We got an early start to drive a couple of hours from Joseph, OR to the Hell’s Canyon Dam. That’s where we would “put in” and begin our rafting adventures on the Snake River. There were ten guests on this trip and at least that many staff and crew from Winding Waters, Plate & Pitchfork, and Noble Rot.
Each person on the trip was allowed to bring a small dry-bag for day-use on the river. In mine was a bottle of water, sunscreen, chapstick, and my camera (protected by a waterproof case). We each had a large dry bag, too, which contained our sleeping bag, a pillow, two days’ worth of clothes, and our toiletries. These big bags– along with tents, cots, sleep mats, huge Igloos of food and beverages, cooking supplies, a portable kitchen, tables, chairs, and who knows what else–were hauled by the crew on a few gear boats.
We, the guests, were divided among three rafts, expertly manned (and womaned) by Paul, Cowboy Craig, and Caitlin, our river guides. In the hopes of having some thrilling whitewater action, Rick and I chose to ride with Craig. On his raft, we’d get the chance to help paddle through the rough waters. We felt bold and wanted to get the most out of this experience.
The morning provided little opportunity for the much-anticipated paddling, but we were treated to rich and remarkable scenery. With Oregon on our left and Idaho on our right, we floated–sometimes swiftly, sometimes leisurely–northward down the Snake. Craggly rock peaks loomed above us on both sides of the river. Close to the water’s edge, hearty shrubs and trees flourished, while higher up, amber-hued desert dry grass bearded the face of Hell’s Canyon’s rugged walls.
After lunch, the river got rough with us. And we loved it. Every so often, someone in the raft would let out a “woo-hoo!” or a “yeah!” or some unspellable shriek of excitement as the currents rushed us down the river.
When we would approach class III rapids (defined as: Rapids are moderate with irregular waves which are difficult to avoid. Complex maneuvering is required to avoid capsizing. Most danger can be avoided by experienced paddlers. Large waves and/or strainers may appear. Strong currents can make self-rescue difficult. Scouting is advised for inexperienced paddlers.), we got out of our rafts and scouted. Our expert guides explained to us how and where we would navigate through the waters and forewarned us of how hard we would have to paddle to help get us through. The first time we scouted, I found this to be equal parts informative, intimidating, and exhilarating.
The second time, we were confronted by a slightly wilder current. Having successfully ridden through our first class III, my confidence was up. But as we scouted the second, I must admit that I was slightly more nervous. As we stood on the ridge overlooking the rushing river, my view of the most rigourous part was obstructed by several trees. My vertically-challenged stature wasn’t helping any. I could see where the strong rapids began and where it calmed again, but I couldn’t see what was in between. All I knew was that there was a patch we needed to avoid that surged over a rocky area and lead to a sudden drop. Since I couldn’t see it, my mind decided to fill in the gaps with images of flipped rafts and heads banging into rocks.
I tried to look cool because everyone else seemed more or less at ease. As we began walking back down the hill to get into our rafts, one of our gear boats came along. We all stopped to watch how they would get through the rapids. They seemed to float by so slowly compared to what I knew it felt like when you’re actually on the river. At first people cheered them on. Then we just watched…anxiously.
Their success was reassuring. I thought confidently, “We got this.”
Back in the raft we went. Craig reminded his six passengers that we needed to be in the proper position: sitting on the sides of the raft–three on each side for balance, feet dug deep under the inflatable seats in the center of the raft, paddles in hand, ready to dig hard at a moment’s notice.
I was seated in the back row and was thankful to have Rick across from me. There’s a confidence like no other that comes from knowing that we are teammates, partners, and cohorts–we’re in this experience together. As our raft approached the rapids, we glanced at each other and smiled uncontrollably.
Suddenly, Craig yelled out, “Paddle forward!” We were now in work mode. I leaned awkwardly forward (as one would when one’s feet are shoved under a seat with the lower body facing one direction and the upper body facing another), stretched my arms out to dig the paddle into the water and then pulled hard with my whole body. Reach and pull and reach and pull and reach and pull. I tried to be sure to stay in rhythm with the people in front of me, but I think they were keeping pace with my racing heartbeat, which must have been pounding so loudly through my chest. We kept digging until Craig yelled, “Ok!”–our cue that we had cleared the roaring current.
Early that evening, when we finally made it into camp, my adrenaline was still surging, but I was exhausted. Thankfully, the crew had arrived well ahead of us and had set up our tents and the dining area. Leather and Joe were getting our meal ready, too. We had time to time on our hands to freshen up, do some fishing, and share in convivial conversation. As we feasted on a gourmet dinner and nibbled on a clever version of s’mores, each of us recounted repeatedly our versions of how our first day on the river went. And the stories never got old.
Check out some of these scenes from our camp.
We watched as the sky went from blue to rose to indigo to black, and felt the radiant heat that the surrounding boulders had absorbed all day long. Craig serenaded us with his guitar and beautiful cowboy-style songs. Rick and I marveled at the scene around us. There we were, far removed from any sign of civilization, sheltered along the valley of an impressive canyon, well fed, well cared for and completely content under the light of a galaxy of stars. You couldn’t have scripted a better day than this. It made us all the more eager for what tomorrow would bring.