Paddling Since: 1991
Join Date: Sep 2013
My teeth were cut slowly, but as with the OP pretty much started out rowing to fish. Other than some tubing as a kid and occasionally dragging the canoe up a tributary of some lake we were camping at my first rowing/whitewater experience came in '91 on the Clackamas River in Oregon fishing for salmon and steelhead. I was one of the first in my class to get my drivers license and as such everyone was my friend... One new friend had just bought a driftboat that on occasion he could talk his dad into dropping off upriver so he could fish. The problem was by the time he needed to be picked up his dad would have been at the bar for hours and could barely walk much less drive home.
So I was invited on one of these trips so I could drive dads car home from the bar. Soon we were fishing (and floating) everyday after school. We found another kid with a DL so now we even had a shuttle and didn't have to worry about his dad getting the car to the take out. Did that for a few years while in school and working to pay for gas. Finally decided I needed to focus on school and moved to Bozeman in '94. Immediately met a group of friends that I still hang with today, all they did was fish. Skip school and fish. No one had a boat until that fall when one dropped out of school and used his refund to buy a used Hyde - red in color cleverly named Redwings (still fish out of this boat every year on the Clearwater). I then realized that fly fishing from a boat was way easier than from shore and you weren't limited to how many beers you could stuff in your vest.
I sold my mtn bike and bought my first driftboat, a beatup old wood driftboat that had been sitting behind a barn in coastal Oregon. I spent the fall restoring it and got on the river for the first time late fall '95 with my own boat. The next year while storing skis at the ski shop I worked at I found a boat rolled up in the corner of the crawl space (that's where the owner stored off season gear, the crawl space). We rented these same boats in the summer, PVC Eclipse bucket boats. This one was missing all the valves but seemed to be in good shape, so I asked if I could have it... $50 latter I had it in the back of my truck. I took it home to PDX that summer and found valves at Andy and Bax. I scoured the want ads and found a frame and oars for $125. Now I had two boats, took the eclipse (soon to be known as SS Patch) on our maiden voyage on my old river the Clack. Latter that summer my first true WW trip, the Maupin stretch of the Deschutes - I was no hooked on WW and fishing.
I spent the next 6 years dragging the driftboat around Montana with Patch riding on top (still only had a few friends with boats and since I had two, they were both always on the water). In the process I'd run almost all the floatable water of the the three forks of the Missouri, upper Yellowstone, Boulder and a few other SW Mt rivers, which for the most part is class II and below. The three major whitewater sections are the Gallatin Canyon, Beartrap canyon of the Madison and the Gardner to Yankee Jim canyon stretch of the Yellowstone. I had run each a few times, with Yankee Jim being the most common when one spring day we decided to run Bear Trap at just less than 5K. Woefully under prepared we somehow managed to get through without flipping (probably thanks to several hundred pounds of balast).
Not having learned my lesson I talked a buddy into taking his brand new Aire up the Gallatin. Flows were just below 4K and we had a great, fun float until House Rock. My first (and thus far only) flip occurred thanks in large part to my bad habit of point the bow toward danger and row away. This concept had treated me well for a number of years now and even got me through kitchen sink a few weeks earlier. Don't get me wrong it's a great moto and I still use it to teach folks how to row but It's not always the right thing. I learned this the hard way, as did two of my friends. Thankfully we all came out but it was close for one. This part of the longer rapid has three components, a lateral wave coming of the left bank that runs right into the second, a smaller rock called papoose which lies against the big House Rock, all this is preceded by a ~30 degree bend in the river. The result is most water goes right at the rocks where most is then forced left and some goes right. Right is really not an option. So my "training" told me to come around the bend, point the bow at papoose and row away, while trying to keep enough angle to get over the lateral. Needless to say the lateral took all my momentum and I there I sat, rowing my ass of for what seems like a few hours with the bow of the boat about a foot away from papoose. My buddies were yelling encouragement (I think) until finally I started loosing my battle and slowly started sliding into the rock. Finally I thougth, spin left and maybe I can bounce off and get out of here....no. The next thing I knew I was looking down at house rock and the boat which was vertical on its side, then a frothy maylay for a seeming eternity. When above water I was looking for my buddies and my dog, yes dog. I finally say Mackenzie (the springer) on the bank just below the rock (she made it to shore in less than the boat length, thankfully). About this time I realized that my shorts were around my ankles and I was having a hard time keeping my feet downstream so I kicked them off and started for shore, which was thankfully close. I spied and eddy and swam for it, just before I got there my knees hit something, then my stomach (I was feet down river just like your supposed to), my arms wrapped around the object which at this point I was sure was a log and I was getting pulled into a strainer. I held on for dear life for a few seconds before loosing my grip and getting sucked under. Much to my surprise I popped up a few feet downstream in the eddy and got the the bank (turned out to be a long pointy rock, anyone that drives the canyon sees it, sticking out, looks like a stone kayak sticking off the bank at low water). Once safely in the eddy I looked around and Pete was on the far shore but we couldn't find Scott. A few more minutes of frantic searching and we saw him laying behind a boulder a few hundred feet below me. I yelled and he lifted his hand... we were all alright.
There were lots of folks on the bank and one had grabbed the boat, one was watching my dog (the highway is only a few feet away) but no oars. Tethers had snapped and both were gone but soon found just downstream in an eddy on the other side of the river. Once we got gathered up we talked about the experience, I relayed my fearful tale, Pete showed us his bleeding legs (it's a real boney swim) and Scott told us he was pinned, upside down underwater for "a long time" He said his leg got wedged in between two boulders just after hitting the water. He said he tried everything and finally said pull with everything you have or die and pulled, ultimately getting free. At that point he had no energy and could barely keep his head above water and was finally deposited where we found him. We were really lucky that day and it made me realize how extremely lucky we were earlier in Bear Trap.
Ultimately both of those runs freaked me out and seriously tempered my whitewater fever. For the next dozen years I ran plenty more, but all easy, non technical runs. The biggest being the Main Salmon in July. In the time since that swim I've logged many thousands of river miles I've gained a lot of experience and have learned how to read water better, ask questions, prepare better and most importantly realized that sometimes you need to pull, sometimes push and sometimes just hang on.
As it turns out I know several people on the bank that day and they latter told me that they all knew we were flipping when we came around the corner, cause you can't take the current, head on (or tail on in this case). I've since learned that move is really pretty easy if you do it right, turn the stern to the bank, nearly 90 degrees to the current and keep it a foot or two off the rocks until your over whacker, then straighten out and prepare for the next move... I ran it a couple of weeks ago for the first time in 15 years and it was easy as pie...the problem being as a strict point toward danger and back row, the easy way through doesn't seem logical but in reality it's the best and safest way through. In this case the best way is to go sideways at danger, until your less than a boat length away then turn, not logical to me back then... now I can totally see it.
Sorry for the book, it's been fun reminiscing.
Yesterday's gone on down the river and you can't get it back. - Agustus McCrae