“So, this is how it is going to end,” I thought.
Steelhead Falls - Lower White Salmon - low water
It appeared I was to be the first drowning fatality on one of my company’s outings. After all these decades. Nothing sobering about it. I was already as sober as a church deacon. I was being flushed through an unfamiliar gorge toward an uncertain ending. My thoughts as incurious as a heifer facing her demise.
I can’t define irony but I know it when I am experiencing it.
It was only moments before I was masterfully in charge of my raft and three powerful, experienced paddlers. We were wending our way downstream on the Lower White Salmon, marveling at the changes since Condit Dam’s removal. The dam had plugged the river for quite some time, and was now meticulously deconstructed and effectively vanished. Videos immortalizing its vanishing act were viral internet sensations amongst the conservation crowd.
Time lapse photography. Aerial cameras, perhaps drones, observing the destruction of the obstacle that had been put in place in order to control both the river and the environment. Bloggers remarking and pontificating. Social media erupting into a tempest of huzzahs, figurative back slaps and congratulatory comments.
For the last century - in America - we plugged up rivers as if tourniquets were the cure for every ailment. But in the modern age, we’ve realized that “if your only tool is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.”
We stand on the precipice of a new age. And dams are no longer - in this country anyway - looked upon as the only answer. Time to try a tool other than a hammer.
So, I wanted to see the Lower White Salmon unleashed from the confines of Condit Dam. I heard through the river running grapevine there was white water and wood and a rapid where the former dam once stood. But nothing I heard rose to the level of ‘Alarming’ according to my finely honed sense of white water conservatism. In other words, I was blithely under-informed as to the character of the river before I found myself thrashing about in its chilly waters as if I was being sucked down a sewer pipe in an unexpected flash flood.
To be clear, we had ample opportunity to be better informed. We were fresh off our annual guide training course. So, even though it was the very beginning of a new season, the fourteen paddlers in four rafts were armed to the teeth with experience, the finest gear professional deals can buy and a whole week to limber up.
At a bar the evening before, we collected beta from a friend who guided the White Salmon and who rafted the lower stretch several times since the dam was removed. The discussion centered on the Class V drop - Steelhead Falls - at the old dam site. But all agreed it would be a mandatory portage since it kicked off a narrow gorge which was known to include a random log or two.
Talk included the nature of this falls. The height. The width. The surliness of its nature. The chasm it protects. How it captures rafts like belly buttons trap lint.
The bar banter was all ‘sturm und drang’. Anxiety generated for anxiety’s sake. We planned to portage.
To portage, we would have to grab a micro eddy upstream and then walk the rafts to the falls. While holding tightly to the bowlines, clinging to ropes imbedded in the cliff wall on the left bank, we intended to line the rafts over Steelhead Falls.
All was good in theory. Except, when we reached the busy, challenging water above the chasm and the falls, it became instantly clear we were not going to be able to eddy out. The current was too swift. The eddies too tiny. The hydrologic features leading up to the river wide reversal too protective and likely to spin us out of control at the precipice of the falls.
I watched as the lead boat - way past the point of no return and way too far right - plunged over the horizon line and disappeared.
No dramatic breaching like a whale. No spectacular inflatable back flip. Just gone. Out of sight.
I urged my crew to paddle and worked the raft to the river’s left side. If I was going to run Steelhead Falls blind, I wanted the best possible position to succeed. However, when we arrived at the brink of the falls and stared down into its frothing maw, we saw our lead raft blocking most of our path.
I shouted numerous profanity-laced commands in quick succession and braced for impact. I was hopeful - for a split second. The boat, with Neil and Craig in the bow and Dane on my left, surged forward. But, as a guide, you know when the odds are not bending in your favor. You know when the river calls the shots.
I felt the raft shudder to a halt. Watched Dane and Craig get siphoned overboard, and just as I reached for a handhold to clamber toward the rising downstream tube, Rivers’ raft, the third in line, cascaded on top of us. Without a handhold, I had no chance of staying on board.
Once I was over board, I was engulfed by the turbulence of the falls, shoved momentarily up against the floor of what I assumed was my raft, and then regurgitated downstream like a leaf in a flooding gutter.
So there I was. Thinking morbid thoughts, sucking water, struggling to keep my head above the waves and flailing about with my arms in search of current going anywhere but downstream.
To no avail. Worse still, white water loomed ahead.
“So, this is how it is going to end. . . .” I was drained of my stamina and exhausted.
The next thing I knew I was yarded on board an upright raft by either Robert or Tom, or both, and they paddled us to safety.
Irony, I supposed, would have to wait until another day.