11/5/06-11/6/06-11/07/06- three consecutive rainiest days on record in Portland, OR.
11/6/06- 13 inches of rain on the coast in Oregon. The rainiest day in Oregon’s history.
11/7/06 – Election Day- 50-year flood in Oregon.
The Wilson River Peaked at 38,000 cfs-the highest recorded flow in history. That afternoon, the Hood River peaked at 16,000 cfs—and we were on it.
–Sam Drevo, www.eNRGkayaking.com
Dave Hoffman and I set out towards Hood River to hook up with Tao Berman and Josh Bechtal, arriving around 12:30 p.m.—just in time to hear the story of Tao and Josh putting in at Maytag on the Middle White Salmon River, contemplating the first ferry move out of the put in eddy and deciding to bag it. It was that big.
After a quick Burrito we drove down to drop Tao’s car off at the mouth of the Hood River, and were surprised to see 4-6 foot waves in the middle of the river with only about 6 feet of clearance under the hiking bridge. Little did we know that the river was flowing through the train trestle about a mile upstream. Driving up towards the upper Hood River, we crossed the Tucker bridge and watched as the river violently barreled over the last rapid. Uncertain of the sanity of our decision to drive further up, I voiced my trepidation to Dave. He only responded, “I trust your judgment.” There would be none of that on this day.
We drove up to the D-bridge where the start of the normal run is located, and saw what looked to be a flooded ditch of run away chocolate milk. Nate had not arrived yet, so I suggested driving to a friend’s property (Carrington Barrs) to look at a crux part of the run where the river makes a 270-degree turn. It was a solid class IV+ move amid a torrent of rapids above and below. The river was relentless. Not sure how I felt about putting in, amidst Tao’s enthusiasm to paddle, we drove back up to the D-bridge (the put in for the normal run) to the scene of Nate Herbeck and Josh Bechtal snapping on their gear. John Hart from the Kayak Shed was pulling out of the parking lot with a big smile and a good luck thumbs up. He mentioned that he paddled the river at this height last year (little did we know the gauge was broken and it was 4-5 feet higher today). We decided to put in, and I knew at the start that it could be a serious misadventure that we were in for. After an oral waiver to Dave–that we were all on our own for this one, and I wouldn’t even recommend this run, we pushed off, and headed into the first turn.
Immediately a wave hit me, and I realized the water had a consistency of 80-grit sand paper. It was more sand than water. The rocks chundered beneath our boats like 1,000 lbs pin balls. Within about 3 minutes we came up on Ceb’s house rapid—Cutty’s Crack, and Sydvicious rapid. We all aced the move, but it was a lights out run as the sand water splashed over our boats like molasses turning everything we saw into a shade of brown. Nate exclaimed, “ The heck with this,” and decided to hike out. Dave almost went with him, but Tao and I were able to catch an eddy, and walk upstream to motion that there was a big eddy below the rapid on the right. Dave, Tao and I then continued downstream into the steaming canyon. Tao went first, made a ferry, and eddied out on river left above a huge horizon line (or so it looked). After a quick scramble up some rocks he motioned it good to go, and we paddled into the middle of a boily maelstrom. Downstream we ran through more rapids, and eventually popped through a big s-turn rapid and out into the West Branch of the Hood. The West Branch had about 2-3 times more water, and turned the river from about 5,000 to about 14,000 cfs. The character instantly changed for the tougher, and we were now on a one-way runaway train downstream through 7-8 foot waves (14-16 foot faces) with every corner becoming a very scary proposition. At the next corner (the swinging bridge), we paddled through a section of water that was about 6 inches deep that was about ten feet from a section of water that was at least 15 feet deep with 4-6 foot twisting waves. Tao and Josh quickly made the committing move across the trechurous current, and Dave promptly paddled towards shore. “I am out” he mentioned.
“Are you sure I asked? I think we can make it” I said.
“No way. I’ve lost my mental edge.”
At this point 5 minutes had passed, and I wasn’t about to run downstream solo, nor was I going to leave Dave to hike out by himself. So we shimmied over to the suspension bridge and crossed the flooded river. Once we got to the other side, the view downstream opened up about a half a mile, and Dave asked if I wanted to put back in. I said “yes”, and so off we went, back into the maelstrom. This time the long straight river served up wave faces that were 18+ feet tall, and a big corner came up with a water pipe crossing the river. Huge boils and muddy pillows littered the corner, and we promptly eddied out in the tangle of trees. It was here that we first noticed the 3-5 minute surge that was present in the river. Trying to get a better look downstream around yet another corner, we had to wait while the eddy current turned from class III moving upstream to class III moving downstream (in the eddy).
Dave noticed that Tao and Josh were out of their boats downstream about a half a mile. So without further a do we tried to make yet another ferry above a menacing wall of churning brown water. I dropped low, and got trounced, yet came out with a good angle, and Dave managed to paddle all the way into the eddy where Tao and Josh were standing. My white-knuckle paddle strokes eddied brought me into the eddy above the good one grasping for a handhold amidst the weeds, and broken bedrock. After Josh yelled to me that the eddy was good below, I made a quick peel out, boofed a ledge, and eddied out on the left.
I immediately jumped out of my boat elated to see Tao and Josh, and exhausted from the lactic acid pumping in my forearms. Tao and Josh quickly motioned towards the river where a GIGANTIC wave (probably 15-18 foot face) was forming, breaking and then disappearing on a 5-minute surge. The river must have been moving 15 miles an hour on this section. I quickly asserted my needs to find an eddy downstream before peeling back out, I climbed up to the plateau, and hiked downstream. Not seeing much in the way of gorge after about a ½ mile hike, I decided to head back to the boats and the boys. Tao quickly mentioned to me- I am fine with hiking out, but lets get to the river right side first. So we decided as a group to catch the next eddy we could on the right and then have another group meeting (and hike out). We waited for a good surge, and then seal launched back into the flooded river.
Downstream another half mile we encountered another dog-leg right, then left. Tao and Josh made it into a small eddy right along an exploding wall–and I watched as Dave decided not to try and make it–and get hammered along the pillow/hole. After flipping and rolling twice, he disappeared out of sight. Tao and Josh both said they saw him upright paddle around the corner. Meanwhile we were sitting in a scary eddy next to an exploding boil/pillow/hole, and downstream all we could see was a huge pillow coming off a mid stream tree, and another big corner to the left. After a long deliberation, and my voice of reason to exit the river, I jumped out of my boat next to the vertical walled canyon, and tried to see if we could even get out around the corner- negative. There was no way to hike out. We would all need to exit the eddy and face the gnarly corner and risk the unknown downstream. I opted to hike upstream to try and get a better run at the ferry, and promptly got rejected, almost flushed into a gnarly strainer, and ended up paddling straight for the wall. I made it through the first boils, and then realized there was a big hole/diagonal that came off the bank. I dropped into it, and luckily bounced downstream and across the river. I immediately bee-lined it for the left bank trying to cut the next corner to the inside (just to the right of the huge tree/pillow, and managed to pull into a strainer eddy on the left before the next set of HUGE waves and another corner. I jumped out of my boat and saw that the coast was clear for a river right eddy, and Tao immediately made the move. Josh followed and I trailed Josh.
After catching the next eddy, the river opened up a bit, and despite a huge corner- we made the ferry across, and headed down into the next straight- still no sign of Dave. Back into the HUGE waves, we negotiated two big rapids, before catching a small eddy on the right with a nasty looking rapid with an intimidating pillow coming off a huge mid stream old growth fir. We quickly decided to hike out, and look downstream. Josh took off up the bank. Right as I shouldered the boat to start the hike up a 30 foot embankment, I heard a explosive crack, and powerful splash into the river downstream. I ran to the bank where Tao’s jaw had dropped as we watched a gigantic tree (at least 60-80 feet high) snapped like a toothpick, and dropped into the river- breaking into pieces and floating downstream- a solid indication of our need to exit the river here. Once we all got to the top of the initial hill we found ourselves in a cow pasture, and I said a quick prayer for Dave. If you swam in this river, I would give you a less than 50 percent chance of surviving the swim- probably less than 20 percent. I was worried. Tao and Josh had great attitudes and maintained that Dave could have gotten out and hiked to the road while we were deciding how to get out of the original micro eddy where he got pummeled. Not knowing where he was, we hiked up into the next plateau and got to the road.
We started hitch hiking, and Tao was immediately picked up and headed downstream to tucker bridge. I was simultaneously picked up by a Tribal Fish and Wildlife officer who was in a patrol pickup truck. I explained the situation that we had lost a friend, and that I needed a ride up to D-bridge to pick up my car. He gave me a ride up, but unfortunately there was no sign of Dave on the way up, nor was he at the car. I expressed my concern for Dave to the officer stating that if he swam, it could be a dire situation. He agreed, and told me that we could get a plane in the air within minutes if need be. It would be dark in 15 minutes. I got changed and left my car at the put in case Dave had hiked out on river left, and made it back to the car while we were searching. Then the officer drove me back down to mile post 8 (where we took out) and sure enough Tao was back, and Dave was with him.
Lesson’s learned. . . .
1. Flooded rivers can make it really hard to see when they are supersaturated with dirt and sand.
2. There are nice corners and bad corners on flooded rivers- hope for the nice ones.
There can be huge surges on flooded rivers when the sediment deposit gets distributed, and river is past its bank full.
3. You are ultimately on your own out there- so be careful and have a bombproof roll.
4. Don’t hesitate to walk out. It is way easier to walk 2 miles than to swim 5. Listen to your gut.