That’s Some Pig
April 22, 2013, by Michele Gila
“You are always just in between swims.”
If you have spent any time at all with whitewater enthusiasts, you have heard those words. To some, they strike terror, others a nod of recognition and respect. Because well, it’s true. If you spend any time in a boat on a river, chances are, you’re sure to take a swim.
Rewind to Summer Solstice 2008, just 3 months before my 40th birthday. I was invited on my first trip on a whitewater river, the section of the Deschutes River in Oregon, commonly referred to as the Lower Deschutes. To this point, I had spent a great deal of time in canoes, body surfing the ocean and miles and miles of laps in swimming pools. I am no stranger to powerful water. This trip changed my life. Enter my new obsession: Whitewater Rafting. Why had I never done this before?
I didn’t have a raft, so Mark and I took our faithful canoe through some class III water a few times, which included the Sandy River Dodge to to Oxbow run, which means going through Pipeline, a really bizarre class III rapid. Named Pipeline because overhead of the rapid, which is more or less the joining of the Bull Run River with the Sandy River, a pipeline runs, bringing the Portland Metro area its pure drinking water. If you’ve ever been through Pipeline, you know it’s no place for a canoe. There are some big rocks to navigate with strong powerful waves. After a few spills, we realized we needed an inflatable boat. This sport was our new passion. About to turn 40, it was a choice between an epic vacation to Mexico, or a trip to Andy & Bax to buy a boat. I picked the boat.
Coming to this adventurous sport as a ‘middle aged’ person, I’d like to think I’ve taken a reasonable look of caution in deciding which runs to make and what gear to have. Under the watchful eye of our pal Peter, aka Raftmaster, Mark and I began to understand more about how to safely navigate a river. Mark also grew up in water and spent many summers of his youth in a canoe. While I had the great enthusiasm to get us going, Mark was the natural at the oars. The guy can really read a river, learns quickly and for such a slim man, he’s a strong oarsman. We decided that to go on the rivers we really wanted to explore, one of us should really get good fast and he was the obvious choice. Don’t get me wrong, I love to row our boat, a 14’ AIRE built like, well, a Pig. Strong. Determined. And pretty lovable.
Through the last few years I have learned a lot about riding in the front of the boat. I take the command “Stay in the Boat!” pretty seriously. And while there have been a few occasions in big water where it is suddenly silent behind me as Mark has been bounced from the Captain’s Chair, I have miraculously mastered the art of staying in the boat. We have yet to flip entirely, though there have been some close calls. This is not to say that I haven’t taken a swim or two. A few times while canoeing of course, and I once bounced out the back while running Cyclops (Deschutes River, Maupin) and many times for the joy of it, I’ve jumped into the famous Little Elevator, a rapid on the Deschutes River.
Little Elevator is a must swim for anyone out west who likes whitewater sports. It’s a relatively safe rapid, a fairly swift wave train. No rocks, large eddies on either side, and usually tons of paddlers and guides with throw bags at the ready, in case you can’t make it to shore on your own. Swimming through Little Elevator prepares you for what it is really like to swim in swift water, because as the saying goes, it’s only a matter of time before you swim. By choosing, you train your mind and body for the upcoming event, learning when to breathe, how much power it takes to swim in the current and how to catch a rope and be pulled to shore.
The more time I spend running rivers, the more I learn how little I know. Spending time hearing other paddler’s tales of their adventures, it occurred to me that we’ve been lucky so far, and that I really should learn how to unpin my boat, how to tie some knots, how to use some basic survival tools and while I’m at it, I better brush up on some first aid. I’m a great camp cook, I shine on shore and I’m a brave boater, mostly as a passenger getting hit from the left, and then from the right, with huge waves and dropping over ledges into huge holes, all year round. If someone is going to the river, I’m usually trying to get there too. It’s my current obsession. And when I like something, I usually Go Big.
I started noticing clinics about Swiftwater Rescue Training (SRT) at our local annual Upper Clackamas White Water Festival. The Upper Clack is a local class IV river, best known for its rapids called Hole in the Wall, a place you never want to swim; Carter Falls, which is where the heart of the festival sets up for 2 days; Toilet Bowl probably my all time favorite; and Bob’s Hole, where kayakers are known to spend an entire day playing. What I would learn each year at these 3-4 hour clinics, was simply that I didn’t know jack about saving my life if I got into trouble. I had been running on blind faith and good luck. I also learned a few more tips about first aid, thanks to NOLS, particularly as it pertains to hypothermia, a common occurrence even on a summer run through the desert. It was at the 2012 UCWWF that I found out about the Oregon Whitewater Association. I agreed to volunteer at the registration table and was treated to overhearing several conversations about the association, their trips and the mindfulness of its members. Safety was becoming my number one priority.
Mark and I joined the club this winter, my single New Year’s Resolution. Join the Association. And right away it became worth it. At my very first meeting, I ran into Brenda who I met at the registration table in the UCWWF and who had been club President for a number of years. She asked if I was going to come on the annual All Women’s trip on the lower Deschutes. A familiar feeling arose in my belly, it’s here while I type this story. Fear mixed with a strong dose of Hell Yes! I can do this! Flashback to that very first trip on this same section of river. While enjoying ourselves, a flotilla of wild women came by, all hooting and hollering and my friend Zen and I pledged that day, being wild women ourselves, to someday be ready to take all women down the river. So when Brenda made me aware of this trip, I knew deep down my answer was YES.
I approached a small group of girlfriends who are also learning to paddle their various craft to see if anyone else wanted to join me, particularly Zen since it had been our pact made, perhaps foolishly after a few glasses of wine. We took a few trial runs down the Sandy River, to see what it was going to take to do this on our own. We know we have it in us, but Are We Ready? Zen is In. Laurie is In. They both run IKs and well you know my boat of choice, Petunia the Pig. Let the swimming begin.
In the meantime, the opportunity to take a 2 day SWR class with some of the region’s best arose and like the many times I have waited on line to buy tickets to concerts surely to sell out immediately, I had our two lap tops open and ready to sign in and register. Only 60 spots. We got in. It was an eventful two days, a whole story on its own. Again, at the banks of the Sandy River at Dodge Park, where we have launched our boats, countless times, in all kinds of conditions and weather. I learned a lot that weekend. Exactly the point.
A few weeks later, Matt Saucy organized a Santiam River training, geared for boaters who wanted to learn some new skills. Zen & Laurie agreed to join me and off we went to this glorious green snakey river that I had driven along countless times on the way to and from Breitenbush Hot Springs. Again, another whole story could be told from that amazingly helpful day on the river, in the comfort and safety of dedicated boaters who volunteered to show us more skills and more reasons why it’s important to learn these skills. In the end, it’s because boating should be FUN!
For Earth Day 2009 I somehow found out about SOLVE’s Sandy River clean up, organized by local river lover, Russ Pascoe. I don’t know if it took convincing or I simply was cocky and didn’t know any better, but he agreed to let me organize a crew of experienced friends to clean the section of river we so regularly enjoy, Dodge to Oxbow. And every year since, I have volunteered to gather friends to do this event, to give back to our glorious local river. We have pulled countless tires, last year setting our record for 9 tires, from the river banks. Along with miles of micro-filament fishing line, bottles, cans, scrap metal, underwear…piles of underwear, torn toy boats from the summertime crowd, chairs, coolers, kegs, sleeping bags (thankfully without a body!), traffic signs. You name it, we’ve probably pulled it from the river. As years go by, we are finding less and less trash in our little run. Proof that YOU REALLY CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE!
This year, equipped with recent training and more confidence, knowing that I would be taking my boat on the Deschutes all on my own, I headed out with The Pig in tow. Mark couldn’t make this year’s clean up due to work conflict and since Zen would be my back up on the Deschutes, we decided she should spend some time at the oars. We were joined by 10 other friends who were in rafts or kayaks, some of whom usually make this event. We’ve all run this section so many times and while we have experienced it at water as low as 750cfs in summer for fun or 4000cfs in spring, we really know this river and her every turn. The Sandy River is afterall, in our back yard.
I don’t know if it was because suddenly Mark couldn’t be there but my mind was distracted by making sure I had all my tools to rig the boat and run it, plus keeping everyone organized to do this annual clean up. The first sign that something was different, was coming across the bridge to the entrance at Dodge Park. Gosh, the river looks like it’s running high today. For the first time I can remember, I hadn’t checked the river level before I left. It’s pretty ritualistic for me to do it, one of the geeky things I like to announce to my fellow boaters when getting ready to launch. The 2nd sign might have been that the gate to Dodge was actually closed and not another person, no single fisherman was on shore, was in the park. The 3rd sign was certainly that the rocks we had used in the SRT class a few weeks ago were buried under water. As friends arrived, particularly Jason & Traci who we do this section with a lot, we all began to remark how high the river was.
We gathered at the picnic table so I could go over our info from Solve and hand out garbage bags and pick a strategy to jump from beach to beach to cover all the ground. Alex had the mindfulness, knowing many of us didn’t boat together much, to do quick introductions and brief each other on level of experience. Alex and his partner Erin were long time boaters, comfortable in class VI water. Carrie, a long time kayaker turned oar boat enthusiast was bringing her friend Suzi along, who had been on a river trip or two in her life. Traci & Jason would be running Big Pink, one of my favorite gigantic bucket boats. Jason has spent his life on the rivers since his dad Jono was a guide, and Traci trusts him and that boat, though she is not at all comfortable with swimming rapids or big water in general. Laurie & Miguel are in their tandem IK, comfortable in water, but pretty beginner paddlers. Zen as I said, was riding in The Pig with me. We ran through our safety talk and I volunteered to go first, our order of boats being critical to safety.
The next BIG obvious sign that something was incredibly different about today’s river is that you could actually see the Sandy River commingle with the Bull Run River. Of course, you can see where they join, it’s that obvious. But today you could See the two different colors. And by the time I could get my boat pointed downriver, I was in Pipeline. I have never been in this Pipeline. It was all new. I hear rivers can do that when the water level severely changes. I ran it straight down the middle, as I always have, not even paying attention to other routes. In my opinion, it had gone from a really bizarre class III to a roiling beastly class VI. I was not ready for that last wave to come crashing down on us. Our agreement to eddy right at the end of the rapid was impossible. There was no eddy. The river gauge on river left that I usually take a peek at was entirely under water. No eddies in sight. No beaches. Crap, this river is HIGH today. Well, the date is 4/20 afterall.
Other boats begin to appear out of Pipeline but we’re moving so fast it’s all I can do to keep control of the boat. My shoulders already feeling ripped from their sockets and we have more or less just launched, with miles to go. The feeling starts to settle in that we are in for a wild ride today. The thought crosses my mind over and over “Of all the days for Mark to not be with me…” I’m trying to stay brave, but inside there is definitely some panic.
The order of boats has completely gone awry, everyone equally getting shoved around. Laurie falls out of her boat and quickly scrambles back in. We are at a very large & welcomed eddy and we spend some time just floating back upstream and down, in a large calming whirlpool. Pipeline behind us, we should be ok. Let’s go clean some beaches.
Ahead I see the rock wall with the fallen Doug Fir and waterfall beyond that I always enjoyed going past. So many caves and ferns and beautiful rocks that look like if I were into rock climbing, it could make a great day with a refreshing swim. In the short distance I see Jason in this new wave train I have never seen before and WHAM! That last wave almost flipped him in his 16 foot boat. I sense doom and before I can back out of the waves, I’m in the train, trying to stay off the wall. I know that wave is coming and I can’t do a damn thing about it. Right as Zen sees what is coming, she starts to hunker down on to the floor, but not in time. She cartwheels out the the left side of the boat. I realize in slow motion of course, that my boat is about to flip. That moment has arrived. And Mark isn’t here. And in I go. I regain the surface and see that the boat did not flip but we are swimming in an ocean. I try to hoist myself back into the boat, but another waves hits and sucks me under the boat. I regain the surface, thinking damn this new PFD is amazingly buoyant. I again grab on to the boat, my faithful Pig, and somehow manage to hoist not one, but both oars into the boat, so that I don’t loose any teeth or the oars. We’ve still got miles to go afterall. I see Zen’s head in the waves ahead. I start yelling “I’m In! I’m in Too” taking wave after wave to the face. We round the tree and I know what is ahead, my usually favorite wave train. I know this ride aint over yet. Because I know this river trail.
Still hanging on to the boat, keeping Zen’s helmeted head in sight, I try to clamber back in. I’m exhausted and it’s all I can do to hang on. Besides my life vest, my #1 tool for survival at this point is actually my boat. But nope, it’s time to go through the wave train. 7 waves that I usually squeal with delight as we go through, pointing to Mark to put me in the deepest wave. Not this time. I see Zen’s white helmet, I see Alex & Erin river left, I know the wave train is almost over. Safety in sight. I see the throw bag at the ready and I actually have that thought that damn, they’re only going to be able to rescue Zen. I hear ROPE! And the rope comes crashing down a few yards from the boat, nowhere near my friend. On we swim. But I can see they are trying to get to us. At last I feel a break in the current and try to swim to the boat to shore. Just as I think I’m going to be able to pull it off, I can actually feel the river rise with an all new force and Whoosh! Back in the strong current again. Zen has also been dragged back out. When will this swim end? I swallow water. I can barely hang on. I think “Am I actually going to drown in this river today?” Which somehow sends a shot of adrenaline through my system and suddenly I’m thinking a new thought that “Hey, this actually isn’t so bad. Zen is not drowning either. I’ve got the boat. I know where we are. I’m warm. There should be another big eddy ahead.” I look up at my big grey boat and suddenly see her as a Pig swimming, like a doggy paddle, right next to me. The Pig is smiling. So am I.
Well it wasn’t such a big eddy, but there was a big flat mossy rock and Zen hugged it tight. I was coming in fast and sliding around the other side of my boat so I didn’t run into her, yelling Grab the Boat! She managed to grab something, hold it, I swam to shore, climbed out and hopped a few rocks where she was half laying half sitting, holding that boat. She had a death grip on it. I had an urge to laugh. Sweet relief, we’re alive. Not moments later Alex & Erin pull in and we catch our breath. He was so calm, the calm in our chaos. I clung to his calm spirit. I looked out and could see the rest of our boats had made it into an eddy on river right and having no other choice, we got back in the boat and rowed over to rest and rejoice. Turns out Laurie & Miguel also got chewed on by that wave and enjoyed a similar swim. They appeared unshaken. Mild hypothermia was setting in for Zen, her hands turning purple blue and the shivers had taken hold. We got her out of her wet clothes, wet even though she was wearing a drysuit, and worked to get her core temperature back up. In the meantime, our friends Jim & Scott in their hardshell kayaks arrived to join us. They were not anticipating finding us so quickly, as the plan was to meet up later further downstream. They were also taken unawares at the river level. We all threw out some wild guesses at the current flow. Most of us agreeing it was somewhere around 4500cfs or maybe higher. I recall Scott saying he rolled through Pipeline. This was not the Sandy River these highly experienced kayakers were expecting either.
Next up is the boulder garden. It’s a navigational nightmare in low water, getting stuck on every other rock some days, with a pretty large rock at the very end, making for a really fun hole at a good river level of about 3500cfs. A few trips back, I had nearly flipped our boat going over that rock sideways. Somehow Zen remembered that and decided to ride in Jason’s boat. I felt deserted, but I wanted her to feel safe. I knew what was ahead and I was more worried about the fact that I now had no weight in the front of my boat. I was going to flop through the boulder garden.
Top of the boulder garden, and I see half the crew making their way through no rocks, just huge waves, with that final wave train at the end sending white water waves way too high into the air. Oh dear. I was starting to freak out a little bit. Suddenly I hear Erin shouting behind me and I look over my shoulder to see someone from Carrie’s boat in the water. I hoped it wasn’t Carrie because I was fairly certain Suzi couldn’t handle the oars. I put my whistle to my lips and started blowing it hard and loud. No one could hear me over all that white water. It was thankfully (I know, a strange thing to say) Suzi in the water, and I could see it wasn’t good. She wasn’t flailing about like someone alive and trying to swim in whitewater. She was still, one of the indicators that someone is drowning. And before I know it, Carrie has laid down her oars, grabbed Suzi and tossed her into the boat, and then Bam! Back at the oars. It was one of the best rescues I have witnessed. Meanwhile, I’ve got that damn hole ahead. Then the voice inside says quite loudly, “Would You Quit Freaking Out?” Oh, right, I’m boating. This is fun. I run it beautifully, all the way to one of the best beaches on the river. Still a little freaked out by all of the swimming, I’m unsure if I should be stressed or overjoyed. Jim strides up big grin on his face, “How was that?” I said it was a blast. He was giddy too. Sharing positivity can do wonders!
I see Suzi get out of the boat, looking half drowned. I remember she is not in a drysuit She starts to just walk down the beach, toward the woods, away from the river. Right! First sign of shock. So I grabbed her by the shoulders and start asking her questions. I walk her back to our friends, who start helping her remove her wet clothes, I run for the space blankets in my dry box. We soon have her dry and out of the elements, eating small pieces of an old Luna Bar that has lived an eternity in my pfd. Eventually we all eat our lunches and try to find some garbage on that beach. Our bags are pretty empty so far and by this far into the trip, we’ve usually had half filled bags and a tire or two. I guess the river was cleaning herself. Zen & I strolled down the beach, walking it off more or less. We decided that the river was like us. That ordinarily we trust her and respect her but that today, while she meant no harm, she was raging. She was out of control. That was her way, part of her natural course.
All dry, and fueled, we still have another 4 miles to go to make Oxbow. Jason in all his wisdom approaches me for the What Do You Think? talk. He reasons that with nearly a 50% swim rate for the day so far, and that there are no beaches to clean and water into the tree lines, that perhaps the best focus should be making our way to Oxbow. If we get swimmers, we stop wherever we can get to safely. All agree, but I see those empty bags. Dang, the day sure changed direction. Zen agrees to join me in the boat again, but she is nervous, rightfully so. I know what is ahead and feel confident that as long as we have no more unexpected waves at those big turns, we should be fine. That what is usually a riffle will be filled in or at worst, big waves. And lots more beaches. We make our way through Blue Hole, and the popular nude beach is entirely underwater.
Turn, wave train, eddy, beach. The Sandy starts to look familiar again. And the clouds start to lift, a little sunshine comes through. Laughter starts to take the place of nervous shouts. Big beach river right, time to clean something. And what’s this? Zen scores half a tire! Half a tire is better than no tire at all. We toss it into the back of the boat, wasp nest and all. We get back into the boats, a few more pieces of trash in bags, a purple deflated swim toy for Scott, and we make our way to Oxbow. No shoals to get the boat stuck on, nice deep water all the way to the boat ramp.
Back on dry land again. Not much trash, but Big Smiles are in that final photo. Another day on the river. As we drive home, Zen pulls out my phone to look at that river data. 9000cfs. Oh, that makes sense. Upon arriving home I announce to Mark the river level and that I nearly drowned, you know, for added drama thinking I’ll get the sympathy kiss. But no, a true Captain, he replies with disappointment, that he wishes he had been there. Not to rescue me of course, but because the river sounded epic. As the hours pass, my giant bruise grows more colorful and the dull ache of fatigued and strained muscles set in. Ya, I smile, I’m just between swims.