“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.”
After awkwardly clambering up a steep slope above Double Drop Rapids in an effort to get a peek at what lurked around the bend, those words lay harbored in the back of my mind. With the Selway rising, rocks were disappearing and ugly hydrologic features were emerging.
The reason those who scouted the day before were nonplussed about location was because they had noted an enormous boulder at the head of Double Drop Rapids.
An enormous boulder. With the rising tide, the telltale boulder was engulfed.
From the scout, I had no doubt of the preferred route. However, the slightest miscalculation risked an encounter with some of the explosive breaking waves toward the rapid’s tail. The more technically difficult Ladle Rapids were far enough downstream to be out-of-sight but close enough to not be out-of-mind.
In case you wondered, Robert was eddied out on the left side of the river down below the rapid and, unbeknownst to us, was desperately trying to scale the cliffs to reach us. Also, unbeknownst to us, his effort failed when he peeled off the cliff into the river and was forced to swim back to his boat.
After a brief scout, we hustled back to the rafts to tackle Double Drop before it got any bigger. I guided my attentive paddlers through the frothing mess without disaster. The remainder of the party followed without carnage but Dane reported an adventure run captured on - at least - two cameras.
One camera was mounted facing upstream and the other mounted on his helmet. The exciting part was the two contrasting perspectives when he engaged the nasty curling wave near Double Drop’s runout. As his cataraft balanced on its side, it was clear from his head camera his body was scrambling to keep his world upright as the boat tottered on the brink of capsizing.
Meanwhile, Nancy caught the powerful tail wave head on and, as her boat rounded into sight from our vantage point above Ladle, we saw her clinging to the frame like a refugee clinging to flotsam at sea. For a moment we feared she would float through Ladle’s minefield of hydraulics and, if she had, which of us would take chase, but to our everlasting relief - and hers as well - she remounted the boat and rowed to shore.
The veteran guide’s admonition made sense now that we had experienced the runaway freight train of water between the two drops. Little wonder people met their demise on this stretch. If you lost it in Double Drop, the recovery time before Ladle, at high water, was halved.
Still unnerved by the whitewater above, we hiked the trail to take a closer look at the infamous Ladle.
The next thing we knew we saw an inverted cataraft being flushed downriver and through the plethora of river features pocking the entire length and breadth of Ladle. No rafter, as far as we could ascertain, was with the craft. Another group had caught us. Two kayakers, however, were aggressively pursuing the cataraft as it was sucked downstream and out of our vision.
The ghost boat, the fierce whitewater upstream, the ever rising river and the unknown of what was right before our eyes spooked the lot of us.
River runners say “there are old boaters and bold boaters, but not a lot of old, bold boaters. . . “
Robert fell into the older, bolder boater category. A whitewater ninja if ever there was one. All of us have come to understand that the bigger his grin, the more difficult the whitewater we face.
After a scant reconnoiter, he bombed his cataraft down the middle of the rapid and, though he did not make it look enticing, he was scampering back upstream grinning from ear to ear. A couple of hours went by with considerable discussion of portaging.
Instead, Robert elected to row Jeremy and Mike’s rafts, Tom volunteered to take Nancy’s oar boat through and the rest of us continued to mull over route options.
The same guide who warned us of the fatalities had also proffered that, though it ‘looked’ like there was a ‘sneak’ route on Ladle’s left side, rafts couldn’t achieve the escape velocity to reach it. I watched Robert tenuously survive a couple of ugly sample runs and determined the paddle raft could improve on all three of them.
I wanted to sneak left but I feared jeopardizing my crew. Robert joined us in the paddle raft to help with the ‘lay of the land’. He also thought we could improve on his three hair-raising wild rides.
As we approached the top of the rapid, passing a monster reversal churning to our left, I gave a quiet forward command hoping to get just far enough out of the roaring midstream flow to slow our speed and set us up to thread the needle between the multiple sentry hydraulics that Robert had monkeyed around with all morning.
Unexpectedly, my paddlers responded like a prize steer pent up too long and released onto the rodeo grounds. We shot across the lip of the rapid several boat lengths farther left than any of us anticipated. The next thing I realized we hit the slot I yearned for all along, I straightened the bow into the oncoming waves and held on for dear life.
From shore, Dane said later it looked as if our raft was a hydrofoil. Gliding beyond the turmoil and completely dodging the fray. We eddied out as the final three boaters, elated to know they had options - one of them being as close to a dry run as you could ever hope - hastened to their crafts.
There was more. There was plenty more. Like the ‘boils of death’ at Little Niagara, and the ‘Wave that wouldn’t peak’ at Wolf Creek. And the lousy weather that never got better right on to the next dreary, wet trip on the Lochsa.
But cheating Ladle - accidentally - is the Selway story I’ll never forget.