White water to die for


Death stared me in the face – the next few seconds would dictate my fate. I took a deep breath…and jumped.

White water requires the right equipment, knowledge of the river, and skill. On this trip down the South Fork of the Payette River in central Idaho, we had … let me see … none of those.

Oh, we had a raft alright. It was a Navy Mk5 15-person open ocean survival raft. It had double ribbed construction and took at least 6 grown men to lift. It was indestructible, and on it, we were invincible.

But we only kind of knew the river, and we were a little lacking in the skill department.

Undaunted, we found a good spot and with a mighty yell we shoved the raft into the stream. This was going to be the best trip ever!

Before you can say “rookie” we hit a rock, then nose-dived over a four foot waterfall. But the big raft was up to it, and with a mighty splash we sped on.

Then we stopped.

Now, you’re not supposed to stop on a river. All the brochures say you’re supposed to keep going, just like the water. But we stopped. Then we went backwards.

A Mk5 raft weighs around 450 lbs. Seven of us added up to about half a ton more. And we were moving backwards, upstream.

We were in a hole. A hole, we found out later is where, “…water flowing over a rock or other obstacle flows down, then back onto itself in an eruption of whitewater (windfallrafting.com).” The water moving downriver is at the bottom; the water on the surface moves backwards to take its place. If you get stuck in a hole you can die.

Then we hit the waterfall again – only from the business end. Three rafters were instantly washed off and disappeared, being drawn down by the underflow. In a couple of seconds they popped up downriver (thanks to the life jackests) and worked themselves to the shore. Encouraged by this, the rest jumped. There is no “I” in team, but there is one in “save your own skin.”

Except me. I was the skipper. I vowed to stay with the ship.

For about 5 seconds. Then I jumped too.

I felt the tug of the water flowing backwards, pulling me toward toward the hole and my doom. Just as panic began to grip me, I popped up like a cork – the falls were 20 feet behind me and I hollared in triumph. But not for long – just downriver was a Class IV rapid called “the staircase” that gushes between walls of granite.

When we all gathered onshore, we watched as our monster, double-ribbed, indestructible raft was bent in half then launched skyward, landing upside down. We found it a mile downstream, but we lost the cooler, the paddles, and one pair of shorts.

So we learned a few things. Wear life jackets. Use the right equipment. Know the river. Use a guide if you don’t have the skill.

And when they call it an “open ocean” raft, I think they mean it.


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