Plunging into Whitewater on the Middle Fork

whitewater rafting middle fork salmon river

Sure, I know that whitewater rafting is dangerous and you could fall out of the raft, but I just never thought it would happen to me.  The first day of rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho with Far and Away Adventures, I could tell this wasn’t the same trip I took in June a few years ago.  The water was running at 6.2 feet compared to 3 feet on our last trip.  Higher water means more volume, a faster flow. It took 3 1/2 days to raft the 100 mile Wild and Scenic river this time. The same trip took 6 days when we started a month later.

I was riding in one of the oar boats (a little larger than a paddle boat that carries a couple people and supplies) with hopes that I could get some photos on the river in the calmer sections.  Trouble is, there were no calm sections.  Five and six foot waves splashed into our faces in class IV+ rapids (class V is radical, like a drop off).  We were taught to move our weight and power through the wall of water.

My iPhone was hanging from my neck in a Chums Roll Top Pouch for phones. I started shooting as we approached the class IV rapids Hell’s Half Mile. At the end of these rapids, about 5 miles in, is Velvet Falls. At this time of year, it is a serious class V rapid unless you can get around it. The other boats did just that, but when we got a bump from a paddle boat, we headed straight for the drop.  I was hanging on for dear life to the “chicken line”—a rope that goes around the perimeter of the raft. I leaned in as we dropped about 10 feet (or more) and was hit with a wall of water.


Whitewater rafting guides

Our Guides, Jake, Sanna and Reed gave a safety talk before we got on the river. Sanna was the guide in our boat. She went in too.

I literally flipped heels over tea kettle and was churning in the wave ahead of me. I was able to hold on briefly but another wave pulled me away.  I was under the boat but was moving faster than the craft.  This is my fourth whitewater rafting trip and I had memorized the safety talk that each outfit gives before getting on the water. Basically, the guides told us to listen to instructions and swim to where they tell us.  I was very scared but more thinking about getting out of the water as soon as I could.

Bubbling under the glacial waters, I bobbed up to hear the guides yell that Seth was near me in the “safety kayak.”  I swam to the small kayak and reached for the handholds on the back.  As I tried to pull myself on, Seth got side swiped by a 6-foot wave and capsized.  I had the semblance of mind to think I’d better let go so he could upright himself faster.  He did and I grabbed onto the back handle. But my arms and legs felt like noodles.  I could hold on but couldn’t pull myself up.

We bobbed up and down waves until another oar raft got close.  Lesson to learn: Never wear a hat with a floppy brim under your helmet.  I’ve done it before, but this was not a good idea.  The front of the hat covered my face and I could only see when looking down.  I could see the blue of the raft and feel the guide grab my lifejacket.  He asked me to use my legs but I absolutely couldn’t. They were noodles.

Finally, I was on the oar boat safe. Lying on my back. I couldn’t breathe as the panic combined with the tight lifevest constricted my breathing.  Jake, my hero guide, asked “Are you okay?” and I could only reply “I will be.”

The next 95 miles of the river were constant rapids with many rated class IV+.  Waves often shot as much as 12 feet above our heads.  I was in the sweep boat.  We’ll see when I will be ready to accept another whitewater trip.

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