Sandbagged on the South Fork Payette

Big Falls; Photo: American Whitewater


My boyfriend (let’s call him Mark) and I were paddling a sporty nine-foot raft down the South Fork of the Payette River in Idaho, and I was, shall I say, not too happy.

We had R2ed all over the US and had a pretty good system. To avoid any conflicts of control, he would call the paddle commands. I usually trusted him to call the right ones.

Despite Mark leading the charge, I have plenty of experience in whitewater. I guided on the Arkansas River in Colorado for five summers and a couple of summers in the Grand Canyon. Mark and I had R2ed creeky runs in the nine-footer and always had a blast. But this was different. This wasn’t what I signed up for.

Monica and ‘Mark’ R2’ing the Cheakamus River.

We’d done the Staircase section, featuring two Class IV rapids, the day before and had no problem. My kayaker friend Tom, who showed us the lines, said the Canyon section was “easier.” We should’ve known better as the only raft in a crowd of bright kayaks drew stares at the put-in for the Canyon. Our naivete would be further questioned when people asked us if we were really going to bring our dog.

Tom’s friend Carl would be accompanying us on the Canyon section. We’d met Carl the night before at a riverside campsite outside of Banks. Rafts and kayaks were strewn about the camp, as were the boaters who seemingly lived there.

Tom and Carl had just finished the iconic Class V South Fork of the Salmon a few days before. Tom had to work, but Carl said he’d show us the way down the Canyon since he was looking for a “rest day.”

Lower Half of Staircase; Photo: Thomas O’Keefe, American Whitewater

Mark and I woke early and crawled out of the back of the truck we’d been calling home for our month-long road trip through the Pacific Northwest. Soon Carl emerged from his Subaru, rubbing his eyes and yawning. He meandered over to share breakfast with us.

After packing up the coolers, a mountain bike and sleeping pads, we grabbed our still-damp green and blue neoprene off the makeshift drying line we’d rigged between towering pines. Our teeth chattering, we hopped in the truck to set the shuttle.

We began to realize at the put-in that we might be in for a little more than we’d bargained for. A sign listing the rapids and their classifications–mostly Class IV–alarmed us. Mark and I side-eyed each other; neither of us wanted to be the one to back out.

I had been picturing a relaxing little float with a couple of Class III rapids at most. After all, this was considered Carl’s rest day, so how bad could it be? Instead, a series of Class IV rapids with little flatwater in between plus a precarious portage around a highly unrecommended Class VI rapid, dog and all, was on the itinerary.

We dropped into the canyon, dodging commercial rafts and ignoring the stares from local kayakers as they lounged in eddies and riverside hot springs. We floated by in our bright green bath toy, my teeth grinding with nerves and anger already.

As we progressed through the canyon, narrowly avoiding hydraulics and Carl’s far-too-casual beta, I became more bitter about our situation. This was not what I had in mind, and while our R2 system usually works well, on occasion I have vetoed Mark’s paddle commands and gone rogue. This trip was one of those times.

We plunged into huge waves and hydraulics where we didn’t have enough momentum to punch through. While the little green boat is great for creeking and making quick maneuvers, it loses momentum just as quickly as it gains.

By the fourth rapid, I’d had enough. “You have to call strokes!” I said heatedly. “We’re not going to make it through these!” Mark muttered something I couldn’t hear.

Photo: Thomas O’Keefe, American Whitewater

After some harrowing moves and more than one high side, we reached Big Falls, the class VI. We watched as kayakers and duckiers lightly picked their way along the rocky, narrow path. Commercial trips were unloading their passengers so they could line their rafts through.

Just looking at the damn rapid was enough to raise my heart rate. Keeper holes everywhere, huge drops, sieves. A nightmare.

Our raft, while tiny, was a bit wide for the portage, which resulted in a lot of dragging and turning it sideways to pass between trees and rocks. We kept having to get off the trail to let other kayakers and IKers pass, some of them taking second looks at our raft and dog.

We sat and silently stared at the rapid from below, regretting not lining our raft like the outfitters given the rather scrambly nature of the path back down to the water. Kayakers were making the descent a seal launch, but that wasn’t possible for us. Mark clambered down carefully, and I lowered the raft to him using the bowline; the commercial guides watched from their perches on rocky columns.

Big Falls; Photo: Thomas O’Keefe, American Whitewater

Missy was a little trickier. She howled as I nudged her toward the edge, drawing even more judgmental stares. I grabbed her by the handle of her PFD and lowered her, grunting as I tried to lift all of her 90 pounds. We goaded her back into the raft and took our seats.

I was shaking and my hands were numb with nerves as I knew our trickiest rapid was ahead. Carl, just downstream of us, must have seen my pale face and noticed how tightly I gripped my paddle. He bobbed lazily, barely using paddle strokes. He gestured at the canyon walls and said, “Remember to look up and enjoy the view.”

I nodded but internally thought Carl was a real asshole.

We’d scouted Little Falls from the road while setting shuttle, and we planned to essentially boof off the ledge into the pool below. We’d even practiced on the scarce flatwater between rapids.

My heart racing, the lead-in to Little Falls came too quickly. The water moved faster and faster and the drop drew closer.

“One! Two! Three!” Mark shouted.

I drove the paddle blade in with all my might and threw my hips forward, watching out of my peripherals as Mark did the same. And everything went dark.

Little Falls; Photo: Thomas O’Keefe, American Whitewater

I had fallen out. I tried to come up and get air but felt a furry belly on top of my head. Missy had fallen out too. I pushed out from underneath her and came up looking around wildly. Luckily, we weren’t too far from the raft. Missy had already started to swim back to it. I grabbed the handle on Missy’s CFD and handed her to Mark. He pulled her in while I heaved myself most of the way back into the raft.

There was a long runout after Little Falls, and Mark and I sat silently, our paddles in our laps. Somehow, after all my nerves and anger during the whole run, I was completely calm.

Mark asked, “Are you ok?”

I grinned and said, “This is awesome.”

Finally, I was able to appreciate the towering canyon walls and the clear water. I smelled the sweet pine and enjoyed the sun on my face. I marveled at the riverside hot springs, how trout darted in and out of shadows. I hooted my way through the rest of the rapids, unconcerned. Carl smiled and continued his lazy journey down the Class IV whitewater.

Photo: Thomas O’Keefe, American Whitewater

The run finished; we hauled the little green boat up a grassy hillside to the truck. Carl ran back down to help us after he’d dropped his kayak at the top.

Carl and Mark ran the shuttle while I sat at the takeout sipping a lukewarm beer and chatting with other boaters. Most were astonished we’d taken the tiny raft and a dog through the section. I could only agree and said we’d been duped by cocky kayakers.

Later, we celebrated our, sort of, successful journey down the Payette over sandwiches and beers at the Banks Cafe. Missy, usually quite the socialite, splayed horizontally in the middle of the restaurant, fast asleep.

I’ve found when you make a mistake on a river, there’s always a lesson to be learned, and in this case, Carl had it right. Remember to look up and enjoy the view.