Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Welcome to the Bitterroots

I sat in the dusk beside my truck while overhead the clouds rained down the amongst giants cedars, and on the horizon only a small pink ribbon of clouds remained of the setting sun. The rain danced while the tumultous waters of the Lochsa River spoke in a roar. I sat mellowly absorbing the scene surrounding me. Pierceing the rivers song, boulders rolled in the hidden depths of the waters and sounded like the percussion of fireworks in a 4th of July sky. I was happy to arrive in this place...

In the days prior I had made the journey to the edge of the Bitterroot Mountains as my work had me traveling to the small town of Stevensville. Chasing the setting sun I arrived in Missoula in the nick of time to surf the manufactured play wave known in memoriam as Brennan's Wave. It was start of what would be three weeks amongst the Bitterroot's. A day later I had secured housing and spent 4 hours in the noon sun playing on Brennan's wave and warming up from my month long hiatus from whitewater. I drove happily exhausted in the direction of the Lochsa with the knowledge that the river was rising rapidly and would peak to levels possibily the highest of the season. I had no paddling partners but put faith that I could find some compatriots on the banks of Lochsa.

I arrived in the cover of night and surveyed the campgrounds for paddlers. Pulling into the poacher's free camping, I encountered a camp fire. Hopping out of my truck I came to find 3 paddlers who had the misfortune of high water on the Selway River blocking their trip. I quickly made friends with Cliff, Josh, Mike, and Chad. The night was already late and so after some brief conversation the group turned in. I walked down to the river to gauge it's level. The beam of my headlamp revealed swelling waters of magnitudes I had yet seen and had flooded into the trees along the river. I went to bed contemplating the morning ahead and the changing character of the Lochsa.

I awoke with the morning light and the sun radiantly warmed the air. The crew emerged and slowly busied getting for the days run. Looking at the river it was clear it had risen during our slumber and when I had left civilization I knew the flow was topping 17,000 cfs! We set our sights on the upper Lochsa.

Driving up river we stopped and scouted. My companions noted the river had risen nearly a foot over night. I had run the upper Lochsa numerous times and felt comfortable with all the lines, however now there was a distinct change in the Lochsa's character. At any other level the river was a stress-less flwoing of beautiful class IV. But now Lochsa was displaying it's more violent side. Eddy's became littered by whirlpools, holes became monstrous, and flat water became long sets of wave trains all the while raging downstream at 15-20 mph.

The truck filled with my companions became quiet and pensive. Reaching the put-in I grabbed my gear and dragged it to the rivers edge and waste no time gearing up. However only two of the four of my new companions came down the trail. It would only be a crew of three. And so myself and Josh helped Chad launch his Cat Boat, and we slid in our kayaks into the masses of water while the sun shone brightly among the blue skies and 80 degree heat.

We nervously paddled ahead defensively paddling an cautiously looking ahead. The river that I had once recognized was replaced by massive waves and holes galore. Rapids once of consequence became wave trains and rapids that never exhisted sprouted keeping us on our toes. We rolled into the first drop, Eagle Creek, an watched the magnitude of whitewater explode. I hugged close to the right bank and sized up the initial breaking wave as the world began to accelerate. I climbed up it's 4 foot face and crashed through it's peak and instinct to over. The waves crashed as if amongst a moving ocean of water echoing of the banks surging unpredictably. I maintain my momentum and maintained focus. We eddied out after the first drop and the smiles slowly grew on our faces and we relaxed as the more and more of the river passed us by.

However looming in our heads was triple drop, a series of 4 staggered monstrous holes with only a narrow line. As triple drop loomed ahead apathy came to me. There was some attempt to eddy out. But as we cam neared I felt... "what's the point?" any more scouting and I'd probably end up walking the rapid. So I signaled to my partners I was going and took the lead, while Chad in the Cat boat lined up behind me. I sighted the first wave of 6-7 ft in height and new I needed to crest the left edge of it's massive-ness. I pounded through and immediately began working back left in the slack water behind it skirting away from two left hand holes. Then set my sights on the final crashing wave. I lined up and lowered my head for the hit and came blasting through to a boiling eddy. Grins abound we regrouped in the eddy chattering with the release of nervous energy.

The rest of the run went flawlessly as we plodded on. We stopped at our camp and enjoyed a celebratory beer. Myself and Josh hadn't had enough and regrouped to run Lower section of the Lochsa. But skies gew dark and the rain came down torrentially. It was a warm rain that was surprisingly pleasant. However from th warm rain and the heat of the day clashing with the frigid waters of the Lochsa rose an ominous mist about the river. Neither Josh nor I was familiar with the lines in any way. I could barely see Josh only 20 ft in front of me and we took each corner completely unware whether we were on the correct line and we about to be throttled by a bus sized hole. It was eerie in feeling and we grew wary of our safety given the enormous river levels. On shore we could see our shuttle vehicle awaiting us to runthe next rapid. We took out and cut our losses, avoiding unnecessary danger.

The weather continued to worsen while we set up came, with rain turning to hail. We set up a tarp kingdom and sat out of the weather. The night led to the usual banter and I sat content. We listed as the river rolled boulders down stream and it sounded like 4th of July fireworks in the night. Amongst the majesty of the river and enjoying the accolades of my new found crew, I felt the familiar happiness that the river and those whose chase it's water bring.

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