All this snow has me thinking about rafting, of course. Many valley locals go through the ritual of applying for increasingly rare permits for multi-day river trips down magic waterways like the Grand Canyon, the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Salt, the San Juan, the Rogue, the Green River through the Gates of Lodore and Desolation Gray Canyons and the Yampah River.
These river trips are steeped in river lore ranging from the one-armed civil war veteran Major John Wesley Powell who mapped the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869 to fur trapper Denis Julien who carved an inscription on a sandstone rock on the Green River in 1836. I can only imagine the wonder these explorers felt as they rounded each curve revealing another edifice, side canyon, waterfall or terrifying rapid. Then there was Norm Nevilles who brought the first commercial clients to the San Juan and Colorado, solo boater Bus Hatch, writer, singer and actress Katie Lee, gonzo Cataract Canyon guide Georgie White and hundreds of other brave and sometimes foolish daredevils.
I used to think of myself as a modern-day adventurer, following the paths of these big names, finding a bit of magic in the same eddies, sandbars and abandoned meanders where the earliest white (and whitewater) boaters camped and lurked. When I started bobbing down Western rivers in the early 1990s it was easy to find solitude if I didn’t mind doing a little extra work. Permits were easy to get and even the race down to the best camps in Ruby/Horsethief on the Colorado River near the border of Colorado and Utah was a piece of cake if I put in on a weekday.
Like all good things in the West our success at growth has brought adult supervision and water diversions to all but the most remote places. Many of you have applied for these river permits and many have lost. Most of my friends who still invite me on their trips were snubbed by the permit process. There are just too many people with too much technology willing to pay a very high price for what we used to get for free.
I have floated the Colorado River near Grand Junction and heard the flapping of a butterfly in the still and silent air. I’ve done solo trips for over a week and even covered 375 river miles in 30 days without so much as a layover or a trip to the grocery store. Those days are gone and I’m happy just to do some day tripping on the Fraser, the Upper Colorado, the Crystal River and the Roaring Fork where no ranger is going to stop me unless I’m falling down drunk (not a good choice for whitewater).
I spent a couple of years as a guide for a pretty loosey-goosey outfit that will remain unnamed. It was hard to share my sacred places with people who were stumbling by the time they got off the bus or asked if we took the boat out at the same place we were launching. Even after getting a lot of people through some hairy situations it did not always occur to them that I was making 12 bucks an hour and maybe deserved a tip. Raft guides are some of the most capable, underpaid people in the service industry. Maybe you were one of my customers on the upper Colorado.
Raft guides are verifyably crazy and I had a few close calls in Gore Canyon on the Colorado and on the Roaring Fork where oar locks fell off or customers (customorons) refused to paddle, even in a class IV rapid. My boss once smacked a client on the back of his life jacket with his guide stick (paddle or die!). He once forgot to bring the bread for the sandwiches and was in such a hurry that he left the entire hungry posse behind in a race to the takeout. On our days off he took me down harrowing stretches of local rivers, many of which he had done as a first descent back in the day.
I’ve mellowed out since then but still go through the motions of applying for permitss. Imagine my surprise when I received notification that one of my applications had been successful. I was offered an opportunity to run the wild and scenic Selway River in north-central Idaho.
It could be argued that the Selway is one of the most exotic permits you can pull. It is a large tributary of the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River and in 1968 was officially listed by Congress as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act — something that would be impossible in this age of environmental exploitation.
So I have to go. Even though I have nothing left to prove I have to find a way to survive, nay relish this fierce, wild river. American Whitewater co-founder Oz Hawksley was the first to run the Selway and noted that it was “one of the most beautiful wilderness areas, with a navigable river, left in the U.S.” They still say that to this day.
My permit is for June 6. American Whitewater’s website says that, “snow melt in early June may make the river dangerously high.” Adding about the 27 miles below Moose Creek, “At high water this whole section can become one long section of continuous Class IV/V whitewater.”
According to Western Whitewater, standard rapid classification goes from Class I (moving water with small waves) to Class VI (extreme “un-runnable” rivers or waterfalls). Class IV (long, difficult rapids, narrow passages, turbulent water) is about my limit. I can run class V (large, complex, gushing rapids) with a good bit of luck, a professional guide to follow, someone holding my hand, a leprechaun on my shoulder whispering instructions and a guardian angel hovering above with a direct connection to God Almighty.
Hopefully I will not be able to find anyone else to go, giving me the excuse I need to blow it off while still bragging that I got the permit and was willing to run the gauntlet.
Steve Skinner will trade you for your San Juan permit. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.