By Jason Rackley
I had been paddling less than a year and I was UNSTOPPABLE. I had run my first class four rapid earlier that month and I figured I was probably the second or third best kayaker in the world! For a world class kayaker like myself, I figured that a high water run on the Mollala seemed like just the thing to warm up for the really hard stuff- I had quite a list of runs to do, and a silly little class III run seemed trivial in comparison.
Mat Stewart and I headed up the road along the river and saw that it was booming- big, muddy, and mean looking. My desire to do the Three Bears run quickly evaporated when I peered down into the canyon at Papa Bear, which at the time was the gnarliest looking stretch of whitewater I had ever seen. (I figured it was probably at least class VIII.5 ++)
I was feeling a little bit scared at this point and I think Mat knew that I would certainly die if he took me down there. You see, Mat was the master and I was the apprentice- he had taken me under his wing and taught me everything I knew about paddling. He waited while I quaked in my boots for awhile and then suggested that we put in at Baby Bear, which I quickly agreed to do.
What's in a name? Baby Bear is the last class III rapid on the Three Bears run and is great fun at regular flows, with a violent play hole at the top and a weird, spooky hole/undercut combination at the bottom.
That's at regular flows.
We got to Baby Bear and the regular put-in/take-out ledge was gone- the river was blasting through there like a cyclone and it looked positively terrifying. As we got in our kayaks a couple of the locals pulled up on the other side of the river on dirtbikes and gaped at us. They just knew they were about to see some great carnage, and they were right!
I seal launched into the river and was swept away like the insignificant piece of debris that I was. I didn't know it but I was already doomed- I just remember being absolutely, full-on, white knuckle terrified, and I should not have been there.
Somehow I made it past the constriction that is usually the main part of the drop, avoiding the spooky hole/undercut combination on the right by sheer luck. At this flow the hole was just huge, but the left side line was still flushing. Mat, in his Jive, aggressively plowed right down into the gut of the massive hole and started throwing a blinding series of cartwheels and mystery moves the like of which I had never seen. In retrospect he was probably just having some (involuntary) fun but at the time I thought he was in big trouble. Maybe he was, but he was in less trouble than I was about to get into...
I watched Mat for a second too long because suddenly I was swept into a huge reaction wave off the left bank and I flipped. I set up and rolled, was immediately knocked back over, and then all hell broke loose. You see, at this flow the right side the river was flowing over a truck sized boulder that is usually part of the scenery but was now a man-eating hole, and it was damned hungry.
Mat (who was now charging downstream after my upside-down boat) saw it happen. Later he said "You went into that hole upside down and I never saw you again- I actually went through the hole while you were in it and was afraid I would hit you but you were gone." Nope, I was still in that hole when Mat went through it, and it was ugly in there! That thing beat me up one side of the riverbed and down the other, and finally I gave up all hope and I pulled. As soon as I came out of my boat the hole drop kicked me downstream (after a good bounce off the bottom) and I was swimming for my life through the worst stretch of white hell I have ever experienced as a swimmer.
Any experienced kayaker-swimmer knows that at high water holes travel in gangs and they are just as likely to beat you senseless... I swam right into another big one just downstream and this one hurt, beating me repeatedly off of the river bed so forcefully that it tore holes in my wetsuit and badly bruised my knee, ribs, shoulder, you name it. Eventually I flushed and reached the shore, where I collapsed, exhausted. My whole body was one big ache and after I got my wind back I limped downstream to try and find my boat.
Well, I got about a hundred yards downstream and saw my paddle spinning lazily around in an eddy on the opposite side of the river just upstream of a strainer. As I watched it would slowly circle around the outside of the eddy and then bounce along the current back into the eddy. Gritting my teeth I hiked back upstream until I was a couple of hundred feet above the eddy where the paddle and I leaped in the river and came up pulling hard. The river swept me downstream with unnerving speed but I was able to make it into the eddy where I hung off of a tree branch and finally grabbed my paddle. Now I was on the opposite side of the river from the road, but I figured: 'no problem- there's a 50 percent chance that Mat corralled my boat on this side.' Armed with that irresistable logic I resumed my downstream trek, which was complicated by the water level somewhat. Finally I rounded the corner and saw Mat wrestling my boat out of the water- on the other side of the river. "You gotta be kidding me.." I groaned inwardly as I turned and limped (once again) back upstream. Once I was back around the corner I jumped back into the river and swam hard, but since I had spent so much time in the water my legs immediately cramped up and I was left with one arm to swim with. (I hadn't yet learned the trick for swimming with a paddle.) Anyway, I'm sure Mat was pretty surprised to see me sweep around the corner, flailing with one arm against the force of the river. Luckily I had walked pretty far back upstream so I was able to make it into the eddy with Mat. We dragged my boat up the bank and examined it when we got to the top- it looked like it had been chewed on by a large dog, or a baby bear...
I had had enough of the Three Bears so we headed downstream and ran the Glen Avon section, which at high flows has some realllly big surf waves! We ended up having a great time, but I never forgot my reality check that day. Over the years I have worked hard to develop my skills, and this has allowed me to travel to some of the most beautiful places on earth. In spite of my successes I have a profound respect for the rivers and the terrible power they can exert. We are all so puny in comparison- and between swims, like it or not.
Also, somewhere along the way I learned what paddling is really all about- the friends that you make, the places you go, and the whitewater.
In that order.