Neils is a better boater than I am. This is obvious, but as he yanks on the front of my inflatable kayak, turns away from shore, and strokes into the current, I try to remind myself that his being exceptional does not affect my being adequate–my mantra as the kayak bucks over rocks and along the current. The creek is fast.
I’d been on the Wenatchee today at record height (in my experience) of about 15.5k. An average summer run will swell between 7-12k—plenty of water for holes and big hits, but the warm weather and recent rains had bumped up river levels to a point where guides were muttering “17 grand” in superstitious tones. Would she get that big?
I’d run the IK behind Neils, who was in his mini me with several other guides. Despite the tiny size of my craft, I found most of the river largely doable, save for a foolish attempt to run rodeo hole, which flipped me over a few times in the washing machine to remind me who was in charge. But I’d stayed on my lines through the larger rapids and had ridden up and down the enormous faces of the seldom-seen big water waves. I came off the river feeling confident, and that’s when Neils started talking about Peshastin Creek.
Peshastin Creek is a technical tributary to the Wenatchee, running from highway 97 north into the larger Wenatchee. Being a river it possesses the standard hazards, but, I was told, since it was high water, most obstacles were not really an issue as they were covered by water. I just had to follow Neil’s lines and stay upright and I would be fine.
Bouncing along the river I began to feel a heightening sense of dread. As Neils dropped a rock and cut left I followed, but the feeling of focus I experience on the river never came. Not comfort, but once on the river I’d always feel a sense of ease; concentrating on the task at hand was easier than chewing on your lip right before shoving off. But this river was moving so fast that I didn’t have time to calm down. Being used to the wide, evenly spaced Wenatchee River, I found myself scrambling to readjust my position between obstacles in the narrow creek. The IK pitched and rolled, but I held on, intent on sticking with Neils.
The first flip happened on an innocuous pourover that caught my tube. (@~3:00 or so on the lowest video) I flipped over and began the game of flipping it back and attempting to crawl on top without rolling over again. This is where only the Wenatchee is forgiving; there were no flat recovery spots or deep water on this run, and as I attempted to pull myself in, I hit another small pourover and flipped over the other side. Each time I’d get my belly onto the IK, I’d roll the boat over when I tried to get onto my back. Successive attempts grew slower, my body becoming dead weight below my arms. As my legs ping-ponged along the submerged rocks I made another unsuccessful attempt, and huffed at Neils.
“I just can’t.”
Per usual he calmed me down, steadied the boat, and I climbed back in with a whole new set of bruises to compliment those from mountain biking.
The adrenaline crash and cold water had sapped my energy, but I was determined to finish the run. I would keep up and just follow the line. My arms, however, had slowed; I was paddling through molasses. The best I could do was half-heartedly follow Neils, who smashed through waves and looked as comfortable as an otter playing in the current.
The crux rapid of our route, Fresh Squeeze is a class IV series of drops over several hundred feet. We’d scouted it from the river before putting in and it did look possible with focus and a little luck. As we stared down into the whitewater Neils had mentioned that Peshastin was generally run between 500-750cfs; today we were at 950. The fates, it seemed to me, would need to be a little more generous with the luck.
We rolled along the river until we crossed under a low hanging tube crossing the river—a reminder that the large rapid was beyond the bend. Neils reminded me to stay close, stay right, and stay straight—and then the speed really picked up.
The force pushed me past the first rock and over the first drop, where the current grabbed my boat and sent me left. I paddled hard to return right and skirted another set of waves, plowing headlong into the remnants of a flushed out hole. Forcing my eyes off the water in front of me I glanced up to see if I was on Neils’ line. I was, and to a guy barely holding it together in an IK, it looked big. I held the boat right, allowing the helical coming off the cliff to push me off the rock face, hoping like hell I was reading the water correctly. We were moving fast when Neils slipped out of view—another pourover. I was ready, and in that moment, I thought I was going to pull it off.
But my attempt to charge at it was poorly executed. In my haste I hadn’t seen the rise to the left of the drop, which pushed water back towards the wall—when I landed that water forced my nose hard right; the water off the wall stuffed my tube under the water, and I flipped over into the froth of the pool.
For a second I could see only green, and I imagined briefly that I could stay in this deep, safe Jacuzzi—it was cold, but remaining here meant avoiding the rock filled shallows downstream, and the staccato beating I would be given flying over them. But my peace was shattered when I came up to my boat, Neils, and a pressing desire to be out of the water.
Neils steadied the raft while I climbed in, shifted from my stomach to a sitting position, and was immediately blindsided by another wave. With my legs back in the water I clung to the boat as Neils came to help again, reassuring me that the worst was over. “You’re ok, ride it out” he called. I looked ahead to the next pourover. “Go for it!” I yelled back; it would make the situation far worse if he got in trouble trying to correct my fuck up.
I fell deep into a pool after the next drop and the boat was torn from my hands. Looking back I could see the black bottom being surfed in the whitewater. Lifting my feet up I faced downstream and searched for an exit point. The stream was moving fast, and the cliff to my right extended straight up almost the length of the rapid—no hope of an exit there. Rocks banged at me from below, and though I knew I was in the main current, I feared extending my unprotected body to attempt to swim to the slower water by the shore. I bounced down into waves I couldn’t see and choked on the water that pummeled my face. Every second Neils and my boat were getting further away—somewhere in the maelstrom I realized my paddle was gone. I was just a piece of meat helplessly floating in the current. You idiot, I thought as I choked, there is no help downstream–you are on your own. Get out–now.
Suppressing the momentary panic I held my breath and began sidestroking to the inside shore. The water was faster there, and as my hurt knee smashed over rocks I saw the peacefully circling water of an eddy and kicked like a madman. The water around me was moving too fast and was far stronger than me. But downriver there would be more drops. Maybe entrapments I didn’t know about—and I was almost out of energy to avoid them. No, this would be be the eddy for me.
I coughed and kicked until I was in arm’s reach of grove of tiny saplings and grasped one tighter than Monkeywrencher on Arbor Day. The impressive current waved me like a flag until my legs hit the slow water and I launched myself toward shore. I was thrilled to find myself sitting in the dirty still water of the eddy.
I signaled to Neils that I was alright, and wandered up the slope to assist in retrieving the boat right as it passed the place where I had been. We reconvened downstream and discussed our options. Characteristically encouraging, Neils turned my crushing shame into a learning experience “You styled it, dude!” He hi-fived me. I told him I’d last seen the paddle on the outside of a bend (which is a bad place to be at flood) and he assured me we could get it.
Unfortunately, without a paddle I had no means of navigating the IK, and after a brief and unenthusiastic attempt at “boogie boarding” down (Neil’s words), I decided I’d be hiking out. Neils, much to my displeasure, would continue on solo to the takeout, walk the half-mile to my car, and come back for me. Only my complete uselessness as a paddle-less rescuer prevented me from joining him; I didn’t want him to run alone at all. But his experience on the river and judgment in such situations trumped mine and we parted ways for the time being.
Alone I pulled the kayak up onto a grassy section of forest floor, deflated it, and rolled it up. Using some webbing from my flip lines I fashioned an uncomfortable set of shoulder straps, threw the roll onto my back, and started walking the trail in the direction of the road. The woods were moist and the sunlight that speared through the canopy lit up understory of large yellow flowers that dotted the side of the trail. It was almost obnoxious in its cartoonish beauty—a depiction of the woods on the set of a kid’s television show.
Eventually I came to a no trespassing sign with the road just a ridge beyond and was faced with a decision: go back the way I came or risk—who knows—getting shot? The pain in my feet made the decision, and I stepped forward not expecting to hear the crack of a rifle, but not not expecting to hear the pump of a shotgun and the opening of a meth lab door. But rounding the bend I found the houses were nice, and as I made my way up the driveway a car came toward me from the opposite direction. Here, I thought, was trouble.
And for a second time that day my instincts were wrong. The owners of the property (and the sign) were an elderly couple who were as kind and concerned as grandparents. Had I run ok? Was I hurt? Did I need to leave me boat behind? Oh, nevermind, I see you’re carrying it. Would you like a ride somewhere?
The truth was I did, but I politely declined. There was no need to dampen the inside of these gun-less non-meth heads’ car, and in any case I felt the need to walk. The reality was the run had unnerved me, and the swim had scared me. I was content to plod along the road in the twilight, wearing a drysuit and carrying a deflated kayak, feeling solid, static ground beneath me. But it turns out the walk was several miles further than I had anticipated. Fortunately, this was something I learned after Papee, Andy’s RV made a U-turn after passing me and picked me up. On the second pass of the river we spotted Neils paddling down toward the takeout and I finally felt the tension in me leave. My sense of relief was overshadowed by his smile.
“I found the paddle,” he laughed. “Stashed it at Old Bluett Pass Rd, safe and sound. Let’s go grab it so we’ve got it for tomorrow.”
So we piled into the RV and did. Because that’s just what you do.