Warm Springs is the biggest rapid on the river; a jumble of house-sized rocks that’d tumbled down off the rock walls, leaving fresh scars up above. At high water, the Class 4 rapid is scary with big holes and waves. The river races and crashes and turns back on itself as it gets constricted between the huge boulders. But at low water, the danger is different: It’s getting pinned on a rock without enough water to wash you and your boat over it.
Arriving at Warm Springs
On Day 4 we arrived at Warm Springs Rapid. We’d been scheduled to arrive the afternoon before. But the low water had put us behind schedule. We could have made it on Day 3 as scheduled, but it was already late in the day when we arrived at the last campsite before Warm Springs. Had we pushed on, we would’ve arrived at the rapid tired and with night fall nearing. What if we had a mishap at the rapids?
So, instead, we put Safety ahead of Following Rules; in this case, our permitted camping schedule. Besides, there weren’t any other boaters around who we could’ve inconvenienced. We stopped at Laddie Park to camp, about six miles upstream from Warm Springs.
Scouting the Rapid
You can hear Warm Springs Rapid before you see it. Even at low water, the roar of the rapids echos off of the cliffs.
We slowed down, bunched up and one-by-one pulled off the river above the rapid. We got out of our boats, tied their bow lines tightly to trees or to aluminum sand anchors we carried with us and hammered into the sand. Then we scrambled down the river to have a look.
It’s called Scouting The Rapid, and from all of the boaters over the years there was a path of sorts through the brush and over the rocks along the river’s edge.
Once the rapid was in full view, we stopped. We stared. We pointed and consulted. Everyone’s eyes scanned up river and down, following the strongest chutes of water in search of one clear path from top to bottom which would safely take us all the way through.
But choosing a path and getting your boat down that same path are two entirely different matters. We talked among ourselves, decided who was going in what order, and then one-by-one turned back to our boats, as others stayed behind on the rocks to watch.
Entering Warm Springs
John and I went first.
After a scout, and after white-water kayaking together for thirty years, he and I have a tradition before running a big rapid: we always stop for a second and look at each other before shoving off and ask the other: Can you spit? As long as the answer for both us is yes, that we can spit, then we’re not too scared to go.
It can be super tricky to find the entrance to one’s chosen path, or line, as it’s more commonly called. I have this idea in my head that I’m not very good at it. The rocks I’d picked out as my markers while I was on shore, always looked totally different at river level. I’d lose my scout’s eagle-eye view as soon as I dropped down into my kayak, flush with the level of the river. Instead of traffic signs, I just saw rocks and moving water. The actual rapids and chutes of water didn’t show themselves until I was upon them. I’d watched John in front of me, hoping to follow, but quickly he too had dropped out of sight and I was left on my own.
I’ve learned this much: Once you’re committed and shooting through a rapid, even if you’d decided while on the scout to go river-right around one particular boulder, you may very well find yourself going river-left. You’ve got to be flexible. And nimble. And skilled.
You’ve scored a “clean run” if you don’t get stuck on a rock, and you don’t get flipped, and ideally you don’t get turned around so that you’re heading backwards down any portion of the rapid. You’ve “hit your line” if you do all of the above AND you run it exactly as you’d planned while on your scout.
John hit his line, great paddler that he is. I, on the other hand, am pretty sure that I lost sight of any line I had hoped to be on. But, I couldn’t tell you that for sure.
I braced and leaned and paddled around the rocks and spill-overs and holes. I successfully followed the strongest chutes of water as they surged through the gaps in between rocks. But I did get spun backwards at one point. And quickly had to spin myself forwards. So, my run was not clean.
I didn’t get washed up high and dry upon a rock mid stream. I didn’t have to be rescued. I didn’t go for a swim.
I saw John again, right in front of me, as I cleared the last obstacle. We simultaneously pulled over at an eddy behind a rock at the bottom of the rapid and got in position to run rescue if needed.
But everyone had a safe run, if not necessarily all clean.
We are alive.
We are healthy.
We are adventurers.