Lochsa River Rafting, Bitterroot Mountains, Idaho

     Years ago when I got into whitewater rafting it all started on flat water and was a game of progression. It didn’t take long for me to learn about the Lochsa River in North Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains. Over the years I have watched hours of Memorial Day Madness videos to know what I would be getting into, carnage was a reality. In the beginning I had no desire to run the Lochsa, but eventually, over the years as the skills developed and with the acquisition of the proper craft it was meant to be. This is how, for myself, something of lore became a reality.

                  Friday, June 15th, 2018 – Lochsa River 5,250 cfs (3.3 feet) @ Lowell

     Cole and I got off work a bit early, since I was hauling my boat I was driving. After running home to load the gear and trailer I picked up Cole and we were on the road around 4:30. The drive was monotonous but eventually we reached Mark’s place in Kamiah, Idaho about 8pm. After unloading a few things we called in a couple of pizzas and enjoyed a beer. We chatted it up, talked about boats, looked at the gear, discussed rigging and safety scenarios and before we knew it, it was time to pick up the pizza. I drove into town a couple of miles to pick up the pizza before returning to the la hacienda were we had a few more beers and talked about river adventures over a few slices from the Pizza Factory. After dinner I lit the fire pit while we had a final beer and talked about the stars. Mark is quite the scholar on the topic of astronomy and schooled us for some time on the planets, constellations, and their meanings. Eventually though, the wood fired cedar log hot tub did come up to temp and we couldn’t resist the temptation of a dip. We all went in, it was damn nice after a long day at work and the long drive. Moments of relaxation are rare in my world, and to tell the truth I could hardly relax, the Lochsa River was waiting for me. Somewhere out there her waves were was building and breaking, just waiting for her opportunity to take a crack at me, I could feel it. I had never rowed a river like this before and tomorrow I would witness the biggest waves I had ever seen. Needless to say I hadn’t slept well all week as I constantly doubted my skills, doubted the craft. Would I make safe passage? There are real consequences on the Lochsa, people have died on her waters.

                 Saturday, June 16th, 2018 – Lochsa River 5,250 cfs (3.3 feet) @ Lowell

     We woke up early, but not too early, about 7am. As soon as we got up we started moving, and after a couple slices of Mark’s homemade banana bread and coffee we were on our way. We made a quick stop for gas in Kamiah before continuing up Highway 12 along the Clearwater River until we reached Lowell, aka Three Forks, and the confluence of the Lochsa and Selway Rivers. We pulled over at a small cafe just up the road where Mark ran in for a refill on his coffee. Rain began to fall, an inversion left a cloud layer halfway up the mountains, it was dark outside, the perfect setting for the unknown of a looming river. Mark exited the cafe with a thumb in the air with one hand and a warm cup of joe in the other, I was a fucking wreck. Mark hollered out “Next stop, Bimerick Creek!” I could hardly wait. I don’t remember much of the river along the way to the take out, I figured none of it mattered, either that or I must have been in shock. We reached the take out where we stacked my boat on top the the two Cramer rigs then transferred my gear from the truck to Marks van. I parked my truck then took a nervous piss before piling into the back seat of the River Machine where Cole slammed the door shut like a prison guard would a jail cell, I’ve reached the point of no return. As soon as the bars slammed shut I sprung to the window and wiped clean the fog on the glass of the slider so I could see the river. I watched every cubic foot roll by as we cruised up the river. “Next stop, The Falls!” Mark cheered like a tour guide, he was excited, whereas my heart sank. We stopped to scout Lochsa Falls, might as well have been Niagara for all I cared, I was trying like hell to take it all in, read the line, dissect the rapid, but at some point you have to say fuck it and go for it, so we did. “Next stop, Horsetail Falls!” as my door slammed shut. I thought to myself, Horsetail, doesn’t sound to bad. We pulled over, the river has a rock fence forcing one to enter far left then having to cut far right to avoid a couple of mean keeper holes just down stream, one of which Mark has seen rodeo more than a couple of boats. It didn’t take us too long to get a lay of the land, didn’t look too difficult I thought to myself. “Next Stop, Grim Reaper!” Mark got a kick out of the this shit. “Grim Reaper,” really, that sounds promising.  We continued up stream as the rapids slipped away, it didn’t take long to reach the “Grim Reaper” as Mark made mention is easy to find because its at mile marker 119, which when your read backwards is 911, thanks for that one Mr. Cramer. The ol reaper, now this one lives up to its name, I had seen a lot of rapids on the way up the Lochsa, but this son of a bitch is one where you don’t want to make a mistake. Mark showed us the line, you need to run just right of a hole at the entrance then slide left avoiding another hole before working slightly right to run a slip of green water before terminating in another green line down the middle of the second part of the rapid. The move looked tough, but doable, when running class 4 you just trust the guy when he runs class 6, hahaha. I was all in and trusted Mark and had no doubt in my mind that that was the line. Back in the van we continued up stream, this time I hollered out “Next stop, Wilderness Gateway.”

     With all the scouting out of the way we pulled into Wilderness Gateway Campground, I had stayed here before on a backpacking trip into the hot springs, but it’s got a different feel during the whitewater season, and it’s a good one.  We had hopes of hooking up with the Elwell’s and the Delaney’s, turns out Janice and Mike didn’t make the trip, but Nick and Meg did, along with Jeff Willetts. After coming up with a game plan we went separate ways with a decision to meet up in a couple of hours while Nick and Jeff rigged boats. After saying our goodbyes we continued on, upstream and eventually reached the put in at mile 129 referred to as “9 Mile.” We turned right off the highway and dropped into a quiet spot with its own privy, we had it all to ourselves. The rain was still coming down, so we donned dry suits in the “River Machine” before getting out of the van. We rigged the boats rather quickly and were on the water in maybe a half hour.  

     We were finally on the Lochsa with Mark out front, myself in the middle, and Cole running sweep. It didn’t take long for me to realize I had stepped it up a class as waves I would normally dodge I was forced to run. I learned really quick that I would have to square up to anything that required a hit and that even straight forward waves could quickly turn a boat sideways. I had to stay locked into the seat by bracing my legs against the footbar or top frame rail of my NRS cataraft frame, if caught off guard it wouldn’t take much to be thrown from my seat. I found myself constantly shifting my weight to the highside of the boat, this river is a full body workout. Things were going good as we breezed through County Corner, and Log Jam and several other unnamed rapids. Then came 10 Pin Alley, we all ran the correct line but I found myself too close to the haystack rock upon exiting the rapid forcing my boat into the eddy below the rock, no big deal, stayed the coarse and cleared a hidden hole at the bottom of the run. As we approached Wilderness Gateway, like clockwork, Elwell and Willets were waiting for us, we ran the shallow gravel bar river left turning our trio into a flotilla of five. Below Wilderness Gateway we eventually passed the Fish Creek put-in.

     On the Lochsa, unless your running the upper, this is where the real fun begins. I would be lying if I didn’t say I was a little spooked, Lochsa Falls was down there somewhere. The first set of rapids went well, I could feel every nerve in my body and my senses were overloaded but I was keeping it together. Somewhere below Otter Slide we eddied out river left and took a break, it felt nice to be on solid ground. We had packed a lunch but I couldn’t eat anything, too focused on what was down river. I’m sure I talked to to Nick and Jeff but mostly stayed in my own head, I was a wreck. I was on the outside looking in, everyone else was chatting it up and wearing smiles while I was busy tightening up my life jacket and chin strap of my helmet. Eventually we were back on the water.

     Continuing downstream we ran left at Morning Glory and House Waves, super fun rapids. Next came Bloody Mary and then the Grim Reaper. I was spooked, this was the rapid I had been advised to worry about, thank god I had Mark to follow. He entered the rapid and I stuck to his line and it was solid. I slipped just right of the entrance rock and hole then gave a couple forward strokes to clear the gnar on the right and the rest was history, fun run, hoot and holler the whole way through! We cruised through the next set of rapids including Cliffside, Shoestring, and Jones’s Wave. Then came Horsetail Falls, we all had good lines, ran far left, cut in behind the big rock and worked right to a clean line and wave train. Just ahead river right I could make out a porta potty and knew instantly where we were, Lochsa Falls. Everything slowed down, it felt like forever before Mark’s boat disappeared along with the horizon. Once he was gone I felt totally alone as I prepared myself for my fate. Entering the rapid leaves little room to adjust your line, it is what it is, all you have time for is a couple of forward strokes and you better have the right angle before bracing for impact. I ran a bit right of where most people run but thankfully stayed up right, Cole was running sweep and had a stellar line. With the falls out of the way I could honestly take a sigh of relief, I was soaring. Below the falls we cruised past the surfers at Pipeline, then Old Man and Termination. Alas, Split Creek! Another rapid I had heard rumors about. My brother Connor ran right through Car Crash Hole a couple years back and almost broke his legs. We ran a center left line which still caught your attention as everything is trying to push you into the right side of the river through Car Crash, and you don’t want anything to do with that beast. Below Split Creek we enjoyed a few smiles and good conversation as we cruised into the take out at Bimerick Creek.

     I was done, spent, it felt great to finally be able to let my guard down. The take out was busy as we got in line with everyone else. Meg was already there so we helped Nick and Jeff get their boats to the trailer. Eventually it was our turn as I pulled by truck down and we stacked our three boats and Mark made the comment “Run her again?” What! Nick laughed, I couldn’t believe it! I was done, deep down inside it was the last thing I wanted to do. Mark looked at me and said “Were here right now, we have the time, who knows when we will do this again.” Mark was right, and Cole was down, so what else do you do? “Let’s do it.” We ran back up to 9 Mile to get Marks van and made quick work of the shuttle.

     The second run went good, the river was surging, you could feel it, it was a bit more pushy than our first run. We put in at Fish Creek this time and made all the right moves, I was still a bit right at Lochsa Falls but stayed upright, Cole surfed Pipeline this time with a highside exit and Split Creek still felt weird. At Bimerick Creek for the second time, I was jacked, the sense of accomplishment felt awesome. Cole and I shared a beer, we could finally relax, all we had to do was get back to Kamiah. I was surprised out how well the second run went, I felt great and was so glad we did it. Back at Mark’s, Cole and I shared some celebratory whisky while we cooked dinner, what a day on the river. We capped it all off with some grilled steaks, and broccoli topped with mayonnaise for dinner before making our way outside for more stargazing in the cedar log hot tub. After the soak we were off to bed, exhausted. The Lochsa was on the rise, and we still had one more run ahead of us.

                        Sunday, June 17, 2018 – Lochsa River 7,500 cfs (4ft) @ Lowell

     The river was up from the previous day. I wasn’t as nervous as the day before but we still stopped to scout Lochsa Falls, and Grim Reaper. We dropped my truck off at Bimerick and continued to 9 Mile put-in. We quickly rigged boats and launched. I could tell right away this was a different river, just a step fast and a little bigger. We made quick work of the upper river and I was a lot happier with my run through 10 Pin Alley before eventually finding the Fish Creek put-in where we eddied out for a snack, this time I ate something.

     After lunch we launched from Fish Creek entering a more pool and drop Lochsa but with bigger rapids when compared to the upper river. We proceeded without incident until reaching Horsetail Falls. We all made the correct entrance river left but Cole, who was in front of me failed to work far enough to the right before heading downstream and was now being rodeod right in front of me. After laying witness to his predicament I made damn sure I got way right before proceeding down river. I quickly caught up to Cole’s boat as the river held him in a keeper hole leaving Cole oarless and high siding. Eventually Cole won and the river let his boat go, it all felt like an eternity but was over rather quickly. We laughed about it while Cole communicated downstream to his dad the “all good” pat on the helmet hand signal. Next up, Lochsa Falls. Knowing that my two previous lines were a bit right I wanted to be sure to run a tad more to the left, but not too left. I watched Mark slip away over the edge, then shortly after Cole. I set my line, made the drop, attempted a couple half ass forward strokes on the oars and met head on the meatiest wave Lochsa Falls had to offer! I felt like I had been thrown straight into a wall as my boat was consumed by an unstoppable force of nature that flipped my aluminum framed 14 foot cataraft like a pool toy. I entered the water and soon resurfaced a couple feet downstream of my boat which was upside down. I made two solid attempts grasping for safety lines but came up empty handed. I remained calm knowing I had two boaters below me to assist in rescue. I had never flipped a boat before so I wasn’t gonna play the hero and end up in worse trouble. Instead, I did what I had learned over the years and rolled over onto my back using my arms to ferry river right where I soon found a rock and pulled myself from the river. I sat for a second before scrambling up the boulder strewn river bank to the pavement above. I smiled then actually laughed a little knowing I was going to be ok as adrenaline coursed through my body. I could hear Cole, he was hollering for me and after a short walk of shame along the highway I found him at the river bank waiting for me. I scrambled back down to the river and jumped on the back of his boat where he then ferried me across the river to my boat that Mark had forced into an eddy for me. I quickly scrambled over to my upside down boat, grabbed the flip lines and reflipped the raft. It took me a couple of more minutes to gather my oars and collect my thoughts before shoving off. At first I really didn’t feel like being on the river after the flip, lots of thoughts raced through my mind and to be honest don’t even recall running the next couple rapids after the accident. Eventually I found myself back in the groove shrugging it off as a good and valuable learning experience. With Lochsa Falls far behind me we approached Split Creek Rapid, Mark had told us about a right side run so we decided to check it out. We entered the rapid and quickly crossed a line leaving the swift water for the calm water river right, it looked like it was gonna be a tight squeeze but doable. Mark ran lead and executed his move quite nicely, but by the way his boat bounced around in there I could tell it was a little more than straight forward. Next up was Cole, he initiated his drop, got chewed up and ejected as his boat sling shot across the river. Lastly it was my turn, I made a good move and the boat did the rest of the work except for a little highsiding of the downstream tube. Wow, what a fun run on a totally different river, what a difference a few cfs makes. The run was over, Cole and I were left pretty beat up after two days, both physically and mentally.

     The Lochsa is something else, it will definitely chew you up and spit you out if you let it. I walked away with a sore neck after dropping my boat on my head during the reflip and Cole had a sprained thumb from an oar trying to rip his hand off during his swim at Split Creek. We had a blast running 50 miles of the Lochsa in two days, I can easily see why so many people love this place. It felt good to finally check this one off my bucket list, needless to say, it felt like a real badge of honor. Jumping on a guides boat and running the Lochsa versus rowing your own boat are two different things, now all we had to do was get back home to Spokane. I’m definitely looking forward to running the Lochsa again, its a river that demands respect, and I will always treat her that way. For a video of our run down the Lochsa River please click the link. Lochsa River Video

 

 

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