How can a place as peaceful as this want to eat your boat?
Adventures in Whitehorse Rapids
Many of you have probably heard of Whitehorse Rapids, the defining stretch of the Lower Deschutes between Trout Creek and Maupin. This is a place of singular intensity. Depending on what map you read, Whitehorse is either a class 3+ or 4 piece of water. Regardless of how it’s categorized, it is all you’d ever want in a drift boat, which is the only way I know it. Several years ago I saw the rapid for the first time from the scouting point, a bunch of us milling nervously about as my chauffer was being instructed on the finer points of how to enter, navigate and ultimately find your way to the bottom of the initial, harrowing drop. What ended up happening was a less than textbook run, me trying to remain calm as one of the rocks meant to pass on our port side raced by on starboard, the intrepid oarsman grappling to find a way to safety. The run would prove to leave a lasting impression on me. The next year found me approaching the rapid in my own drift boat, a good friend and massively skilled oarsman leading in a raft. We pulled into the scouting pullout and wandered down to the point above the heart of the rapid where the full roar of water compels every sense. That’s where I froze. Even now I’m not ashamed to admit that. As I scanned the rapid, top to bottom, examining each visible rock, each tumbling wave, each arching, distorted hydraulic, my mind raced over the various scenarios, each potential outcome, good and bad. Then a horrible vision filled my imagination.
There’s a video I saw once when my fascination with Whitehorse was fresh and new. It was easily found on YouTube. The video is shot from below the worst part of the rapid, one rafter shooting his buddy following in another raft. But the guy with the camera notices a drift boat entering the rapid obviously in immediate and acute trouble. In the next 10 seconds the hapless rower digs pathetically at the frothing caps of waves and then simply clouts the first big rock, “The Can Opener”. In the blink of an eye the boat is upside down, occupants and every piece of gear is distributed into the angry waters. It is a yard sale of coolers, dry bags, fishing gear and people. An instant later the video ends, presumably so the shooter could begin attempting to salvage some of the stuff. I only ever watched the video once. I had nightmares for months. I couldn’t erase the vision from my memory. Every time I imagined myself rowing the rapid, I saw the wreck, over and over. Sure, I located and studied videos of perfect runs. I watched people stick the rapid at 4000 , 6000, 7800cfs. I watched hand held “bow cam” runs, Go Pro cams mounted above the rower’s seat, excited onlookers’ videos shot from the railroad tracks. Movie after movie showed me exactly how to do it. My friends and co-workers encouraged me. My bosses impressed upon me how important it was that I get down there and row my boat the length of the river. I told myself over and over that I could do it.
Then we came face-to-face. And I froze. It wasn’t long before my friend Chris realized my state. “How you feeling, man?” he asked casually, caring.
“Not so hot,” I replied, not looking away from the growling river.
“What do you want to do?”
“I dunno,” I said shaking my head, trying to clear the bad images, trying to conjure good ones. Silently I asked the river if it was my turn. The river emphatically said NO. “I don’t think I’m good for this.”
“Alright, cool,” Chris said without even a hint of disappointment. Then he turned and went up the steep trail to where our other friends waited. After one last look from above I turned and said, “Yea man, not feeling it,”
“Let’s go down in my raft,” Chris announced. “Then if you want we can go in Ruby with either me or you rowing.
We told the other guys our plan and went up to Chris’ raft. He talked me through every oar stroke, every ferry angle, every indication that the boat was in the right place, aimed the right way, going the right speed. It was by all accounts a perfect, effortless run. After pulling the raft in at “House Rock” we walked up to the bluff above the entrance to the rapid. We stopped there, our friends a respectful distance, Chris letting me assess. I asked again of the river is today my time. The river, unblinking, without sympathy, said HELL NO! To Chris’ credit, he didn’t even portray a trace of disenchantment with me. We simply walked up, got in Ruby and he ran it again, perfectly. I shot this run on my cell phone video. The footage is blurry because the lens focuses on rods, not the water. But the angles are there, the ferry positions, the calm, stress-less strokes. The minute we pulled in at “House Rock” I felt massive sorrow and chagrin at having passed up my first real chance to row the ‘horse. Those emotions would stay with me for the next year, haunting, causing a tightening in the chest.
This last spring the demons were exorcized. Chris was there again, this time with my dear friend Travis at his side in the front of the boat. My first ever run was without incident. Get the stern over the left “Knuckle” with the correct ferry angle, still backing slightly into the eddy. Steady the boat as she moves slowly towards “Hog’sback”. Skid the bottom of the transom over “Plug Rock” (“the sound of safety”) pointing the bow straight at “Can Opener”. Swing the bow across to the river right bank just as the boat floats into the seam pushing of the right side of “Can Opener”. Don’t even acknowledge “Oh Shit” rock now safely astern. A couple stout backstrokes into the eddy, then release the bow down river with the reef ripping passed on the port side. The “Washing Machine” awaits now, big waves crossing, bulging, and collapsing randomly. The boat did what she was meant to do. I did what I was told, what I’d studied, what needed to be done. Then I screamed at the top of my winded lungs. The boys took turns turning to offer congratulatory knuckles.
There is more to that day’s story but we won’t go into it right now. That’ll be in the next book. Maybe. What needs to be told is that a while later our pal and co-worker ran the rapid for his first time. I could almost feel his heart racing as we watched from well above. Then we all celebrated.
A couple weeks later I ran Whitehorse with clients. It was another good run, not as good as my first, but I didn’t have Chris in the bow telling exactly where I need to be! It was a reminder of how quickly the boat can move out of position if not kept in check. The clients were oblivious to our situation, so I guess it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
Fast forward to last weekend. We were on a six-boat float, 17 people strong. The purpose of this trip will be fully disclosed at a later date with a full photo essay. As for Whitehorse, well it would be another first for me: my wife and 21 year-old son, Jasper would be positioned in the front of Ruby. For many weeks leading up to the trip every time I conjured the image of the three of us dropping in to the rapid caused a quickening of my pulse. How horrifying would it be it this run went wrong? How awful would I feel if I put two of my favorite people ever through an ordeal down there in the unforgiving depths of the canyon?
The morning of our run, I couldn’t eat, coffee tasted nasty, the sun shone way too bright, no camp jokes were especially funny. Once the boats were stowed and ready to head down to the scouting beach I suddenly had the irrevocable need to evacuate my bowels, which given the popularity of the outhouse at Whisky Dick that morning was next-level unpleasant. Those moments in the putrid little building, breathing only through my mouth, alone and determined, proved to be what I needed; solitary, focussed, girding.
On the float to Whitehorse I pulled alongside Curtis and casually asked if he was planning on scouting. He told me he didn’t really want to. That was all I needed to hear. We would deviate from the plan and just go! Life jackets were donned, I guzzled a Gatorade, made sure the boat was sound. Then the river bent right. The scouting beaches were there, then gone. I looked back and saw Kevin peering down river at us; no doubt bummed we hadn’t stopped. Curtis showed me the seam I needed to be on. We glided in.
It’s hard to describe what it feels like. I’m not really sure how much of the actual event is processed. But for sure every sense is assaulted, every synapse fires. All around there is movement. Great forces tug menacingly, sometimes is different directions from one side of the boat to the other. Water in every conceivable river hue bounces, rushing, beautiful, horrific. You suddenly feel as small and insignificant as you can imagine. The reality that the river doesn’t care occurs. But in this abject chaos there is a simple reality that you can’t blow it. The stakes are too high. So you make positive, meaningful strokes. You try to stay one step ahead of the river for this brief, awkward dance. At some point you realize that the worst is behind you. Then you give hearty thanks to the river goddess for humoring your intrusion one more time. You silently offer an invocation to those you love that they might someday understand what the moment means in the very core of yourself. Then you pull in behind “House Rock” and crack open a beer.
In the case of last weekend, Jasper and I scrambled up the bank and watched as several boats made their way down the rapid. Ever time I get to watch someone else row Whitehorse I feel a slightly deeper understanding of her energy. On this day I got to watch guys I’ve known and respected for years run it. I got to watch buddies take the run for their first time. I watched perfect runs and some not quite so. At every boat we howled encouragingly. I took many pictures. Most are blurry because my hands were still shaking slightly. The adrenalin takes a while to subside! And all I want is to get back there.
Thank you, as always, for your time. More stories to come.