In Over Your Head: High-Water Horror Stories


Every rafter has their own favorite collection of spooky high-water stories. These events tend to be concentrated in spring, but high water can happen whenever the right alchemical spell is cast in the atmosphere. At normal flows, paddlers can read the water and anticipate somewhat predictable outcomes from following the right line. But when flows breach normal levels, it’s like an unpredictable shape-shifting siren is calling the shots below the waves. While you may still be able to read the water, the wild card factor is much higher. Hot on the heels of spring, here’s a collection of favorite high-water stories to get your juices flowing.

They Don’t Make Passengers Like They Used To
Grand Canyon of the Colorado River

Crystal Rapid, 1983. Archival photo courtesy of OARS Whitewater Rafting.

Perhaps the most classic high-water event of my lifetime, at least the most recounted around fires and over beers, is the Colorado River Grand Canyon floods of 1983. With the river running somewhere between 60-90,000 CFS, my favorite famed recitation is the story of Georgie White facing off against Crystal Rapid, as told by Louise Teal in her book, Breaking into the Current: Boatwomen of the Grand Canyon.

Terry Brian, a muscular, bearded OARS boatman and Park Service ranger at the time, was scouting the rapid when he saw the “old woman of the River, Georgie,” and the new Crystal meet each other for the first time. Terry said, “It was the first time this hydraulic jump [the hole] existed, period. It was steep, brand new, and just forming as we watched. That’s when we saw Georgie coming down; her other boats weren’t around. She saw what was happening downstream, reached down, and turned off her motor: then she got her hands into those wrist loops she had to hold on… and her rig went right into the wave. That wave broke over the top of her thirty-seven-foot rig and just shoved her down. And the boat sat there. And it surfed.”

His wife Nancy, a scientist who also rows, added, “It buckled and sprung back up, and when it did that, people and bags just flew. It did that three times, and the last time there wasn’t anything but Georgie left on the boat… we were watching 30 people going downstream. … And we had to run it next.”

…When they talked to her later, she uttered her now-infamous line: “Well I told them to hang on. They don’t make passengers like they used to.”

“No Name” Rapid Number Five
As told by Nicole Smedegaard, OARS raft guide

Crooked River, OR

The Crooked River in Bend, Oregon, at high water is rarer than Bigfoot sightings in the rafting world. Boaters carefully watch the reservoir fill during the winter and wait for the storms to align. In 2017, my friends and I were preparing for a rafting trip to Peru and so we were doing our best to get some big water experience in. We ran two rafts with stern frames and bow paddlers and made sure to bring the high float NRS PFDs. With driftwood logs floating by, the level was around 4,000 CFS, and each rapid got bigger and bigger as we crashed downstream.

We got out to scout number five “No Name,” the entire current sweeping down into a crashing hole with 13 feet of foam at the peak! I know the height of the pile because that’s how long my raft is. With guard rocks on the right shore and refracting laterals pushing all the brown water into this feature, we still hoped to break right and miss the meat of it.

I go second and the boat in front of me somehow hits dead center, climbs the wall of water perfectly straight, and endo flips backward, feet flying in the air. “Dig hard!” I yell to my paddlers and aim right, pushing downstream to aid in the rescue. We quarter the lateral, it surfs us center and I know we won’t miss the hole. “Everyone highside forward!” Whitewater hits me in the face and I see sky up at the bow of the boat, naively thinking “We’re gonna make it.” My paddlers fall backward, and the raft’s stern sweeps out from under me, the boat shooting up, flying through the air, and landing upside down.

I hang onto the perimeter line as the boat runs the rest of the long rapid, waterboarding me through hole after hole. I try to climb in on the tail waves, but the boat starts raking over lava rocks and kayakers swarm around yelling “Get away from the raft, rocks ahead!” I swim for shore and climb through the thorny bushes, watching my boat go around the corner downstream. I can see my boyfriend flipping his raft over and my friends have all made it to shore.

We run down the bank, climb six people into one raft, break an oar leaving the eddy fence, and paddle downstream hard to find that some lovely Australian kayakers have gotten my raft to shore and tied it up for me. Thanks whoever you were! That day we all joined the Crooked River Swim Team. It was the perfect ego bashing. It definitely prepared us for the next high-water adventure in Peru.

Last Descents
As told by David Kinker, River Stone raft guide
Maranon River, Chile

Unlike river pioneers of the past who chased first assents, nowadays, many a river lover is chasing a river before it’s lost to dams and environmental changes. We refer to these last descents with bittersweet nostalgia. One such endangered river is in Northern Peru. The largest tributary to the Amazon Basin, the Rio Marañón is the Grand Canyon of South America. A dry landscape with a neck breaking 9,000-foot view to the top of the canyon, or the Andes.

The reason for my trip in the early 2000s was to help the indigenous communities along the river communicate and plan together to fight international companies from drowning their villages and way of life. By being there and telling the story we hoped to help bring awareness of the threat to this valuable river and people living along the steep walls of the canyon.

We were expecting Grand Canyon level flows of approximately 20,000 CFS. We launched at 30,000+.

Day Four: 60,000 CFS. The river cross-section at the crux of the biggest rapid of the trip was hundreds of yards wide full of large to huge waves and holes, all running straight into a wall redirecting into unexpected shapes and mounds.

As I passed the first boat, caught in a low-pressure seam, the river swallowing it—a scene akin to a heron gulping a fish—I noticed the next raft didn’t make the long treacherous ferry. It ran into the wall breaking an oar but luckily not capsizing. Above the next wall and rapid, rafts in powerful compression eddies created a safety zone for kayakers to rescue swimmers, right the rafts and paddle them to safety. To do this, the kayakers had to first cross the most powerful eddy line I have ever seen, and fight against a current that wanted to slam them against the wall and into the sucking hurricane Room of Doom.

Four hours later, we were all back together on a beach downriver, many still white and recovering from near-drowning and an adrenal enhanced day. One of the takeaways of the day was we could have had more people on people, rather than just the few who rescued the swimmers. Perhaps more of us should have peeled away instead of nervously watching the rescue of equipment. In the end, it was a good opportunity for reviewing safety procedures and protocol. As river professionals, it gave us the chance to remember every river experience is training and we got to re-sharpen our skills in the chaos of a rescue.

O-dark-thirty Launch
As told by Elisha McArthur, raft guide and athlete ambassador
Verde River, AZ

One morning in late January of 2013 while scrolling through river gauges over coffee, I noticed a spike in rivers in Arizona. The storm system that continued to dump feet of snow on us in Colorado was also dumping rain on Arizona. We decided to run the Verde River, which was running at 1,600 CFS—its normal flow is more like 200 CFS.

We arrived at the put-in around 5:30 in the evening and began rigging as fast as we could in the dark. I wanted to camp at the put-in and launch in the morning but knew that wasn’t an option. The “No Camping” signs shot full of bullet holes and strewn with broken beer bottles made me ready to launch even if it was pitch black. After all, camp was only a half-mile downstream.

Choked with trees, braided and meandering the Verde is a veritable strainer corridor, even when not in flood stage.

Soon after launch, I heard what sounded like the biggest rapid ever, only bigger… My mind raced, thinking that even though there are no rapids in that first half mile, floods can change rivers drastically and quickly, that there is tree debris everywhere…

I called up to Alan who was out in front of me, “Babe! What’s that?” “I don’t know yet…” he replied sounding small, scared and far away. I watched as the little light that indicated his kayak disappeared over the horizon line.

Images of river wide trees flashed through my mind. My palms sweated against my oar grips as I entered the tongue of the rapid, fully committed. No eddies, only trees to either side as best my oars could feel, the only way forward was downstream. With every ounce of courage I could muster, I gritted my teeth and faced the mawing jaws of that cataract through the feel of my oars alone.

Once in the tail waves I could see Alan’s light on the left shore, he was eddied out. I pulled hard toward that welcome eddy.

Fast forward to morning. I took my coffee and wandered up the shore to investigate what had so terrified me the night before. Nothing more than a riffle. To be honest, you could hardly even call it a wave train. I mean, technically it qualifies as class 1. Hands down the single most terrifying rapid I have ever run in my life.

Coming of Age Carnage
As told by Chloe Burman, young gun paddler
South Fork of the American River, CA

Photo: Peter Day

Winter 2019 was a huge winter where I live in Lake Tahoe, California. We got 650 inches of snow—that’s almost 55 feet! And though the endless powder days were amazing, I couldn’t wait for spring so that I could get back to kayaking. I was 12 years old then and had already kayaked several big water rivers: the Grand Canyon, the Futaleufú, and the Ottawa. Not only were those rivers a blast, but big water seemed relatively safe, at least to me.

By the time school let out for the summer, my cousin Athan (16) and I had been begging to run the upper Class III section on the SF American, Chili Bar, for almost two months. And on one particular Saturday in June, my dad finally caved. Agreeing not only to let us go, but to let us go on our own.

That day the river had risen to 6,000+ CFS. To put that in perspective, the river is normally about 1,200-1,500 CFS and the cut off for commercial trips is 3,000 CFS. My parents tell stories of running the South Fork together at 20,000+ CFS in the 1990s.

The first several miles were super fun, until we got to “Trouble Maker,” the usually Class IV rapid. Like the rapids before it, it looked completely different than usual. Unlike the rapids before it, it had not magically become an awesome wave train. This rapid had become a monster. Earlier in the day we had talked about possibly portaging it and at least scouting it. But it came up on us fast, and the eddy where boaters often scout or portage was gone. There was nowhere to stop and make a new plan. We had to run it, sight unseen. None of our usual lines were there. Athan ran first. I ran close behind him. I watched him go upside down.

Before I knew it, I was swimming.

Unbeknownst to us, my dad hadn’t gone home after dropping us off at put-in. He was watching us from the road.

I immediately started self-rescuing. And to my relief, Athan had rolled up and was in his boat right next to me. Though we weren’t visible from the road, we quickly got ourselves and my boat out of the pummeling whitewater and into an eddy. We were safe. But I had lost my paddle and we had many more miles to go. We decided that since there were no more named rapids, we would continue downstream, me using Athan’s paddle and him hand paddling.

By the time we got to the take-out, my dad already knew we were okay, having caught several glimpses of us along the way. To our surprise, he even had my paddle! It too had safely made its way to the take-out eddy, though long ahead of us.

(Author’s note: For a longer version of the story check out Creekside Creators.)

Editor’s Note: Feature image courtesy of OARS Whitewater Rafting