In 2017 while running the Kern River in California at one of the highest levels it’s been in decades I wrapped my raft around a tree just above a class IV rapid. We were stuck for about an hour and a half before we were able to get the raft free, flipping it and sending my two passengers swimming the class IV. I managed to get on top of the upside-down raft and ride the rapid to the flat water below where I flipped it back over by myself. As I floated through the end of the rapid I saw both of my passengers on shore, tired and shaken but otherwise ok. I pointed down stream and yelled for them to follow the river to meet back up with me. Not understanding they decided to walk all the way back to town but they were on the opposite side of the river from the road so it took them a little while.
When I got to shore I walked back up to where I had just seen my passengers but they were gone, I hiked up and down for a good 30 min looking for them with no luck. I knew they were smart enough not to try and swim across the river to get to the road but couldn’t imagine where they had gone. My passengers were father and son and the father’s wife as well as his brother and his brother’s wife were waiting at the takeout and by this point in a panic. A few guide rafts passed us while we were stuck and they relayed that we were stuck. After I couldn’t find them I got back in the raft and headed to the take out, fortunately that was the last rapid on the run and I reached the take out without further incident.
Seeing me row up alone I could see the fear in their eyes so the first thing I shouted was that they were on shore and they were ok. This gave them some relief but then it raised the questions of where they went which I had no answers. Shortly after I got to the take out the local search and rescue showed up, they had been called out to rescue us. A few minutes into my conversation with them I got phone call from my two passengers, they had made it to town after several miles of bush whacking. With this the search was called off and the local SAR was able to stand down. They hitched a ride back up to us and we gave our report.
This experience wasn’t really a wake-up call as I always tend to be safety conscious but it did solidify my reasoning behind erroring on the side of caution all the time. Before doing the run, we took out everything that was unnecessary and we all had on PFDs and helmets on. I don’t go looking for unnecessary danger but I accept that there are risks involved when participating in these activities and do the best I can to mitigate them. A moment of indecision lead to us getting wrapped around that tree and sometimes that wrong move in a split second can mean disaster. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t shaken a little by the trip but I wasn’t discouraged from continuing to raft. I feel we made the necessary moves to be as safe as we could be in the situation, we were able to self-rescue without losing any people or equipment, we were prepared. To this day though I can’t figure out why they hiked all the way back to town instead of walking down the river where I was tied off to the shore.
That was the last trip I did in 2017 and until I got back to CO I hadn’t run anything in 2018. Knowing I needed to shake off the bad juju from my last trip I took a couple of runs down rivers I was familiar with. I ran the Moab Daily which is by far the most familiar river to me and ran Browns Canyon in Buena Vista and felt good on both of them. In all honesty this was a good year to get back in the saddle as there was very little snow fall so the river levels have been really low, like almost record-breaking low. Normally I would be bummed by this but I really do need to get my confidence back so it’s been nice.
That brings us to this week, I arranged a trip with a few friends to do West Water in mid-June witch normally would be high water but this year it was only at 4,500cfs (the average for this time of year is 20,000 cfs but it’s not uncommon for it to get up to 50,000cfs). The trip was fun, and fortunately uneventful, though it was slow and long.
On day one we got a late start, our meet up time was 8am in Fuita but half of our group wasn’t ready to go till after 10am. Just after 10 we all headed to the Westwater Ranger Station to rig up. Shuttle was run from there as I rigged my raft, we put on the river around 3pm. Our initial plan was to camp at the last campground, Bald Eagle, but as 6:30 rolled around and we hadn’t even gotten to the rapids so we camped at Upper Little D for the night. We had one hard-shell kayak and two duckies along with my raft on the trip. The hard-shell was my friend Chris who over the last few years has become an exceptional kayaker, in a single duckie was his gf Caitlan who is a beginner but she is pretty skilled. The other was a tandem duckie with Mike and Rachel, Mike has quite a bit of river experience in rafts and duckies but it was one of Rachels first times. In the Raft with me was Chris’s daughter, Ivy and a never ever named Anna. The first day was pretty uneventful just long and slow. We camped higher than expected knowing that our take-out time of noon was probably not going to happen the next day.
On Day two we got on the river around 10am, as we were just above the first rapid, Little D, the excitement started pretty quick. Mike and Rachel jumped in the raft along with Anna, Ivy and I, we deflated their ducky and strapped it to the raft. Chris and Caitlan paddled their respective boats. I was a little nervous starting off the day, I’ve done Westwater a few times at a few different flows, this being the lowest, but I still felt antsy and uneasy. We went through the first few rapids and as we dropped into funnel the nervousness subsided and I started to enjoy myself. The way my raft is set up everyone in the raft is relying on me to get us all through, no one else even has a paddle and really all they can do is jump to the high side of the raft if we start to tip. I’m usually fine with this responsibility but I am out of practice since I only got on the raft twice last year and stopped the year before when I headed to LA in July. I wasn’t freaking out, just uneasy, but it’s coming back.
The rapids all went well, I picked good lines. Caitlan swam once on one of the upper rapids but recovered quickly. This was Anna’s first time so as we went through the canyon we kept talking to her about what to do if she fell out at Skull (the class III hole that sends you into the Rock of Shock then into The Room of Doom if things go bad. As we came up on Skull I lined up left but the water level being as low as it was the river was narrow and we got pushed towards the hole above and it turning me sideways. Just before we went over Skull I straightened the raft back out skirting the left side and making it through just fine. Chris and Caitlan went through before us and rocked it.
So, we talked a lot about Skull on the way down because it has the highest consequences if things go wrong. After we got through it Anna relaxed thinking the biggest was behind us, little did she know…. As we continued down we got to Sock it To Me, which at this flow was a pretty big drop with a standing wave at the bottom, by far the biggest wave we had hit all day. Thinking we were past the biggest her eyes were as big as could be as we dropped in and hit the wave that made all four people in the front of the boat disappear under water as the wave hit me in the lap. We lightly tapped Magnetic Rock as we went past and finished out the rapids.
After we passed Last Chance, Rachel wanted to learn how to row so I adjusted the oars for her and she rowed most of the way out through the flat water only letting Mike row a few times. The flat after the rapids makes me want a motor every time I do Westwater but as I don’t have one we slowly floated the rest of the way to the take out. Really fun trip, I love taking new people out and exposing them to the river. Anna talked about how bad she wanted to do this more and Rachel discussed buying a ducky. I think everyone had a good time and it was a great group to paddle with.