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Ramming rafts on Skykomish River

Outdoor Addict: Whitewater rafting

Raft the wild Skykomish river with River Recreation. Photo credit: Whitney Rhodes

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I have wanted to go whitewater rafting for years. So when my oldest adventure buddy called up and asked if I wanted to join a group of his friends for a trip, I didn't hesitate. I didn't even ask where we were going. The only words out of my mouth were "yes" and "where do I show up?"

Little did I know.

The next morning, I met up with him and four people I had never met before. We were headed down the Wenatchee River for some spring rapids - the water was running high and fast. In fact, we were originally scheduled to raft the Skykomish until the river recreation guides decided it was too dangerous that weekend. We are all climbers and the camaraderie needed to handle a boat came quickly. Our guide was River Recreation owner Don Martin, and we were down for adventure.

Each raft consisted of six to eight rowers (us) and a guide. There were four rafts in our flotilla, plus a small raft containing two guides only. This raft was for safety purposes. If anyone ended up overboard, they were there to fetch them out of the water.

We launched outside of Leavenworth and I was immediately in heaven. It was a perfect 70-degree day. Our rowing was powerful and in sync. Our guide was impressed with our teamwork and regaled us with stories of river rescues and how to read the water. We hit some rapids and immediately got soaked. The boat pitched just enough to be exciting. Not for the faint of heart, but exactly the exciting day I was stoked for.

About halfway through our trip down the river, we hit a section of big rapids. Normally, these would be a class III to III+ - exciting but not really dangerous. On this day, the river was running high and fast, so it was a lot more than the newer guides were anticipating. Two rafts made it through this tough section and carried on. The small guide raft hit the rapids at a bad angle and flipped. The raft in front of us stopped paddling and stalled in the middle of the rapid.

If, like me, you've never been rafting, you are probably confused as to why that would be a big deal. Well. You travel through rapids by syncing your momentum with the river. This helps you glide over the top of turbulent water. The worst thing that can happen is getting caught in the trough of a rapid. It's like being stuck in a washing machine. The energy keeps recycling over and over, holding whatever is there indefinitely. This is the most common way people drown while rafting.

So we come barreling into the rapids, preparing to pull out the guides once we clear them. Too late, it becomes obvious that the raft in front of us did not have the momentum to clear the rapids. It starts sliding down the back of the wall of water as we come right toward them.

The collision ended up saving their boat. They were a split second from capsizing when we rammed them. The last thing I saw was two of my fellow paddlers taking a raft to the face. Then, it was all water.

I got lucky and popped up quickly next to the raft we had saved. They managed to pull me in after only a brief stint in the water. It took two attempts to get one of my fellow paddlers up, and three for another. The guide managed to haul himself in. Two of my boat mates ended up near the capsized guiding raft, and someone managed to right it, haul themselves in and pull out one of the guides who was still in the river. Once everyone was accounted for, we all took a deep breath. But that wasn't the end of the danger. ...

I lay on the bottom of the raft, chest heaving, for what felt like 10 minutes. In reality, it was probably 30 seconds, but when you are soaking wet after being thrown from a raft and churned in white water, time seems a little off. When I sat up, I realized the raft I was now on carried not only all of its original passengers, but also me, our guide and three of my upended raft compatriots. It was incredibly cramped.

All of us civilian folk were completely preoccupied with shifting around to be comfortable - I was extracting myself from between a stranger's legs - when the younger, less experienced guide spoke up.

"Uh oh," he said.

"S---!" was all my guide said.

I swiveled my head and gasped. We were heading directly toward a bridge, and in our path was a piling.

"Everybody paddle!"

Paddles were instantly in the water as everyone, except one of my fellow raft refugees stuck in front without a paddle, dug in deep. Breaching on a piling is pretty much the worst river accident possible, and we were not interested in tempting fate twice in one day.  Slowly, painfully slowly, we turned. We sailed by sideways, so close I had to pull my paddle in so I wouldn't hit it. Another disaster averted.

After this entire adventure, I didn't even blink when our guide dove in after our upended raft. Or when, after stalling out against the river bank, I was thrown from the boat while it was trying to gain control of another raft. In fact, it wasn't until much later, after clearing two more sets of rapids with our original crew, in our original boat, that the events really sunk in.

"You guys were awesome. Seriously. That was ridiculous."

Words of affirmation spoken by our guide Don Martin, who, by the way, is the owner of the guide company, River Recreation, a swift-water rescue expert and hadn't flipped a raft in almost a decade. In unison, we broke into uncontrollable, slightly hysterical laughter. Not bad for a bunch of rock climbers.

Author's note: I regularly engage in outdoor activities that are considered dangerous. This is the first time I've come even remotely close to serious injury. However, this experience reinforced a principle that guides all of my adventures: know your limits and seek expert guiding as needed. Our guide held an extensive safety talk prior to us getting on the river. He also spent the first part or our trip going over how the river works, how to work as a team and what to do in case of an incident. Thus, when it happened, we all knew what to do. He also did everything in his power to ensure our safety. That being said, I'll never look at a river the same again, and a dose of humility is always a good thing in nature.


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