“The Selway, between Double Drop Rapids and Ladle Rapids, has averaged one drowning per year, over the past 8 years.” the veteran Selway River guide intoned. “Don’t take it lightly.”
As if we needed additional angst prior to boating one of the most difficult rivers to get a permit for in the country and one of the most remote rivers to navigate. Our long drive to the put-in carried us deep into the forested Idaho wilderness.
It was springtime. The weather was gorgeous. The skies were the kind of blue poets wax over and writers fawn on and on about struggling to come up with an original description. The river itself was flowing at an optimal level for a party that had never seen any of its whitewater.
It’s not that we weren’t loaded with experience, we were. Just not loaded with experience on the Selway.
Our group consisted of a paddle raft, a cataraft, two kayakers and a bevy of oar boats. What we discovered at the put-in on the morning of our launch was that we were critically shy on everyone’s favorite beverage. The beverage some people believe Seattle was founded on. The beverage that contains the ingredient that has launched a thousand ships, fueled a billion college students and so permeated the Puget Sound that its main component cannot be used to detect pollution.
Coffee. More precisely, caffeinated coffee.
The day before we drove for half a day and over a few substantial mountain passes to get to where we were. We were about as deep into wilderness as you can be in the contiguous continental United States.
In other words, a rafter of Seattleites (‘rafter’ being the formal name for a group of domestic turkeys) were about to run a river trip without their morning cups of joe. Essentially, cold turkey. Which, of course, was unacceptable. Yet resupply was impossible.
I have been on river trips where we were forced to reuse coffee grounds. I have been on a river trip where we had to cook every meal and brew coffee over an open fire. I have been on a river trip where the coffee provided was so distasteful we begged for Nescafe at the resupply.
But I had never had to raft cold turkey sans coffee. Rafting without coffee was tantamount to fly fishing without a hundred pockets.
As the realization spread through camp, good natured ribbing turned to alarm. Nancy had been tasked with the coffee requisition and she was feeling the heat of responsibility.
Fortune - thankfully - intervened. The wilderness ranger, who came to check us out, had a sufficient stash of Middle America’s finest blend - Folger’s - to see us through. And he was willing to part with it.
Disaster narrowly averted. Everyone’s good nature returned. Nancy would not be ostracized or left behind. Elated, we returned to our rigging.
A Selway permit was like a unicorn. I believed I would never score a Selway permit, or be invited on someone else’s permit, just as I would never see a unicorn.
But here we were on the legendary river in the heart of the Idaho backcountry with perfect weather, a manageable river level and an All-Star cast of boaters. As we delighted in the challenging whitewater above the innermost canyon where the notorious rapids lay in wait, we also marveled at our exquisite timing. Like the mercurial Illinois River, the Selway is renowned for ‘blowing up on you’ in no time.
We floated up to the final camp above the inner gorge and opted to spend an extra day. A layover day on any river trip is prized. But doubly so with a good group. It means more time in one another’s company.
From our layover camp, it was a short walk down canyon to scout Double Drop, the opening whitewater salvo of the inner gorge rapids. A portion of the group scouted while the rest of us lazed about camp reading or playing dice games.
Around midday a quiet rain commenced. The scouting group hiked back to report on what they observed at Double Drop but no one seemed impressed. Despite the inclement weather and the big day of rafting before us, we recreated until late in the evening. Some significantly more than others.
Mike Krausser and Hans Slette giggled late into the night by a dying campfire over whether or not ‘sedges had edges’ and whether or not it was snowing.
We awoke at dawn to a river seriously changed in character. The clarity was gone, replaced by murkiness. The rafts bobbed restlessly in the slack water near shore like horses unnerved by unseen predators. Once we launched, I felt through my paddle how the nature of the river had switched gears from playfully bold to monstrously powerful, and perhaps, unpredictable.
The river’s current had noticeably quickened.
Due to the blasé scout of Double Drop, the paddle-rafters, myself included, opted to appoint Kook as guide. But as we shot by a swollen tributary, while those who had scouted bantered back and forth about where we were on the river, I realized, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we were definitely ‘no longer in Kansas’.
The Selway of legend, the Selway we heard stories about, was, literally and figuratively, rising from it’s long winter nap.
I had not gone on the scout but I sensed us barreling toward a major drop which had to be Double Drop. I distinctly recollect there being some back and forth amongst those in the raft about whether it was possible we could have already reached Double Drop. In the stern, Kook was equivocating and the remainder of the crew looked askance to me. The doubt in everybody’s faces was all I needed.
I superseded Kook’s command and called for an immediate eddy out on the left side of the river.
We watched as Robert, rowing feverishly, trying to slow his downstream progress, disappeared into the exploding chaos hidden by the river’s bend.
(To Be Continued.)