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Middle Fork in the Road

A worrier’s guide to heaven, hell, and high water

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An odd thing about rafting whitewater—one odd thing among many—is that though the ostensible goal is to run rapids successfully, there is rarely any greater glory available to the big-water boater than an opportunity to offer campfire recollections of the time he survived some really hairy flip running some crazy-big river, which almost always seems to have involved his inadvertent slippage into some really gnarly hole that was roughly as bottomless, in recollection anyhow, as a tunnel to China.

(And yes, regarding the above usage of the genderfied pronoun: I’m aware that plenty of women run whitewater in all kinds of boats, and for some inexplicable reason they are without exception gorgeous and unflappable, but women boaters seem less inclined to brag of their mishaps and close calls around campfires. Who knows why.)

As a consequence, and way counterintuitively, one hardly feels like one has accomplished anything, whitewaterwise, until one has flipped a raft of one’s own.

Although I have fallen and/or been knocked out of many other sorts of boats, and through no virtue or particularly well developed skill of my own, and aside from faux flips, for practice, under controlled circumstances in shallow, still water, overseen by professionals in instructional circumstances, I have never flipped a raft I was rowing, nor been ejected as a passenger from any raft guided by another.

And I’m beginning to develop a complex about it.

I mean I know it’s coming.

And I now know it’s likely to involve a river that’s potentially way over my head and two friends perhaps unwisely relying on me to get them safely through it.

THE PLAN

Planning a sunny-season trip is a ritual as quintessentially Missoulian as failure to shave and dog adoption. With apologies to Loren Eiseley, the manner in which this city’s economy manages to survive the mass personal absences that characterize Missoula’s spring/summer calendar is a mystery at least as great as anything contained in water.

Regardless, it’s what many of us are here for, and just as long as that remains true, human desire will continue to define civic culture and we’ll let the next four months pretty much take care of themselves while we’re out hiking in the Bob or paddling down the Missouri or whatever it is we do.

Missoula being the town that it is, many of us will stumble into fortuitous opportunities to attach ourselves to someone else’s trip. That’s how two friends and I came gratefully into possession of a coveted invitation to join a 100-mile raft-and-canoe expedition launching onto the Middle Fork of Idaho’s Salmon River June 11.

The planning, of course, started months ago, as it must for any largish group considering an outing on any permitted stretch of river, and the Middle Fork is about as permitted as they come. Almost 35,000 floaters applied last year with 27 to 1 odds against approval, making the Middle Fork second only to the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River in terms of demand (Grand Canyon National Park, long faced with a 15- to 30-year waiting list, recently approved its new Colorado River Management Plan, which will begin accepting applications to a complicated weighted lottery system in mid-summer for 2007 launch permits).

The Middle Fork is also among the contiguous 48-states’ most remote, most ruggedly scenic, and most challengingly turbulent whitewater, with an average gradient of 28 feet per mile dropping 3,000 feet over the course of 100 wilderness miles, generating more than 100 rapids—many crammed into the first two days—ranging, at various water levels, from class II to class V.

Our group’s plan was to apply to the Middle Fork permit lottery, and on the vanishingly small chance that we actually hit that jackpot, we’d thank the gods of odds and start planning our trip.

In the more likely case that our applications were denied, we figured, we’d make some slight adjustments and move to the Main Salmon, into which the steeper highland Middle Fork empties. The Main Salmon doesn’t enter its permit-required season until June 20, so we could decide to run it on more or less a moment’s notice. It was the perfect Plan B.

Plan B sounded plenty good to me. I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready for Plan A. In the back of my mind I think I always just assumed we’d never draw the Middle Fork permit, leaving us to face the still-daunting but substantially less intimidating Main.

I had my two similarly raft-novice friends flying in from Alaska to accompany me on a rented 16-foot oar frame raft, and I—despite some small canoeing experience—had driven a raft downriver under my own power for a grand lifetime total of something in the neighborhood of 45 scattered minutes, plus a couple of passenger runs on the Gorge and the Lochsa under the steerage of experienced guides. My part of the job, given my logistical access to local whitewater and raft rentals, would be to steer our little party safely downstream, even though I had never even been in a flipped raft, never mind flipping my own. They were going to deal with our food, if I didn’t drown them. The Main would do just fine, thanks.

Then our trip leader got a letter in the mail permitting us for the Middle Fork. Initially there was a rush of excitement and marvelment at our good luck. Subsequently came the dawning realization that if I was going to run this river, and take responsibly for good friends in the running, then something—including perhaps the so-far upright orientation of my rafting experiences—was about to have to change.

READING THE WATER

I was going to have to learn everything I could about rafting in short order, for one thing, and I set about it studiously and methodically, in hopes that a little method might help alleviate the madness I was sure I sensed coming, if not around this bend then the next.

I started by reading Verne Huser’s classic River Running, a Western-watershed-oriented primer copyrighted in 1975, when military surplus was the state of the waterproof art in dry bags, self-bailing boats were still hovering on the technological horizon, and 20-foot pontoon rafts were as common as orange Mae West life jackets.

What I mostly learned from Huser is that people have long managed to run monstrously big whitewater, largely successfully—at least the people in the pictures are smiling—in almost anything this side of a 5-gallon slop bucket. Which fact struck me as encouraging, along an I’m-not-much-dumber-than-the-average-Joe-and they-can’t-all-have-been-experts line of thinking.

After I finished with the Huser, I went back and reread, more closely this time, River Rescue, “the standard reference on river safety and rescue” by Les Bechdel and Slim Ray, which covers topics from boat-based extrications utilizing something called a Telfer Lower to medical evacuation scenarios. This was substantially less encouraging. Rescue techniques, for one thing, tend to get rusty if they’re not kept tuned-up with practice, and mine, like those of most novices, aren’t. The experiential difference between reading about the physics enabling a raft-freeing shoreline Z-drag and the ability to set one up in the rain when you’re panicking is unbridgeable without real-world experience, which is hard to come by. It seems true that one must experience to truly learn. But the first emergency from which one is expected to learn will be, by definition, the emergency for which one has the least experience to draw upon. Which sounds like a good time to die.

This kind of stuff can keep you up at night if you let it.

What I learned from Bechdel and Ray’s experience is that “in a book, all rescue attempts can be successful, but in real life you must be prepared to deal with those that fail. An unsuccessful rescue means someone is dead…if there is no doubt that the victim is beyond help, a decision must be made as to whether to continue efforts to recover the body…should the party continue or abandon the trip?…If you are on a multi-day wilderness trip”—seven days on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, for instance—“the victim may have to be left for a later search party…Suppose the rescue is unsuccessful and the victim has been recovered. What do you do with a dead person, especially a friend?…if you are in the wilderness and far from help, you may have to bury it, either temporarily or permanently. In either case the grave must be marked…”

In 2003, according to the American Whitewater Association’s accident database, experienced professional raft guide and Bitterrooter Matt Bartley drowned in tributary Marsh Creek, in the first day of his group’s week-long high-water Middle Fork excursion, after a fallen log knocked him out of his raft. Later that day another raft apparently hit a rock bar knocking Vaughn Jones out of another boat. Jones was never found.

Bartley was wearing neither helmet nor life jacket, which are imminently preventable errors, and it’s statistically more likely you’ll die in a car crash on the way to Idaho than drown on the Middle Fork, but still…anything can happen on a wilderness river.

I put down the standard reference to river safety and rescue and called my friends in Alaska and told them to make sure they arrived prepared to mark my grave. They acted like I was joking.

SCOUTING RAPIDS

I wasn’t joking. I was nervous as hell. Reading, which usually serves me well, was making things worse. I needed to visualize positive outcomes. I needed to stop letting worst-case scenarios run away with me.

So I decided to rent some movies. I searched netflix.com until I found 1987’s White Water Summer, 1996’s Same River Twice, and the 2003 documentary The Same River Twice.

I’d already seen White Water Summer, in which young Sean Astin, more lately and better known as stalwart Sam to Elijah Wood’s Frodo in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, bangs a Coleman canoe unconvincingly down a series of clearly uncanoeable—at least the way he was doing it—rocks and falls under the tutelage of semi-sinister wilderness counselor Kevin Bacon.

At least Burt Reynolds, in the whitewater scenes of James Dickey’s Deliverance, had the veracity to swamp and swim.

(And since no anecdote containing all those names can be allowed to pass without at least one degree of pop indulgence, it must be noted that 1994’s The River Wild also featured Bacon, this time in full-on evil mode as Meryl Streep’s raft-jacker.

If I ever bumped into Kevin Bacon on a river, wild or otherwise, I’d swim hard for the far shore.)

The Same River Twice turned out to be a compelling little bit of cinema, mostly about the ways people’s lives change, and how youth looks from later on, accompanied by some beautiful grainy old footage of good-looking naked friends frolicking in the waves and on the sands of Arizona’s mighty Colorado River.

But the film that really grabbed my interest was the execrable Same River Twice, a flying cheeseball of a drama-bomb starring literal rafts of B-grade television actors. The film’s conceit is that a group of young men bond as oarsmen guiding summers on the Middle Fork of the Salmon(!). One of their number, an eager Wyoming greenhorn, drowns on a training trip. Twenty years later, the surviving river rats, all grown up into town mice with personal lives and families in various states of disarray, return to the river, significant others in tow, for a reunion trip during which—count on it—they’ll face adversity, survive hardship, and eddy out at the take-out with a better understanding of the really important things in life, which usually include trying to be substantially less of an uptight ass.

The death of the Wyoming greenhorn is accomplished off camera, in prologue, and commented on woefully around a campfire by a fellow rafter who, it’s clear, gained no glory from his proximity to the wipeout.

If it weren’t for the visual prominence afforded the river itself—that gorgeously turbulent water—the movie would be unwatchable. But it tugs at my memory’s pantleg even so, partly due to the coincidence of watershed, and partly because a greenhorn from Wyoming drowns, and I’m a greenhorn too, and as far as my mother or almost anyone else is concerned Montana might as well be Wyoming anyway, and vice versa, because out here we’re already off their grid. But mostly, I think, what haunts me is the movie’s vision of river running as a sort of boot camp for wayward adolescents, a juvenile prelude to an adult life of bad marriages, sullen kids, and being an ass.

If that’s the way we’re going to turn out we’d do better to just leave the rivers be.

That’s what I was thinking when May’s National Geographic Adventure arrived in the mail with a cover shot of a blue and red raft being rowed down a color-saturated and almost placid Middle Fork. Inside was “Mom, Dad, and the Mighty Middle Fork,” a story by writer McKenzie Funk about the appealing family dynamics of a 17-person trip almost evenly divided between eccentric grown-up graybeard hippies from Eugene and their loosey-goosey adventure-lifestyle progeny. They ran the river “in high summer, a gentle float.” Turns out it was all good.

This, I thought, is more like it.

My trip has 17 people signed up too, some older, some younger, at least one father and son. The only big difference is we plan to launch June 11, still technically spring, during what looks likely to be a high runoff year—a time of year, Funk writes, when the Middle Fork’s rapids “surge with runoff” and “take on Grand Canyon proportions.”

Even adjusting downward to account for the chronically hyperbolic bullshitting endemic to boating communities everywhere, that sounded a little big for my britches.

MAN OVERBOARD

I don’t wish to worry needlessly, but I worry that I probably do, and Bechdel and Ray and the dead Wyoman and visions of floodwater scared the living crap out of me.

It’s a commonplace in the lore and literature of river running that a boater must take ultimate responsibility for him or herself, and everyone knows that a boat’s captain, so to speak, takes responsibility for the safety of his passengers. Thus it behooves a safe boater to exhibit a finely honed awareness of his or her own capabilities, the better to make accurate judgment calls regarding the decisions that present themselves at nearly every turn of a whitewater river.

In other words, at every intersection of experience and challenge, there exists an opportunity for wisdom to step up and serve as the better part of valor, a chance to back out, back up, and take the sneak route to a more predictably safe result.

In still other words: if you want to badly enough, you can always portage, or even just not go.

Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of life-strategizing that generally leads people to mess around with whitewater.

My personal fear of whitewater—the adrenalized angst that comes from facing something I know quite well may be beyond my abilities—is an odd and shifting thing. I could rename it respect for the river, and that would not be dishonest, but it is more than that.

In pre-river anticipation it is at its most terrible, an almost debilitating mix of dread and failure fantasy in which raging torrents pinball my helpless vessel down some cliff-walled cataract of boat-munching fury. Whitewaterers gauge rapids on a classification system of I through VI, with I being obstacle-free moving water and VI defined as “waterfalls or rapids attempted only by teams of experts under favorable conditions.” In my anxious imagination, all the rapids go up to VII.

Violently moving water is so inherently dangerous, and so many people are so fundamentally incompetent, that it absolutely baffles me that people in boats, as a recreational subspecies, myself very much included, aren’t dying by the dozens on the nation’s waterways every day.

But once I’ve actually gotten on the river, choking back the nervous stomach and tensing the shaky knees, hazards seem to take on a more manageable aura and I become more willing to test them, and less reflexively, paralytically afraid of dying.

Finally, in retrospect, so far, fear has become elation, leading to the desire to do it again. To maybe do it bigger this time. Maybe go too far. Perhaps overreach and drown.

I got seriously nervous. I called my friends in Alaska to freak them and their already-purchased plane tickets out with my sudden crisis of confidence. I started cornering fellow boaters, laying out my scenario for them—the high-water forecast, my inexperience, responsibility for innocent lives—and asking for guidance.

“Listen,” I’d say. “I’m willing to die on this trip. But if it comes to that, I’d really rather not die some way so stupid that anyone can look back and see from a million miles away that I had no earthly business even making the attempt. I’m not eager to win any Darwin Awards.” Then I’d tell them what I was doing to prepare and ask what they thought about my prospects. Most suggested I go ahead and go for it—why not?—then turned away to order another beer. A few turned, at least facially, into lawyers, giving me a look that conveyed clearly their lack of interest in even borderline accountability for whatever the hell might or might not happen to me on the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

An even fewer told me the most sensible thing one person could say to another, faced with such an unanswerable question: Well, maybe. It just depends.

What it depends upon is unpredictable at a distance. You have to run your rivers, or not, as you find them. This season’s reported snowpack in the Salmon drainage was well over average, meaning a thoroughly normal weather pattern could result in very big water for our trip. Everybody in Missoula already seemed to know this. Anytime I entered a discussion about spring trips and mentioned June 11, my conversational partners would arch their eyebrows in foreknowledge and concern.

“Ought to be big water,” they’d say, eyeing me for signs of weakness.

Then again they could be wrong. A long warm thaw could beat us to the river, leaving us with the drooping tail end of spring’s runoff. Or a late cold snap could dry up our water supply overnight and leave the river running middling.

Which for all I know might be the most dangerous level to run it at. Understanding morphing river hydrology at fluctuating flows is complicated business, and nobody ever got rich betting on the weather. There was not much I could do, I began to understand, but get in the water and see how ready I could make myself for whatever I was about to stumble into.

PREP TIME

And so it came to pass that in the mid-afternoon of Wednesday, April 19, my gear and I assembled in the Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures parking lot on Broadway with two blue busloads of students and guides and would-be guides and taggers along and headed off toward Corn Creek to put on to the Main Salmon for an immersion course in whitewater river rafting.

Central Idaho’s Main Salmon, our original Plan B, is a popular and somewhat less advanced version of the steeper Middle Fork that feeds it, and so presumably, I figured, a reasonable warm-up for the more technical trip to come. Indy photo intern Jon Lynch, who does a little guiding for Lewis and Clark on the side, agreed to rent me his 14-foot oar-frame raft for just about enough to cover the cost of the new dry box he wanted and come along for the pictures and the ride.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to narrate the slide show.

It’s sometimes difficult for us enthusiasts to recognize that river-tripping stories share a fatal flaw with drug-use anecdotes and stories concerning pets: the only people who are even vaguely interested in those topics are already long convinced that their own stories about tripping at the prom and how their calico kitten Camus once peed so cutely on their copy of The Stranger are more interesting than yours. Consequently, most people only pretend to listen as you prattle on, awaiting an opportunity to pounce on their turn to bore you with whitewater war stories.

So here it need only be said that for four exhausting days I got to share what are surely some of the most beautiful views on the planet with an extraordinarily personable group of boaters, storytellers, students, guides and would-be guides and taggers along. I got to spend four days learning to rig and drive a raft. I got to learn that people who actually move rafts from one place to another are unlikely to refer to what they do as “driving,” preferring the more accurate “rowing.” I got to row some rapids that dropped my throat into my bowels. I also got to miss some apparently terrifying water because the river, at about a foot and a half at the put-in gauge, was running high enough to wash them out flat, and other bits because the water was yet too low to engender certain monster hydraulics. It all depends on how the river’s running that day, and, observing that, how you choose to run it.

I saw three paddle boats flip behind me—two in a row at the rapid called Bailey—and felt a twinge of jealousy.

On the last day, in a flighty borrowed cataraft, I got to run the last rapid of our trip, a tricky and only occasionally fatal bit named Chittam. From a scouting spot on river right, one of the guides who was keeping an eye on me pointed out an easier route down the right bank—a few rocks to dodge and a shore to stay off of. To the left was the meaty run: a sharp right bend of huge and diagonally disturbed waves, bounded by the churning water pillowing off an unforgiving rock wall at river left and a boat-flipping hole in the middle. I was told the bubbling stone soup against the wall was a very bad place for a swim. I believed it.

But I was there, I reasoned, to help decide if I could face Middle Fork water, so I decided to run river left. I felt like if I was going to have a chance of keeping my head above water on the Middle Fork, I’d have to be able to take the worst of the Main head-on.

So stupidly normalized had I become by three-day’s familiarity that I didn’t even bother to put on the helmet hanging at my side.

I backed into an upstream ferry high in the eddy and made it across the current to the top of the left-hand line. I drifted down the tongue. I gave the oars a brief nudge to straighten the cat and then tried to take them out of the water for one more big momentum push, but I was already in the crooked trough and I couldn’t get the blades planted properly. As I flailed, the first big curler hit me broadside from the left, raising my left pontoon into the air, throwing the cat sideways to the next wave and spilling me about three-quarters out of the seat before I remembered that the cat had no floor and I was about to go swimming in a very bad place. I don’t remember clearly how I managed to get back into the seat, but muscle memory suggests any grip I had at that point was being maintained by an instinctively concerted clinching of gluteals. I found myself back in the seat, found the craft was not upside down, found the oars and managed two desperate pulls away from the wall, which looked like hell with the tractor beam on, before the rounding current caught the cat and swung me around the rocky point into threatless water.

The Salmon had had me at its mercy and released me, and properly non-personified rivers don’t do that with any purpose. I was alive with nothing, as far as I could tell, but blind luck to thank. As prepared as I was trying to get, I was getting knocked out of control even in the getting there. As long as I continue messing around in whitewater, chances are it will happen again.

And probably worse. Because I still haven’t even flipped. That remains a mystery to be solved, an adventure to be had, and a story yet to be polished in front of yawning listeners gathered around some campfire somewhere.

Probably the Middle Fork will flip me, and probably it will not be the end of anybody’s world. But probably is just guessing. A spring mind can wonder what might happen all it wants, but there’s only one good way to find out for sure.

btyer@missoulanews.com

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