My brothers and sisters, not by blood, are river rats. I am a river rat and a former whitewater raft guide. I lived in Colorado for 14 years and chased the snowmelt each spring. A few of us would wager what the peak level in cubic feet per seconds would be on the Colorado River. During the winter months, we pooled our efforts and applied for river permits in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Idaho.
In 1996, Heath hit the lottery. He pulled a permit for the Selway River in Idaho. This is the ultimate prize. In those days, one out of fifty applicants would receive a permit. We were all salivating for this opportunity. There was a catch, however.
The launch date was on May 15th, the first day of the season. Idaho had record amounts of snow that winter. A little background with river rats. They are:
and many are homeless
Without much thought to the conditions, we packed all our gear and headed north. When we arrived, we found the road had been opened the day before. It is raining. The river gauge is reading 6.3 feet. Our guidebook tells us anything above 6.0 feet is extremely hazardous. It rains all night. Next morning, I checked the gauge and it is now 7.3 feet! We are headed into uncharted territory.
Our group of 15 men and women gather to have a pseudo-group decision since the river level is much higher than anticipated. We assume that the rapids would be washed out at this level and decide to launch. Did I say river rats are rebellious?
Before launching, I study the river currents and count a tree floating by every five minutes at about eight knots. Three rafts, two catarafts and five kayaks launch on May 15th. I am in a kayak. It immediately becomes apparent this is a carnival ride with no stop button.
The rafts are overloaded and out of control. We soon encounter a log jam that is blocking half the river. One of the rafts smacks the side of the log jam. The two people in the raft jump out. The raft disappears under the log jam and reappears fifty feet downriver. Another kayaker and myself chased the raft for one mile before pushing it on the shore.
We limp downstream and miraculously, we find a lodge with an airstrip. Our group is ready to get honest. Nine people decide to fly out with little discussion. Five kayakers and Larry, who is in charge of the one remaining raft, feel this is a once in the lifetime opportunity. I am one of the kayakers who elects to continue on downriver. I reason with myself that I can always portage. Did I say river rats are storytellers?
The caretaker at the lodge said, “this is suicide at this level.” I wave to the last plane carrying the remaining sanity of the group. Best case scenario: we meet the group at the take-out all in one piece. Worse case scenario: the raft flips or we lose a kayak. Death does enter my mind. There is no death when you are in your twenties.
We move fast and reach camp. Next day, we start the four mile scout of the rapids. Ladle Rapid is just plain ugly. It has a river wide hole with one small break in the middle and a tight slot on the right. Everyone guesses which way they will run it.
Dizzy from the scout, we head back to camp. Walking up the trail, I am trying to remember which way I want to go. I am thinking right at Wa-Poots, right at No Slouch, left at Puzzle Creek, or was it? Tom and I joke about watching for snakes. We eat our words when Randy walks over a timber rattlesnake and jumps ten feet. Larry says that he is reminded of Vietnam. When we reach camp, we start our daily chore trying to start a fire with wet wood. The skin on my feet has started to crack. I think I know what Larry is talking about.
Huddled under the kitchen tarp, we drink Tequila to manage our anxiety. I tell Larry he is crazy to run Ladle and offer to help him portage. He says, “I tried portaging once and didn’t like it.”
The next morning it is the heaviest rain yet. All our marker sticks along the river bank have been washed away. The river is at least one foot higher. Hungover, we try to eat breakfast. No one wants to make a decision. I start getting frustrated and say that I am not camping another night. Everyone calls my bluff and we do the four mile scout again.
Next morning it is still raining. We pack up camp. Larry waits for the kayakers to portage Double Drop and Ladle rapids. Since Larry has no chance to pull over and stop, the kayakers position themselves below the rapids in case we need to rescue Larry and his raft. As we are about to portage, I swim trying to catch the eddy and lose my paddle. Amazingly, Tom retrieves my paddle and returns it to me.
Larry makes it through Ladle without even getting wet. We continue through the four-mile section with no problems.
We give each other high fives. I hear some hollering downstream. I then hear the cracking and watch a 100-foot tree topple over and land in the river beneath a double rainbow in the sky.
Now, many years later, some of us are not here. Tom died of a drug overdose. Larry’s body was found in the desert twenty-two years later with a revolver next to the bones. Heath bought a powerboat and traversing the 6,000 mile Great Loop which is a system of waterways along the east coast of the United States and part of Canada.
Whenever there is a heavy rain and the local creek is flooding, I think:
I need to find a kayak and run the rapids
The many river rats who journeyed down a river with me still remain my brothers and sisters.