Saturday, August 25, 2012

Don't Underestimate the Snoqualmie River

We're paddling on the Snoqualmie today, our home river.  When we put in below the falls, it will take three hours to float to Fall City.  Three hours!  I like that.  If we walked the roads from one place to another, it might take an hour if we lounged at Lee's flowers on 202. 

--- Nine hours later---

Well, the Snoqualmie does not fail to amaze me.  Don't underestimate the Snoqualmie. 

At first, I felt like an old hand getting gear ready at our put-in.  I even talked to a Search and Rescue guy who liked my hat.  I'd taken up one of Mike's old hats, a Tilly.  This guy saw me as a river rat because of my hat.  Ha!  I believe I'm currently an ex-river-rat.  Experience fades.  I recognized this guy as a river rat because he had the dagger pinned to his life jacket. I had never advanced to that level.  We talked for a bit and he asked if I was with the group of Boy Scouts.  I told him we were and then noticed he had a throw bag in his raft. 

"We brought our throw bag too, but I hope neither of us have to use them today," I said.

"I use mine every time I'm on this river," he said.  "I'm always pulling somebody or other out of trouble."

"Wow, that's good of you," I said.  I had no real idea what his intentions were on the water.  I just assumed he was a serious paddler, but out to have fun.  Thankfully, that wasn't quite his story. 

"Have a safe float," he said as I walked away from him.

"Thank you," I said.  "We will!" I called back cheerfully. 

The upper part of the river was swift, but the water was low.  Mike and I spent our time shifting focus from the riffles ahead of us to counting the boys floating around us.  We had an even dozen and five adults.  We needed every single one of our adults, one in the lead, one in the rear and the rest of us moving between the riffles and the boys.  It was a challenge. 

Just before what we thought was the most challenging rapid in the river, we stopped on the right bank to scout it and gather everybody up.  I heard a boy say he was hungry, so I pulled out the dry bag I'd jammed with food at the last minute.  I had GoSqueeze apple sauce pouches, Peter Rabbit banana and strawberry pouches, corn nuts, carrot sticks, pumpkin seeds, old Cheetos, summer sausage, and a little bit of roast beef.  Those kids ate.  I actually felt good that I'd brought stuff they would eat.  Except for the pumpkin seeds and about half the bag of carrots, I was cleaned out.  The funny thing is that I like feeding these kids.  I really do.

We all went through the rapids without any trouble.  I was so excited to have my canoe in real rapids again, I shouted with joy when we were through.  People don't think much of a Class II rapid, but it's a challenge for most ordinary canoes.  Floating through on a raft or even an inner tube, you are less likely to run into difficulties.  Besides, this was the rapid that capsized us years ago.  Remember when I told you about that run, the one for which I hauled a canoe filled with water up onto shore after we went into the drink?  Did you remember that I was the reason we'd gone over that day?  I'd forgotten to brace as we tipped.  It was nice to run it smoothly.  It was just good to be in the water with our canoe again.

We met up at the bottom and I chatted with the boy in the bow of the other two-man canoe.  He was a novice paddler and he was excited too. 

After we'd gotten back into the water and gone around another bend, we saw a large group of people on river right ahead of us.  They were pulling their rafts and tubes out of the water en masse. 

"That's the strainer I told you about," Mike said.  "We need to get everybody off to the right to portage around it." Earlier, I'd been shuttling the truck, but Mike and the others had gone over the details of safe floating on the river before we began the float.  I heard the tail end of river position in case anyone fell out, sitting as if you're in a recliner, feet down stream so that you can bounce safely off of rocks.  I heard Mike ask if anyone knew what a strainer was.  I raised my hand.  One of the boys described it as debris under the water.   I always want to say that the strainer is a sieve and you are the spaghetti.  The water goes through, but you don't.  Mike went on to say that there was a strainer on the river and we were going to walk around it.  He wanted them to keep their eyes open. 

Well, this was the strainer.  We corralled the boys.  One boy was pulled toward the center of the river in his inner tube and had to stand up because the shallow current was still pretty strong.  It was dragging him toward the danger.  We stood waiting for the rest of our group.  Then, I noticed that the Search and Rescue guy was standing knee-deep in the water, life jacket on, with his throw bag in his hand.  While we watched, he threw a line to a woman who was swept into the strainer and clung to a stump, her raft collapsed against the main log. 

"This is why we didn't want to go through that," I said to Adrian, who happened to be standing next to me.  He just stood and stared.

Then, we noticed that one of the canoes in our group was on the far side of the river, headed straight toward the deep channel and that log strainer.  This was the boat with a small inexperienced Boy Scout in the front.  We yelled at them not to go there.  Our friend in the stern tried to turn the boat toward us, but the current had him and without any weight, power, or experience in the front of the boat, he was set in his path.  It would have taken quite an experienced paddler to back out of that problem.

I watched in horror as the canoe tipped just upstream of the logs and both of them spilled out.  They were lost in the wash for a second, but then I saw them between the stump and the canoe, the small boy held tightly in the arms of our friend.  They weren't out of danger yet.  The canoe could have filled with water and pinned them against the log.  They could still be sucked under the strainer together.  They clung to that stump. 

Another raft started to move toward where our two were struggling.  I grabbed hold of it and pulled it toward the right bank.  I have to tell you that I had an adrenaline rush and didn't quite know what to do with myself.  There were two people in this raft, a woman and a man.

"Get your fucking hands off my boat," the man yelled.

"Those are my boys out there and you're not going to pile up on them," I said.  I let go, but I pushed them a little further into the shallows as I did.  I was a little embarrassed.  I don't manage my adrenaline well, I have to tell you.

I saw our Search and Rescue guy throw the line.  It was short.  Mike got his throw bag as well and looked for an opening.  The Search and Rescue guy was quick and another throw hit its target.  Both our Boy Scout and our friend were pulled to the shallow water.  I don't believe I had remembered to breathe.  Tears of relief washed down my face as I watched them wade to shore.

I'm not sure that the other boys realized what could have happened, but I heard the boy who'd just been pulled to safety say, "I almost died in that.  There was a little branch and I grabbed it."  I hugged him and held on for a bit.  He didn't pull away.  I told him that now he has a story to tell, an amazing story.  He's going to need to tell that story. 

The canoe didn't come off the log jam as easily.  Thankfully, it was upside down with the main part of the current pounding its bottom.  If it had been belly up with the current pressing into the inside of the canoe, they would have struggled, even with a pulley system, to get it off.  Somehow, I started taking apart the collar I'd made for Teddy out of parachute cord. What on earth was I going to accomplish with that? It was only fourteen feet of line.  When I realized, I jammed it into my pocket and just watched.  The guys used the ropes from the throw bag and eventually pulled the canoe out.  It was barely scathed and since people were catching flotsam as it moved downstream, they only lost a spare paddle.  Mike said he'd be bringing his rope and pulleys from now on.  I turned and thanked our Search and Rescue guy. 

"I was a Boy Scout too," he said.  "I know what it's like." 

He was there, at the right place, doing the right thing.  He must have been a pretty good Boy Scout because he was still living that role. 

Thank you for listening, jb


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