raft the sky: see stars

I’m watching snow fall onto the passing wet pavement, slowly chewing, when I realize that Neils has already finished his breakfast sandwich, a beautiful behemoth from Sultan bakery. He makes me miss being 19.

I'm 19 and can live off of bacon and Red Bull.

He’s started rifling through his CD collection, looking for a better country selection.   If we were further east, we’d be listening to The Quake—a radio station in the area where we guide with stunning audio telepathy and an inability to play a bad song.  It would also be July, not March, and we would be hauling thin wetsuits, guide sticks, and sunscreen instead of latex-sealed drysuits, wool hats, and thick neoprene gloves.

“This’ll be something to raft in,” I say, nodding to the thickening flakes up the road.  “Hell yeah,” Neils replies, thumping the steering wheel with his palm “I’m so excited.  SO excited.”  I was too; I’d been 6 months since we’d been out together rafting.  The Skykomish had risen with the recent rains to an exciting but manageable 5000cfs (1200-11000 is generally considered runnable, depending on who you asked) and we’d decided to meet up with another guide, Matt, and some of his friends who were running the river that day.  We were running late.

Big Eddy parking lot would act as the take out for the boats, and as we pulled in I immediately noticed Matt’s signature Kokatat drysuit—yellow torso, purple legs—in a group of men who exuded the calm indifference of boaters who had been running rivers together for a very long time and eyed newcomers with a metered, appraising gaze.  We parked, shook hands, dispensed some ingratiatory donuts, and suited up.  A quick zip of my new royal blue drysuit and we were on our way to the put in, 9 miles away, where the boats were waiting.

I helped push the boat off into the water and walked it upstream, conscious of the chill of the river and the odd sensation of my vacuum-sealed legs not actually being wet.  Whether it was the extra layers or my hiatus from the river was unclear to me, but I felt myself moving slowly and more awkwardly than I was used to.  Jumping into the boat from the water took more effort, but as we hit the first wave train I found a steady cadence with Neils in the front of the boat and it seemed like we’d never taken any time off.  The last wave of the train smashed over the bow of the boat, hitting our chests and sounding like a firehouse slashing across a tarp.  My hands stung from the frigid water but the familiar feeling of the river torquing under the boat had me so excited that I didn’t care.

Our setup was a little different than usual. Instead of having a few guides in a raft, we were running a center frame with paddlers for extra power in the forceful river.  Neils and I were in position at the bow while Matt sat center, manning two 9-foot oars—on a John Deere seat bolted to a crossbar.  The frame itself was a welded square of metal about the diameter of a chain link fence post with oarlocks on either side.  While the addition of the oars made maneuvering easier, it caused the boat to be much heavier and made the possibility of flipping even less desirable.  Helmets were a blanket rule.

We settled into a routine and started poaching waves at Matt’s direction with ease.  Oddly enough, it turned out to be the little things—a rock in a bony section of the river—that caught us and sent me tumbling backwards out of the boat.  It was a reminder that we needed to be braced at all times, and also, that leaving ½” of your drysuit unzipped means a swift and decided demotion to a wetsuit once again.

Eventually a dull roar crept its way over the water as a several Jurassic monoliths came into the downstream view—Boulder Drop.  Aptly named, Boulder Drop constituted the one Class V section on an otherwise solid Class III+ run.  Consisting of a series of three moves in speedy succession, Boulder Drop had been known to munch a few boats and, unfortunately, take a number of lives in the time that it had been run commercially.

We scouted the drop from the bank and the discussion turned to which route looked the cleanest, a judgment left mostly up to Matt as he was the only one of us who had actually guided the rapid before.  Upon entering the rapid the river split up into various routes, the boulders cutting thick strands of water into twisting tendrils like teeth in a giant pasta maker.  Our route, it was decided, would be the one closest to our position, which consisted of dropping into a pourover, skirting a pillow, then a slow approach to the Needle (another boulder squeeze), another precise drop into more cascading whitewater, and then a line above or below a series of rocks on the way out, a decision that would be made at the time.  It seemed straight forward enough.

As the raft inched toward the first pourover I felt a twinge of anticipation and a sense of purpose.  Rafting, like any outdoor activity with possible serious consequences, offers an opportunity for a presence and focus that some can’t achieve otherwise.  The gravity of the situation and the skill necessary to pull it off cleanly requires an intense focus that shunts distraction and allows complete awareness in our own bodies, if only for a few moments.  Others are fortunate enough to be able to silence their thoughts and worries while sitting in the park; the rest of us need the threat of being smashed against jagged river boulders to quiet our demons and allow us to see the forest for the trees.

Matt calls for an all-forward paddle over the deafening roar of the rapid and Neils and I dig in.  We make the first drop, skirting the bloated pillow of water flowing over a neighboring boulder and approach the second drop by Needle Rock.  Matt is tracking his line perfectly, but the flow grabs us and moves us faster than expected.  I see the small triangular rock getting dangerously close to our bow and know something isn’t right; Matt doesn’t take things this closely.  I want to look back at Matt and see what he’s doing, but I can’t take my eyes off the morass of whitewater ahead.  Something has gone wrong and we’re about to get chewed.

As the boat pitches forward into the drop the bow bumps the rock, a somewhat unassuming pyramid of granite sitting two feet out of the water, and turns the boat sideways—we are no longer a passenger on the river’s force, we are now the focus of it.  Running a line is a lot like driving a car; stay in the lane and you’re fine—find yourself perpendicular to it and you learn to appreciate just how much energy large moving bodies have, regardless of how slowly they move.  The boat spins in the whitewater and I can feel the pull of Matt working the oars.  The next drop looms ahead, but like a driver overcorrecting a skid, we pendulum over the line and overshoot too far to the left where a large boulder sits, cloaked in a thick blanket of green water rushing high on its right side.  We run into it on our left side and the boat pitches at a forty five degree angle; Neils is already leaning hard left in a high-side, attempting to right the boat as I dive across and add my weight to the left tube.  The maneuver, a counterintuitive one, means throwing yourself toward an obstruction to keep the upstream side of the boat from getting sucked under the rushing water, which would flip the entire rig, and as I lean hard I feel the cold, thick metal of the center frame against my leg and realize how badly I do not want to go through a washing machine with this chunk of steel, helmet or not.  The front of the raft falls back off the rock and spins as I take my position and the stern comes around for its turn in the rock rodeo.

The staccato crack came from nowhere.  I find myself looking at the riverbank instead of downriver.  Turning back around I see a thrashing silent movie; there is a man in a yellow and purple drysuit pulling on the oars with wild intensity; the front of the boat has a young guy in a drytop paddling for all he is worth as stone behemoths loom in the background and flying whitewater attempts to force him to the floor of the raft. They are both yelling something I can’t hear.  I reach up and touched my jaw and find my mouth hanging open.  A sweep of the fingers from chin to ear reveals the sponginess of fresh swelling but no protrusion of broken bone.  I must have hit the frame.  Or caught the oar as it ran into the rock.

Wiping the wetness on the side of my face I hold up my hand—no blood. Dropping the arm and gazing past the flying paddles and through the spray at the river ahead I try to focus my eyes on the torrents of white crashing into the dark, looming boulders, snarled teeth of the river not yet content with the punishment we have endured for falling off our line.  I hear Neils and Matt’s voices from far away, and then as though someone slides up the volume in a recording studio, the muffled silence rushes into full tumult—raw voices bark directions, and the roar of the river assaults my ears like a passing freight train.  I paddle.

The line is gone, not that I was every really sure where it was.  As a new guide, I had had a semblance of how the river should be run, but now everything looked like ocean waves exploding over a reef, the entire river consisting of boils of white foam pushing in different directions.  Matt guides us around another rock, and then starts yelling calls to us and we comply.  Adrenaline thumping, we are in the middle of it and we know it, and I start yelling.  Nothing in particular, just that “we’ve got this”, or that we need to “keep going”, or a few “fuck yeah, guys” for good measure.  Neils is yelling too.  There’s no reason why, and there’s certainly no reason to, but it made me feel better, and as Matt threaded the last two boulders of the rapid we flopped down into a washout where the whitewater foam died out with a hiss and returned to the swirling green of the river.

We whooped, we hollered, we high fived, and yelled just because we could.  The rest of the guys watched from an eddy by the shore, reactionless save for a few smirks; watching the new guys get rattled seemed to amuse them.  One of them gave me “ok” sign, a bump of the fist on the head.  I returned it and waved, but he gave it again, this time waving his hand over his head like he was polishing his bald spot.  My camera!  Feeling the top of my head I knew it was gone; the same blow that had knocked me off my rocker must have been forceful enough to snap it off my helmet.  Chris, the guy running safety later said that he’d thought someone had lost a mouth guard because when we’d disappeared behind one of the rocks he’s seen something clear and plastic go sailing through the sky.   Not a mouth guard, just $250 paying a visit to the riverbed.

I wasn’t as upset as I’d expected at the loss of the camera.  While there’s nothing fun about throwing money away, the fact that we hadn’t flipped was a pretty big win for me.  It had been a long time since I’d been legitimately scared in a rapid, and once I’d come back from my detour into dreamland I’d found myself in that place where you store your heart in your throat.  It also didn’t hurt that the camera had spent the better part of the morning being a dick, refusing to come out of still-shot mode and was on picture 1548 when I’d checked it before Boulder Drop.

What little time there was to lament the loss the of camera was taken up with other wave trains and the stunning scenery that the Skykomish cut through.  We rounded a bend just after Fishmerman’s Rapid, following the path of a golden eagle, arcing low over the water on its way to perch on a branch next to its mate.  A few raft lengths upriver from the spot was a young eagle, presumably the chick, sitting on a wind-snapped tree, wings held out, attempting to dry after an unsuccessful fishing expedition.  Overhead we heard the spastic call of a bald eagle and off to the right an osprey clumsily took off with a large fish in an attempt to outrun a trio of crows who had taken more than a passing interest in his catch.  The fisherman were not the only ones frequenting the Piscean water of this bend.

As we floated on down the river I found it harder and harder to focus on the eagles; they looked strange, as though they were superimposed on a shellacked background.  The edges looked holographic, and more than once I would find Neils staring at a grove of trees intensely, trying to see what I had been scowling at.  A brief diagnosis by a doctor friend a few hours later would reveal the obvious; I had a concussion, clearly indicated by the four attempts it took me to think of the work “clinic” when making small talk while she watched my eyes track her penlight (too slowly) in my living room.

Track the light? What light?

*                                                                        *                                                            *

The next days I spend on the couch with an ice pack on my head and a tube of Traumeel primed and ready.   When I doze off, I am back in Boulder Drop, feeling the cutting focus of fear.  In those few moments of clarity I’m not thinking about Mom’s cancer, my student loans, or my career direction; I’m not thinking about anything, I’m part of a unit of three men and, some rubber and some steel trying to make it down the river in one piece.  The bullshit and fears of life fade into the background, and the entire focus is protection of yourself and of your friends, which is all life really comes down to anyway.  And if the tax for that is a GoPro camera and a bruised face, then so be it.  I like to think that someday the camera might make its way back to me, and somewhere in the thousands of pictures taken on that 16MB card there will be some good ones of three friends, paddling like hell, having the time the time of their lives threading the line between control and absolute chaos.

Want to give it a try?  Get a guide:

Based near Index, WA, several whitewater companies have fleets of SkyPilots that can guide you down the Skykomish in relative safety.  I’ve gone with WildWater River Tours and River Recreation and was happy with both trips.  I now guide for WW, so objectivity goes out the window.  They’ll both set you up with gear, paddles, and an experienced guide.  Fasten your brain bucket tightly.

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