We humans are born restless. We’re curious, adventurous, and hungry. For a species that came from the wilderness, modern life leaves us craving something more… the thrill of the hunt, a good adventure with a hint of danger, or exhilaration, confidence and belief in ourselves after overcoming hardship. Sometimes we find we are at our best when challenging ourselves to overcome fear and do what could be perceived as “Crazy.”
But what is crazy? Any professional in their sport gets called this at some point when pushing the limits of what’s possible. Advancing any sport and ourselves requires doing things that have never been done before. We do these things because, deep down, we know we can. Have I been called crazy? Yeah, once or twice. Do I know people I think are crazy? Sure, but I am learning that crazy is a state of mind.
We come in tune with this when we step out of the norm and do something extraordinary. We are scared, but manage to push fear aside. We are focused on the task at hand and we are driven because deep down we know we can do it. We’re determined, and anxious all at the same time. Webster’s Dictionary describes crazy as: mentally deranged, especially as manifest in a wild or aggressive way. So I say get crazy! Whatever “IT” is for you, go get some! Whether it’s snowboarding, mountain biking, whitewater, the gym, running, speed, or anything that throws your hair back and gets your heart pumping. Take a big step out of your comfort zone. Recognize but do not let fear put a stranglehold on you, and get a little crazy. I guarantee that you will find something in yourself you have never seen before.
For myself, I wanted to start running bigger whitewater. I had oars in my hand at an early age on my dad’s drift boat, and have been around whitewater my whole life. I knew that to get where I wanted to go I would to have to meet new people, learn some new skills, and up my game. I decided to join Oregon Rafting Team in 2012 to accomplish this.
My first run with the team was Canyon Creek. It was only the third time I had been in an R2 raft and we were going over three big drops. Butterflies? Yeah, there were a few. I had two swims, one at Terminator and a second at Champagne but managed to get back in the boat to run Hammering Spot for the first lap. After unwinding on the paddle out on the lake, the butterflies immediately returned on the drive back to the put in for the second lap. This time I switched R2 partners. We hit good lines, and finished the day with a clean run. I was hooked.
Over the next couple of years, I did all I had set out to do with ORT. I was regularly running new, more difficult rivers. I met new people, was learning skills in a raft, and falling in love with R2ing. But I was still a cat boater at heart. I continually thought of, and looked at all the rivers I was running in a scouter’s mindset, wondering which ones I would take my cat boat down. I won’t say the first time, but maybe after about the fifth I started thinking about Canyon Creek. This thought plagued me for over two years. Could I run a cat boat down there? Would I fit through Swizzle Sticks? How would Champagne and Hammering Spot go? I think that knowing Hammering Spot was less than 50 yards below Champagne worried me more than anything. I mean two waterfalls back to back. Would I have time to self-rescue if I did not make Champagne? Then there was the crux drop: Big Kahuna, a 22 foot waterfall.
I decided it was finally time to stop talking and thinking about it and just do it on April 27.
It was an early morning for me knowing what the day was going to consist of. My friends Alec Reeves, Robert Delgado, and Jeffery Steehler had all agreed to accompany me on this mission as soon as I told them I was seriously thinking about running Canyon Creek in a cat boat. On the drive over to meet Alec and Rob, I was surprisingly relaxed. The day ahead was on my mind, but I felt good. I somehow knew everything would go. We had a small but solid crew with myself in the cat, Rob and Alec R2ing their raft, and Jeffery in his kayak. We would be able to set good safety and take photos and video.
When we left Rob’s house it was Alec, Rob and myself and we were meeting Jeffery and his mom, Alicia, in Amboy. I had been checking the gauge all morning and at that point it was around 1,050 c.f.s., raining, and quickly on the rise!
When we arrived in Battleground, we stopped in at Safeway to grab some last minute supplies before we headed up. It was still pouring down rain, and now the gauge was stuck! The nerves were beginning to tense up now. How big was it in there today? After a few minutes talking with some other boaters who were running different rivers that day we were off to meet Jeffery. When we arrived at the store, I got a look from Alicia like “You’re really doing this.” to which I
said “What?” She just shook her head and smiled and we headed for the put in. When we arrived at the put in the first thing I did was go check the unit (a bridge pylon that acts as a flow gauge) Sure enough, it was underwater with a ripple over it, which meant stout flows!!! I walked back to the car thinking “OK, it’s a little juicier than I would have liked but it is not too big.” I started gearing up and putting the boat together while shuttle was being set.
Put In and Terminator
As we jockeyed boats down to the river and put on, it continued to rain and the level was definitely on the rise. After a short warm up, we were at Swizzle Sticks, the first big rapid of the run and the first test of how the day would go. Swizzle Sticks is a tight little canyon section with a couple drops and big hydraulics that bounce off the canyon walls. As I rounded the corner to line up for the first drop, everything looked pretty good at the current flows. With high water, the slots were big and the river was just wide enough for me to fit through. Having to read the laterals and pillows proved to be challenging but also a lot of fun.
Next up was Terminator, which gets more people than you would think. It’s a hard right hand turn on a big pillow that drops into a beefy hole. Jeffery, Robert, and Alec all shot ahead to set up safety and get photos. While I sat in the eddy below the bridge I went over my lines in my head and how I would approach the drop. I knew I would have to ride high on the pillow before making the turn or I would wash into the hole and get eaten up. I had taken this line before many times in a raft but was a little nervous that I would not have enough room to get an oar stroke in to make the turn. I got the thumbs up from Jeffery and it was go time. As I approached and saw the pillow, and the monster hole, my grip on my oars tightened up, my heart raced, and I started pushing hard to break the lateral and ride up on the pillow. Things could not have gone more perfectly. I did exactly what I wanted to and made it through clean with a great line. I was slowly getting more comfortable as we continued on.
With the high flows, lines were open for a catboat. Although getting more comfortable, I still knew I had the big drops in front of me and the real test was just down river waiting. As we all pulled into the eddy at Thrasher, we started talking about the flows. It was a big water day, maybe the biggest I had ever run it before. The holes were big, the hydraulics were intimidating, and the river was on the rise. We gave Thrasher a quick scout and Jeffery set up for photos. As I approached the drop, I made a slight adjustment on the lip, gave a final push on the oars, and held on. As I hit the hole in the bottom, she immediately flipped and was heading right towards Jeffery on the rocks. When I came up, the boat was ripped from my grip and I flushed to river left where I was able to grab some rocks on the cliff wall and hang on. Upstream, the boat had landed on the rock Jeffery was taking pictures from and was half in the water and half on the rock. After a moment, Jeffery made his way down. After a few attempts, he got the boat to kick loose and float out. I swam out, grabbed it, climbed on, jumped back in the water to reflip the boat, and climbed back into the cockpit. After a few quick adjustments in the eddy below, Jeffery showed up and said how close I came to hitting him with the boat en route to going upside down. “Inches dude, mere inches, but I gayot a great shot.”
We were now off again and heading for Big Kahuna. Big Kahuna is a 22 foot waterfall and surprisingly did not worry me too much. I knew the line would go if I could stick it and the pool at the bottom offered ample time to self-rescue should I flip again. The guys let me scout for a while as I looked for the perfect cat boat line. Once again, I had run this many times in a raft but now had to get oar strokes in and needed room. We decided Alec and Robert would run first to set safety, and Jeffery would set up for photos at the top. I would go second and then Jeffery would go. As Alec and Robert approached, they were right on line and went over the lip about as perfectly as one could. However even when you do everything right, things do not always turn out well. When they hit the pillow at the bottom, the boat turned slightly and they flipped. The river flushed them out to the right and into the cliff wall. As they came up and grabbed the boat they were continually forced down the cliff face with the boat grinding them into the wall. Finally, after a hard fought battle they were out and on the shore. Jeffery and I stood on top of the falls venting a big sigh of relief as we thought everything was okay now. When Alec held up his hand, I realized this was not the case and our trip had vastly shifted gears. One of Alec’s fingers was clearly broken and pointing off to the side. As I was looking, Jeffery pointed out that Robert had a large gash on his finger and was nursing a gusher. After a few brief moments, we decided photos and video were no longer a priority; we would run the drop and regroup below. Jeffery
went second now to set safety and I would go third. We were both a little nervous now thanks to Robert and Alec bestowing us with the utmost confidence that things can always go wrong on the river, but deep down I still knew this drop would go for a cat boat. Jeffery hit a perfect line, and set up in the eddy on river left. Now it was my turn. I took a few extra moments to muster up the stones, but soon was in the eddy at the lip. As nervous and scared as I was, I knew as long as I made steady progress forward no matter how slow I would eventually have to go. The last stroke finally came and I was over the lip. All I could do now was hang on and see what gravity was going to throw into the equation. I hit a perfect line but it was time for Mother Nature and Old Man River to remind me who was the boss yet again. Although squared up and on line, the boat flipped again at the bottom and I was in the water for a second time. It was a quick self-rescue, as Jeffery was there to help corral the boat. Once right side up again, we both ferried across to check on Alec and Rob. Despite the obvious, they were both still in high spirits and almost a little giddy. I was definitely giddy as that was the biggest drop I have ever run in a cat boat.
We took a break in the brief patch of sun we had to reflect on the day so far and decide how we were going to change things up now. We cut up a glove and wrapped it around Robert’s finger to stop the bleeding. There was not much we could do for Alec besides break out a couple of beers we had brought along for the long paddle out which he happily accepted. We decided Jeffery would now jump in the raft to paddle with Robert, and Alec would ride in the back. I would strap Jeffery’s kayak to the back of my cat boat and that is how we would finish the day. I had pretty much decided I was going to at least portage Champagne at that point due to the new circumstances. We put on for the last stretch and in the blink of an eye and a couple splashes we were at Champagne.
We all pulled over on river right and Alec jumped out. He was going to hike up and around and catch up to us below the last three major drops. With a broken finger and a big smile on his face, he headed up the cliff and into the brush. The three of us paddled over to river left and took a good look at the first two drops. Although I had decided I would portage at least Champagne, upon looking at her and the current high flows I saw a line. I looked closer and Robert and Jeffery both agreed; it looked good. I would run close to the flake rock and drop over a little right of it and catch the wave that had formed. I thought about the kayak strapped to the back of my boat and figured it would help. It would be kind of like a wheelie bar to keep me from flipping. Sounds legit right? Well that’s what I was telling myself anyway. Robert and Jeffery ran first and hit the classic raft line and dropped over just left of the flake, and for the fourth time that day someone was in the water.
Jeffery managed to stay with the boat and swim to the eddy on river left just above Hammering Spot. Robert was not so lucky. He was pulled into the curtain and resurfaced in the middle of the river. He swam for the right shore but with the fast moving water, did not make it before getting swept over Hammering Spot.
I had swam over Hammering Spot myself before and suddenly a sickening feeling came over me watching Rob disappear over the drop. Jeffery was now on the rocks and looking for Rob. I saw Rob’s helmet surface below Hammering Spot and I thought “Oh cool he’s out.” Then hydrology and Mother Nature dished out a double bitch slap sucking him back into the hydraulic at the base from about 10-15 feet away. As he got worked in the hole from river right to left, surfacing for a minute and then getting sucked back down, all I could do was watch and hope he made it out. After what seemed like an eternity, I got the “okay” sign from Jeffery that Rob was out and okay. Once again it was my turn.
It’s kind of funny, but after all this, portaging never crossed my mind again after I saw the line. I made my way back to the boat and pushed off. Once again, I hit a good line and this time landed it with a little help from the kayak on the back of my boat to keep me from going over. My logic had worked this time, however it did slide forward and impede my seat. Luckily, I got into the eddy on river right and was able to adjust things before going over Hammering Spot. I ran close to the wall on river right going over Hammering Spot and hit a clean line but I was not coming out of the hydraulic at the base of the falls. I was getting worked, and just like Rob, got sucked back in dangerously close to the curtain. Adrenaline and instinct kicked in and I found myself in a war zone attempting to exit the hydraulic. After what seemed like forever, I was out and still upright. We then portaged the raft down and Jeffery jumped. A few more quick adjustments and we were back on the water for the final drop, Toby’s.
We both had great lines over Toby’s and Rob and Jeffery made it over to pick up Alec. We were now on the lake and reliving the highlights of the day. We kept Alec properly hydrated with beer, and paddled out. I saw the bridge and Alicia’s car pacing back and forth across it as we were a little behind schedule due to the circumstances. I gave her the pat on the head to signal we were all “okay.” I reached the takeout first, hauled up the first load of gear, and filled in Alicia as to why we took so long. After a brief chat about the day, we got busy with hauling the boats up as I knew we were still about two hours away from getting Alec medical attention. We hastily tied on the boats, changed, and were on the highway home. The hour drive back to Portland gave Rob, Alec, and I the chance reminisce some more on the day. We were like three kids who just saw Santa Claus coming down the chimney. There were Robert’s two swims, my two swims, Alec’s broken finger, and Jeffery styling everything in his kayak. When we got back into town, it was on Alec’s insistence that we unloaded the gear first and then got medical attention. I think the beer was working and the pain was subsiding. I drove him to the E.R., and sure enough, it was a spiral fracture in the ring finger and a dislocated pinky. He was going to need surgery and pins and would be in a cast for a while.
All in all, things definitely could have gone better, but we all knew they also could have gone a lot worse. Looking back on the trip, despite the injuries and swims, we all agreed that it was one of the greatest trips we had ever done. Working together to overcome the challenges put in our path and conquering the fear of the unknown taps into something deep in us all and leaves us with a satisfaction that is difficult to express, however short lived. A successful descent only fuels the urge to take on the next challenge. Somewhere there is another canyon, another falls, another opportunity to test what we’re made of and prove to ourselves that it’s not crazy. It’s possible.
Photo Credits: Tim Brink from ORT took the picture of the raft boof. The Cat Boats photo was shot by Zac Collier from North West Rafting Company. All other photos by Jeffery Steelher, who is THE MAN!