Get yer’ game on. If Idaho’s North Fork Payette has long been a badge of courage for the hair-boating set, now it’s a full-on coat of arms. Heavy rains and flooding of the North Fork reservoir have led dam officials to open the gates, releasing a record 9,000 cfs into the raging waterway and luring the bravest of the big water dogs out of the whitewater woodwork to give it a go …
The torrent is a result of a perfect storm of sorts, a paradox of low snow pack, huge rain and a delayed release by the BLM (up until last week, dam officials were planning to release just 1,800 cfs). It’s an odd situation, says North Fork veteran Doug Ammons, who’s paddled the stretch at 7,000 (11.9 on the Otter’s Run gauge), the highest it’s been before this week, save for a few isolated days in 1948 when it maxed out at 8,800. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime-thing,” he says. “The official update from the Bureau of Reclamation is that current levels are insane.”
Insane and once in a lifetime are words of caution to most. However, there’s a group of locals like Brian Ward, brothers Tristan & Ian MacLaren, James McQuoid and James Burd who can’t stay away (and Ammons has been trying to get there himself). Like sailors lured by the siren’s call, they’re running sections never before seen that high. “Jacob’s Ladder and Golf Course are the hardest sections,”reports Ward,”but the whole river is just savage.”
“Nobody has attempted to run North Fork at these levels in its entirety, but it’s possible that might change,” says Ammons. “It depends on whether they can bootstrap their reflexes up to what the river demands in the several days left before the release is cut.” Ammons says that Ward’s group said it is good to go, but that “you’d have to be really strong to make the moves.”
“Nobody has done them because they are so fucking huge, long and complex,” he says.
On Tuesday Ward and a group of hair-boaters put in just below a log in Nutcracker and paddled the middle section. They got out above Jake’s because, “we were tired of being scared”, then put back in above Hounds Tooth. Jakes, Golf Course, Screaming Left and Jaws were just too insane for even the craziest boaters.
“Make no mistake, the guys out on the river right now are getting the biggest challenge of their lives,” Ammons says. “If the North Fork at 2000 is middling Class V, then at 4,000 it is Class VI, at 6,000+ it’s another grade beyond that, but right now it’s on a different planet. If you have a problem anywhere, you’re looking at the most serious consequences. It’s so far beyond what anybody can fathom, it’s a view of paddling in the 22nd Century.”
“Right now, every section of North Forks is bigger and badder than what anyone has ever paddled in the past,” he adds. Every rapid is another grade higher or more harder, even though that’s almost impossible to fathom. At these levels the entire river is one massive rapid, and even though Doug Ammons hasn’t succumbed to the sirens call and put his boat in, he still gets inspired just watching the waves crash against each other. “Just to touch the river when it’s like this, is to touch the heartbeat of the entire planet. This is the power that shaped the world.”
We were mesmerized and gaping at the water back then when we did it at 7,000, and now it’s way higher,” he adds. “The water was moving at 30-35 mph, with massive exploding waves. It was so fast the water felt like it was shuddering like the muscles of some gigantic monster underneath you, and your reflexes and reactions were always an instant too slow. You brace or reach for a stroke but you’re already way past the wave and getting hammered from another direction. It’s disconcerting and unreal and very threatening, just careening downhill at this breakneck speed, in the middle of exploding chaos.”
View High-water Video Footage of Jaws here!