On August 3rd, 2019, eleven friends and I launched on a multi-day, multi-river trip in Idaho. We spent two nights on the Snake River through Hells Canyon, then shuttled everything over "the hump" to the lower section of the Salmon River for four nights (trip report here). This was a trip that was planned over six months ahead of time, and it was worth every drop of blood, sweat, and tears that I shed to make it happen.
The trip contains four class IV rapids and numerous class III rapids in roughly seven days-worth of paddling. This area hold a special place in my heart because it was first place I attempted to stand up paddleboard class IV rapids back in 2015. My goal since I started this weird sport in 2012 was to be able to paddle class IV rapids on my feet--consistently and with style! When I reach my goal, then I'll retire... ;)
In 2015, I remember only attempting two of the class IV rapids on my SUP and opting to ride the raft through the other two class IV's. I remember being nervous about some class III rapids and swimming through quite a bit of the whitewater. However, it made me a better paddler. It is an amazing place to practice big water skills because the water is deep and there are a lot of rapids, plus the technical rapids are pretty forgiving. Most of the difficult rapids on this stretch require a clean entry to avoid the gnar gnar, then they contain either a big hole or giant waves at the bottom of the rapid, followed by a big, nice eddy at the end (often called "pool-drop"). That means as a paddleboarder, as long as you enter clean and set yourself up to avoid the sketch stuff at the bottom, it's only a matter of whether or not you can stick it though the waves, boils, and eddies. And if you don't make it through standing, you can recover relatively easily when the rapid is over.
My goal for this trip was to paddle board all of the class IV rapids (and see if I could clean any of them!) It was also really fun to have my boyfriend, Brad, and a friend I met via Instagram, Jayme, paddleboarding on this trip with me. It was a really cool experience to be able to hook them up with their first ever multi-day river trip and help coach them as they developed their paddle skills throughout this trip. Both Brad and Jayme are in their first year of river SUP, and they were both stoked on paddling through the rapids and seeing how much gnar they could clean.
This trip was also pretty special because we were able to get almost every person in the group to try paddleboarding on the river. We all took turns getting our rafting friends on the boards and letting them experience this amazing sport for the first time. It's super rewarding to give people this experience, and it's probably equally rewarding to share my passion with people as it is to just get stoked on paddling my own stuff.
I think whitewater paddleboarding is as much of a mental game as it is a physical game. I can absolutely tell a difference in the way I paddle depending on my confidence level. I know I paddle so much better when I have crowd of people watching me (I think it comes from years of being an equestrian performer). However, I've noticed while paddling on these rural rivers, my mental game is completely different. Often times, I don't get to practice the run. I don't get to see the features up close, and more often than not, because rapids decrease in elevation, it means I don't even get to see the features until I'm literally paddling in them.
I'll save you the suspense and let you know that, unfortunately, I didn't clean any class IV's this time. Although now I have a few clean runs of class IV's under my belt on other rivers, I am not at the level of consistently cleaning IV's that I strive for. However, I progressed further in the rapids than I did before and I consistently cleaned the class III's. I'm only stating this for myself to monitor how I'm doing in my goal of the level of paddleboarder I want to be--NOT to compare myself to other paddlers.
I believe that in order to level up, I need to become more confident with class IV rapids mentally. My demise in the majority of the rapids I fell off in was because I either pushed too hard to avoid the gnar and ended up hitting eddy lines that caused my board to stop my momentum (imagine hitting a wall while paddling as hard as you can), or I saw the features and got a little bit freaked out on whether or not I could stand through them. If I want to clean those rapids, I need to get more comfortable getting close to big features and managing my board in the current right next to them, rather than paddling like crazy to stay as far away as possible and screwing myself over in the boils.
Hells Canyon Trip Report
Dates: August 3rd - 5th, 2019
Water Level: 12,500 - 16,300 CFS.
Distance: Hells Canyon Dam to Pittsburg Landing (32 miles)
Board: Hala Atcha 86
Day 1 of Hells Canyon (10 miles)
A permit is required for this section of river. If you are interested in applying, you must go to this link between January and February each year and enter the lottery. May the odds be ever in your favor.
On August 2nd, we camped at Copperfield Park, which is just down the street from our shuttle and river resource, Scotty's Outdoor Supply. Early August 3rd, we paid for our shuttles at Scotty's, then got rigged up and launched from Hells Canyon Dam at around 9:30 AM.
Approximately five miles downstream of the boat ramp is Wild Sheep Rapid, which is the first class IV and arguably the most technical water in Hells Canyon. I remembered scouting Wild Sheep in 2015 and thinking that it didn't seem too hard (in the sense that it didn't seem too hard to swim after I fell off the SUP), but this time, I was there to clean it.
The rafter in this video took the same line that I did in Wild Sheep. I figured I'd post a video of what the rapid is like (and what you see when you scout it), since my GoPro footage doesn't do justice in filming the actual features of the river.
I was feeling pretty good about Wild Sheep Rapid. I cleaned everything, right until that very last wave, which is pretty unavoidable. I lined up and looked up at the face of the wave and just started laughing because it was over 15 feet high! It looked soo much smaller from where we scouted... Anyway, I dug down and paddled hard up the face of the wave and as soon as I hit the peak with my board, it felt like someone grabbed the nose of my board and flipped me off backwards. There was a decently strong headwind that day, and I suspect that the wind caught the underside of my board once I hit the peak of the wave. In hindsight, I should have placed a paddle stroke on the other side of the peak to prevent myself from falling backwards like I did.
About two miles downstream from Wild Sheep is the second class IV rapid: Granite Rapid. I was feeling pretty stoked after Wild Sheep and figured that I could skip the scout for this one since it was a short rapid. I read the beta on the map, which stated that there were powerful hydraulics and the line was left of the massive hole in the center of the river. The rafters on the trip had done Hells several times before and were comfortable with proceeding through without scouting.
In 2015, I remember scouting this rapid and getting nervous and hopping in the raft, then immediately regretting it as soon as we navigated it in the raft. I figured I would just give it a go and follow the raft's line.
I set up between two rafts. The rapid had such a big drop that all I could see was the river disappearing in the horizon line, with a few sprays of water occasionally bubbling up above the horizon. I could hear the massive roar from the hydraulics. I watched the first raft descend into the rapid, just left of the center of the river. I started to paddle hard to get some momentum to hopefully clean it, and then I saw that raft flip... Fear set in, but figured I didn't have a choice at that point and just charged it a little bit left of where I saw the raft go.
Once I was close enough to see over the horizon line, all I could see was boiling whitewater encompassing the entire width of the river. I couldn't see a definitive line, especially one that didn't involve paddling through a hole. I tried to look past the circulating holes to see if there was a line of current I should aim for, but time was ticking.
So, I decided to skirt-skirt the rapid far, far left. Trust me, the center hole was big and didn't look like a fun swim. So I shot for a smaller, less scary-looking hole on the left side and ended up flipping in that instead. Next time...
Now that I'm watching the rapid from the computer... I see the line I should have taken. I also see that the hole that I initially saw isn't as retentive as I initially thought when I saw it from my SUP... I was pretty convinced it was a nasty hole because I watched the raft flip in it right before me. It's funny how adrenaline can make you see features differently, but alas, it makes for a great story!
We camped at Upper Dry Gulch, which is about 10 miles below the put-in. It was a beautiful campsite. If you camp here, make sure you account for the dam release changes! We woke up to our rafts completely beached on the cobblestones because the river level fell quite a bit. This section of the Snake River is similar to the Grand Canyon in the sense that the river level fluctuates daily, so there's a definite "high-tide" and "low-tide".
Day 2 of Hells Canyon (17 miles)
There are two class III's right from the get-go: Upper and Lower Bernard Creek Rapid. About a mile below those rapids lie the third class IV, Waterspout Rapid. We scouted the rapid and it seemed pretty straightforward. Jayme decided she was going to stand up paddleboard Waterspout as well! We entered the rapid from the right side and pushed toward the left to thread the gap between two features. We both got a little bit worked in one of the lateral waves that was reflecting off of the rocks on the right side, but at least we didn't get sucked into the massive hole on the left side at the bottom of the rapid! Honestly, I am a little bit bummed that I didn't do better in this one. When I look back on my GoPro footage, it's pretty clear that I didn't paddle it well because I was a little bit too gripped and nervous. It's one of those rapids that I know I could totally clean, it's just so hard to get it when my chance comes once every four years!
That evening we camped at the last campsite of the five sites at Kirkwood Ranch. The site itself was beautiful and there was a bathroom and picnic tables. LUXURY! Five star luxury river resort, with the exception of our nightly visitor...
Temperatures were in the mid-90's each day, so we all slept under the stars every night. At that campsite, Brad, Jayme, and I woke up to a skunk that was chilling less than five feet away from our heads. We had to relocate our sleeping bags twice because the skunk kept coming over to where we were sleeping. Thankfully no one got sprayed! We started calling Jayme "Snow White" because the animals were always coming to her sleeping spot each night. She's a bad ass and embraced the wildlife.
Day 3 of Hells Canyon (5 miles)
We woke up early so that we could take out and shuttle to the Lower Salmon River in a timely manner. I let other members of the group paddle my board the entire day since there were a lot of class II's for people to have fun paddling in. We reached Pittsburg Landing around 9:30 AM and got to work on partially derigging and loading our rafts and SUPs on a trailer. We all got in our cars and drove for about an hour and a half over a mountain to the little town of White Bird, which is where the put-in for the Lower Salmon River is located.
We had five people in the group go home after paddling the Hells Canyon section, and my dad joined us for the Lower Salmon section.
The Lower Salmon River has a lot of fun rapids and beautiful, crystal clear water. Check out my next blog post for the trip report!