While flying is a relatively new focus, kayaking has been a lifelong pursuit and a defining aspect of my existence. When life led me away from river country to the paraglide mecca of SLC, it was quite natural that I learned to fly. The two activities share striking similarities – both crafts are controlled by the hips in opposition with a blade (the tips of the wing on the glider), and both involve harnessing the chaos of a dynamic fluid/gaseous medium. However the differences are also quite stark: the obvious difference of being a boat versus a wing in water versus air; the energetic difference that the dynamics of water are driven by gravity whereas the dynamics of air are driven primarily by the heat of the sun; and subtly but very significantly the difference in the state of the mind and the energy of mental focus.
During my recent two point five weeks in Oregon, I had the opportunity to do some of both.
In addition to the warm up on the North Umpqua with my girlfriend, I also did a handful of laps on the local town stretch of the Deschutes river ‘Meadow Camp’ in Bend. Together with my dog Odie, we would drop my boat and drive the shuttle, then jog along the river back up to my boat at the put-in. Odie has quite a bit of experience running the banks of rivers, so that once we establish him up on the trail I can bomb down the main current in my boat while he runs the trail. I tweet my whistle often enough that he can keep tabs on my position as the trail winds along the river. It’s definitely one of his favorite activities and he maintains a huge dog-face plastered on his handsome mug. But after a few laps on the quality class IV, I was ready for more.
Therein lies my kayaking dilemma: I paddle just barely enough to maintain my skills so that I desire more challenge, but not enough that I am super sharp and dialed stepping up to stout class V. A recurring event over the last 5 years is that I find myself nervously climbing in my boat at the top of a challenging class V run, with the primary mental assurance being that ‘a year ago I was able to do this..’ It’s not much to stand on.
But so it was that I found myself in central Oregon desiring more challenging whitewater. So I loaded up my creek boat and headed North, pulled in particular by the gravitation of the Little White Salmon, which is notorious for being one of the highest quality steep creek runs anywhere. As I drove, the battle between attraction towards the river and repulsion from my unpreparedness played itself out time and again in my thoughts. But still I drove on.
As it turned out my friend Jed Weingarten, whom I met in Tibet last summer, happened to be in the area to shoot photos of a downriver race that was going on at the Little White at exactly that time. More than 50 radical young kayakers from around the globe were gathered outside of Hood River to race down this steep creek, and I missed them by just a day. But I caught up with Jed and company in Portland, and the following day Jed was granted a hall pass and agreed to route me through a lap. Jed is a Little White veteran and part of the core LW crew – having run the river for nearly 20 years – there is no one better to follow down the steep rapids.
We drove up the Columbia gorge from Portland in Kingston style, so that by the time we reached the takeout and had a quick look at the migrating salmon at the Little White Salmon fish hatchery observatory, I was deeply engrossed in the pulse of the water..
Up at the put-in preparing to start, the mental pressure continued to bear down upon me, but I did my best to keep it cool. After a little bit of quick boogey-water, the first rapid is a ½ mile long continuous class V boulder garden. Too complex to describe, I was instructed to “follow me” through the line, so I just stuck to Jed’s tail and kept it pointed down river. At the next rapid, ‘Boulder Sluice’, we jumped out to have a look at the intro down a narrow alley and off a kicker, which then disappeared over a horizon line underneath a large log. “There will be a big boulder when you land”, he said, “you’ll see.”
Climbing back in to my boat I was verging on complete over-load and break down. Too much pressure. Just at that moment, I remembered that in only a few short days I would be boarding a plane and heading back in to the land of business and industry. How deeply I would yearn for that freedom and fear – absolutely nothing in the universe but complete immersion in the experience in such a wild, beautiful place. And just like that, the fear that I had been holding at bay for 3 days was transformed in to fuel. I belong here. I snapped my skirt on, splashed some water in my face, and peeled out down the spout, around the corner, down the alley, and off the kicker “just to the left of where it’s breaking,” like Jed had said. Launching off the kicker and under the log, the landing next to the boulder came in to view. Rowdy as could be, and she was clean!
From that point onwards I was on. Floating in the eddy above each new rapid, Jed would describe the line below and finish with “but it’s really best if you just follow me.” We bombed through rowdy boulder gardens, boofed over massive holes, and dropped beautiful waterfalls in to soft, clear-blue bubbly pools. My run wasn’t perfect, but I did my best to stick to Jed’s lines and was clean enough.
We walked the legendary ‘Spirit Falls’, a beautiful but tricky 33 foot waterfall that has been known to hand out some beatings. Freshening up below the falls, with only one rapid left to go, I finally pulled out out my camera so that I could film the last rapid – Master Blaster.
The Little White Salmon river is one of the best class V kayak runs on the planet. Fueled up from the awesome experience, I had just a few short days to re-package my life and put in some heavy bonding time with my dog before boarding a plane for 12 weeks out in orbit.