We want you downstream for safety

Alzar School | 06.07.11

“Alright, rafters, you guys are going first. We want you downstream for safety.” The order was coming from the very top: our leaders of the day. Sitting in this eddy on the Cabarton Section of the NF Payette, I couldn’t help but feel a touch nervous. Forty yards downstream was a horizon line where the river dropped completely out of sight into Howard’s Plunge. A small crowd of spectators were picnicking on the rocks overlooking this class III drop, reminding us that the day before dozens of rafts had dropped the plunge with only half coming through upright.

“But what about us?” I thought. What if we flip? Who would be our safety? I guess somebody had to go first and we were the ones. My challenge here wasn’t to lead us through a successful line, but to put years of commercial guiding experience away. I had to act as a paddler and do exactly what Sam Nelson, Alzar student and raft guide-in-training, asked of me. And we peeled out of the eddy.

“All forward!” yelled Sam and the paddle crew cranked into action. From above, we couldn’t see anything of the rapid except the pool 15 feet below us. We had scouted the drop from the road six hours before-hand and knew that running the right side of the river would be a guaranteed flip and likely an introduction to whatever lies on the bottom of the river. Too far to the left and we might end up in a surging eddy along the left bank with no easy way out.

As we crept to the lip, the whole rapid opened up before our eyes. Sam gave a loud “Ohhhh yeahhh!” and confirmed what I thought: we were right on line. The next seconds were a whirlwind as we accelerated down a ramp and the entire raft disappeared beneath crashing waves. A diagonal wave nearly swept several paddlers overboard, but everyone held on. The raft resurfaced further left than planned, and we started drifting towards a cliff wall.

I knew the boat would flip off the wall if we didn’t do something about it, and I couldn’t hold back any longer. “High Side!!!! Get Left!!!! came belting out of my mouth and everyone responded immediately. All five warm bodies in the boat bolted to hold the downstream tube down and keep the boat upright. Moments later, we bounced around the corner into the pool below. It was all smiles in the raft as we watched each kayaker drop in behind us and assisted as needed. Many private rafts came through with more crowd-pleasing runs: swimmers, lost gear and flips. I guess the students have learned a thing or two on this trip. Everyone’s whitewater skills truly showed that day on the beautiful Payette River.

by Dan Thurber, Alzar School instructor