Articles - Big Trouble on the Little White - a WW Kayak Adventure

Simon hits a big one  on the Little White
Simon hits a big one on the Little White
Canoe and Kayak UK - Posted on 13 Jan 2009
Ask any river bum if they’ve ever had a dodgy moment and I’ll bet you a penny to a pound that they’ll regale you with hair-raising tales of epic proportions. Some of these waltzes with the Grim Reaper are brought about by unfortunate boaters dropping a huge clanger and some are just down to bad luck. And some can be a series of small, seemingly insignificant, errors that result in a kind of cluster bomb effect to really drop you in deep doo doo. The following story falls into the latter and just goes to show that no matter how experienced and prepared a group is; things can still go seriously wrong!

Sleepless in Seattle

Our trip started calmly enough. My mate Simon and I had decided that it was time to escape the cold and crowds of the Thames weirs and head off to the good ol’ US of A in search of some early spring creek boating action. Our destination was Seattle, the birthplace of Jimi
Hendrix, Kavu Clothing and Starbucks Coffee. It was also the place that Simon’s friend and fellow Team D athlete Marco Colella and his wife Cindy were presently calling home. Marco was going to kindly pick us up from the airport and let us crash at their pad. Simon had previously spent a lot of time travelling and boating in the States and the plan was to check out some old favourites and to explore the possibilities of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsular. Once camped out at Marco’s we were introduced to Joey, a travelling boater from Marco’s home state of Virginia, and another visiting boater called Brett. We were also informed of the bad news that the whole area was as dry as the proverbial bone! Over steaks and a few beers we decided to head south through Portland and on to the town of Hood River in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. As Joey was on an extended boating tour and Brett was on vacation, they decided to tag along for the ride.

Boys in the Hood
The next morning we loaded up Joey’s jeep with boats, drove south and put in for a very tasty little run called Canyon Creek. As we hadn’t really boated together before, we thought it might make a useful warm up for the adventures we were planning later in the week. Canyon Creek is a sweet but short run with a few boulder problems and a couple of nice falls, with one bigger but easily runnable fall hiding in the middle.
    The sun shone, we boofed ourselves silly and, apart from one annoying deck blowing incident on my part, it all went off without a hitch. But it was at this point that I realised I might have made a bad call in the boat department. Before we’d left the UK, Simon had advised me that I was going to need a man’s boat for this mission and that I’d better, quite rightly, forget about paddling my usual freestyle machine on the sort of water he had in mind. At that time I was sponsored and as my sponsors only had one big volume river runner available, I didn’t really have much choice. Sponsorship has its up sides but, as I stood dripping at the take out looking at my big, clumsy, unresponsive barge, I began to realise that it also has its down!
    Despite my niggles about boat performance we’d had a good day on the creek and were in high spirits as we headed down into Hood River and hooked up with ex-pat, and awesome boater, Andy Round. Joey had been down in the area a few weeks before and had run the Little White
Salmon with Marco and Tao Berman, and he was keen to do it again.
    Simon had also run the Little White a year or two before and gave us the low-down on what to expect. The Little White runs through a steep, tight gorge in the middle of a pine forest. It starts off as a tough, technical, continuous boulder problem with a few reasonable-sized drops and holes. Then, about half way down, it changes in character as the drops get bigger, with three or four large waterfalls, including the impressive Spirit Falls.

It Begins
The river was running at a fairly high level and from the moment we launched, it was in our faces. There was no warm up and we were immediately into fast, furious and technical water. We’d only been on the river for about fifteen-minutes when Brett capsized, failed to roll and came out of his boat. The last thing you want to do on a river this serious is swim, but luck was on his side and he made it into an eddy with his boat. Unfortunately, his paddle had disappeared. Shaken but OK, Brett declined the use of splits and opted to walk out back to the jeep.
Boulder Choke
As we broke back into the current the vibe had begun to change. The smiles and nervous excitement of earlier were gone; instead to be replaced with furrowed brows and intense concentration. We pushed on and the river became even harder. I was starting to pay the price for my slow to turning monster of a boat and hit several boulders hard. As the gradient began to increase, the Little White took its next swipe at us. The river banked left, then right, past a huge boulder before dropping down again to a nasty five-metre drop with a fallen tree just below it. Simon was bang on line as he rounded the bend but, without warning, his boat seemed to veer out of the current and slammed into the upstream side of the boulder, where it pinned vertically. Joey and I broke out and ran down the left-hand bank. Andy ran the bend and broke out behind the boulder on river right. Simon had his hands on the rock and was pushing with all his might. As we watched, he calmly threw his paddle onto the bank then reached down and released his spray-deck.
    As he kicked free of the boat, it vanished under the boulder. Simon held himself up for as long as he could and then took a breath, tucked up and disappeared under the rock. Clutching throw-lines we ran downstream and nearly passed out with relief when we saw Simon hauling himself out of the river. Both he and his boat had passed through the siphon unscathed! It took at least thirty-minutes to free Simon’s boat from where it had pinned under the tree, and it was unnerving to say the least to see one of the top creek boaters in the world come so close to shaking hands with death.

William Nealy Saves My Life

The river was beginning to change and the boulder chokes were becoming interspersed with bigger and more powerful drops. When we came to a huge, river-wide pour-over, we jumped out to take a look. The drop was a ledge, two or three-metres high, and the hole was horrible. It was slightly horseshoe-shaped but had a tiny tongue on river right. Andy and Simon went first and I followed. I nailed the line but the boat was so big it hit a rock in the eddy and bounced backwards towards the hole. It was my turn to feel the fury of the Little White. The tow back was ferocious and I was slammed into the green and window-shaded with such violence, it nearly took my head off. I tried feebly to fight and to ender my way out, but after too many out of control flips and unintendos it was obvious that I wasn’t coming out of this monster in my boat.
    I pulled the tag and tried to exit but was slammed relentlessly, half in and half out of the boat, by the power of the water until I was eventually flung out of the cockpit like a rag doll. I desperately tried to swim and get a much-needed breath, only to be recirculated again and again. I tried again to break the surface but it felt like something was hanging on my legs.
    Things were getting blurry when I suddenly remembered a cartoon from the old ‘Kayak’ book by William Nealy. It showed a guy curled up in a ball and bouncing along the riverbed, escaping the clutches of a monster pour-over. It seemed like my only option at that point was to copy it. For a split second I broke the surface, got half a breath of foam and then swam as hard as I could
straight into the pour-over. As the water slammed me down I curled up into a ball and when I hit the riverbed I kicked out as hard as I could, swimming front crawl for all I was worth. I surfaced just on the back of the tow back. It was still pulling at my legs but with a few more strokes I was free. It had worked – nice one Nealy!
    I managed to make it to the steep bank just downstream and grabbed hold. Simon was there in a flash and got a firm hand on the shoulder strap of my buoyancy aid. I was exhausted and simply didn’t have the strength to pull myself out. Simon and Andy told me that from the point I’d exited the boat, my helmet had never broken the surface of the pour-over. Amazingly, Joey had managed to pick up my paddle, my Pelicase full of camera gear, and my spraydeck, which had been torn off during the swim! The boat had eventually washed out but had a split in the bow about a foot long. After a brief discussion
I decided that it was time for me to make the steep climb out. So, as I went rock climbing with only my busted behemoth and the local hill billies for company, Joey, Andy and Simon pressed on.

Spirit, Chaos and a Very Close Call

The rest of this account is from Andy and Si’s joint recollection. As I mentioned earlier, the river changes character half way down and boulder chokes make way for bigger and bigger drops. The biggest of these is Spirit Falls, at around 40ft. Although Simon had run this drop before, both he and Andy decided to portage. Joey decided to run it. As the others were climbing down the steep track at the side of the river, he lined himself up and hucked off the drop. His line was good but at the bottom of the fall he was barrel-rolled along the curtain and spat out upside down and disorientated. The line after the falls is to go immediately left to avoid a heinous closed-out hole called ‘Chaos’. Simon and Andy looked on in horror as the grim drama unfolded below them. Joey rolled, but too late to stop himself flushing into Chaos, where he received the beating of his life. He fought like a gladiator but eventually had to exit his boat. This hole was the stuff nightmares are made of and as it continued to hold and pound Joey, Simon and Andy sprung into action. Simon, on deciding that they had 90 seconds or less to save Joey, jumped off the cliff and into the river below… A jump of at least 30ft! Andy then threw Simon’s boat down to him.
    While this was happening, a now unconscious Joey washed free of the hole and floated off downstream. Simon, now afloat, sprinted down to him, brought him into an eddy, exited his boat and began CPR. Joey was blue and his lips had swollen but, to Simon’s relief, he started breathing straight away. By now, Andy had joined them and recovered Joey’s boat. There were hard decisions to be made and Joey was given three options. He and Simon could wait there with Simon and Andy would paddle on solo to raise help; Joey could get back in his boat and paddle out; or he could walk out with Simon. He chose the last option so, leaving the boats behind, Simon and a very shaky Joey began the arduous hike out. Andy opted to carry on down river and organise Brett and the Jeep to help get the guys out as quickly as possible. This was going to involve running some serious grade V solo, but Andy calmly got on with the job and arrived at the take out with only a jarred back from a landing off one of the last big falls.
    By now Brett had found me walking along the highway and, when Andy arrived, we were just deciding to instigate a search and rescue, when Joey and
Simon emerged from the trees.

Touch & Go
We were all cold, shaken, exhausted, but alive. Joey was still a bit shaky and despite his protests we took him for a check up at the local hospital. We expected them to warm him up, check him out and for us all to be camped out in the nearest bar within the hour. But as we sat in the waiting room, we became increasingly aware that all was not well with our friend.
    Several doctors were buzzing about his room and eventually told us that they had sent for an air ambulance to rush him to the much larger Portland Hospital. They explained that Joey had fought so hard in the hole, without oxygen, that his body had suffered a lactic acid seizure. The doctor thought that this may have saved him from taking a breath of water, as his tongue would have gone solid, but now the muscles around his heart were solid and preventing it from beating properly. Simon’s brave and quick action had undoubtedly saved Joey’s life as, without his determination to keep moving and motivated on the walk out, Joey would almost certainly have suffered a coronary. After a restless night on Andy’s floor, Simon and I headed for Portland to check on Joey who, to our delight, was on the mend and arranging dates with the nurses.

Over the next few days, we talked long and hard about what had happened on the Little White Salmon. No one had made any serious mistakes and the punishment for our slight errors were unusually harsh. Each incident had been dealt with in a textbook manner. Experience and training had given us the tools to cope with serious rescue situations and we had all walked away to tell the tale, and indeed to run the Little White again, in the same water conditions, without incident, a week later. Some days you ride the river; some days the river rides you! When paddling on steep and technical water you have to remember that the consequences of even errors can add up to a very serious  situation and possibly disastrous outcome.  Plan ahead, take your time, and think descisions through carefully.

If you enjoyed this article why not check out more HERE

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Check out an epic film of the Little White Salmon HERE

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