Eastern Boater Boy Meets Big Western Water
By Rob Hammond - 1999
Yep, I know what you are thinking, you read the title, and figure: oh good, smart-ass Hammond goes out west and gets spanked on the BIG water! Now of course the sophisticated readers will surly say "SIR I do not take pleasure in someone else's misfortune!". But please, let me defend my cynical view of boaterkind! It was just 3 months ago I was boating the Upper Gauley. After elegantly negotiating Pillow rapid, one of the more notorious rapids on the river. I casually got out of my boat to take some pictures of my boater colleagues. I clambered down the boulders, came upon a wet, slippery rock, and faster than an upstream lean, I went into the drink, camera and all. Of course, there was the obligatory kidding about this boater's equal opportunity clumsiness whether on land or water. Now if you are thinking, "yea so what!", then you can imagine my surprise when on the very next day, I met up a group of Keel-Haulers on the Cheat river, and was treated to the rumor that "Hammond swam Pillow". So I know that there are people out there who would delight in a good spanking story!
My Western Rivers trip started off on a Sunday in May by telling John Kobak, the trip organizer, that there was no way I could take off to come on his Western Rivers trip, and the way things were shaping up for John, no one else was going either. Things were really too crazy at work for me to take off any serious amount of time. On Monday things changed for the better, this government project that I had been working on, finally came through, and what-da-ya-know, it just happened to be in Idaho. I travel a lot for my company, and they are pretty good about accommodating a little side trip now and then. However, outside of a few sleazy bars, I can count on one hand in the last 25 years, the times that I have been able to squeeze in some fun while on the road. Oh yea, there was the topless beach in Australia. But that is by far the exception, the typical destination is more likely to be Peoria. Since I just want to get home, I work late, just to get the heck out of Dodge! But this time, I might pull off an excellent boating opportunity with company paid airfare, and a few vacation days.
John was planning on hooking up with an old paddling buddy and X-Keel-Hauler, Chuck Pezeshki. Chuck, who John referred to as "Opie" had a couple of extra boats, and would be happy to lend me one for a few days. The next weekend on the New River, I hooked up with Mark Steinmetz. Mark mentioned he was going to be backpacking in Missoula Montana, at the same time I was in Idaho, and he would love to do some boating while he was out there. Some email exchanges, and we set it up, that I would pick up Mark in Missoula, he would share the rental car expenses. Now sharing expenses, makes the hart of this old cheapskate go aflutter!
Idaho is an interesting study in contrasts. The Government job site was a place called Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). It is located in the desert about 60 miles from the nearest town. It covers about 900 square miles and is the home of some of the first nuclear reactor experiments. The first reactor to generate commercial electricity is there, along with training reactors for nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. There is around 60 reactors on this site including the ones for the prototype of first nuclear powered air plane! Yea, back in the 50's, visionaries with their pre Chernobyl foresight, thought it would be cool to have a plane that could stay in the air for 30 days! Fortunately, the planners lost their funding before the flying calamities hit the airways! I am not sure why they stopped the program, maybe they figured that it was cheaper to improve the baggage handling systems at the airports!
Anyway, this place is definitely a hot dry desert, as far as the eye can see there is nothing but stage brush, a reactor or two and some dormant volcanoes. Any trees you see are imported. But underneath the desert is one of the largest aquifers on earth. The Snake River Plain Aquifer holds about as much water as lake Erie. So, all a farmer has to do is poke a hole in the ground, sprinkle a little water around, and voila, potatoes can be grown for as far as the sprinkler can reach!
With the work done in southern Idaho, I headed up to Missoula to pick up Mark. He was the appointed place and time, so we loaded up his rented boat, his boating gear, and headed to the Clearwater National Forest. If there is something that Northern Idaho has in common with Southern Idaho, it's desolation. For as flat and arid as the area around Idaho Falls was, the Clearwater was mountainous, and chilly with snow in the mountains. The forest is in a road-less area, so there are few roads, towns and people. As we drove out of the urban-ness of Missoula, the road was quickly becoming more remote. But there was something familiar up ahead. As if on queue, John Kobak's motor-home came out of nowhere to lead us through the Wilderness to our campground. John was coming from Yellowstone National Park, and we met in the continuum of time on Idaho Route 12, kinda spooky huh? On the way to the campground, Route 12 follows the Lochsa River. The guide book said that this part of the Lochsa was "technical". In the east when they say a river is technical, we talk about bolder choked streams, blind drops and slalom practice. But this stream was wider than anything I have ever boated, with relatively few rocks, and nothing that looked like a blind drop. I smugly said to Mark "these Western Boaters don't what real technical boating is" (now if that remark doesn't instigate a spanking, I don't know what would).
At the Campground we hooked up with Chuck and my boat for the next few days. Chuck brought his biggest boat, a Prijon Hurricane, the size of this boat was soon be appreciated. Later in the day we were joined by another Keel-Hauler, Betsey Youngman who is now living in Phoenix, she was joined by two friends from Boise Idaho Elise Williams and Stan Powell. You wouldn't know it by talking to Betsy, but she was in three Olympic games as a down hill skier. From her boating skills, I would say that she could also compete in the Whitewater Slalom. For a change of pace, she was training for a Triathlon in China of running, biking and boating. Chuck is a Mechanical Engineering Professor at the Washington State University. As a professor he gets a lot of time off in the summer to pursue his passions of Kayaking and protecting in the pristine watershed of the Clearwater. Chuck wrote a book about the ecology of this watershed, called "Wild To the Last". This is an interesting book about how logging, dams, and other encroachments of mankind have corrupted this beautiful watershed. The book talks of his kayaking experiences in the Clearwater, and the causes for the watershed degradation. He explains the poor choices that politicians, bureaucrats, timber companies, and landowners, have made, to contribute to this degradation. For our newsletter, I hope that Chuck will share with us an article explaining what is going on in this watershed, he spent three days trying to educate me, but I can't do the subject justice. The ecology issues in the western watersheds are significantly different than the issues that we face in the east, Chuck has a way of putting the politics, culture and the watershed into prospective. For those of you interested in his book, you can contact with him at his email address: email@example.com.
Our camp site was right on the Lochsa, so we could put on right from our camp site. On the first day we decided to do the lower section, this section is a little easier than the upper. I would say that this was probably a class IV run at this 8,000 CFS level. But, the amount of water and the speed of the water would make this a very different kind of class IV for me. I was a little apprehensive about big water, I have always preferred the challenge of a technical creek to the pushiness of what I thought was a big river, like the Gauley, at 2,000 CFS. But the immensity of the Lochsa made the Gauley look like Slippery Rock Creek. It didn't really hit home how big the river was, until we put on, Kobak was already on the on the opposite side of the river, and so far away that I had a hard time seeing him and his boat. There he was, directly across from me about a 200 yards away, he and his Pirouette looked so small, that he was almost lost in the river features around him. The river current at the put in was moving along at a fast clip of about 8 miles per hour, that's the speed of a fast walk, or maybe a slow jog. The other observation that stuck me (two simultaneous thoughts is my personal limit) is how John's boat was bobbing along on the waves, like a cork on an angry sea. The river was completely oblivious to us and had no more knowledge or concern about our presence than that of a butterfly on the back of an elephant. The river had a mission, it knew where it was going and what it had to do; we could join it for the ride if we liked, but if we got in it's way, it wasn't going to give us a moment's thought.
Chuck, who was intimately familiar with the Lochsa, would lead us down the river. He cautioned us at the put-in; that you simply can not swim in this river, you need to hit your roll, no matter what! With the fast current, in a large and congested river, rescue was very difficult. A mile long swim in this cold river was not hard to envision. The water temperature of about 40 degrees, is what you expect for water, that a dozen or two hours previous, was snow. A long swim here is definitely something to be avoided.
As soon as I was on the river, I knew that this wasn't your father's lower Yough trip. No, this was the size of the Ohio River, but with some serious attitude! Yep, all of the same skills that we use on the lower Yough apply here, but you better pay attention, a casual stroke here or there wasn't gonna hack it! The water was bulldozing its way down stream at a force that commanded respect! My first concern was: could I get where I wanted to go and be there when I needed to be, the power of this river pushed me around a lot more than I was used to, it took over half of the trip to get the hang of things.
The scariest part of these rivers, was the size of the holes. A house floating down this river could get re-circulated in these holes! I suppose boaters get out of these holes, but I could visualize myself caught in a hole until the summer drought. The good thing about these holes is that they were so big, that they were easy to spot, and there was plenty of room to go around them.
The next mind altering feature was waves. These waves were huge, they were so large that they were breaking at their crest! just as a wave in the ocean breaks for the surfers. The breaking at the crest was not big enough to surf, but it was big enough to slap your boat off your line. What was scaring me about the waves, was how do you tell if they are a fun wave, or a really, really nasty, bone crunching pour-over. By observing the survival rate of the boaters in front of me, I decided to try a wave. The crest of this wave was "only" about 8 feet above the river surface. Now Mr. Dolan, my high school science teacher, taught us that if the peak of the wave is 8 feet above the water, then the trough is 16 feet below the peak. When I got to the top of the wave and looked down, I had the same sinking feeling in my stomach that I get on the first drop of a roller coaster. I've gone over water falls that were not as high as this drop, but what a thrill! Just like we learn to recognize a wave in a wave train, from a pour-over on eastern rivers, you do the same for big western water; but, the big Western waves are just way more fun!
The run was 10 miles, but the water moves so fast, and there was so much action (along with nervousness on my part) that the trip seemed like it was over in a "New York Minute". At the takeout, Betsy, needed to get back into the training mode, so she decided to run the 12 miles back to camp, what a great asset she would be on those days you can't find a shuttle ride! The weather was great and all of us had a fantastic day. Oh, there were a few flips into the frigid waters, but no swims or unintended rides in one of those house eating holes!
The next day we decided to run the upper Lochsa. This section had the reputation of being a technical river, with some surprise holes that needed to be avoided. The road runs along the river, so it was easy to stop and scout the holes that we had to avoid. After putting on the river I understood why the guidebook called this a technical river. No, the river was not boulder choked, but it was hole choked. Although the run did not require the tight maneuvering that you might expect in an eastern technical river, there was still plenty of opportunity to tune your slalom skills. In place of rocks where all manor of holes to be avoided. Some were house eating size, others that just did not have a friendly welcome mat out in front of them. About half way through the day, I was feeling much better about my boating skills in the big water. I was hitting my lines, and I was feeling confident that I could maneuver in the pushy water, and get to where I needed when I needed to.
One of the more striking things I noticed about the Lochsa, was how clear the water was. The water was cranking at a very high level with no sediment on the river bottom and as clear as a mountain lake. Chuck explained that this was due in large part to the work that he and his follow environmentalist have done in minimizing the logging in the Lochsa Watershed. Since the area we were boating through had still not grown back from a forest fire from the 1920s, I asked him what the difference was to the watershed between a forest fire and a logging operation. Chuck said that one of the most destructive practices of logging, are the roads that they build.
We don't want this story to end without any carnage! On the second day, Stan became the unwitting volunteer. He flipped, he tried to roll, he tried to roll again, he tried to roll again, he swam! The chase was on to rescue him and his gear, some fast actions by our crew, reunited Stan with land and gear, after about a 1/4 mile chase. But not before he floated past a photographer who memorialized the event for posterity. At lunch, Stan was punished for his deed, with his new handle - "Cover Boy". We thought long and hard about his new name, and agreed that the photographer's picture of Stan, needed to be on the next cover for American Whitewater. Chuck reminisced about the local practice of humiliating a boater after a swim or a bad choice. He asked one of the local boaters why they were so merciless on fellow boaters, the young boater's response was: "DUUDE it's to keep you SAFE man!!".
White Sands Creek - this is the current, Politically Correct name of this beautiful river in the Clearwater area. But originally it was named Colt Killed Creek. The legend is that Lewis and Clark were exploring in this area, the winter set in, things weren't going very well, and the fast food restaurants had not moved into the area yet. Food was low and times were getting desperate for our party of brave explorers; a hard decision had to be made. The decision did not go well for a young colt that was part of their entourage! But on the bright side, the colt did get a stream named after it! and our explorers did make it back to give us the maps we use today!
We left our adventurous boaters last month on the Lochsa River in the Clearwater area of Northern Idaho. They were 3 Ohio boaters, myself and Mark Steinmetz were virgins on the big water western rivers, John Kobak, our seasoned trip leader has probably boated half of the rivers in the Americas. We linked up with two Keelhaulers who have moved out west, Betsy Youngman from Phoenix, and Chuck "Opie" Pezeshki from Moscow Idaho. Betsy also had 2 friends from Boise Idaho join us, Stan Powell and Elise Williams.
The group starts to break up
After 2 days on the Lochsa, Elise had to head back home, and Betsy wanted to spend some time with her, so Betsy, Elise and Stan decided to spend one more day and do a quick run on the Lochsa. This way Elise could get on the road early enough to get home that night. John, Mark, Chuck and I talked about our options for the next day. Chuck wanted to head back home to Moscow ID, John asked me if I was up for the White Sands, I didn't know beans about any of the rivers up Idaho, so I told him " I am up for anything you are". I am not so arrogant to think that I am a better boater than John, it's just that he has a comfort level with river levels that is compatible with mine. Mark was a little apprehensive, but he wanted to give it a try. Chuck thought that the White Sands shuttle road was still closed due to the snow cover (this is the weekend before the 4th of July). But if the road was open, he was up for it as long as we didn't mind him stopping to do photography for an upcoming book. We talked to a scraggly looking boater at the Lochsa Lodge bar who told us the road the road was open, and that the stream was clear of wood. What he didn't tell us made the trip memorable for this Eastern Boater Boy (EBB).
The day started Early, Chuck wanted to get back home because it was Monday and he was playing hooky. Yea! even college profs on summer break have to spend a few days at the daily grind. The plan was to drop my rental car at the takeout, take Chuck's van to the put in, then have John's wife, Peggy, drive Chucks van back to take out, pickup my car and go back to her motor home at the camp ground. It sounded like the perfect plan to all of us boaters! We would have a vehicle at the takeout, we would save two hours of shuttle time on the unimproved mountain roads, and Chuck could get an early start for home! Peggy was just a little skeptical! She has been the victim of her husband's shuttles in the past, the way she tells it, even Glen Miller wouldn't run some of those shuttles. If you have boated in the Cheat Canyon, you know about Glen's standards. But, Peggy is a trooper, after interrogating Chuck on road surfaces, road width, and overall drivability, she agreed to be our shuttle goddess. The shuttle started great, big wide well paved gravel road, after about 2 miles we got the first hint of trouble, "Road Closed One Mile" the sign said. We continued on, the odometer clicked off one mile and we all felt better. "Yea, the sign must be for the winter closure", someone uttered, old scraggly wouldn't have lied to us would he? One more turn revealed the problem. A big old 4 foot diameter tree slid down the mountain, stump, roots and all, blocking the road! Somebody was nice enough to cut the wood out of the way, but the stump covered over half of the road. We came to a stop and the van went silent, Peggy was the first to break the silence, "Sorry guys, there is no way I am driving past that!" We all tumbled out of the van, to check this complication out. There were tracks from a previous vehicle, John paced off the width between the stump and the cliff, his engineering mind calculated that the van could fit, it looked promising. But Peggy wasn't budging, even though we explained that if she, folded the van mirror back and hugged the stump as she drove by, that there would be plenty of room. "There is at least 6 inches of clearance, before you go over the cliff!" we told her, but no, she wasn't buying it - no way, no how! We brainstormed for the best alternative, somebody could hike back, or hire a shuttle driver, maybe boat somewhere else, but nobody volunteered the obvious; one of us be the shuttle bunny! We settled for the best solution, take Peggy back to camp, and run the traditional shuttle with the rental car.
When we got back to the stump in the road, sans Peggy, all of us except Chuck jumped out to guide him past the stump. No! I wasn't worried rolling the van over the cliff and into the abyss! I was a road guide! it's my story and I am sticking with it! The rest of the shuttle was less traumatic, but no less interesting. These mountain roads close when the snow comes, and don't open up until the snow melts, which in these parts is about the end of June. During that time trees fall in the forest. Do they respect man's intrusion to their home? - NO! they just fall all over the road. Fortunately the road crew had started on cleaning up the road. There were at least 80 places where trees fell across the road. About a dozen of them had trees that were so big, the crews had only time to cut a path in the debris the width of their truck.
The shuttle gave us a feel of how remote we were. We went over Savage Peak an elevation of about 6,000 feet and the river was about 3,000 feet below. There was no sign of humanity for the last 20 miles. This is what Wilderness boating is all about, unmarred natural beauty, solitude, nature at it's absolute best! This also means that we are on our own, there will be no friendly boaters or rafters coming along to give us a hand if we had any "significant events". No, it was us and nature; and nature didn't give a damn about us.
When we got to the put in we got an up close glimpse of the river. What first strikes you is the continuous gradient. One section that we could see seemed like was a steep 30 degree slope, it sorta reminded me of a gentle Bridal Veil falls on the Tallulah, except, this thing just kept going, on and on, as far as the eye could see! The river was about the width of Slippery Rock, but the water volume of about 2000 CFS, gave it the attitude of the Upper Gauley. The water was snow, only a few hours before, so it only warmed up to maybe 40 degrees. If you swam, your buddies would work to get you out, but your boat was going to enjoy the ride without you for many a mile. Catching up with your boat would be mountaineering exercise. There was no shore, only canyon walls, this meant an arduous climb to find your gear! Now if someone gets hurt, figure on spending the night, cause there ain't no easy way out. Roads? forget it, you're in the wilderness now boy!
If you think hard enough about what can go wrong, it can become a self fulfilling prophecy. So I made sure that I had my first aid kit with some fire building stuff and took off for our run. Within fifty yards of the put in, the ride begins, I asked Chuck what the name of the first rapid was, he said "They don't name rapids on this river, cause there is only one", he called it 12 mile, cause that's how long it is. I was soon to find out that Chuck was not exaggerating much. I think the first rapid is Six miles long! The river was fast, narrow and steep. The rapids were class IV, but they came at you quick and often. There were not a lot of rocks and the water features were reasonably easy to spot, and there was enough eddies to take a breather when you needed, but there were no pools for six miles! This was not the place to have an out of boat experience!
Rob annoys the Ducks
The scenery was magnificent! We were alone in the wilderness, the river started out with cold gray steep rocky canyon walls. As the gradient mellowed out, the pools became more prevalent, the rapids became fewer and smaller, the walls of the canyon receded, and we could see more of the ancient forest around us. Just before lunch, I was ahead of the group, when I came around a bend, two very skittish Harlequin Ducks, quickly flew off. We invaded their solitude, and they were not going to hang around and share it with us. This Duck species is the reason that there is work underway to ban boating on the White Sands until the end of their mating season, in late June. It is felt that the breeding of these ducks will be impacted if they are disturbed by humans. From their quick exit, it was understandable that they did not like intrusion by beings of our sort, in our brightly colored crafts. At lunch we stopped at a Cedar grove, our adrenaline was still high from the morning of continuous rapids, a contrast to the solitude of the quite lush forest around us. We had probably boated about 8 to 10 miles in about 2 1/2 hours, with much of it a blur as it seemed like we were in a perpetual rapid. But now things were slowing down to a much less intense pace. The last 3 or 4 miles to the take-out were uneventful from the boating perspective, but the clear pure water, thick green forests were nice companions. Mark and I had a flip or two in the morning, but nobody had any out of boat experiences.
Later in the evening we did some hiking around the takeout. Chuck showed us a trail that took us into an ancient forest where these trees preceded the landing of Christopher Columbus in the New World. But as old as the trees were, they were the product of thousands of years of evolution. An old forest does not start with the current species of trees. A forest starts its evolution with short fast growing scrub trees, that are replaced with subsequent generations of slower growing, taller trees, each generation being hundreds of years, and a forest fire starts the cycle all over again. So the forest that we see today is not a bunch of 400 year old trees, it is a forest that has taken thousands of years to evolve. An experienced forester can look at the tree species in a forest and determine roughly how many years previous that a forest fire wiped out the forest. Although mankind abhors forest fires, nature sees them as a way to renew the earth. By wiping out diseases, and by propagating new, diverse generations of plants and animals. Someone needs to point out to Mother Nature, the economic waste she is promoting with these wasteful fires!(The editor disagrees with this statement. Humans cause the economic waste!)
It's Back Home for me
My boating trip to Idaho was over, but it certainly will not be my last to this special part of the world. John Kobak and Peggy continued on their long hiatus from retirement, I dropped Mark off in Missoula for some more hiking, Chuck went home to his family, and I took a plane back to my hustle and bustle rut of my existence. But the "Rocky Mountain High" lasted much longer than the plane ride home. Although I was only absent from the rat race for four days, it seemed like a month. When I got back to work, I must have floated around the office for at least 6 hours before the daily grind finally deflated my balloon, and brought me back to earth. But that was good! normally upon returning, after a good escape from my hectic rut, I am deflated well before lunch! But what the heck, I met some great people, great rivers, spent time in a great part of the country, and learned a lot. John & Peggy's Trip Report
Now for those of you disappointed readers, who really only wanted to read about this excellent boater, getting spanked on the big western water. I understand your disappointment, but face it, you are not going to hear about this writer getting his come-upins on the river. No! - it's not gonna happen! and it's not gonna happen cause, when you have the skills and natural talent that I have, you simply don't screw up!
##$!(*&84khsl; ffffizzzzit !!!
The rest of this story was abruptly terminated, reportedly, due to lightning striking the arrogant, smart-ass writer, giving him the come-upins that he deserves!
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