It was 5:45 a.m. and I was scrambling to assemble the frame for my raft. Late the night before, we had arrived at the Paradise Ranger Station, deep in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. We were the last of our party to get there. My father had been very generous and driven the shuttle for us the day before. I felt very behind, five other boats were already put together.
We had been invited on the trip at a polling station in a local election. While I was finishing with my ballot, my wife Stephanie (Steph) had stopped to talk with some friends who were volunteering at the polling place. When I walked over to join the conversation, Nicole mentioned that she and her husband Doug had drawn a Selway permit and someone in their party had cancelled on them. She asked if we would like to come along. My answer was more reflex than thought out … "Yes! I’ll just have to see if I can get the time off.” Long story short, I was able to and we were in. In the meantime, Emily Walker, a mutual friend and NRS coworker, also joined the group. Three weeks later, I was putting my raft together at the headwaters of the Selway.
In the first group of river stretches placed in the Wild and Scenic River System, the Selway River is one of the most coveted and hard to get river trips. Only one party can launch each day and there are only 62 private party launch dates in the mid-May through August prime season. You float 47 miles of Class IV whitewater (Class V in high water) that courses through forests of huge cedars and pines.
I finished setting up the frame and returned to camp. Everyone was packing up their camping equipment and getting ready to load their rafts. As they went about packing and organizing, everyone else in the group introduced themselves to me... Charles, Nancy, George, Maryan, Barb, Ken and Marla. I definitely felt out of my element, we were the youngest in the entire group. Most of the trip members had been boating for as long as I had been alive. At the same time, it was nice to know that we would be running the river with a very experienced group. One group member, Charles, in particular knew the river as well or better than most professional guides and had over 30 Selway trips under his belt.
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After breaking down camp we headed to the put-in and loaded the boats. The ranger checked us out and after a quick group photo we jumped in the boats and headed down river with George, Maryan and Barb leading the way in their yellow raft. The Selway starts out as a very small stream and the first section is something similar to a creek with lots of Class II and a few Class III rapids. Of course the first incident of the day involved my boat getting stuck on some rocks. Charles and Nancy were running sweep and arrived on the scene. We threw a line to Charles who boarded our boat. As he surveyed the situation, I could tell Charles had done this a lot (unpin boats for other people). He instructed Steph and Emily to move towards the back of the boat while we pushed the boat around and off of the rocks. I hopped back on and once again we were on our way. Later Charles told me that the rapid was called Pin Ball and it was notorious for pinning boats, which eased my embarrassment. As the day drew on, the rapids seemed to get more difficult. One unnamed rapid required us to make two ferry moves, one of which followed a bump off of a rock. Around mid-afternoon we arrived at our first camp site near a ranch outpost.
After setting up camp, we proceeded to lounge around, fish and sleep. That evening George, Maryan and Barb made dinner. They provided two types of Cougar Gold cheeses (gourmet cheeses produced at the Washington State University Creamery) as hors d'oeuvres. Dinner was a delicious curry dish I cannot remember the name of, but I do remember it was spicy and packed with lots of veggies. Barb had made a tasty carrot cake as an early birthday cake for George. He was turning seventy in a week, though you wouldn't guess it by the way he and Maryan moved and handled their boat.
While setting up camp, Doug asked if everybody knew what time we were putting on the water the next morning. I didn't know the answer. Doug was one of my professors in college, so this was a familiar feeling; however, I don't think anyone else knew the answer either. After a few responses Doug smiled and said, "When we are ready." When you are ready is the best time to put on the water, you have had enough sleep, food and relaxation and then you load up the boat and head downriver.
The next morning we lazily awoke, or at least I lazily awoke. After eating breakfast, we packed up. Today was a big day; we were going to hit our first Class IV rapid, Ham. I was pretty excited, and a little nervous, as the whitewater so far had been fun, but a bit more technical than I had expected.
Downriver we arrived at Goat Creek Rapid. It's listed as a Class III but it was definitely more difficult than most other Class IIIs I’ve run. We made three or four alternating ferry moves, weaving in-between various rocks and holes before arriving at a huge boulder wall extending from the left bank. The right bank also has boulders so you have to make a quick right-to-left move in order to weave between the boulders. As we pulled into an eddy about 100 yards below the rapid, I thought both how fun the rapid was and what serious consequences there were if you didn't make one of the moves.
A few moments later I heard two whistle blows ring out over the roar of the river and everyone snapped towards the sound. Nicole's cataraft came floating by upside down. A few of us scrambled to grab the boat but it was moving too fast. Emily jumped on Doug's cataraft and they headed down after it. As we waited in the eddy someone mentioned that one person was missing. Barb and Nicole had been on the boat. After 5-10 minutes we finally got word that the other person was okay. Later we learned that Nicole and Barb had flipped early on in the rapid, Nicole swam part of the rapid and ended up floating into some slow moving water near a log jam. She was able to climb up the logs and out of the river. Barb on the other hand had swam the entire rapid, a portion of which she was trapped under the boat. We were relieved to find out that all were okay. Other than a large scratch on Barbs leg, they were both in good shape. In the meantime, Doug and Emily had recovered the rogue cataraft and were waiting for us in an eddy downriver. Next up was Ham.
Ham was an interesting rapid. The eddy was small and the trail to scout it was almost nonexistent, basically a lot of scrambling over rocks and through brush. As we gathered on a large boulder overlooking the rapid, Charles gave us the run down. The far right line was not an option as a log was blocking the route. The next easiest route was skirting the right side of a boulder at the top of the rapid and then weave between a hole and another boulder just below it. Then you had to thread the needle between two boulders and face into a diagonal wave/hole. Charles ran the line as we watched. In the usual Charles fashion, he made it look easy. Emily, Steph and I watched the rest of the boats make the same line without incident: and now it was our turn. We loaded up and started the line just as everyone had; however, when we got to the spot where you have to thread the needle, we came off the right hand rock with our boat facing too far left.
Charles had warned me about the strong wave at the bottom of the drop. The wave hit the side of the boat causing us to nearly flip. As the boat angled up, I braced myself and sort of high-sided; i.e., hung on for dear life. Steph and Emily were sitting on the cooler in front of me and had little chance of holding on. Emily was on the highest side of the boat and was knocked free of her hold. She slid down the cooler and bumped both her and Steph into the water. Amazingly the boat flopped back down. Emily yelled, "I've got Steph, we are alright". They were right next to the boat. I pulled Steph head first into the boat and then went to grab Emily. We still had half of the rapid to run. As I went to pull Emily in she said, "Wait, the paddle, I can get it." One of the paddles was in the river. The proposition of her swimming the rest of the rapid in order to save one of my paddles was not working for me so I pulled her in.
Emily told us later that swimming rapids to save paddles was a family trait. Apparently, her father had done this from time to time on their family rafting trips. The rest of the group was a little confused as they had seen two people fall out and were expecting swimmers. We were really lucky that everyone washed up near the boat. It was a first swim for Steph, so I was pretty happy to find her unscathed and laughing about the experience. It was now late in the day so we pulled into a camping spot a couple miles above Moose Creek. Ken and Marla made dinner that night; a smorgasbord of spicy meatballs, sausage, pasta and salad. Steph pulled out the Dutch oven and made brownies for dessert. Everything was delicious.
We sat around camp and chatted for a few hours. It was pretty neat how well everyone got along. Nearly everyone had boated with Doug and Nicole once before, but none of us had boated with any of the other party members. So we were all strangers except for the common denominator of Doug and Nicole. Sometime around 9 or 10 we retired for the night. Tomorrow was the big day. We were going to run Double Drop, Ladle and the Moose Juice section, essentially three miles of almost continuous, solid Class III and IV rapids with little to no breaks.
The next morning it sounded like I wasn't the only one a little nervous about the section of river we would be running. It was decided we would cut our side hike at Moose Creek and push through the rapids that day. The first big rapid of the day was Double Drop. Charles told us the line to take and to watch out for the wave/hole at the bottom. We were third back in the line up behind George, Maryan and Barb, with Charles and Nancy in the lead. On the first drop, George got caught in an eddy, so we bumped past them and continued downriver behind Charles. As we entered the second drop I could see Charles sliding past the last wave at the bottom.
The bottom portion of Double Drop is on a left hand turn so the river wants to push you into the right hand bank. As we entered the rapid, I turned my boat sideways and started to ferry away from the right hand wall. Despite my best efforts (and Steph and Emily’s words of encouragement), we weren't moving much. We were just about to the large wave/hole at the bottom of the rapid, so I swung the bow around to meet it head on. Water rushed over the bow of the boat and that was it. My first thought was, "Oh, that wasn't too bad." However we hadn't punched through, instead we had stalled out. I yelled for Emily to paddle forward, but the boat was already sliding back down the wave. As we slid backwards, the boat turned sideways and started the all too familiar flipping motion.
I tried to brace myself, as I did in Ham, but it seemed it was my turn to swim. In a combination of losing my balance and the boat shuddering, I fell off into the fast moving water. A few seconds later I popped up next to the boat. Apparently the river was satisfied with getting me knocked out and decided to spare the remaining occupants of the boat. I grabbed onto the cargo net in the back of the boat and pulled myself back aboard. Emily was poised to help grab the oars in case I didn't make it back in and Steph was on her second of three whistle blows. After pulling into the eddy next to Charles, we watched as George, Ken, Doug and Nicole made the drop without incident.
Next up was Ladle. So far I was three for two. That is, three swimmers for two Class IV rapids. Not a good average by any means. I think most everyone, except for Charles and Doug, were pretty nervous about this one. Ladle is one of those rapids you always hear about. Charles pointed out the easiest line which was right of center. He then ran the line while the rest of us watched. Watching Charles run a rapid seemed to always build confidence, because he makes it look easy. Steph decided to walk around and videotape this one, so Emily and I boarded the boat and headed downriver. We entered the rapid on the right side and ferried to the left, missing boulders and holes and then punched through a small hole near the bottom and that was it. Everything went smoothly. We eddied out on the right below the rapid. From our spot, we could see the top portion of the rapid.
Ken and Marla entered the rapid, followed by Nicole. We lost sight of them as trees and boulders blocked the rest of our view. After about a minute, we knew something was up because it shouldn't have taken so long to get through the rapid. Then we saw Ken and Mara and moments later, Nicole. One of Nicole's oars was bent at a 75-degree angle. She was unable to make the eddy so Doug and Charles took off downstream after her.
We later found out that Ken and Marla's boat got pinned on a rock part way through the rapid. Nicole's boat also got stuck sideways on a rock and her oar got jammed between the rock and her boat, causing it to bend. With one damaged oar it was amazing that Nicole was able to maneuver. A little farther downstream her boat ended up flipping. We weren't sure what caused it, though I suspect the rock wall on the river right was to blame. This was one of the worst places to take a swim, or chase a boat, because there are continuous Class III and IV rapids for the next few miles. After picking up Steph, we pulled out of the eddy, with George in the lead. The rest of the group had taken off to help Nicole and there are few places to stop, so we were on our own. I was pretty glad to be following George.
We had no idea which rapids were which because they are so close together. As soon as one drop ended you were entering another and would need to set up quickly. George would stand up, quickly survey the next rapid and then get into position. We had a close call in one of the first rapids, Little Niagara I think. We washed up onto a rock but managed to spin off and get back on line. I was having a great time; the rapids just keep coming at you. It was definitely not a place to fall out or flip, really fun as long as you were right side up and in a boat. Eventually we popped out of the last rapid and found the rest of the group waiting in an eddy. Everyone was in good order. Nicole had been picked up by Charles before the first rapid and Doug had recovered her boat. A short distance further we pulled off onto a beautiful beach. A small stream encircled the camp, which actually originated from the river making the beach an island. It was beautiful. We unloaded our boats and set up camp.
There were thousands of sand flies covering the beach. Apparently we had arrived shortly after a hatching. They didn't seem to bother us though. That night we made tri tip shish kabobs with orzo pasta and salad. I was in charge of cooking the meat. My charcoal wasn't burning as hot as I wanted, so it was pretty slow going. Everything seemed to turn out okay; well everyone ate it and no one seemed to have gotten sick, so I considered it a success. Later Steph made Dutch oven raspberry chocolate cake for dessert, my favorite. It was a very pleasant evening. A couple of times it threatened to rain on us, but didn't. We ended the evening standing around talking and having a good time.
The next morning I noticed bug bites all over my arms, legs and feet. I suspected sand flies to be the culprits. I was the only person wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt the night before and was obviously an easy target for the bugs. After eating a quick breakfast, we loaded up the boats. Sand flies were all over the tent and dry bags. I have never seen so many in my life. We had one more Class IV rapid, Wolf Creek. I don't remember much before Wolf Creek; it kind of eclipsed everything else that we ran that day.
You can scout Wolf Creek from a trail along the cliffs on river right. We took our time scouting. Charles went over the various lines and pointed out the easiest options. You could run the rapid on the right and make a left ferry to miss a large pour over, or run just left of center, dodging a few rocks and holes as you move slightly towards the center. The middle of the rapid has some very large boulders, definitely not a place where you want to end up. Doug and George decided to take the right hand line while the rest of us took the left. We watched as Doug and George ran their line with no real incident. Steph and Nicole had decided to walk around this one, so Doug hiked back up and around the rapid to take Nicole's boat down. I took a few more looks at the rapid and my plan A, B and C moves and then headed down to the boat.
Charles went first, followed by Ken, me and then Doug. There was a seemingly calm pool just above the rapid. As is the usual case, you can only see a horizon line with a few boulders peeking out from the void. We followed and watched Charles as he entered the left portion of the rapid. Ken was next up and appeared to be online with the same path Charles took. However, he was pulling very hard on his oars and wasn't moving very much. At first it looked like he had plenty of time to get over to the left. Then I realized that he was drifting to the right and I was also drifting with him. I moved the boat sideways and started pulling on the oars as hard as I could. I looked up and saw Ken pinned on a rock at the top of the rapid. The river was pulling us towards the exact same spot. I kept rowing and skirted just left of where he was pinned. I was relieved that we didn't run into him, but then noticed we had pulled into nearly the worst spot possible. We had drifted into the large boulders occupying the middle of the rapid. There were boulders all around us. Two very large ones were damming up the water in front of us and had a log jammed between them. Plan A, B and C were gone. This was not a situation I had planned on.
I was sure we were going to get pinned on the log and/or rocks, because from what I could see there was nowhere else to go. I gave a few back strokes on the oars to slow us down. At this point we had bumped into the log and rocks and started to slowly spin around so that our bow was facing river left. I felt the boat tilt backwards, which was more than a little disconcerting. What happened next was the last thing I could have imagined. We slid down off one rock backwards which then turned us so that we were facing upstream. From there the boat slid directly downstream over another rock and into the slack water below. I couldn't believe it! We had ended up exactly where Doug and George had made their right-to-left ferry move in a relatively calm area of the rapid. We slowly drifted downstream, missing the large pourover on the far right and punched through the wave at the bottom, negotiated the small rapid at the bottom and pulled into an eddy.
In the meantime, Ken had gotten off the rock and made it through the rapid just fine. Doug, who was behind all of us, followed me part way through and then maneuvered Nicole's cataraft back over to the left line that we had originally planned on. During the entire ordeal Steph and Nicole were perched up on the cliff watching us. The first thing Nicole said when they met back up with us was, "I'm sure glad I didn't run that one." I believe Steph quietly agreed. We headed downriver a mile or so and then were forced off the river by an incoming storm. After a brief discussion, we decided to set up camp and call it a day. It rained off and on while we were setting up camp. That night Doug and Nicole made fettuccine cabonara for dinner and Steph made peach cobbler. Everything was fantastic. After dinner we all answered three questions in front of the group: what was your worst moment on the trip, best moment and what was unexpected. It was interesting to hear everyone's answer.
George handed out commemorative pins to all of us in the group. To the brave swimmers he gave pins with bears on them, as they had "eaten the bear." To the people that led boats down, he gave pins with ospreys, they were pretty cool. I received an osprey, though I think I was more worthy of maybe a turkey. We sat around and chatted for a few more hours and enjoyed the sunset and the rain. The evening was very picturesque, with low lying fog on the river and a very colorful sunset over the mountains.
We took our time the next day, rowing and taking pictures and video of the group running different rapids. Around noon we stopped at a beach for lunch before reaching the take-out. At the take-out we helped each other pack up. It's interesting to note how well you can get to know people on a rafting trip. We had started out the trip, for the most part, a group of strangers. As we said our goodbyes it was easy to say that we had all become friends during the trip. It had definitely been an adventure: some things went as planned, some didn't. We had great weather, great food and most importantly, great company. What more can you ask for in a river trip!
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Here’s a short excerpt of the video Darren and crew took during the trip. He’s making a longer version that we’ll have for you in a future e-News issue. Enjoy!