After an early start (left our carpooler's house at 5:30am), we were on the river sometime in the afternoon.
The previous times I'd rafted this river, I did it in paddle rafts - rafts that had about 4 "paddlers" and one captain, who was responsible for steering the boat and telling the paddlers what to do to get into position for a rapid. This time, I took my inflatable kayak that could fit either one or two people. I'd rafted a much easier river in it both this and last year's Memorial Day weekends. I was looking forward to taking it through the rapids on this river, as it has many class II and III rapids, and at least one class IV rapid.
Quick education from the leaflet I got at the ranger's station - the ratings of interest to this story are:
Class I: Moving water with few obstructions (for beginners)
Class II: Small waves and turbulence (intermediate skills required)
Class III: Medium size waves, strong hydraulics (experience necessary)
Class IV: Large powerful waves, powerful turbulence and hydraulics (considerable skill needed)
The first day, Sara joined me in my kayak. I was in the back, and she, in the front. We always headed for the "white" in the rapids and enjoyed the waves spashing over us on the hot day. Then, we hit a class III rapid - I don't think that I fully realized it, and I definitely don't remember what, exactly, happened, but both of us were thrown out of the boat - and it felt as though I went down, down, down - I remember wondering when I'd be going back up, or IF I'd be going back up, again. . . I did pop up, and my boat was nearby, so I grabbed that, and looked around for Sara - we both assured each other that we were ok, and then I asked if she still had her paddle - she did. We tried to swim over to the side - to an eddy, where we could regroup and get back into the boat. Sara had breathed in some water, so she wasn't feeling so well. I was a bit shaken, but considered it an anomally - it was the first time I'd ever flipped. Sara decided that going in one of the rafts with oars (we had 4 of them) might be a better option for a while.
The next day started with another class III (the Fish Ladder, for you Roguers) to go down, but this was more of a class III because of the obstacles rather than big waves - I scouted it (i.e., went down and checked it out from the edge of the river to see what I needed to do) in the evening. In the morning, I shot down it, by myself - it was great! I then walked back up on the side of the river to help the rafts get down, and convinced another guy, Mike, to take a shot at it in the other kayak.
Later on, another party member, Eli, joined me in the kayak in the front. Again - I would head for the whitest of the white water. I enjoyed seeing the kayak fly into a "hole" and watch the wave practically engulf Eli on the way out of the hole. Eli suggested that we switch seats so that I would have the pleasure of getting soaked in one of those waves. We switched, but we just didn't seem to accomplish our goal even though our last rapid before camp was a class III (due to big waves and hydraulics). This camp was great, as it was at Horseshoe Bend, and, as such, we were able to fairly easily carry the kayak over land and go through the rapids, again. I made the most of this opportunity, getting a different person to go with me each time. When Mary went with me, we did a perfect run where I headed for a big boulder just under the water in order to go through the most intense part of the wave. We went flying over the boulder and crashing into the wave. Our buddies on shore enjoyed the show as much as we enjoyed going through it!
There were some teenagers staying at the same place that night, and we offered them an opportunity to go with me. One of them, Paul, took me up on it. We tried to repeat what I did with Mary, but missed the mark by a long shot, but still had a good run, went right by a rock with a Great Blue Heron (a big bird) sitting on it, but didn't go through the wildest part. Paul wanted to go, again, so we did. He was steering, and as we went down, we got turned around and started to go backwards through the most violent part of the rapids, and next thing we knew, we were tossed out of the kayak. I started to worry about him, since I felt responsible for him - he's just 13! Fortunately, he came up and shouted that he was fine. (This time, the Heron flew away when we went near it.) Both of us held onto our paddles and he or I had the boat and were able to bring it into shore. He told me that when he went under, that all of the (bad) stories his father ever told him about rafting went through his head. He told me that it gave a "new meaning to a class III rapid," since, before this, he'd just been through it on one of the big rafts with someone rowing it. Those rafts are still fun, but not quite as "immediate" nor as close to the water as one is when in a kayak.
Eli decided that he wanted another crack at the rapid, so he and I went for one last run. He was steering. We tried to redo the "Mary" run, but went too far to the left of the underwater boulder, causing us to hit a virtual wall of a wave at an angle. This sent me flying as the kayak flipped. On resurfacing, I saw the kayak, upside down in front of me and grabbed it, but was worried as I saw red underneath the kayak, which is grey and blue - I knew that it meant that Eli was underneath it and wondered what I should do about this, as the water was pushing me downriver - could I flip the boat? But what if he were just popping up, and I flipped it onto him? Fortunately, Eli resurfaced just a little later. After we both established that we were both ok, I asked the next question, "do you have your paddle?" This time, the answer was "no!" The current was taking him downriver, and I headed for the opposite side, for an eddy. People on shore were yelling at me that the paddle was coming down that side of the river. Someone threw a rope out to Eli so that he didn't have to work so hard to get out of the current - he'd lost his hat, glasses, and, I later learned, his shoes on that dunking.
I couldn't find the paddle. Don, the owner of the other kayak, came over to get me, and help me with the kayak, since I was pretty exhausted fighting the current, hanging onto the boat with one hand, and the paddle with the other. He also spent a lot of time looking for the paddle. No success. We started telling other rafters to look for it, and put it on the side of the river on the rocks if they saw it. I was imagining the trip, constantly searching the eddies for the paddle. I knew that it would be a downer for the trip. One of the guys offered to join me in the kayak the next day, and have me do all of the paddling. . . (yes, we had a lot of jokers on the trip. . .)
After dinner, I noticed that I could check out the worst part of the rapid from a high point on the side we were camped on. I was thankful that Eli didn't actually get hurt by the rocks, and wanted to see how it was that he'd actually avoided that. I saw the huge wall on the left that we nearly ran into, the big wave, and just a ton of rocks right in front of that. How in the heck did Eli NOT get hurt? And, then, I saw something else - a huge eddy behind the big wave. And in that eddy, something flashing. It looked straight, but it was too far away for me to see clearly, but I hoped against hope that it was my paddle. I went running over to the others to get binoculars, and ran back to take a look. YES!!!! It was my paddle!!!! Mary helped me paddle over to the other side, and she kept the kayak in place while I climbed the rocks up and down to get to the eddy and rescue my paddle. I recovered the paddle and Mary and I happily paddled back to camp. This recovery of the paddle really lightened things up, for me, at least.
The following day was a short day on the river, with nothing bigger than a class II. We reached camp early and decided to hike upriver to Zane Grey's cabin (the place where Mr. Grey wrote at least one of his books), and then did a (fast!) float back down to camp on the river in our life-jackets.The next day was Sunday, and the day of the really enjoyable (from my past trip memories) Mule Creek Canyon followed by the class IV rapid at Blossom Bar. I was alone in the kayak this day, and really looking forward to the rapids in the canyon. Alas, I hit a rapid just before the entrance to the canyon incorrectly, and it flipped me over. I tried desperately to make it to an eddy in order to right the boat, and get back in, but it just wasn't possible - the current just sucked me into the rapids in the Canyon. If I didn't have a paddle in one hand, and the kayak in the other, I could have enjoyed the rapids, even while floating through them, but with those, it was just a constant chatter to myself not to get slammed against the rocks, and to try to take breaths between waves crashing over my head, and not drink too much water. . . One of our rafts, with Bob at the oars, and Sara as an extra, waited in an eddy for me. Sara threw a rope out to me, pulled me to the raft, and then grabbed my life jacket and hauled me into the raft as if I were a rag doll (which is what I felt like!). We decided to carry my kayak on the raft, determining to let it go downriver if needed, as the canyon was quite narrow, so it wasn't clear that the raft with the kayak on it's bow would actually fit, but it did, as we slid handily by the Coffee Pot (a sucking swirling rapid), after which I got back into my kayak to do the rest of the canyon, although there were no more rapids. Lunch was next, which gave a needed recovery period, since soon after was the class IV, and I didn't want to screw that one up!
We scouted the Blossom Bar rapid. I couldn't remember it at all - it'd been 7 years since the last time I'd gone through it. This time, it was crucial that I know exactly what to do. Some of the others did remember it, and what to do, and patiently explained it to me and the other kayaker, Mike. And then we were blessed by a 2 person kayak team, who didn't bother to scout, but just went on and did the rapid. They did exactly what we'd described to each other. Flawless execution. Mike and I started to breath easier, after seeing that, and as we weren't seeing the big standing waves that had certainly caused me problems in the past, and just make it more hairy. We let one of the rafts go first, and then I went down. It was nerve-racking, but I just kept repeating our plan in my head, and then did as we'd decided - go down the tongue, then paddle hard to the right, go down between the rocks, and you're home free - the rest is easy (so everyone said, and I dutifully believed). When I did the paddling hard to the right, I got a little worried that I would touch the close side of a rock, and get spun around, but I avoided that, and it all went according to plan, until, of course, I got to "the easy part" - but even that wasn't bad. I saw that I was headed to a rock, but it wasn't suuuuuch a big rock - I prepared to go flying over it, but as I went over, I got stuck on the top. Later, we laughed about it, as I must have spent at least 2, if not 5 minutes on top of that rock, trying to rock myself forward off of it while another group, with kayakers, was scouting the rapid at just that time - we were thinking that I gave them a good picture of what NOT to do. . . I finally did get off of my little throne, there, and went through the rest of the rapids without further incident.
We camped our last night at Brushy Bar. Just below it, were some rapids. They looked tame, with an easy walk back along the rocks to the side of the river. A couple of people suggested floating through them for fun. A bunch of folks wanted to do it, and then started to chicken out. When the last person started faltering, I said, sure - I'd do it. We floated down, and it was a blast - I mentioned that it wasn't a heck of a lot different from what I'd been doing all day long, except that this time, I didn't have to worry about paddles and my boat! I went down for another 3 runs, gathering more folks along the way. The next morning, I decided to make the kayak take the harder route through it, and wouldn't you know, it flipped me! I decided that I was either doing something wrong, or not doing something right. . .
It makes me want to go and do the river, again, right away, so that I can try out what I think that I've learned, and see if I can stay in the boat the whole way, and, especially, to enjoy the rapids from the boat, through the Mule Creek Canyon, but, alas, I will likely have to wait a year or more before getting that opportunity. . .
Besides the rapids, and the trees, and generally beautiful scenary, we also were treated to seeing a bear, some deer (one with her little, spotted fawn), great blue herons, osprey, a bald eagle, tons of turkey vultures, a bunch of turtles, and one otter or weasel. Definitely, a great, fun time.
Stay on top of the waves!