Rapid Redemption: Returning to the Scene of Carnage


Cashing in on redemption is an aspect of whitewater that motivates me greatly, especially now that I mostly raft, rather than paddleboard or kayak. Earlier in my boating career, many rapids challenged me and my smaller vessels. Now I smash through those same rapids in my 14-footer with reckless abandon. Yet some, like Wreck Rapid (class III) on the Lower Deschutes River, a hometown multi-day I hit annually, will always remind me of how far I’ve come as a paddler.

Wreck Rapid from above.

Once upon a time, I was misguided into thinking I wanted to be a whitewater kayaker. I shadowed every course the kayak shop I worked for offered, week after week, season after season.

Doe-eyed and in over my head, I couldn’t help but like how tightly my legs fit into the cockpit, and when I sealed my skirt around the lip, it made me feel like a mermaid. That alone kept me coming back. Over time I became a solid class III boater, rarely swimming even though I never really dialed in my roll.

Enter Wreck rapid. The nature of the rapid is a gnarly seam that folds into a drop with a tight channelized runout. Wreck was the first class III I attempted as a kayaker. As I approached the drop, I nearly blacked out from fear.  I felt unstable as soon as I hit the whitewater. My cockpit teetered at 90 degrees sideways, I anticipated an impending flip. So, I threw my paddle, pulled my skirt, and leaped out of the boat all before ever going underwater. I call this the dry exit.

Though I was able to grab my kayak like a kickboard and swim it to shore for a tidy self-rescue, my instructors never let me live that down. The shame haunts me to this day.

The second and last time I ran Wreck in a kayak, I made it through the meat and flipped on the significantly demarcated eddyline adjacent to the runout, at the very bottom of the rapid. While I am hesitant to call it redemption, I give myself half a point for not pulling my skirt before I flipped.

Although I haven’t made it back to Wreck for a kayak redemption run, at this point I have run it many times on a raft with success. I like to enter on the top right, where the drop-in is more pronounced, like a beaver tail slide. The crest of the descent kicks like a gentle guide catapult and it feels exhilarating (in an approaching 40, cheap thrills, mediocre sort of way).

With a mild lackluster class III conquered on a rapid meaningless to anyone but me, I wondered if others had such tales of rapid redemption. So, I did what any other writer of this millennia would do: I posted on Instagram. Out of the cauldron of whitewater reflection—and my DMs—I comprised this inspiring collection for your enjoyment.

Narrows, Big Laurel Creek
As told by Sunny Montgomery.

The Big Laurel in Western North Carolina is a steep, boulder-strewn creek. I was nervous from the moment I put my canoe in the water, doubting my ability to master my first Class III/IV creek.

It wasn’t long before my skills were tested. As the canyon walls rose, the creek constricted into long, swirly stretches of whitewater. At the top of one particularly gnarly looking rapid, my more experienced friend turned and said, “Follow my line. Be aggressive and avoid the hole at the bottom.”

I tried. But my strokes were poorly timed, and the current pulled me in the wrong direction. I was bounding straight for that endless churn of recirculating water, and it was too late to correct. My boat smacked the hole and stuck like an insect to a spiderweb. I furiously stabbed the froth, desperate to free myself.

As water poured into my boat, I knew only two things: the rapid’s power and my heart’s beat. I made it out by the skin of my teeth. I returned six months later and ran the Big Laurel with clean lines from top to bottom.

Photo: Paul Parsons

Dragon’s Tooth Rapid, Deerfield River
As told by Kelsey King.

While I’ve been whitewater kayaking for five years, some days my anxiety can get so bad I feel like it’s my first time. My regular run is the class IV Dryway section of the Deerfield River in Massachusetts. At this point, I’ve swam almost every rapid on that stretch. It was my own fault for sending it down a class IV run without a solid combat roll.

Each swim left me defeated and wondering whether I should take a step back from paddling, at least on more challenging rivers. But my love for kayaking pushed me in the opposite direction. I worked hard to improve my roll so that it was reliable, and I bought a boat with more volume to help me get through those sticky spots. But no matter how many times I successfully run the Dryway, the pit in my stomach doesn’t leave.

At the top of the run, and at the top of each rapid, those butterflies haven’t stopped wreaking havoc in my stomach. The nervous flutters always peak when approaching Dragon’s Tooth Rapid, the nastiest rapid of the run. The first time I flipped in Dragon’s Tooth and rolled up on the other side of the chaos, I felt so ecstatic that I can hardly put that feeling into words. And since then, with the help of a solid support crew, and a mantra running through my head that I can do it, I’ve been able to push through that rapid, feeling like a million bucks on the other side.

Dubendorf Rapid, Colorado River
As told by Karen Chethik.

A live-action of this rapid redemption would have been a candidate for Video of the Century. Unfortunately, no recording was made…

I approached with standard Dubendorf low water beta in mind: left-to-right, “don’t stop pulling, don’t lose angle.”

I made the entrance and cut out of the current fine. Then my woefully underloaded 15-footer got snarky on me. It completely ignored my strokes and started making a b-line back into the current.

Reassessing, I thought I saw a slot on the left side of table rock. I took a couple of push strokes in that direction, just enough to set me up perfectly to hit table rock dead sideways.

Of course, veteran that I am, I ‘anticipate’ my high side, but just a bit too early. I broadside table rock, lose my balance and the boat tosses me out on the upstream side. A classic dump truck. Except, as I was flying out, my bikini bottoms caught on the now oarless oarlock and stopped my fall. No shit! There I was… feet in the air, head in the river, hanging upside down, outside of a right-side-up raft. I could hear snickering underwater. Yeah, the boat did just fine through the rest of the rapid…

I think it took all of two seconds (but seemed a lot longer) to somersault myself off the oarlock into the river and drift into Stone Creek beach behind my raft.

Three 33-foot commercial motor rigs were also parked at Stone Creek, with their 40 some odd passengers returning from the falls. One of their customers comes stumbling down a rock pile and runs up to me breathless. “Was that you?”

I smiled, “Yes, unfortunately.”

He says, “I been going on river trips for 15-20 years and that’s the best carnage I have ever seen!  Can I shake your hand?”

I’ve been back many times since, exercised the nerve demons and run clean lines. Actually, now my go-to route is a tricky line few use.

Crystal Rapid, Colorado River
As told by Kaya Pungello.

My first trip down the Grand Canyon I didn’t know what I was getting into. None of us did. Most of us were rookie river guides who had put in fewer than three seasons on a relatively mellow day trip section in Western North Carolina in paddle boats. Then one of us drew The permit and for a year we prepared, learning how to row on the Lower Gauley and how to raft camp on the San Juan.

Our trip was not without carnage. Personally, I swam 10 times, from oar boats, paddle boats, and kayaks. I swam Crystal, Bedrock, and Lava, although I was only at the oars for Crystal. I remember every detail of my swim at Crystal. Entering a bit too far left, the hole grabbed my tube and dumped me out. Miraculously, the other guide in my boat climbed to the high side and got on the oars and started rowing after me!

In October 2020, I drew a cancellation permit for a 2021 launch date, almost exactly four years and one month later. I would be returning as an experienced multi-day guide with commercial trips logged on the Deschutes, Rogue, and Lower Salmon.

I assembled a crew, half of whom were also experienced multi-day guides. We knew before launching that, due to dam and beach maintenance, we would experience flows ranging from 4000 CFS at launch to an incredible 22000 CFS. We could feel the river become more powerful with each passing day until finally we camped just downstream of Phantom Ranch and mentally prepared for the massive rapids that lay downstream. Spoiler: Despite the wicked high flows, I got redemption at Crystal with a clean line.

Big Kahuna, Nantahala River
As told by Gage Tucker.

My story of rapid redemption comes from the Nantahala River Cascades in North Carolina, specifically the rapid Big Kahuna. Big Kahuna starts with a long, fast slide full of large holes, and it ends with a 10-foot drop into a very shallow pool.

On my first lap, in an attempt to dodge one of the munchy holes on the slide, I misjudged my angle, which sent me directly into the left wall. I managed to roll up immediately, but it was too late to correct my direction. The river sent me off the drop backwards and flushed me through the hole at the bottom, before catching an eddy to get a breath.

I completed the rest of the run with no more major errors, and I stood at the takeout grateful to have made it. Shouldering my boat, I hiked my shuttle (uphill) about a ½ mile back to the put-in for my second lap. I put on again, this time knowing what was directly downstream of me. There are few eddies on the Cascades, especially at higher flows.

I caught the eddy above Big Kahuna and took a couple breaths to steady myself before leaning into the current. As I was coming to my previous flip spot, my boat had a better angle that carried me past the wall and toward the drop. A massive right stroke gave me speed coming off the ledge, and I was rewarded with one of the best skips of my life.

It was an incredible feeling looking at the rapid from the bottom, and it filled me with the confidence I needed to get a few more laps in that day!

Corkscrew Rapid, Chattooga River
As told by Becca Ploener.

My story takes place on the Chattooga River, Five Falls (section 4), in South Carolina and Georgia. My first time down that river was the day after I (unknowingly) dislocated my shoulder. I was lucky enough to have friends who wanted to R2 section 4 and let me ride along in the raft. During Corkscrew Rapid, class IV, we flipped the raft and I landed on a rock in the middle of the rapid.

There I sat, in the middle of a class IV rapid about to jump back into the whitewater to swim to safety—dislocated shoulder and all! Our boat almost went through a crack, but we got the boat and ourselves out safely.

Two years later, I returned to Corkscrew in a kayak. Even with five years of experience, I was so anxious about the Five Falls stretch I cried—a few times. I knew I was capable, and I had run harder things, so I built up the courage to run every rapid in Five Falls. I crushed it, especially Corkscrew Rapid.

Fast forward two weeks and I ran it all again. During Corkscrew, I went directly over the hole I was trying to avoid. While it wasn’t the line I was aiming for, I committed to it and had the most epic boof of my life! I timed my stroke so well that I launched over the hole and the whole crowd cheered at the bottom. The next, I was anxious for some reason and decided to sneak most of the Five Falls. But when I returned for the fourth time, I had my most in-control line through Corkscrew. Through all the different trials, I held on to my self-compassion. It’s okay to walk stuff, even if I’ve run it before and run it well.