Thursday, September 8, 2016

Whitewater Rafting

The only whitewater available in Chicago is when a storm is pushing huge waves onto Chicago’s beaches.  So in 1982, when our family vacation included a visit to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, we investigated the possibility of whitewater rafting when we were in Jackson, Wyoming. We went into the rafting company office to inquire about rates and availability, but were told that our youngest, Steve, then age five, was too young for the trip. He needed to be seven. There was nowhere to leave him if we went rafting, so we turned around and began to leave when the clerk told us to hang on a minute. After a brief consultation with someone else in the office, she told us Steve could go on the trip, but we'd have to keep him sitting on the bottom of the raft and hold onto him. We agreed!

The scenery was drop-dead gorgeous for the eight mile trip through the Bridger  National Forest on the Snake River which is rated as class II and III rapids, with the largest two rapids called Lunch Counter and Kahuna.  The photo above was taken by the professional photographer just as we hit the six-foot-tall standing wave of Big Kahuna Rapid.  You can see young Steve next to me in the bottom of the raft between the two girls who are in front, and Scott is seen between the two girls on the right side of the raft. When the trip was over, Steve was shaking from sitting in the cold water at the bottom of the raft for a couple hours. I asked if he had enjoyed the ride and he shivered,  “Ye..ea..ah.”  Then I asked if he'd like to do it again and he shivered, “Not… right… now.…”

I enjoyed that whitewater experience so much that I've gone whitewater rafting over 20 times since then, including a number of multi-day river expeditions where we camped each night on beaches. 
The Chattooga River serves as the border between Georgia and South Carolina and is famous as the setting for Burt Reynold’s film “Deliverance.” I rafted the river in 2002 as part of an Elderhostel adventure outing that featured two days of hiking on the Appalachian Trail and two days of rafting. Bull Sluice Rapid is classified as a class IV rapid and was the grand finale of our trip. In the first photo below we are nearly vertical as we drop ten feet straight down the waterfall section of the rapid...

...and the next photo is seconds later after our raft has turned to our left to finish the rapid (the waterfall we just went over is in the background.) You can see the raft is completely filled with water.  I’m sitting front right in the blue shirt.  (A tip: in all these photos, when we are wearing helmets, you know it’s a very dangerous river.)

The photo below is on North Carolina’s Nantahala River as we negotiate Nantahala Falls (class III rapid). We had just completed a week of kayaking the perimeter of Fontana Lake, camping each night on the shore of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and our guide and my buddy, Greg, owner of Adventures in Florida, asked if we wanted to raft before heading home. We all said yes of course. Greg is wearing the white hat and steering from the back of the raft, and I’m in the front left position wearing my green Tilley hat.  As we hit the rapid, the fellow to my right began to lift up from his seat, about to fly out of the raft, so I reached over, grabbed his shoulder, pulled him back down, and then resumed paddling. He yelled “Thanks, Chuck!” as he put his paddle back into the water.

In 1987 the family rafted a section of the Colorado River while vacationing in Steamboat Springs. It was mostly a float trip in calm water, but we did have a few nice rapids as seen in the photo below  (Scott, Steve, and I are in the Cubs caps in the front.) What we hadn’t been told was the drive to and from the river was nearly two hours each way, so we were in a vehicle far longer than we were actually rafting the river. At least we got to see some lovely Colorado scenery on the drives!

In 2004 I took an 11 week driving trip to Alaska and rafted three different rivers while there. The photo below was from the Mendenhall River raft trip out of Juneau. I was camping in Mendenhall Lake Campground and the raft trip left from the beach near my campsite. We paddled across the lake and within a few yards of Mendenhall Glacier where the river, which is glacial melt, begins. I am in the front left position with the green Tilley hat and blue shirt. This photo was taken by a professional photographer stationed at the biggest rapid.

Another Alaska raft trip started at Spencer Glacier which is the headwaters for the Mercer River. Though the river didn't have huge rapids, we began in the iceberg filled lake created by the glacier melt and had to negotiate around the bergs. The thought in my head the whole time was recalling that most of each berg was under water, and if any chose to roll over while we were nearby, the tidal wave created would have given us a heck of a whitewater ride! A video of my Alaska adventure is available here.

One of the best rivers I’ve ever rafted was the Pacuare in Costa Rica on a two week visit with Len and Marlene and Ellen in 2010. This sixteen mile section of the river has numerous class II and III rapids. A huge group of about 15 rafts traveled together that day, the largest group I’ve ever been a part of. It was also the only time that we had whitewater kayakers accompany us as rescue personnel, plus another kayaker who served as photographer taking over 400 action photos in the rapids, which is why I have more great photos of that day than any other raft trip. And at the end of the trip, they sold us  a disk with of all the photos for a very low price. The rapids were amazing as seen in the following three photos.  

The first Pacuare River photo below shows me front right with Ellen in the middle (pink helmet) and Len and Marlene in the back. It was their first whitewater experience. Much of the area we were rafting was one of Costa Rica’s rain forests and the scenery was magnificent, and when we weren’t paddling for our lives we were able to enjoy the views.


In the next picture, Marlene has been thrown out of the raft and you can see her blue helmet in the whitewater on the right side of the photo as the guide gets in position to grab her and pull her back in.

In the next photo, the guide had lost control as we hit a wave train, and our raft bent in the middle as we mounted a boulder which catapulted me out. I grabbed the rope that circles the top of the raft (called the chicken rope) as I went over the side and hung on and quickly pulled myself back in, with the others helping me. One nice thing about Costa Rican rivers — the water is nice and warm, not cold from snow-melt like the rivers in Alaska and Colorado! This was the only whitewater adventure where I ever went for an unplanned swim.  On all these raft trips, the guides allow us to swim in the lulls between rapids, and in the warmer river waters, everyone goes swimming. That also gives everyone practice getting back in the raft in case you get thrown out. Again, we are all wearing helmets which testifies to the ferocity of the river. A video of this trip is here.

One of my favorite multi-day raft trips was six days down Oregon’s Lower Salmon River. The scenery was gorgeous and the rapids were invigorating. In addition to the rafts, we traveled with several “duckies” which are one person, inflated kayaks. In one rapid, I got a photo of the ducky going perfectly vertical as the paddler went airborne and landed in the waves just to the left of the boat. You can see her blue helmet in the photo below. She was fine and couldn’t stop laughing at her exciting experience.

Multi-day excursions allow the participants and guides to get to know each other much better, and the days on the water seem to be more relaxed and carefree than on single day trips. Water fights often develop between boats as part of the fun. A video of this trip is available here.

In 2006 and again in 2008 I canoed 120 miles down Utah’s Green River through Canyonlands National Park with Greg’s adventure company. The stark high mountain desert  scenery and colorful rock formations entranced me, and exploring the ancient Anasazi Indian cliff dwellings provided an amazing history lesson. There was no dangerous whitewater on the trip or we would have had to use rafts, not canoes. Since all our boats were heavily loaded with food, water, and all the gear required for a dozen people on an eight day expedition, the tricky riffles and class I rapids we hit had to be cautiously negotiated to prevent capsizing and losing or damaging needed gear and food. 

The Green River ends at “The Confluence” where it joins the mighty Colorado River. The next 50 miles or so down the Colorado are called Cataract Canyon and are class I to class IV rapids, which would be suicide in a canoe. So on both Green River canoe trips we were picked up at The Confluence by a jet boat down from Moab, Utah, onto which we loaded all our boats and gear and ourselves, for a 20 mph jet boat ride upriver back to Moab. Great fun! But both times I rued not being able to make the right turn at The Confluence and continue down the Colorado through Cataract Canyon. 

Then in 2010 I got my wish. It was actually a Sierra Club service project to remove  invasive tamarisk plants at The Confluence, which necessitated rafting from Moab down the Colorado, camping three nights at The Confluence and working with a National Park Service trail crew to remove the tamarisk. Then the fun way back to civilization was rafting through Cataract Canyon the next two days to Lake Powell and exiting via road at Hite Marina. 

Below you see our four rafts loaded with all our food, camping gear, water, and tools for the work project. 

The professional rafting company, O.A.R.S. provided the rafts and the licensed, experienced guides, and we didn’t even have to paddle which allowed me to take movies of the rapids and some photos like that below in one of the many rapids. That standing wave is about eight feet tall. The video can be found at


As you have probably figured out, in order to safely negotiate rapids in a paddle raft, the licensed, trained guide has to steer the raft to the proper, safe routes through the rapids, and it is the job of the paddlers to provide constant forward momentum so the guide is able to steer us. If there is no forward momentum, the raft will simply go where the current takes it which is NOT the safest route. That’s why I can’t take photos while we are in the best rapids while I’m paddling like mad to help the guide get us safely through.

Below are a few more photos. This is the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon. I've seen the photographer set up on the bike trail that was built along I-70 through the canyon as I've biked there, and I always wanted to do the raft trip, and finally I did! I'm on the left side of the raft with my green hat.

The next photo is one I took from my raft just after we had survived this waterfall on West Virginia's New River National Gorge...

In 2009 I again rafted Wyoming's Snake River with Dave Hansen Whitewater and here we are at Big Kahuna rapid again, and I have my usual green Tilley hat. The photographer got two shots this time -- the first as we hit the rapid and the second as it completely inundated our raft! Fun!

My last trip to share is the grand-daddy of all raft trips — seven days in 1999 down the 277 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, negotiating 166 rapids in a motorized pontoon boat that was about 40 feet long and hinged in two places — articulated — to bend and absorb the worst that the rapids can dish out. The Grand Canyon does not use the class I to VI rating scale used on most American rivers. Instead, it uses a 10 scale, and 47 of the rapids are rated five or above which means “high flip/swim potential.” The best way to experience the Grand Canyon is a two or three week trip in a  paddle or oar raft, but that length of trip is very expensive, so we opted for a less expensive seven day trip. We still rafted the entire canyon, but to do it that quickly means fewer stops to hike and explore and also means traveling on our Canyoneer's motorized raft as seen in the photo below as it negotiates Hermit Rapid.

We even had the opportunity to experience a rapid without a boat -- body surfing! Here I am with my feet up to bounce off any rocks. I am wearing two PFDs (portable floatation devices or life jackets), one on my butt and one worn the correct way. This was so much fun, I hiked the one-third of a mile up the Little Colorado River Canyon and surfed back down three times before we had to leave. The water from the Little Colorado is generally a remarkable robin's egg blue, but a rain storm up canyon had brought all this red sediment down so even though it looks like I'm in mud, it's just discolored water.

Rafting the Grand Canyon in one of these large boats is safer because these large craft rarely flip! I used a disposable waterproof camera so the photos are not very good, but you get a feel for the wall of water that engulfed us in the shots below. The first is Separation Rapid just as the wall of water hit the raft...

...and Hermit Falls Rapid as the water engulfs half the raft...

... and Lava Falls Rapid, one of the largest in the Grand Canyon, as the water reaches my camera.

It was an awesome trip — the scenery, the solitude while a mile deep in the Grand Canyon, wonderful hikes up side canyons, a professional crew of three who did all the cooking, sleeping under the stars each night on sand beaches, and thrilling rapids that got our hearts pounding and kept us wet and cooled off.  Bottom line: If you ever have a chance to do any whitewater rafting, I recommend you try it. I think you’ll like it!

No comments: