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.
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.