Dealing with the Past

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20 years ago now, I was on the West Coast of the USA with Jason Smith, the editor of CanoeKayak UK Magizine. We went to fire it up in Oregon and Washington, and after arriving into Seattle we hit a few runs and getting into the mode for steeper fun. We met up with friends in White Salmon, and headed for an adventure on the Little White. I have previously run this great section before and not without another story, but another time I feel.

At the put in we were 5, a mixed crew; Andy, a UK expat, Johnny, a West Coast Green horn, Joey an East Coast charger, Jason, UK shop boy and myself. The level was high, well it was certainly considered high at that time, yet on we got, and the first incident was within 250m of the putin, Johnny had swam, a little rigid from the task that lay before us and made a rolling competition with himself, nervous he lost. After a while searching for his nice new Werner paddle, Johnny headed back to the car

Into the Darkness

Onwards we went, the pace picked up and we started to enjoy the early drops, great fun. On one sloping ramp drop, I ran hard right to nail a boof, and amazingly I got a little deflection into an odd pin. Now my weapon of choice was Dagger’s Gradient, I really did not like this very roundy banana sytle boat, plus the volume around the cockpit was all a little too less for my liking, as I felt certainly well down in the water. Anyway, in my new creek boat I had gotten myself into an odd pin, where I was now facing back up river with the boat pitched forward into an ice pot rounded nook in the rocks. I throw my paddles away, as I fully understood the situation, as the deflection on the ramp had placed myself into what appeared to the entry of a siphon, my arms were on the rocks that guarded the entry of the siphon, and I was holding the weight of the boat and myself up to avoid plugging the gap.

Seeing the light

The whole crew were on river left, and I was amongst an overhanging rock jumble on the right. My arms were not going to last too much longer and the my paddling crew were still not yet nearby. I had already started to look for all the possible options, I certainly was not going back out the way I came, nor could I climb out as the overhanging rock was a little too challenging. So I watched where the water was going, and I could see beyond the dark siphon, the occasional moment of light. I watched for what seamed a long while, and then I kicked the boat off, and let her go through the siphon, watching all the time. And when my arms could not hold myself any more, I tucked up and went for it, on through the looking glass experience.

On the other side, Andy had just managed to get across the river, and had come back upstream, and then I appeared just after my boat in an eddy around the corner from where I was last seen. We collected all my gear, on retrieving my paddle I looked again at the siphon and the benign deflection rock on the ramp, and it all seamed so innocent, kinda insignificant, and the escape I had chosen, with the lack of rescue crew on the spot for a rapid reation, was the only option

Onwards

We regrouped below, & off we went, the drops came fast and action was great. We got to a double drop, where a boof on the right, grind the bank to avoid a pour over was the way we choose too ran. All went well, until Jason in the Diablo Evolution made the prefect piton boofing into the right bank and bouncing back into the pour over. The cartwheeling was world class, vertical ends, an excellent rhythm and the occasional change in direction for a championship making ride. A truly high scoring run. After a while Jason’s stellar efforts to get out of the pour over were ultimately fruitless, and getting a line to him was not really an option as the boat chopped ends at quite a pace. Jason bailed. During the ensuing long swim, Jason’s head never re-surfaced, his camera box, paddle, boat and spray deck!!, all came out, but no Jason!

I was stood on the side watching for any sign, and then at the foot of the undercut rock I was stood on, a hand appeared, I grabbed hold and lifted him ashore. Breathless, Jason was happy to be on terra firma…

Up and out and down we went.

Jason’s boat was broken, and the only option for him was up and out, so we said our goodbyes and headed our own separate ways, now we were just 3 paddlers carrying on.

En route to the main event, Andy on a high boof landed badly, pulling a muscle resulting in a hobbling pace. Slowly the ambition lessen. Finally looking at Spirit Falls, the side curtain was forming quite a hole. Joey who was here the week before, decided to fire it up and nailed the line, straight down the middle. He re-surfaced pretty happy with himself, that he looked back at the drop and surfed into the side curtain hole. Another rolling competition unfolded. During this time, I headed to the eddy below, Joey had not swam, but missed the left eddy and went backwards over into the now famed Chaos Drop…..

Reaper at the door

Joey battled well in and out of his kayak, yet at that high water level, there is little chance of escaping Chaos. By the time I was in my boat, Joey was heading downstream, face down. I sprinted after him, and by good fortunate his unconscious body eddied out on the right. I jumped from my boat, turn him and opened the airways, a few rescue breathes later he was clearly alive. We did a few rounds of the eddy, before I could get him, my boat and paddle and myself ashore. Andy had joined us by then, and soon Joey had started to regain consciousness. After 10 minutes or so had passed, Joey could speak and we reasoned through our options. We could stay put and rest some more, paddle out to the car a kilometre below or walk out. Joey did not wish to paddle anymore, his boat was pretty broken up along with him, I did not wish to stay as that simply delayed the inevitable same decision, so we started climbing out. It took several pitches of climbing to drag Joey up to a nature rock bench, where we rounded the hillside and to drop down to the river, to then swim across to the car and on to the hospital.

Lactic acid is your friend?

On arriving at the local hospital, which was rather quiet, all of a sudden there was a heightened level of activity, a moment later Joey was loaded into a chopper and was en route to Portland hospital and then all was still again.

Collecting our thought, we spoke to the Doctor on hand, and he had said Joey’s heart was beating abnormally, and then he needed serious medical help. After we got to Portland, and found out the rest of the story. Joey was by then all good. Yet during his fight within Chaos, he had fought so hard without oxygen than his heart muscle had been increasingly working on high amounts of lactic acid, making its rhythm beat abnormally. It appeared according to the doctors, that the fact we had climbed up and out from the river, doing a huge amount of aerobic work probably stopped him (thankfully) having a heart attack on the river……

Seldom do adventures encounter just a few problems, yet solving them as they befall you, keeping a sense of momentum going and the group dynamic focused, is key. Yet sometimes misfortunate knocks you down and whilst being good can be great, its always better to be lucky. As I reflect back, at no specific point during this epic day, do I think we made the wrong call. Perhaps Joey, decided poorly in wishing to run Spirit Falls first, and yet he was keen, had run the drop the week before and was focused on the task at hand. Maybe once in the pool, he lost his focus, which lead to the chain of event in his near drowning. Only Joey has those answers. As a group, we took on the challenges as they came, and in spite of falling short in good execution, we were able to all walk away. Could those of us whom were considering to run Spirit Falls that day, done down, cross the river and set up safety on Chaos, could of done so? Yes of course. Although given the water level, having safety on such a violent feature may not of aided the rescue of a recirculating kayaker. Plus, to go all the way back up to the top, to run Spirit Falls afterwards, is a lot of work, which is seldom done. As such to sacrifice a waterfall run, to have better safety, to probably the only obvious answer.

This trip was from the spring 1999, with Simon Westgarth, our Head Coach enjoying(!) another trip to the Pacific North West.