When the water comes up
Every river guide has a high-water story. If they don’t, they should make one up early on because at some point in their careers they are going to need one. The conversation around a river campfire inevitably turns to them.
Someone will casually throw one out into the general banter. The story often starts with a tired cliché along the lines of: “No shit, there I was,” which is just a subtle way of saying, “Am I not just the most bitchin’ person you know?” Once the gauntlet has been thrown down, it’s then a matter of each guy topping the guy or gal before him.
Silly as it may sound, having a high-water story then telling a high-water story is a ritual of being a river guide. However tiresome, it’s just part of the culture. It reminds me of something the now deceased author James Salter said at a lunch with a bunch of us in graduate school. My friend, Lolis, asked him, “Are you in to Jazz?” With a hint of resignation Salter said, “Well, sure. You have to be, I suppose. They’re always dragging you to those places.”
A curious trait of high-water stories is they change over time. The water gets higher, the heroics more heroic, and, of course, the teller of the tale invariably comes out looking good. And like fish stories, the numbers are always bigger than they could possibly be. I’m not kidding; he was underwater for 17 minutes. And then I saved his life. Of course, this begs the question: What were you doing for the first 16 minutes?
Despite how cool and dramatic the stories may seem in the telling, the reality of high-water trips is that they are really only fun after they are over. During the trip, everyone is uptight and nervous, worried about making a mistake and ruining the trip for everyone else. It’s less of a happy summer experience and more like waiting to get your teeth drilled.
And the real rub of high-water trips is that they invariably involve scouting a rapid or two, which, in my mind, is like getting a prostate exam while having your teeth drilled. In other words, I desperately hate scouting rapids, though I admit it is sometimes a necessary evil.
For those unfamiliar with rivers, scouting is pretty much what you would think: getting a good look at a rapid from the shore before you actually run it.
The scout, particularly in a high-water situation, usually begins hundreds of yards upstream of the rapid of concern. This is because the water is moving so fast and the eddies are so few and far between that you want to make sure you can get pulled over in time. Once you spot an impossibly small eddy amid the 11-mile-per-hour current, the trick is to get to it and stay in it. So, you end up coming in at 11 miles per hour, slamming into the rocks on shore, and, in one awkward motion, shipping your oars, scrambling over your paying guests and gear, grabbing the bow line, jumping onto wet, sharp rocks, and holding those 1,500 pounds in place long enough to tie it off. If all goes well, you have not slipped and smacked your knee on a metal box or clocked a guest with an errant oar. Trust me, the Three Stooges could not choreograph this sequence.
With the boat safely tied off, it’s time to calmly explain to your guests why exactly you are leaving them in a boat tied to a rock, the river surging, in the middle of the wilderness, to have a look at a rapid you’ve run a hundred times.
Well—your guests are thinking—why in the world does he have to look at the rapid? Has he not done this before? My god, honey, our children are on this boat. Who is this clown?
The guides then head down a trail, or over more sharp rocks if there is no trail, in what often feels like a Bataan Death March, until finally reaching a vantage point over the rapid. And there you are with four other guides staring at a rapid that looks much scarier than you imagined. As adrenaline eats through your stomach lining, you very casually talk over the crux of the problem before you.
The first question to answer is: Where is the current flowing? Usually, you want to go where most of the river is going. The second issue at hand is to figure out where the big “holes” or obstacles are. A hole is a section of river where the current flows over a big rock below the surface. As the water goes over the rock it curls back on itself, creating a chunk of river that recirculates. Third, you want to figure out where you want to end up, that is, beyond staying alive long enough to tell a high-water story. In fact, sometimes a scout takes place in reverse; you find the endpoint you like and visualize a path back upstream to the approach.
Once the problems are identified, the discussion turns to the possible lines to take, how to line up for the right line, and so on. It’s agonizing because you’re nervous, verging on nauseous, and some guides try to quell that nervousness by incessantly talking about the problem—talking through every imaginable scenario or stroke he or she is going to take. It goes on and on and on, until finally I or someone else equally impatient will snap and say a little too harshly, “We have to go before I throw up on you.”
On the way back to the boats, I have a habit—some call it a tic—of stopping every 20 or 30 yards to look at the river, trying to memorize marker points—weirdly shaped trees, or rocks—so I know exactly where I am at any given time during the approach. It almost never works.
Back at the boat, the guide once again has to put on a good show—cool as can be—for the guests. “Looks good. We’ll be just fine,” you say. If they knew how shaken you really were by what you’ve seen, they’d never leave that shore.
Pulling back into the current after a scout always feels pretty good. The doing takes the edge off the anticipation of the doing. The oars feel right in your hands, you get a sense of the water again. You know how to row a boat, if nothing else.
But then you get to the entrance to the rapid and suddenly your memory begins to get fuzzy. It’s as if you’re having a mild stroke—Shit, was I supposed to be just right or just left of that little rock? Is that the pyramid rock Danny was talking about, or just another goddamn rock? Wait a minute, am I even in the right channel? Goddamnit, why is Del so far ahead of me? I can’t’ see where he’s going. Then before you know it, you’re wondering whether you left the stove on back at the guide house.
One of the first times I ever scouted a rapid was on the Tuolumne River in California. I was training to be a guide there with several other young guides. Danny Bolster, one of the most accomplished boatmen I’ve ever known, was our trainer. And he had what I think was a photographic memory when it came to scouting rapids. I didn’t know this until later when I worked with him, but he could look at a rapid for 20 seconds, then on the walk back to the boats describe every hole and rock, where the eddies were, which currents he would catch—it was uncanny. I would just nod knowingly, pretending that I knew what the hell he was talking about. My default position quickly developed into: I’ll just follow Danny.
For our first training trip, the river was running at 6,000 cubic feet per second, which, for that river qualifies as high water. We scouted a rapid called Gray’s Grindstone. Looking from shore, it was impossible to miss the ledge hole—about the size of a Ford F-150—at the top of the rapid. Below that was a thousand yards or so of holes and standing waves, but nothing as daunting as the entrance hole. We all talked about the line to take. Basically, we would enter backwards—because a rower has more strength pulling than pushing the boat—at an angle to the left and skirt the monster reversal. After that, it would be just “read and run.”
So, I thought I knew where the Gray’s Grindstone hole was, but it soon became clear that I didn’t because I hit the gut of it, which amounted to hitting a 20-foot wall of water. My 16-foot raft surfed up the wave, then started spinning on it, big wooden oars flailing around. I scrambled to the high point, then had to scramble again each time the raft spun 180 degrees. I was like a hamster with his tail on fire, trying to get to the top of the hamster wheel before the whole mess of raft, metal frame, wooden oars and metal boxes flipped over into the hole. When that happens, it’s the equivalent of being in a giant washing machine with all that gear. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Though my days in churches are limited to times of marriage or death, I do know that there is a god somewhere in this world because my boat miraculously flushed out of that hole with me still in it, and the day ended happily.
For our second training trip, several days later, the water had come up to 8,000 cubic feet per second. This time, I had a fellow trainee in the front of my boat to add some ballast, albeit only 180 pounds. And since we had scouted the previous week, the group decided we didn’t need to scout again. Everyone knows where the hole is, right?
When I hit the Gray’s hole a second time, I knew what to expect. However, my passenger did not, and he was quickly sucked into the washing machine and disappeared downstream. As far as I know, he quit guiding shortly after that.
The third time I hit Gray’s Grindstone—which, at this point, should have been renamed—the water was up to 10,000 cubic feet per second, and no shit, there I was. And again, the group agreed, no need to scout; we all know where the hole is.
When I hit the wall of water this time, the slant seat I was sitting on—3/4-inch wood—snapped in half. I was thrown high in the sky, landed in the hole, and started going round and round, a little cork in a giant surf. When I was pretty sure I couldn’t take too much more, God reappeared, and I flushed out of the hole and into a maelstrom of rapids below. At that point, it was simply a swim for life.
For years as a kid, I swam on the Alpine Hills swim team. I never really liked it that much but for my friends on the team, and the coach, Steve Clark. Clark had been an Olympic champion and, more importantly to me at the time, just a nice guy. And he was the guy I thought of on my swim for life. He was the one that kept my head up and eyes on the shore, inspired my arm-over-arm water-polo swimming to safety, something you admonish guests never to do on a commercial river trip.
Safe on shore, I looked a hundred yards across the river—which might as well have been the North Sea—and saw Danny on the far side, rowing furiously, holding himself in the eddy. Then, in one of the more amazing feats of skill and strength I’ve ever seen, he ferried his boat across that rapid, 10,000 cubic feet of water every second trying to push him downstream. Somehow, he held his position even with me. When he got close, I did a Superman dive into his boat, and we flushed downstream to look for my sad little boat.
After three runs on the Tuolumne, I was now considered “trained up” and was turned loose with commercial guests. I don’t think my outfitters truly knew the details of my “runs.”
There are times when scouting a rapid, as distasteful as it is, can save your life, though not in the way you expect. A friend of mine, Dick Linford, recounts in the book “Halfway to Halfway” the story of when some of us—including Danny and Del mentioned above—ran a rapid on the Main Salmon called Whiplash. It was high water again: flowing over the gauge located in White Bird, Idaho, downstream of the rapid. This put the water flow somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 cubic feet per second.
We had left our guests a mile upstream to get to a point where we could see the rapid safely. While we were mulling over the various options for getting through Whiplash—including lining our boats or portaging guest, boats and gear—a group of private boaters came down river. They clearly hadn’t scouted, and probably less clearly understood what they were rowing into. They each took a slightly different line, some in the general area that we had in mind, others more suicidal in nature. Three out of the five boats flipped. Gear and people were everywhere.
We were scouting from a point a couple hundred yards above the river, so we could be of no help to them. But they were certainly a help to us: five little lab rats that came along at just the right time. We all had clean runs.
I know this contradicts my impatience and penchant for hasty scouts, but, occasionally, if you wait long enough some poor bastard who doesn’t know better will come along and just run it, sight unseen, usually in an eminently flippable cataraft. And you learn.
I don’t recommend depending on the hubris of strangers to teach you a thing or two, but sometimes it does work out in your favor.
Why is scouting such a thorn in my side? Perhaps because it is a thinly veiled metaphor for one of the thornier questions of how to live one’s life. In one ear is the voice of reason and parents and institutions: deny the moment, plan, be careful and deliberate, put life in the bank, so to speak. Draw it down later. Another voice chimes in the other ear, whispering: Pay attention to the now, live in the moment, grab life by the throat before it grabs you. Read and run.
Both my parents died in their early 60s of cancer, as did a dear friend in her 40s. Others get struck down by car wrecks and slip-and-falls before their lives have blossomed. I suppose those experiences bias me towards the latter philosophy, but not entirely.
I’ve run a lot of rapids over time and scouted more than I really wanted to. Getting perspective on the river, seeing the runout of things can be helpful. Planning and seeing the line often works out well. But part of me accepts that once you leave the cliffy vantage of the scout and get back to river level everything looks different. The current is stronger here than there. Some rocks and holes are where you expect them, others aren’t. Yes, you have some idea of what’s coming, but often it reduces to sound and fury. Ultimately, you just got to make the move.