon we came to a road bridge and the leading boaters started to scramble for shore. I was pleased to see the respect that was being given to Silache, but this was one bridge too soon.
I let those heading for shore know we still had another couple of miles of playful class II-III before we needed to scout. To be honest, I was a little worried about Silache. I hadn't run it at this flow, but I had run it several times at lower levels and once at a significantly higher level. It would be a mile of huge waves and holes; any group could easily run into troubles there, and I was not overly confident that our large group (we were all in playboats) would not have our own. Heck, I was plenty worried that I might have more than my share of my own problems in those first hundred yards. A portage of the first part was not out of the question.
Our plan was to stop and bank-scout the crux of Silache, a long, powerful lead-in to the 'keyhole' boulders on river-left. After that, I expected we'd possibly set some safety lines near the most problematic holes, and probably have some folks walking a short distance of the rapid. Once we saw the telltale road bridge above Silache, I thought I let the people close to me know that it might be wise to take out here and walk a bit further to scout, but that I thought there'd be an eddy on the left just above the main drop. That was where I was headed.
As soon as I committed, I realized that the entry to Silache was big and pushy and seemed to be class four in it's own right. As I rounded the corner the river surged forward and I accelerated downstream at an alarming rate.. Fortunately I saw the eddy I was expecting still existed and powered through the breaking waves and over the large eddyline into a calm, safe haven. "That move was a little harder than I thought it was going to be.." I thought, relieved the most of the group opted to take out upstream.
Josh Knapp was right behind me, and easily made the move into the eddy. Then we saw Seth coming down somewhat out of control, riding the eddyline right into the first drop of Silache. Somewhat appalled, I watched Seth appear and disappear through the huge holes, being thrown this way and that, cartwheeling uncontrollably in the violent cross-currents and finally disappearing around the corner, swallowed up by Silache.
I was quite alarmed at this point, but I wasn't sure if we should follow immediately to see how things turned out, or wait and make sure no one else was coming down..
Just then Gail came ripping around the corner and flipped just upstream of the top of the eddy. She immediately rolled up, but she had already nearly been blown past the eddy and her EZ was not known for it's attaining prowess. Realizing this, Gail purposefully swung around and dropped out of sight. Before we could react, Shane came charging down and decided to give chase to Gail, who was upside down again.
Josh and I exchanged glances and then peeled out into the flow. As we entered Silache we saw Shane nearing Gail, who was now swimming. I had only heard about people swimming the length of Silache at high water; stories told over campfires and on the way to rivers.. now it was Gail's turn and I was filled with dread. I have to say that blindly running huge water is not my idea of fun, but there really wasn't a choice anymore!
The next mile is a bit of a blur as all I really remember is Shane, Josh, and myself giving chase to a bobbing red helmet while fighting hard to negotiate the huge waves and holes. Around the crux of the first hundred yards I remember shouting "GO! GO! GO!" as my faster boat was swooping in on Joshs' Sub-Seven. Then I just remember sliding past while hitting the shoulder of a huge hole, launching off the tops of exploding waves, punching hole after hole, avoiding a few, and nearly getting stopped in several.
About a half mile from the top I caught up with Gail and Shane. Gail was still hanging onto both paddle and boat. I was able to offer Gail a tow out of the heavy water, and Shane took charge of the wayward boat. Fortunately it wasn't long before Gail was on shore with Josh and a few latecomers' help. I took off again and soon found Shane and Larry had barely stopped the boat against the opposite shore. I jumped out of my boat to grab the precariously held EZ.
While I was on shore pulling the EZ out of the water, Phillips' kayak came floating by and I yelled: "BOAT! BOAT!" This sent Shane and Larry off on another merry chase. Meanwhile, I emptied the EZ and carried it upstream to a better position for ferrying it across the river. Just then, Josh and some others showed up and Josh performed tugboat function to reunite the EZ with Gail. Philips' boat was stopped just a bit further downstream, but Philips' paddle was gone.
Unbeknownst to us, Griff had gotten stopped by the biggest hole in Silache upstream and was getting the (involuntary) ride of a lifetime. The pile was so enormous he couldn't see over it, just a towering, surging brown wall of water to the front and an even bigger wall of white behind.. He was caught between the two, and with his tiny playboat he was about to be put to the ultimate test. After a short, violent, and mostly airborne side-skip-surf, he started tumbling uncontrollably and quickly lost all sense of direction.
He finally managed to get his boat sort of under control, and when he
opened his eyes he hadn't budged an inch. Almost as soon as he came to
rather disturbing conclusion the hole surged and he started
side-skip-surfing and then violently tumbling again. Now seriously
concerned about swimming, Griff just decided to hang on and try to ride
Suddenly, miraculously, he was shoved deep and popped up on the surging pile, where he quickly rolled up and began back-paddling for all he was worth. He made it to an eddy on the river right, and spent the next minute or two waiting for his adrenaline-pumped body to stop shaking...
As soon as Griff joined us, Philip started to hike the remaining two miles to the take-out while the remainder of our crew let some of the adrenaline out of our systems on a couple remaining playspots.
Silache had become an epic misadventure for us. Two swimmers (one for about a half mile, the other for about an eighth to a quarter) and two other epic hole thrashings that I learned of, both of which could have easily become swimmers themselves. It turned out that every member of our group had probed run the rapid blindly; Lemmings once more.
It had been an awesome day, complete with more than enough difficulty (and joyful play) to make us feel alive to the core of our being; the sort of feeling that can only be obtained through extreme focus and exertion coupled with a sense of danger. That said, I hope it's a long while before I see any other quarter or half-mile long swims in such violent water. I've had the misfortune of seeing one such event end as bad as I can imagine. The next time I hope I'll be wise enough to not head for that last-chance eddy without doing a much better job of communicating my knowledge to my friends. Whichever way I look at it, my choice to accept the risk and to move on downstream ended up making the choice for the group, and I should have known that was a possibility.
That's always something the lead boater should carefully consider; discretion generally IS the better part of valor. Had I chosen to pull to shore before that lead-in, then I have no doubt this story would have been much different..