By Jarred Jackman and Jesse Coombs
  Special thanks to EJ Etherington and Corey Morton for the great photos!

Copyright © 2008, Jarred Jackman, Jesse Coombs, and Oregon Kayaking. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of the Oregon Kayaking webmaster.

I hadn't been on the Little White Salmon for about a year and half 'til yesterday. I put on with some great paddling friends and some new folks as well, at a great flow ( 3.1 feet ).

Now, just to set the stage, the Little White is The LITTLE WHITE to me. This is not the run I do after work to wind down from a long day. It's not the run I do three times in a day for "fun." This run completely toasted me both mentally and physically the first two times down; it's full-on much of the time and demands respect.

After those first two intense runs I hadn't returned to the Little White for over a year. Instead I had spent time on the Green Truss section of the White Salmon and other local runs in order to build skills and stamina for the Little White.. because around here it's all about the Little White Salmon!

Back to the run. I finished Getting' Busy in a blur of boofs, holes, airplane turns, and whiteouts, surprised to be finished so soon. Boulder Sluice always surprises me as it literally ejects the boater out of the water and into the air! I was finally able to relax and enjoy the boogy-water drops this time and all the named rapids went off without a hitch.

Feeling good.

We rolled up on Spirit Falls and I wasn't particularly thinking that I HAD to run it; but I nonetheless wanted to check it out from the lip. I was there with the folks I consider the best Little White crew around: Local Hood River Heroes Ryan Scott ( The Little White Godfather ), Lana Young, Keel Brightman and Austin Rathmann, as well as some other super-solid Northwest boaters: EJ Etherington ( EJE ), Geoff from the East Coast, and Devon Morton. Many people were running Spirit and styling it, rolling in easy and taking a nice controlled boof with varying angles on the landings.

How much difference a few minutes makes.

I found myself at the lip, feeling this massive falls move the air around me, thinking that thirty-three feet didn't seem all that high; that the lead-in didn't seem all that hard..

Gradually I got fired up for my first no-portage descent of the mighty Little White and I decided I was going to run Spirit Falls. I checked out my landing zone again, went through the strokes in my head, and physically at the lip. Once I thought I had it dialed I went back to the boat got situated and peeled out. I remember thinking when I entered the current, this is it: Spirit!

Sometimes it all comes down to one stroke. You make it or you don't. And in this case, don't can lead to a very bad outcome.

I rolled toward the lip a little too easily, got pushed just slightly to the left, but just slightly on the Little White can mean big trouble very quickly. I pulled a couple of draw strokes to the right to get back in position and started to set my blade for THE BOOF.

As I pulled over the lip with the utterly necessary but conspicuously absent boof stroke NOT planted, I thought: "Man this could really suck!" What I didn't realize was that I had ridden up on the deceptive curler on the face of the falls, and there was nothing but air under my paddle. I put a right stroke in anyway and pulled, but that only succeeded in changing my boat angle for the worse.

The deceptive curler on the vertical face of Spirit Falls causes Jarred to miss his stroke, over-rotate, and ..
Photos Copyright © EJ Etherington

I landed slightly over-rotated with my torso fully extended, full-on 1980's Burning-man style. I took a huge hit and everything went black. My paddle was nearly ripped from my hands, I barely managed to hold onto it with my right hand as the huge, violent boils started pounding me.

I regained my paddle and briefly thought my skirt had blown, but it hadn't. I set for a roll and felt my head bounce off a few rocks, "Sweet, I'm against a wall, although hopefully not the river-right wall." I reached out and grabbed the rocks, rolled off of them only to find out that Spirit was IN MY FACE. I was behind the falls.. the absolute worst-case scenario.

I back-paddled like mad to distance myself from the falls as I can only imagine what paddling straight into the awe-inspiring destructive power of this falls would do to a person..

Getting run over by a truck comes to mind.

So now I found myself in the room behind Spirit. My main thought was how different that room was in person. I had seen it in the videos, paddlers enter it only to paddle out quickly after, paddle blades whirling like mad to fight the boils of Spirit and not get pushed into the secondary falls from river left.

I sat in my boat trying to hold a huge log that was wedged in the room in order to give myself some type of solid grounding. The huge boils behind the falls are very active and powerful, constantly swelling and crashing things toward the shore, toward Spirit, and toward the other, secondary curtain falls. Through the blasts of mist and spray I caught intermittent glimpses of Austin and Keel sitting on a rock outcropping downstream that seemed REALLY far away.

After awhile I got stoked to paddle out, spotted my path, and started paddling. I wasn't taking the best of strokes, got turned and pushed into the seam of the secondary falls, flipped, couldn't make a roll as it was pounding me, swam, and let go of the paddle and the boat.

I was definitely not having fun anymore.

I surfaced a couple of times only to be beaten by the water coming down on my head. I finally swam out of the falls and to the rocky wall behind the curtain. Luckily my boat had swirled around and was bouncing in the boils near Spirit. I waited for it to get near enough and I grabbed it, emptied it, and settled into my new home. I stretched, wondered how I'd get out without a paddle, realized a rope from the opposite shore wouldn't reach, and all of the sudden felt very alone.

The room behind Spirit is a pretty lonely and inhospitable place.

New arrivals on the scene: Local Pro Kayakers Jesse Coombs and Ben Stookesberry.
Here Jesse heads back to his boat as Ben gets ready to fire up Spirit.
At this point I was behind the falls, wishing I was pretty much anywhere else..
Photo Copyright © EJ Etherington

Ben Stookesberry and I got into Hood River Saturday afternoon and we wanted to get in a couple of runs on the Little White Salmon.

I love the Little White because it is a great barometer for how I'm boating. When I'm paddling well, I get rewarded with good lines and fun times. When I am not paddling well the Little White exposes those areas and gives me immediate feedback on what I need to work on.

On Sunday we put in for our first run about 1 p.m. We knew that a big Hood River crew was on the river, and we were hoping to see them at some point. One of the boaters was fourteen year old Devin Morton and his Dad. As far as I know, Devin has to be the youngest person to ever run The Little White Salmon, and he is a really nice kid as well. Too cool!

When Ben and I got to Spirit I could see something was wrong with the group ahead of us so I got out of my boat rather than running the falls.

I walked over to EJE and Lana and asked what was happening. They said that several people ran Spirit and Jarred was trapped behind the curtain on the left. EJE lowered a break down paddle to Jarred while the others set safety below the pool at Chaos. Jarred got back in his boat and attempted to paddle past the boil between the falls and the left curtain, but was unable to make this very tough move.

Meanwhile Ben decided to run the falls. He hit a great line right where he wanted to be, had a 45 degree angle and landed nicely. At this flow there is a pretty strong boil and it pushed him left toward the curtain. Ben paddled hard and pulled through the left curtain and right boil to the pool below. Nice!

Jarred was still behind the falls, and I was starting to get concerned about that. Apparently he'd been back there for over thirty minutes, and that is no fun for anyone. With this in mind, I started thinking about trying to get behind the falls to help him.

This was not something for me to take lightly as Spirit falls and Chaos ( the ledge just downstream of the falls ) have done a lot of damage to a lot of very good paddlers including broken paddles, noses, backs, getting stuck behind the falls at Spirit and vicious poundings including a near-drowning in Chaos where a pro paddler had to be resuscitated. Serious stuff!

I looked at the line and decided that if I ran a pencil angle on the left I would be pushed behind the curtain with Jarred. I checked the entrance and got in my boat.

Jesse Coombs, coming in hot, riding a thin line between surfacing behind the falls to help Jarred or gettin' crushed..
Photo Copyright © Devin Morton

I ran the line I wanted, turning my boat inward at the last possible second as I penciled on the left. I went deep, angling underwater towards the back of the curtain where Jarred was. As expected, the Super Hero surfaced immediately upright and right at the curtain where I wanted.

Jesse, making a last-minute turn in order to surface behind Spirit where Jarred was trapped.
Photo Copyright © EJ Etherington

I was still trying to figure out how to get out from behind the falls, which was turning out to be far more difficult than expected.

At some point a paddler ( who turned out to be Ben Stookesberry ) landed on the left side of the falls, got pushed toward the room, got his bearings very quickly and paddled downstream. I don't even know if he noticed I was behind the falls. I thought about the possibility of someone coming down on top of me or damn near as I tried to exit.. that wasn't appealing.

After Ben disappeared into the mist, I got back into my boat and tried to get amped to try the exit route again.

Of course, the breakdown I was using wasn't very good, and it flexed and wobbled in my hands in a rather disturbing way. Not confidence-inspiring considering the circumstances. Sketchy paddle or not, I was determined to make it work since I knew each attempt would be much harder than the previous one.

Suddenly there was a flash of yellow from above, and then a paddler surfaced in the room, paddling straight to me like a man with a mission. He reminded me of a Coast Guard para-rescue jumper!

Jesse: Hey how are you?

Me: Good, considering where I am. I almost made it out but this paddle isn't helping much ( thinking that was a lame excuse but at this point I could use all the help I could get ).

Jesse: Do you like Werners? we can switch.. ( offering me his shiny new Shogun )..

Me: ( I'm thinking: a Werner vs. this reject paddle from the GI Joes rafting aisle?!? um, ok.. ) Hell yeah I'll trade if you're good with that.. I handed the crappy breakdown over to Jesse and gratefully took the Werner.

Jesse: OK, I think this thing exits on the left through that veil. You have two options. You can either paddle through that veil with me behind you, or I can clip onto your boat and we can paddle out tandem-style.

Me: ( Thinking this guy must be nuts to offer to clip into my boat, but then thought, he's probably just that damn good! ) I like the first option, paddling through the veil.

Jesse: OK, I'll be right behind you, if anything goes wrong we'll come back in here and regroup. Remember to keep your edge up and maybe even paddle off the wall if you need to, that veil is going to beat down on you. Oh by the way, I'm Jesse.

Me: Yeah, I know who you are. ( Thinking to myself: Damn, I already battled with that veil once, it made me swim. So now I was going to paddle through it with a pro backing me up. Damn, I better get through this thing without swimming or having major issues, hell, it would be nice to come through upright and smiling! )

Jesse: Alright, let's hit it.

I start paddling through the veil and it started beating down on me, but I could feel that the current wasn't really fighting that hard against me in this seam. Then I got flipped. The beautiful calm of non-torrential waters of the moving pool overcame me and I missed a roll, I tried again on the other side, that didn't work either. I was thinking, what the hell??? Finally I relaxed, took some time, set up, and tried again. I must have tried four times before I stuck one. This is unusual for me, I never miss a roll, but it had been one of those days..

All the while Chaos was calling for me in my head. I thought, I'm not going to swim above Chaos!

I made my roll in time to see Austin and Keel, waving their arms and frantically yelling for me to paddle hard into the eddy above Chaos. Chaos is the backed-up ledge which guards the exit of the moving pool below Spirit Falls. Run it on the left and its good to go. Run it on the right and you may not live to tell. The problem is that all of the water coming out from below Spirit goes right, straight into the worst part of Chaos.

The water was moving so fast, I didn't have any time. I went for the eddy around the corner but was too late, I wasn't going to make it. With no other choice, I pointed my bow and drove for the right-side 'suicide line' at Chaos. I plugged into the hole, got flipped, beat down, and swam, again.

Jarred steps into the ring with the main hole at Chaos.
Your only hope is for a rope in this situation. Otherwise, you'd better be able to breathe water.
Photo Copyright © EJ Etherington

I was now in the unbreakable clutches of Chaos, which is backed up by the wall just downstream of the pourover. I surfaced in the pile and before I got pulled back into the hole Ryan Scott delivered a rope to me with a throw a pro quarterback would envy ( Editors note: Setting safety at Chaos isn't easy, but it paid off big in this case. Kudos to Ryan for putting forth the effort and averting a life-threatening swim ).

Ryan dug in and pulled hard, fishing me out of Chaos.. By the time I got to shore and dragged my adrenaline-soaked body up onto the rock, I was utterly spent.

As the rest of the group got reorganized, I watched with awe as the relentless meatgrinder at the base of Chaos tore furiously into my boat, ripping out the foam and everything that wasn't bolted in. Around and around my boat went: five.. ten.. twenty times.. I lost count. I can't imagine what would have happened to me if Ryan hadn't been there to pull me out.

Keel Brightman prepares to assist in the rescue of Jarred's boat.
No hurry, that boat isn't going anywhere.
Photo Copyright © EJ Etherington

After awhile we got some more boaters on the narrow ledge downstream of Chaos and commenced with the boat retrieval. Geoff, Ben, and Ryan ended up actually pulling the boat out of the hole at Chaos ( Thanks guys! )

Geoff dives into the hole at Chaos to get a line on Jarreds boat.
Photo Copyright © EJ Etherington,

After Geoff got a line on it, the team hauled Geoff and my boat out of the hole.
Photo Copyright © EJ Etherington,

We all regrouped and headed downstream for a thankfully uneventful finish to an otherwise unforgettable day.

When I look back at the photos of my first Spirit run, part of me shakes my head, thinking about the missed line. Another part of me notices that I truly was exactly where I wanted to be with a stroke placed one second from the perfect placement. I can't think of another time on any other river when one second and one stroke has mattered that much. I'm sure there have been plenty of times, but things went right, rather than wrong.

In this situation the boating went wrong, but everything else went perfectly! The rest of the river was great; realizing the skills of my friends regarding safety and their willingness to rally in a tough situation was crucial. In the end I suppose the things I learned from this situation and the friends I made because of this situation were completely worth the time spent in the room not exactly sure how I was going to get out.

The weaknesses I noticed in my own paddling, and the strengths in others' paddling has already proved to be an invaluable learning tool. I learned that Keel Brightman and Ryan Scott are truly two of the best paddling partners a person could hope for, and that Jesse Coombs is one of the most talented, insightful, and inspiring individuals that I've ever met. Not to mention a newfound friend and someone I really hope to get an opportunity to boat with again. Thanks a lot guys, I'm stoked to see you all back out on the Little White!

In the Bennett guide he wraps up the LW description by stating that "You'll love it or you'll hate it, but you'll definitely talk about it." This is so true of this river, but even more true of the friends one makes on hard whitewater. It's a place that makes or breaks relationships and trust. I have more trust in, and respect for, these guys than ever!