What do boaters do when they get stuck at a desk too long?
They get twitchy and prone to loss of concentration and staring off into space. They’re drawn to the sound of running water… even if it’s just coming out of the sink tap. And they start to plan trips. Cause and Effect.
Tyler Harris is one of my favorite running mates. We’ve worked together here at NRS, carpooled together and done a lot of boating together. He’s half my age, but a kindred spirit. Master of the quick quip and obnoxious pun, he’s a fun companion and one of the best boatmen I know. He’s now gone to work for AIRE Inflatables and lives in the Boise area.
When he contacted me and said, “We gotta go boatin’. Let’s do Hells Canyon, put in on Saturday, October 16th and get out on the 19th”, I said, “Sign me up!” Sounded like he had some other folks who were interested and I checked with folks in my area.
As typical, more people expressed interest than could, or would, make it. Turned out it was me, Ty and four of his friends. Dustin, who I’d met once when running shuttle for Ty and some friends, was coming over from Montana and could pick me up on his way. Shelby, Sarah and Kelix were coming over from the Leavenworth, Washington area. We’d converge on the evening of the 15th.
I opted to leave my ol’ faithful NRS E-150 raft at home and bring one of the new 15’ NRS Cool Cat Catarafts instead. New deal for me, first time multidaying a cat. Dustin and I met up around noon and shoehorned my gear into and on top of his truck, along with his E-150 and the two dogs, Maris, the gray muzzled Golden Retriever and Walker, the big, lanky hound.
I enjoyed getting to know Dustin better on the long drive south. He and Tyler were college roommates and they’ve done lots of stuff together. We rolled into the campsite at Oxbow before dark and before the rest of the crew. Set up camp and munched on some food we’d picked up along the way. The other four popped in after dark, coincidentally meeting each other at the campground entrance.
Shelby and Ty are longtime friends, having worked at ski resorts and raft guided together for years. Sarah and Shelby are a couple; she’s an RN, acupuncturist and working on her Nurse Practitioner degree. Kelix has guided with Shelby and had just gotten back from a summer of commercial fishing in Alaska. He would be running Shelby’s Liquid Logic Remix kayak and Shelby and Sarah would be in their AIRE Super Puma.
Morning came early and it was up to Scotty’s Hells Canyon Store to set up the shuttle. Diane was in good form, giving more hell than Hells. There was one rafting group at the put-in below the dam when we got there, but they were about ready to push off.
|Click the images for a larger view!|
|It took us a while to get ready. I had set the 66” Universal Frame up at home, but I was still slow getting it all together. I was intrigued with running that frame on the cat. It’s pretty cool, because you can set it up so there’s the same distance between the tubes as you get with the 72” wide yoke-style frames. This gives you about 40” between the tubes, enough room for a full sized dry box and cooler, and with the 66” width I could use my same 9.5’ Cataract Oars.|The colorful 15' NRS Revolution Cool Cat.
© Tyler Harris
It was 3:30 when we finally shoved off. My first thought was, “I’ve overloaded this boat, it’s a total barge!” Thankfully, I discovered before too long that it was the really strong upstream wind that was making the cat feel sluggish and unresponsive. I know I’m one of those “everything, including the kitchen sink” kind of packers, but I’d really tried to cut down, knowing you can’t put as much weight on a 15’ cat with 23” tubes than you can on a 15’ raft.
Studying and pondering Plan A for Wild Sheep Rapid. © Sarah Piestrup |It’s only five miles down to Wild Sheep Rapid, the first Class IV. We looked it over carefully and decided for the rafts at least, the normal “enter left, work right as far as you can” line was best. That way you maneuver through some of the slower water below the big rocks in the upper center, and line up straight for the huge back-curling wave at the bottom.|
The last time I was here, in May, I’d screwed up, didn’t get lined up for the bottom wave and flipped the 150. So there was more riding on this run, plus a couple of extra butterflies. Today, the flow was 8,000 cfs, compared to the 23,000 in May, but Wild Sheep is always big and intimidating. Not to worry, the Cool Cat responded great and I got into a good spot to blast through the bottom wave.
Ty was riding with Dustin, in large part to hang onto Walker, who seemed to be thinking, “Hey, I’m a hound, I don’t do gallons of water up the nose!” Dustin’s relatively new to rowing big whitewater, but he performed like a champ. Shelby had the small boat but he was wily and cagey, slipping through in fine style. Kelix took a kayak line down through the center and made it look easy.
|Only two more miles to Granite Rapid, another Class IV scout. Even though we were burning daylight, we still took time to look at the Native American petroglyphs along the trail to the rapid. I scouted, figured out my line… and still screwed it up by getting too far right. I swear, of all the rapids I’ve ever run, I’ve screwed up in Granite more times than any other. And it’s a simple rapid. There’s this huge rock in the center of the river; depending on the flow, you can go left, right or down the center. In flows of say 22- 28,000 the center run is referred to as “being in the Greenroom”, because you crest over that huge rock and ride a steep green slick down, down, down into a deep trough and, hopefully, swoop up and over the giant wave at the bottom.|Unfortunately, inconsiderate people (read: dumb^$$#$) have too often desecrated native petroglyphs and other artifacts. © Sarah Piestrup
At 8,000 cfs, going over the rock is not advised. I saw a friend do it once, with his wife sitting in the back of the raft. As it went over the rock, the boat flexed in the middle. As the stern came over the rock, the stored energy of the flex flipped the stern up and the wife catapulted up like she’d been shot out of a cannon – major air. She was not amused. Me, unless the Greenroom is open, I want to run the right, or Idaho, side. The left is easier, but I’m stubborn, “I’m going to dial it this time!”
When you push off from the scout landing, you look downstream and there’s a horizon line… with an ominous bulge in the center. The river narrows here, so the approach is swift. The trick is to get close to the rock, without going over it. My favorite stunt is to over compensate and get too far right, and I did it again. The too-far-right is not friendly and I got thrashed around pretty soundly, but I kept it upright, which is the main thing. Everyone else did too, so you have to call it a good day!
Thanks be to the river gods, Oregon Hole, one of my favorite campsites was open. Ten miles, with two rapid scouts, and we still had daylight left, not bad for a 3:30 launch in mid-October. We got unloaded, but before we got much setup, I dug a half-gallon of Toad Juice out of the cooler to get the evening started. I think everyone was ready to loosen up and have fun; I know I was. Too much computer, too much town.
Tyler decided he’d cook that night. He warmed up some delicious spicy soup he’d made ahead of time, along with a tasty bread appetizer. Dustin was fire-master, getting a fire going in the Firepan. He’d imported a bunch of Montana firewood; a completely full 3.8 Bills Bag’s worth; we’d even left a few sticks at the launch.
Ty’s a great cook, very creative, but he brought big baking potatoes, totally raw. I’m thinking, “these things are never going to get done!” But he’d double wrapped them in foil, so we shoved em down in the firepan. Shelby brought out his iPod, with some super compact but really pretty powerful speakers and we had enough liquid refreshment that we didn’t care how late dinner was.
Some song made me remember that I’d brought the ENO Twilights LED lights sample along. I ran up to my tent, clicked them on and came back swinging and twirling them to the music. Big hit, they’re a fun product.
The moon was three-quarter full and when it came up over the ridge, it lit up the canyon. At some point in the evening (memory is a bit foggy), we scrambled up to the rock bluff above camp. The river was a silver ribbon in the moonlight… beautiful, beautiful night.
We kept rotating the potatoes in the coals and finally declared them hopefully done. Ty grilled a pork loin over the coals and we tucked into a great meal. By gar, the spuds were done and delicious!
It felt good to sit around the fire and swap lies, some of which were probably true. We were all full and feeling good. Fortunately, the bottle of whiskey that appeared never got opened, so I was saved from spending the night in my chair.
Needless to say, no one was up too early or too busy about breaking camp. Lots of coffee got consumed and breakfast was no hurry. But we did beat yesterday’s put-in time, pushed off at 2:30!
Sharp, well preserved petroglyphs above Saddle Creek. © Tyler Harris |Ty had learned about some other pictographs, so we pulled in above Saddle Creek Camp. He, Dustin and I went to check them out. What he didn’t tell me was they were way up a slope as steep as a horse’s face. I was using his name in vain by the time I struggled up to them. But, I have to admit I was glad I went. They are some of the best preserved ones I’ve seen anywhere. They’re up on the ceiling of a rock overhang, totally protected from sun and weather. And, they’re so god awful hard to find and get to that they’ve been undisturbed.|
A little further downstream are Upper and Lower Bernard Rapids. Upper is in a narrower part of the river and there’s either a harder vein of rock that crosses here or debris from the creek has formed a mini-dam. In higher water it washes out; in lower water a sharp drop forms in river center. You just line up and hit it straight. I did and the hole was deep and the back side was steep… and I got surfed. The cat stalled and started sliding back into the trough. I uttered that cockpit voice recorder phrase and got ready to start some fancy high siding. Then the river changed its mind and spat me out. I scratched my head, but didn’t argue.
Waterspout Rapid is always worth a scout. It was romping and looked like the wave train was roaring right into the big hole in lower left. Fortunately, the run was less daunting than it looked and we all made it through fine. Below Waterspout are a number of fun Class II/III rapids. However, there’s a joker lurking there – Rush Creek Rapid. It contains a huge, and I’m not exaggerating, pourover and hole on river left. It’s easy to avoid, but it sneaks up on people. I once dumbed into it, and once was enough. On one trip we were doing a layover downstream from Rush and a raft from another group went into that hole. At least one of them had taken off his PFD and he drowned. After a jet boat stopped by to ask us to be on the lookout for the body, our layover day took on a somber cast.
We’d hoped to camp at Johnson Bar, a great “tailgater” of a camp but it was occupied. Steep Creek, a mile below is a mini-Johnson Bar, smaller but still with good sand, which isn’t always the case in this dam-controlled river stretch.
Steep was plenty big for our group. Shelby, Sarah and Kelix served us a unique dinner of buffalo burgers and sautéed wild chanterelle mushrooms! So tasty and so good for you. We were happy campers, but after last night’s get-down celebration, we were a pretty tame crew and were early to bed.
|Monday dawned clear and cool. We totally won the weather lottery! Here we were mid-October and temps were into the 70s in the day and 50s at night. Again, there was no hurry to get on the water, but we kept beating our put-in record – noon was hardly past when we shoved off. The major rapids are behind you at this point, so it’s a mellow, read-and-run through scenic canyon land to Kirkwood.|The Kirkwood bunkhouse, now housing the museum. In the lower right corner you can see a tame “wild” turkey that posed for photos. © Sarah Piestrup
Kirkwood Historic Ranch is a must stop for Hells Canyon travelers. It’s most famous residents, the Jordon family, lived there 1932 – 45. Len later became Idaho Governor and then US Senator. His wife Gracie wrote an excellent book, Home Below Hells Canyon, about their time at Kirkwood. The Forest Service has maintained the site for its historic values, The ranch house is occupied by the volunteers who man the site year-round. The log bunkhouse contains a museum of ranch, prehistoric and wildlife interests in the canyon.
First rubber raft in Hells Canyon. Maybe the first packraft too! © Sarah Piestrup |When the river is busy, it’s bad form to tie up the beach having lunch, but today that wasn’t an issue. The rest of the crew went up to the ranch. I normally hike up but the sun was out and I was feeling lazy so I stretched out on the dry box, with PFD for pillow, and took a short nap. River time.|
Kirkwood often leaves me feeling depressed. It’s only about six miles to the Pittsburg Landing take out and usually means the trip is about over. But we still had another night on the river! And we were in a good mood. After Kirby Creek Rapid, it’s all Class I and II. Feeling goofy, we tied the boats together end to end and played “crack the whip”. Kelix stowed his kayak on my cat and took over the oars for the game.
Fish Trap Bar is one of the last campsites before the take-out and it’s a dandy, a football field length sand bar. When we arrived, a crew from Idaho Power was there. IP manages the three upstream Snake River dams and runs various research projects in the river corridor as part of their licensing agreement. They periodically take measurements of several Hells Canyon beaches to determine how the dams have affected beach deposition and loss. When they left, we took over the lower end of the bar.
Playing “crack the whip”. © Tyler Harris
Our group photo: Ty and Sarah up close, Shelby to the right, Dustin peeking over the seat, me sitting tall and Kelix bringing up the rear. © Tyler Harris
Sarah and Shelby up front, Walker, Maris and Dustin, me, then Kelix at the oars. And yes, I do have on my PFD; itís under my Sea Tour Jacket
! © Tyler Harris
This trip had all along been an emotional discovery time for me. My last trip here was back in May, recounted in the story River Runnin’, Relaxin’ and Ramen. I shared that one with Telly Evans and his good friends Colin and Chris. At the time I didn’t realize that it was the last time I could share the river with Telly. After his death, I had gone through most of the classic stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression. I had yet to arrive at the final stage – acceptance.
All along the river on this trip, Telly had been on my mind. Recurring thoughts and memories kept surfacing. He would have enjoyed this group, this trip, this energy. My last camp with Telly had been here, at Fish Trap. Before I started dinner I got out fixings for rum and Cokes, one of Telly’s favorite river drinks. Tyler was a good friend of Telly’s but the others didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him. I explained the significance of this trip, this place, this drink and the man to Dustin, Shelby, Sarah and Kelix and asked all to join me in a toast to Telly and all Absent Companions. This was a great group to share this ceremonial recognition with. All dedicated outdoors people, all hardcore river runners, three raft guides in the bunch. It felt good. It was good.
|I heated up homemade jalapeno poppers in the camp oven. Dinner was butter, cream and garlic rich Shrimp and Corn Bisque, garlic bread and finger salad with spicy ranch dressing. Dark found us fat, content and up for fun. Another rafting party had occupied the upper end of the bar, so we decided to take a moonlight float to visit them. We all hopped in the Super Puma with Shelby’s sound system and the ENO party lights a blazing. The eddy flow took us to the other camp for a short visit, then back into the main current, down to camp then across the river to catch that eddy back upstream. We made the circle a couple of times, laughing, singing along with the music, digging the moonscape.|The ENO LED Party Lights draped along the Roll-A-Tables. © Sarah Piestrup
This was a good trip, one I really needed. So many times, so many trips, so many miles, on so many rivers. My life has had ups and downs; there have been good times and bad. All the way through, the outdoors has been a healing place for me. As a young child I prowled the East Texas piney woods. As a teenager, the Gulf, bays and Intercoastal waterways of South Texas were my refuge. Utah, Colorado and Alaska fed my soul after college. In Idaho I discovered river running and haven’t looked back.
And positive things can come out of tragedy. Two very good friends, Brian and Jenni Chaffin, have spearheaded an effort to both honor Telly and establish a support system for Idaho river guides. Brian is a former NRS Mountain West Wholesale Rep and river guide who’s now pursuing a Ph.D. Jenni is a member of the NRS Purchasing Team.
Brian and Jenni, along with other friends and family have started work on The Redside Foundation. The goal is to provide the Idaho river guiding community with access to mental and physical health services, legal assistance and post-guiding career planning. It will be modeled along the lines of The Whale Foundation, a successful organization supporting Grand Canyon river guides. There will be a meeting in Boise on Tuesday, December 14th to further refine the mission, goals and strategic plan, as well as to elect a board of directors. If this appeals to you in any way, there’s contact information on the Redside Foundation website.
I wish all of you fun, adventure… and peace, in whatever outdoor experiences you choose.
NRS e-News Editor
P.S. Back from this trip, I was for the first time able to look at a photo of Telly and just say, “Hi, Telly,” without the hurt, anger and sadness I’d been experiencing. I know there’ll be other time
s, other feelings, but I think acceptance is here to stay.