The Longest Day

Picture of raft.

July 24, 2014
Day 6
Selway River Trip Day 3

This was to be our most difficult day on the river, and it didn't disappoint.

Shortly after we put in, we hit several class III drops. We scouted a couple of them (notably “Ladle”), but still moved quickly, considering our group's large size. Things were going smoothly when we stopped for lunch. We basked in the warm sunshine and had a chat with the Forest Service volunteers. It was shaping up to be another great day on the river.

Near the end of the day, with all of the large rapids supposedly behind us, our group pulled up to a surprise rapid. We didn't have time to scout everything, so most of our day was spent “reading and running,” which gave us the opportunity to improvise our lines, a style of kayaking that I normally enjoy.

I ran the first part of this rapid, hit an eddy and looked at what lay ahead. Just above the last drop, the river banked left and skirted the edge of a rocky wall that jutted from the shore. If I stayed too far right, I could get pinned against the wall, one of the greatest hazards on this river. It was the end of the day and I was fatigued, so I decided to try and stay out of the meatiest part of the current by running the rapid's left side. If successful, I would avoid the final drop, which looked big and sticky.

I navigated around a few rocks, fighting hard against the current, trying to stay left. This effort proved futile as the current dragged my boat to the right, turning me perpendicular to the river. I slammed against a rock and water rushed over me. I tried the counter-intuitive method of leaning into the rock so that the current would safely flow under my boat and shove me free. The hydraulic was too strong, though, and I got “window-shaded” – thrown upside-down as the current grabbed my upstream edge.

Picture of Selway.

Taking in the scenery during the flats.

Not only was I upside-down, but my paddle was in an awkward position, perpendicular to my boat. I tried to drag my paddle to the left and set up for a roll. This took a monumental effort – the river was thrashing me like a gazelle in a lion's mouth and slamming my head into several rocks. I finally managed to get my paddle out of the water, but before I could sweep to initiate my roll, I felt a huge force crash down on me from above as I went over a pillow drop. I clenched my paddle tight, but it was forced to the other side of my boat. I scraped my head along the rocky bottom and realized two things: I still hadn't gone over the rapid's final drop, and I was out of air. It was time to swim.

I let go of my paddle, pulled the grab-loop on my skirt and struggled to escape from my kayak. As my boat flooded with water, I hit the final drop and was ejected to the bottom of the river. My PFD lifted me to the surface and I gulped several breaths of air. I noticed my kayak bobbing next to me and grabbed it, but I couldn't see my paddle. And I wasn't free from harm yet.

I grabbed a rocky cliff with my free hand and took in my surroundings. I was stuck in a “room of doom,” where water from the rapid slammed into the cliff that jutted out from the river's right side. This formed a powerful vortex, and it had a solid hold on me. I finally located my paddle; it was still bobbing in the last drop. I was more concerned about my boat, though – our group carried two spare paddles, but no spare kayaks. I clenched my boat's handle tight and worked my way to the upstream side of the eddy, where I managed to scoot onto a rock, slightly above the water.

Two people were shouting at me from the opposite side of the river. I couldn't hear them over the water's roar, but I could see that they were getting ready to throw a rope to me. I figured I was too far away for the plan to work, but it would also be difficult for them to paddle across the powerful current and join me in the eddy. Then I saw another boat approach from above and remembered that Dan C had been behind me when I had run the rapid. He dropped into the eddy, grabbing my paddle along the way. Then he hooked up my boat to his “cow tail” and towed it across the river.

Picture of Dan.

I get submerged in a hole.

The only realistic way for me to escape the room of doom was to swim. I got into a protective stance with my forearms in front of my face, but now that the initial adrenaline had worn off, I felt pain on my left temple. I reached up to touch it and blood dripped down my hand. I just wanted to get out of there, so I dove in and swam. The current swept me downstream and pushed me into the rocky cliff, but luckily I got tossed around it, and not sucked underneath. I was free.

Rebecca did a great job of keeping me calm while she looked at my eye. Luckily, I just had a small cut near my eyelid. I relaxed for several minutes, trying to calm my nerves after the scary swim. Now that I was out of the water, I focused my gaze at the rocks near my feet, then at the distant mountains, hopeful that I wouldn't experience the dizzying symptoms of a concussion. I decided that even though I had gotten my bell rung, I was OK. But either way I didn't have much choice in the matter. It was getting late, and we had to continue.

We paddled through some smaller rapids, then passed the Forest Service volunteers as they were setting up camp. During our discussion at lunch, we had noted that we would be camping a bit downstream of them, so I figured we were almost done with our day. But then I noticed the rest of our group relaxing in an eddy. A few of us had fallen behind because of my swim, but if our campsite was coming up, why was everyone else waiting for us here?

It turned out that our campsite was taken. I didn't think this was possible, given that no other groups had launched on the same day as us. But the answer soon became clear – the group that had launched the day before us had decided to take a rest day. In our intended campsite. We were annoyed, but we couldn't get that mad at them – with enough time and food, we might have done the same thing. The next campsite was four miles downstream. We pushed ahead.

We hit two class III's and many II's over the next hour. Still shaken from my swim, I played it as safe as possible, and luckily I remained upright the whole time. As we rounded the final bend before our campsite, we noticed rafts. Rafts! I didn't understand how this was possible. We floated past the site, discussing what to do next, when the campers gathered 'round the shore to watch us. One was dressed like the Pope, another like a cow, and the rest in equally absurd costumes. I thought I was hallucinating – how hard had I hit my head? The campers shouted at us, offering whiskey and beer, but all I wanted was food, water and sleep. A few people in our group stopped to imbibe while the rest of us ignored the happy campers and continued downstream.

Shortly before sunset, we finally pulled into an empty campsite. This site was far nicer than the one occupied by the happy campers, so seeing (or imagining?) them was a blessing in disguise. I ate a quick supper, read a bit more Cosmo after Caitlyn relinquished it and passed out while it was still light outside.

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