I did not yet consider myself worthy to apply to the National Park Service. I needed to deepen my awareness more, grow more sure in myself. I wanted to go “beyond”. Go way out there. An intermediate life goal formed: return north next summer and float down the Yukon River. There was no internet, no Google Earth in the early 70’s to help me learn what this might entail but I knew that paddlewheelers had plied up and down the Yukon until highways made them obsolete in the 1950’s. Therefore, the river should be floatable. I ordered large scale topographic maps from the Canadian government and the USGS.
The main problem was how would I do it? I couldn’t hitchhike with a boat. In a Sears Roebuck catalog, I saw a picture of two men going through whitewater in a small inflatable raft that only weighed about 30 pounds. So I bought the Ted Williams Special, a two chamber inflatable raft that was six feet by four feet. When all assembled, my supplies and rafts weighed about 110 pounds and fit into my backpack and a large duffel bag.
However, I thought it would be wise, before I carried all of this gear all the way up to the Yukon and launched off into vast wilderness, to try it out in a more local setting first. So I decided in late May, just before I was going to head for Alaska, to try my raft out by floating about a hundred miles on the Grande Ronde River in northeastern Oregon.
I had driven along the Wallowa River, one of the Grande Ronde’s main tributaries, many times in delivering feed for my dad. I occasionally saw ranchers’ kids inner-tubing the Wallowa River in the summer. I also knew from local newspaper articles that fishermen would float the Grand Ronde – camping along its shores and fishing. I was able to find a forest service map that showed all of the Grand Ronde except the last five miles before it joined the Snake and I couldn’t see any real danger. So one late May afternoon, Mom and Dad dropped me off beside the Wallowa River, watched me puff up my raft, put in my supplies wrapped in plastic garbage bags, and start off on a three to four day trip.
That first afternoon was glorious! The journey was as good as I imagined. Bouncing and splashing along easy whitewater through a wilderness forest. Around each bend lay a new stretch with routes to choose and standing waves to go through or around. Some stretches were steep and fast, others more gentle. I didn’t see a soul. Evening brought me to an riverside campground that I had all to myself. Though water had splashed into the raft during the run, my equipment was dry within two layers of plastic garbage bags. The campground had a register with several years of comments. Almost all of the people were having a great time. Many of the people had done the run several times. The only problem seemed to be that in some years, by August, the river level had dropped to where there were lots of shallows and rocks but that was not a problem for me in late May.
All night I slept to the sounds of the flowing river and arose enthusiastic the next morning for an entire day of delightful wilderness adventure. Refreshed and ecstatic I flowed with the river. I remember one long beautiful stretch where the river ran steep, straight, and fast through the morning shadows of tall trees rising on both sides like a gothic cathedral. The far end of this river cathedral glowed with golden light where the river curved to the right into the sunlight.
Like Isaac Newton said, a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by another force so the current flowed straight into the curve, piling up as the bank acted on the current to turn it, like a car scraping against a guard rail, to the right. So the current was moving me towards the left side as I came around the curve to see the next stretch awaiting me and
About ten seconds ahead, a tall pine tree that had grown on the left bank had recently fallen across the river. The trunk was a foot above the river with its still-green needled branches sticking down into the river every few feet, forming an impenetrable comb through which the river rushed. In about nine seconds now, the current would sweep me into the branches beneath the surface where I would entangle and struggle hopelessly against the strong current until I drowned.
Let me pause here to more fully describe the staggering naivety of my situation. First, my equipment. I did not have a life jacket. In a stroke of what I had thought genius at the time, I figured that I could reduce the bulk of my hitchhiking outfit by not bringing a life jacket. The only reason I could imagine needing a life jacket was if I fell off my boat. So if I tied myself to my raft with a ten foot length of rope, I could just use the rope to pull myself back on. But in the instant that I saw that tree across the river, I realized I had a hangman’s noose around my waist. Even if I could make it through the straining branches, my raft would not and I’d be held hanging in the current ten feet downstream of my solidly trapped raft. Being tied to a raft caught on a tree within a swift river had never entered my mind as a possibility.
My raft was small – six feet long by four feet wide. It was not a high-pressure whitewater raft that could bounce off rocks like an inner tube. My raft was a low pressure, blown up with my lungs, somewhat soft to the touch, two-chambered raft. There were two plastic seats that were supposed to attach to the top of the tubes but they were heavy and I had left them behind. There was just enough space within the four feet by two feet interior for my pack (double-wrapped in trash bags) to lie snugly, forming, with the boat, a somewhat level, 6’x4’ soft platform that I sat cross-legged upon.
A set of short oars had come with the raft. They were to slip through rubberized grommets that acted like oar locks but it was a clumsy configuration so I had brought just the paddle part of each oar. Imagine me holding a plastic ping-pong paddle in each hand paddling backwards and you will have an accurate image of me shooting around that bend towards the fallen tree.
I am telling this cautionary story (and a few to follow) because I feel a certain moral obligation to warn any young reader who might feel inspired by my stories to go have adventures in the wild. I hope you do go have adventures. However, it seems like young people (especially young men) get killed out there doing naive things like I did. I felt so full of life as to be invulnerable. I was so hooked on the ecstasy of life off the leash and discovering I had the power to do things beyond my imagination that I did not realize how much I did not yet know. Discovering new experiences and capabilities and how to handle danger is part of the ecstasy but not knowing what one does not know is part of the danger. The ecstasy is part of the danger. All the responsible books will say to never hike alone but I have continued hiking alone throughout my life and will risk my probable death alone out there somewhere in my old age rather than give up the joys of roaming freely over the land. So I’m not sure what to say to young people exuberant with discovery except to not let it blind you to your mortality. Though you might feel like a god, you are mortal. Nature is not trying to kill you but you might.
Nine seconds from that tree and I looked to the right to see if I could go around. The tree spanned the entire river. I had never imagined a tree could do that to a river. The full force of the current was pushing me towards the base of the tree on the left, the outside bank of the curve. My only chance was to go with the current and try to reach the left bank before the tree. Eight seconds from the tree, I was paddling my little paddles with all my strength to the left bank as I scanned it for a place where I could jump out. The full force of the current was rushing along that bank but I leapt ashore three seconds upstream of my death. Being tied to the boat actually helped in this instant because I could leap out without having to hold onto the boat. I then used my “hangman’s noose” to pull my boat up against the shore and secure it within the driving current – the roar of the water pushing through the branches very near at hand. I lifted out my pack and carried it down past the tree to a place of calmer water. Then I went back and carried my six foot raft down over the fallen trunk.
Here is some more information about my situation. By now, I was ten or fifteen miles into a roadless wilderness area at the bottom of a thousand foot deep canyon. The first road was at Troy, about 60 miles downriver. I was committed. The only way out was to continue on down. But everything was different now. Now I realized I could die any minute and my only chance of survival lay in learning everything about this river as fast as I could.
I had known for years that snow in the mountains melts faster as the days of May and June grow longer and hotter, making the rivers rise. But that somehow never translated into an understanding that by going on this river at the end of May, I would be riding a freight train that was gathering momentum with every converging creek and tributary. (When I analyze my naïveté, much of it lies in this lack of connections between things I knew; there was no awareness of implications and consequences. Or in the words of Jack London: “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.”) And this particular spring (1974) had extremely high runoff.* I had absolutely no experience of how increased river flow led to increased speed and power, including the power to erode the base of a tall tree and drop it down all the way across the river. Now I had to learn.
Fortunately, I had a head start on this. Though I had never whitewater rafted before, I had played along streams all my childhood. When I was five, my older brother and sister and I would race sticks down a tiny stream that meandered through a park. We would drop them in at the same time and then follow them two hundred yards down to where the stream disappeared into a small culvert. If your stick got stuck against vegetation or in a side eddy (which happened far more than one might think), you could drop it back into the current again. I learned that that creek has narrow, fast places and wide, slow places. My middle childhood home had a creek flowing through it. I spent thousands of hours along that stream, often dropping a stick in and walking along the bank watching how the stick accelerated and slowed and spun in fascinating patterns.
So I learned really fast that day on the Grande Ronde that what I needed to pay attention to was the current, not the river. The river is all the water flowing between the banks. The current is the fastest (most powerful) flow within the river. The current snakes back and forth from one side to another, piling up against the outside bend of every curve like a car scraping around a curving guardrail. With my small paddles on that surging river, I could not go wherever I wanted. The force of my paddles was so puny compared to the force of the current that I could not waste any of my effort. I had to go where the current was carrying me. All I could control was where I was within the current. I quickly learned that day that the most effective use of my paddling energy was to apply all of my force perpendicular to the direction of the current.
So I learned to look downstream and study where the current was carrying me.
The most effective use of my energy was in paddling at 90 degrees to the direction of the current – because that was all I could control, my location within the current. As the current oscillated, I would try paddling across the current to get to the inside edge of it.
Where is my section of water going? Where will the current carry me five seconds from now? Once I see that, then project it out to ten seconds away? Twenty seconds? I follow my particular line of the current downstream.
If it is heading to a good place, fine. I can rest. But if it is heading to a bad place 20 seconds away, I have to decide where I would rather be in 20 seconds.
Once I know that, I follow the current of that place back up to me.
I need to paddle my boat from my present line within the current over to that desired line in the next 20 seconds.
The further ahead I can determine these things, the more time I have to respond and the less panicked paddling I will need to do. I had to think of my path as a vector that was a combination of the vector force of the current and the vector force of my paddling.
This was especially true each time the flood crashed against a sharp bend within this thousand-foot canyon of basalt. The severity of that collision depended on the speed of the current, the sharpness of the turn, and the angle of the rock face the current pushed up against. Though each bend was unique, they all shared a basic pattern. There was a dividing line within the current between life and what I assumed would be death. If, for example, the river curved to the right, then most of the current, in the collision with the rock face, would slide off to the right – downstream. But part of the left-hand side of the current tumbled to the left into a roiling turbulence kept churning by the full force of the flood streaming past just a foot away. I might be be swirled and tumbled there forever. I must never, never, never come into the bend on that side of the current.
Since my strongest stroke was backwards, I would keep my raft turned 90 degrees to the direction of the current with my back facing towards the side of the current that would be on the inside of the next bend.
Therefore, once I knew which way the river up ahead was going to turn, I would start paddling across the current towards the inside of the upcoming bend. If I made it all the way across, then the turn was fairly easy.
However, as the collision became more head-on, the dividing line between current turning to the right and turning to the left became more problematic. There became a wider middle zone that eventually would turn the right way but only after it got pushed high up on the rock face and curled back on itself. Those were the scary ones. I’d be paddling backwards across the current, trying to get as far away from the center of the current as I could as the current swept me closer to the rock face. Then the current banked up against the rock face and my raft would tilt to the side as I, paddling with full adrenalin energy, drew close to the curling wave crowning the height of the surge. I wanted my raft to never touch those rock faces. But a few times I was only a foot away and looking down from five feet up on this banked turn before I could feel the current gather the power to carry me to the side and down into the next stretch.
Fortunately, there were no rock-filled rapids to maneuver through. The flood covered all the rocks. Instead there were roller coasters of large standing waves chuting straight across the rapids. Once in them, all I could do was spin my bow back and forth to make sure I met each standing wave head-on while also backpaddling to slow the rush and give my raft time to settle into the crest of each standing wave. Because the raft was short with its weight centered, I could spin very fast with my “ping pong” paddles.
These rapids might have been fun in a big, eight-person whitewater river raft that would have plowed through them. But in my little raft that rode up to the crest of every standing wave and down to the bottom of every trough, they were intense. The standing waves were probably four feet tall which isn’t horrific but if you are sitting in a little raft with your eyes three feet above the water, you rush down into troughs surrounded by crests rising a foot above you and seconds later you crest and look down at troughs seven feet below you. Diving and cresting every five second, I constantly backpaddled through the rapid, keeping my bow turned forward. Without oarlock leverage, the only power was the power in my instantly-responsive arms. All around was the roar of the white water and the occasional deep clunk of a large boulder shifting position on the river’s rocky bed beneath me. The rapids weren’t fun – too much was at stake – but they were definitely thrilling.
The river gradually changed through the afternoon. Not only was it growing larger but it had dropped out of the forests and into semi-arid grasslands rising above the riparian vegetation. That entire day was rapids and turns and paddling. I was soaking wet. I was exhausted. But then another rapid would come and adrenalin would power more strong paddling. Not until evening did I finally see a sandy beach where I could camp. Without an impending crisis, I could not summon the energy to paddle to the beach. I feebly made it into the shallow water but I was too exhausted to paddle or stand. So eventually I rolled off my raft into the water and crawled ashore. Later I pulled my raft to shore and set up camp. That was the most exhausted my body had ever been.
I awoke the next morning, tired but stronger than I would have expected and with a certain grim determination. Today I would reach Troy, Oregon. I had planned on floating down to the Snake River and from there on down to Lewiston to find out if it was possible to hitchhike home with my rolled-up raft and equipment. But this ride was too intense; I would get out at Troy, the first place where a road crossed the river.
The river, however, was done with most of its downcutting. The canyon broadened out and for most of the day I was floating through agricultural bottomlands. Remote, bottom-of-the-canyon ranches but civilization nevertheless. Sometime during the day I came to the one bridge along most of its length where a road crossed the Grande Ronde. I had been thinking that morning that I would cut my planned trip short but the river had become so mellow now that I decided to stay with my original plan and floated on by. There were occasional rapids but nothing like yesterday. And so the day went on. In the late afternoon, the canyon country was growing more arid. The bottomland was pinching out and it became just me and the river and the canyon walls again. I knew I was within a few miles of the Snake River because I had gone beyond the edge of my forest service map.
I began hearing the faint roar of the next rapid somewhere up ahead so I started scanning ahead. I could tell from the cliffs that the river would curve to the left down there, so I was paddling to the left to be on the inside bend of the turn. The roar of the river grew more audible. I still couldn’t see anything but my head was up high now, like a prey animal sensing something, alert; my eyes scanning ahead. As I kept paddling towards the left, the situation grew more curious. I could see the “horizon line” on the river. If the river suddenly steepens, the surface beyond drops out of sight, forming a horizon. This usually marks the beginning of a rapid and as you draw closer, you start seeing the white spray splashing up from the rapids beyond the horizon line. But I could not see any splashing spray above this horizon line. The sound of whatever lay ahead did not sound as close as that horizon line appeared. By now I was safely positioned on the left side of the river, continuing the river’s slow drift closer and closer to that horizon line. And still I could see nothing beyond it. I sat up as high as I could upon my raft, craning my neck up, trying to peek over that barrier to my vision. Nothing. The moment my eyes could finally see beyond that steep horizon line, my ears heard the full roar of what lay beyond.
This was a different WOA! from the morning before. That previous WOA had been an “I am about to die” WOA. This one was a safely to the side “I would have died in that” incredulous amazement as I stared at the brown monster. At the horizon line, the entire surface of the river suddenly tipped down into a 5% grade and began a smooth (therefore no warning spray) acceleration towards the cliff that formed the outside bend on the right about a hundred yards ahead of me. It wasn’t a rapid. The entire river was accelerating into one, high-speed smooth tongue of water that pushed up against a smoothly banked rock face with so much force that the entire river surged twenty feet up the cliff, turned completely over and fell back in a great inverted brown standing wave. It was like some Hollywood car stunt where a car flies up and rolls over in mid-air, crashing down upon its roof – except it was ongoing, continuous, like a surfer’s tubular wave standing still with the flood roaring through it.
The moment I saw it, I was paddling to shore which I easily reached because I was already near it. And then I just stood in awe of the beast. There was absolutely no way I would have ever survived the entire river turning over upon itself. There was a portage trail around it so I put on my backpack and started following the trail around that death wave. The trail stayed high above and somewhat away from the river. I followed it past the bend to the left to the next stretch where the trail came back to a view of the river which revealed a twenty foot waterfall. The entire river plunged over a twenty foot waterfall. I was totally freaked out. This little section that had been just beyond the edge of my boating map – what other dangers might lurk? The trail kept going and I came to another plunge pool where the entire river went over a ten foot waterfall. Very shaken, I set my pack down on a soft level area where I would camp hundreds of yards away from this now-terrifying river. I hiked back past the two waterfalls and inverted wave, picked up my inflatable raft and soberly carried it past the inverted wave and the two waterfalls. I never, never, never would have survived that stretch. I went to bed that night unsure whether I would launch into the next stretch of this frightening river.
I awoke the next morning, still unsure of what I was going to do. I had been up several minutes when I finally noticed that my raft was not there. It wasn’t there! I was sure I knew where my raft was supposed to be but I looked all around in case my memory was off. Nothing. My raft was nowhere in sight. I was so disoriented that I even lay back down on my sleeping bag, closed my eyes, and “woke” up again, just in case that would change my world. It didn’t. My raft continued to not be there. All I could think of was that a wind had come up in the night and blown my raft away so I walked all over the country around me but found no sign of it. I must have been so tired that I had slept through some very powerful freak wind that had come up during my sleep and tumbled my raft a hundred yards to the river where it floated away. Feeling very confused, I packed up my things and started hiking home. So I didn’t have to decide whether I would continue on the scary river or not. The world, through some unknown means, had decided for me.
About a mile downstream, I came to a dirt road and about a mile later I came to a small paved road along the river and a small bridge that crossed the Grande Ronde. I continued hiking. About a half mile further, I saw my raft floating in the reeds on the other side of the river. So I took off my pack, got my oars, walked back up to the bridge, crossed, and walked back down the other side to my raft and paddled it back across to my pack. And now I did have to decide whether I should continue on the river or pack it up and hitchhike home. The river was very mellow here so I eventually decided to continue on the river but with apprehension. Within a mile, we converged with the Snake River. Now I could relax.
Or so I thought. The Grande Ronde, which had felt like a freight train, was but one small tributary of the Snake. The Salmon River that had just killed rafters was another. Snowmelt from the Tetons hundreds of miles away in Wyoming was flowing here. If there are any rapids on the twenty miles down to Lewiston, I never saw them; they were completely washed out at high water. Just lots of water moving smoothly with a spooky amount of force, with occasional battering rams of massive tree trunks rushing down from the Snake’s forested headwaters. Upwellings would suddenly push up noisily around me and spin some of their energy into broad whirlpools that pulled the surface of the river down into a foot-deep funnel. I’ve grown to love the interplay between a river’s upwellings and whirlpools but riding on a small raft down the Snake at very high water is not the best situation to have a first encounter with this phenomenon. The twenty miles would have passed very fast except I got stuck in an eddy that was so strong that an hour probably passed before it let me back into the current. I never relaxed. Floating a thousand miles of the Yukon the next month was a piece of cake after that.
* (A webpage on running the Grande Ronde says:
“• 6,000 to 10,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), high: good for experienced drift boaters and medium to large rafts. Rapids start to wash out and rocks get covered. Note: It gets a lot more swirly for paddlers in canoes and kayaks.
- 10,000 cfs or more, very high: medium or large rafts; experienced drift boaters. Very swirly for canoes and kayaks.”
Elsewhere, I found the historical averages for the Grande Ronde’s annual peak flow is right around when I was on it – late May to early June. I also found that the peak flow for that year, 1974, was 24,000 cfs. So I was on the river when it was about twice as big as “very high”, twice as big as “very swirly”. In the same period as my trip, eleven or twelve white water rafters died on the Salmon River (another tributary of the Snake).