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A noise like thunder roared through the narrow canyon. But it wasn’t thunder on this cloudless summer morning. It was the roar of approaching rapids, the famed whitewater of the River of No Return. The current picked up, impelling the inflatable raft closer to swirling water and hidden rocks. The rower’s grip on the oars was as tight as the grip in her gut as the raft plunged into the first trough. . . .
* * * *
Whitewater rafting—a tricky combination of unyielding gravity, fast water and lurking rocks. Surmounting rapids demands precise coordination between the rowing guide/oarsman who determines the route and the paddler team who obeys in unison.
In previous “Follow Me!” adventures, we’ve rafted in Siberia and Chile. There, we paddled in teams, following the commands of our guides.
Would you like to command instead of follow? Row instead of paddle? Be in charge of a boat?
Then put down that paddle, grab the oars and follow me to Idaho!
The Salmon River rushes through canyons so steep and deep that for centuries only downriver navigation was possible, earning this central Idaho torrent the nickname River of No Return.
Even Lewis and Clark turned back.
But here you are, perched atop 1,000 pounds or so of lockers and drybags lashed to an 18-foot supply boat on the Main Salmon River. Behind you trail two paddleboats, each with one guide/oarsman and six to eight paddlers, plus two more supply boats.
Garth Cunningham, head of raft operations at Main Salmon Lodge, rows your supply boat. It hauls food, beverages, tents, sleeping bags and camping gear for 20 people on a three-day expedition.
Riding as passengers, you and your raft buddy Doug could only cling to ropes and tie-downs as the supply boat bucked and heaved like a rodeo bronco through the man-high waves and troughs of the Killum, Rainer and Lantz Rapids of the Main Salmon River.
When the flotilla entered a calm stretch of water near Little Squaw Creek, Garth rested the oars and said, “Who wants to try rowing?”
Rowing is not paddling. Paddlers sit on either side of the raft; the rower sits in the center or rear. Paddlers stroke with one paddle about five feet long; a rower maneuvers two eleven-foot oars, one in each hand.
“The pull stroke is the easiest because you use your big arm, shoulder and back muscles,” advises Garth as you grasp the oars, dip their paddles into the water behind you and extend your arms forward. “Brace yourself with your legs and use those muscles, too.”
You pull your arms into your chest and the 18-foot long raft glides easily in the calm current. You lift the oars from the water, extend your arms, lower the oars and repeat. Reminds you of the rowing machine at the gym only more satisfying.
“Now try a push stroke,” Garth says. You let the raft swing around so that the bow faces forward, lower the oars into water ahead of you and push your arms forward. You feel this stroke where your collarbones meet your shoulders.
“Harder, isn’t it?” Garth acknowledges with a smile. “You want to position yourself before the rapid so that if you need power, you can pull rather than push. Pulling is the power stroke.”
In calm water, paddlers relax and enjoy the views, but the rower never relaxes. The raft will drift anywhere. You must keep it out of eddies, areas of reverse current or no current.
Just when you get the hang of pushing and pulling, the raft enters a stretch of light waves, a Class I rapid. (See Sidebar: A Classy Experience.).
“Keep the raft perpendicular to the river,” advises Garth. With one push of an oar, the raft turns sideways and soon is bobbing in the gentle waves.
You pull the oars out of the water and let the raft follow the flow. No scary obstacles here, just lapping waves that barely come over the boat’s sides.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” teases Garth when the raft clears the waves and again enters flat water. “Devil’s Teeth Rapids is coming up and it’s a Three, so I’ll take over from here.”
“Approach a riverbend from the inside,” are Garth’s first instructions the next day. “That way you can row to the outside after you’ve scouted around the bend.”
Here in Black Canyon, giant pillars of dark quartz monzonite dwarf the boats. “This canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon,” Garth observes.
The morning passes quickly as you row through several Class I rapids, enjoying the bobbing rhythm and getting a feel for the river’s powerful potential. When a Class II looms ahead about a hundred yards, Garth asks, “What do you see?”
Rivers read like books. Some waves flow over low rocks, creating “pillows” which are anything but soft if your raft scrapes one.
Higher waves crash over bigger boulders and plunge into deadly holes or whirlpools. Get caught in their spin cycle and you may catapult into frigid snow-melt run-off water, an invitation to hypothermia or a cracked skull.
To avoid those threats, you must look two or three obstacles ahead, like a ski racer going through gates.
“Look for the wave train and decide what kind of a ride you want,” continues Garth.
“Make it a dry ride,” teases Doug with a smile that belies his plea.
Garth points to water that flows into the rapid from each side, creating a visible path into the strongest part of the current. “See the ‘tongue’? Approach it sideways then as soon as you’re in, turn the raft bow forward.”
One hard pull on the downstream oar and the 1,000-lb. raft obeys like a well-trained horse approaching a jump. The raft leaps up and over the first four-foot high wave then slams down the trough, immediately leaping up again against the next wave, and the next, and the next.
“Yee-haw!” yell Garth and Doug, waving their caps like a pair of rodeo bull riders.
A pull swings the raft away from a pillow, and you neatly avoid the hole behind the rock.
Look up! No time to bask in your success--there’s more scary stuff ahead.
Thunder sounds in your ears as tons of white water hurl against boulder after boulder. Your stomach muscles tighten as you pull hard on those oars, harder than you’ve ever pulled in your life. A rogue wave crashes the right side of the raft, drenching everyone with frigid water. You never stop pulling, driving the oars deep into the Salmon’s olive-green depths.
Suddenly it’s over. The raft swirls into calm water. You conquered your first Class II!
Doug and Garth grin from under their dripping caps. “Nice shower,” teases Doug.
“Good job!” congratulates Garth. “And there’s more whitewater tomorrow!”
c. Alamogordo (NM) Daily News 2005