I try, generally speaking, to exude an air of confidence and ease on the river. After all, no one likes to climb in to a 14-foot rubber raft, look back at the guide and think is she crying? On most days I do a good job personifying confidence. Some rapids might induce a little bit of “pucker factor” when the water is up but I can usually mask any angst and ride through the waves with a smile on my face. Rafting is supposed to be fun and honestly I do love it.
There are those days though, in every guides career that we just think, holy mother here we go. I had one of those days this week. It is high water season (maybe you saw my last blog?) and the river is roaring – one powerful, swift, mass of freezing water gushing down the canyon. Everyone loves high water. Everyone respects high water. And everyone knows that things can get a little out of hand no matter how hard you try to keep it under wraps.
A few days ago I stood on the bank, hands asleep, heart pounding, scouting Three Rocks rapid down in the Bighorn Sheep Canyon. It was formidable and although a helpful, but quiet voice in the back of my mind insisted I was capable of guiding it, the roar of the river filled me with dread. I watched as boat after boat went tumbling over the falls and flipped in the jaws of the beast down below. It wasn’t pretty. There were lots of people with lawn chairs, beers, and cameras surrounding me cheering as the river mercilessly consumed, flipped, and jettisoned boat after boat.
I had run the rapid twice before but last time I saw it the river was running 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) which is 3000 cfs less than it is running now. Even if you can’t visualize a cubic foot of water (think basketball) everyone reading this can understand that 800 cfs of water is very different than 3800 cfs of water, in both volume, strength, and intensity. They are really quite incomparable really. At 800 cfs the rapid has some big boulders scattered through the river through which you need to zig zag. No problem. At high water those same boulders are submerged in the water and create a massive recirculating hole that is quite difficult to skirt. It’s like a malignant magnet. I personally had zero intention of being anywhere near the thing. The trouble was that the river pushes, with force, right at the hole and it is a battle of will, strength, and skill to avoid it. If the guide wins, the boat will pass by unscathed. If not… well you have already heard what happens if you go in.
If you also go back a few blogs you will find one on this specific rapid and understanding rapid ratings. At high water Three Rocks is a class IV boarding on a class V. I had never guided customers through a true class IV before and so I had a lot weighing on this run.
I dragged my feet a little as we geared up after lunch trying to workout what I was going to do. I wanted to have plan A, B, C, D, E… Z all clearly outlined mentally before taking a single paddle stroke towards the behemoth waiting down river.
“Gather up guys.” I called to my six-(wo)man crew. We all huddled together. “Fun and games start after Three Rocks. You all know what to do. You paddled awesome this morning. Keep it up and be attentive to my instructions, they are probably going to change fast.” They nodded at me, eyes glittering with excitement.
We struck out, paddles digging deep into the water. As we rounded a bend in the river before the rapid all fear left me. I didn’t have room for anything other than cold concentration on what I was doing.
We hugged the left bank like our lives depended on it – which realistically they did not but I sure felt that way! “Forward! Stop. Right back. Forward! Stop. All forward! Dig in! Dig in!” We shot around the left side of the river and our nose dove into an eddy spinning us wildly around. I got in one stroke and pulled us through the turn until we were all looking entirely upstream. “Inside! Inside!” My team dove for the middle of the boat like a well oiled machine and we slid backwards into the far left hole. Cold water crashed over me making my head ache. Then we were free. We had made it. A whoop of pure elation erupted from the boat and paddles smacked together in the middle in an ecstatic high five. The stoke was high.
It is the moments like these that all guides live for. We have a saying on the river that we are all between swims. Although that is true, it is the moments in which the swim seems immanent and we escape fate for just a little bit longer that makes us love what we do and keep coming back for more.
Until next time Three Rocks. I’m 1:0. Can’t wait to see what the next round holds.