Monday, January 17, 2011

My Worst Swim Yet (Mel's @ 2.5m)

Well it was January 16th, my 6 month anniversary since I first took Kay's course at Purple Hayes, and The Chilliwack River was almost in flood at 2.5 meters or just over 140 cubic meters per second of flow. This compared to the normal 1.2 meters I navigated it at to this point which equated to about 70 meters per second. My high water at the time was 1.5 meters or 85 meters per second. This makes a HUGE difference.

The original plan was to run The Chehalis and Statlu Creek in high water, but no one else was up for this, and chances were it would be in flood, same with our backup plans (Coquihalla, Frosst Creek)...Coquitlam, another idea, looked like it'd be too low after a spike (dam controlled). I still wanted to hit up Chehalis (me wanting to do things other people consider unsafe has seemed a recurring theme since I started boating...within some reason, some chalk this up to me not yet having a bad experience in my kayaking career), but at that point only myself and Merick even had any interest so we called it off.

Merick picked up Dave from Langley and they joined me at my place at the base of The Chilliwack River Valley. Our plan we were still thinking of was Frosst Creek or the classic run, I had a feeling to be a bit more on edge and gave Ryan a shout. Turns out a group of very good boaters was heading up to the canyon to do a high water canyon run...after missing out on the mid-December high water run I'd been itching for a month or so to get in on that kind of action. I told Merick and Dave about my thought and they agreed to follow me up and decide their fate at that time.

We got to Slesse boof (the canyon takeout) and the water was high, higher than I'd ever seen it. We looked at Slesse Creek, and the surrounding river and it looked gnarly for sure. The Abbotsford and beyond crew showed up and got changed, I agreed to get in on the run, Ryan was going in The Villain S and I would take The Pyranha Burn 2010 M (both boats courtesy of Western Canoe and Kayak) since I couldn't get comfortable and didn't like the Jackson. We headed to the put-in and my heart was racing more than it had ever been before. I knew this run would push my limit, but I also knew that I was on a good run and had been good with my roll and staying in my boat no matter what over the last couple months. There was also the fact that a road ran along the right side of the river so if I really wasn't feeling it I could always get out. Dave and Merick made the wise decision not to go for the plunge, and again I was in my usual spot as the least skilled, least experienced boater on a run that would push my limits.

We headed down the river, I felt confident, on my game, I loved the feel of the Burn off the bat, though slightly less, only slightly than The Pure. I was hitting holes and trying to get in the action on the easier early part of the run. The water felt big, but not too big, it felt like I could handle it without too much difficulty, if the odd time when I felt off balance more than usual, this is possibly because of the boat, which is edgier than most creek boats I've paddled, but overall I felt pretty sure of myself and my abilities.

Lots of the usual features were heavily washed out, especially noticeable at cocaine (double-whammy) and Carousel which were mostly flat followed by huge wave trains, but well placed strokes allowed you to land flat, and the real challenge was avoiding the odd huge hole. I probably didn't make the best decision eddying out above the headwall of gunbarrell (shotgun) on river left just before the restricting headwall which actually had water rushing over the right side of it, but my feet were dead, I couldn't feel them, I needed to adjust.

The guys thought something was wrong as no one heard me saying I was eddying out or why over the volume of the water. Ryan was out of his boat and up on the bank, river right of the rapid and motioned that I'd need to ferry far right to get around the feature. Once I saw him in his boat eddied out, and got clear direction I ferried over, making the move I needed without difficulty, this I found was made easier by the boat I was in, which surfed me over to where I needed to be leading to me feeling even better that day.

We were eddied out above Mel's where I had to stretch my legs, still not fully comfortable in the boat. Laura was debating portaging Mel's, but myself and the peer pressure from the rest of the group I think convinced her she'd be fine, I never even questioned it for myself, in hindsight not the best judgement. We discussed the line, this was definately looking like the most challenging part of the run so far, which makes sense since Mel's seems to be the pinnacle or apex of the canyon run, things get easier afterwards and less dangerous.

Before Mel's is a drop called pinball 2, which normally drops into a headwall on river right and at normal levels forms a stream that will squirrel you around to an eddy on river right directly above Mel's drop or is easily avoided altogether by going left of it. Today that was not the case. The headwall looked like something to avoid, though with generally the same principal as before if you played it right, there were a few holes prior to that point, and a zippering seam of an eddy line parrallel to the current just off the wall following the headwall that would not be pleasant to go into. Basically you wanted (this was my plan at least and seemed to be Ryan's as well since I followed him in) to ferry in, head between the holes using the hole on the left to ferry you over so you'd go left of the eddy line (otherwise the current pushed you right into it or the headwall), then head right to avoid Mel's hole. This is where I would go off line for the first time that day.

Ryan headed into the current, followed by Laura who promptly got flushed back into the eddy, then myself. I followed Ryan through the holes, but instead of using the ferry and heading left found myself heading straight and getting pushed right into the eddy line parrallel with it (at the very least, this is the worst way to hit this feature). I knew going in this would be a battle, but was confident I had the skill to work it out. This was not the case. I found myself leaning 90 degrees or so left using my secondary stability and holding in the 'home' roll ready position (as I felt I would flip sooner than I did), I felt locked into that position, holding myself up barely when the current which had full hold of my edge finally threw me under (I must've held myself at that angle for 4-6 seconds). I was thinking 'why didn't I just throw out a wicked high brace, tilt my head and pull myself up!' ...but hindsight is always 20/20.

I rolled up only to get thrown down sideways in a wave, tried 3 more rolls but the current was just overpowering me, this is obviously something I need to work probably was a good idea to try rolling prior to the run, and it didn't help that I wasn't fully dialed into the boat either. I pulled out of the boat, felt it and my paddle immediately fly away from me as soon as I pulled the skirt, soon my elbow pads came right off my arms. I found myself already out of breath from the roll attempts and soon would be even worse off. The worst part about swimming in water like that is that you never have any idea what's ahead and when to breathe, when you can see anything, it's only 15 foot waves or pourover horizon lines (not too different from being in your boat at that level), you're in and out of the water whether you've got air or water in your mouth at the time, at times I felt myself held down underwater for 3 seconds or more at a time but it felt like an eternity. You run out of energy fast, and the most difficult thing is to avoid panache and focus and drive towards what needs to get done for your best possible outcome. Things related to your gear and necessary for safety might restrict your breathing a bit as well, and each little detail you'll notice at this point, from your helmet chinstrap digging in to your noseplugs (which could be good or bad), and the throat restriction of your slightly tight drytop/suit neck gasket.

I saw Ryan ahead and heard him yelling to grab his boat which I was well on my way to doing, swimming as hard as I could once I composed myself to river right I grabbed his boat as soon as I was close enough and started kicking.

That's when I saw Laura swimming, a little upstream and more towards the middle of the river she didn't look to be in as good shape as I was, soon after we got somewhat near the shore and Ryan asked if I was good, I said yes about 10 feet from shore and he headed off towards her. That last 10 feet was the hardest part of the swim, I was out of energy, out of breath and it was impossible to cross that eddy line. I must've gone through 4 or 5 more drops that were normally big rocks with no water going over them at regular levels. I finally grabbed at the fourth or so thing I could reach on shore and pulled myself up. I got on shore dizzy, and sat down on a rock to compose for a few seconds, then I headed off to make sure Laura was ok, after a few steps I saw Ryan up top on the road and headed up, Laura was up there as well laying on his boat recovering.

The main thing is that everyone was ok, 2 people swimming at the worst possible place in the canyon at a high level is not a good proposition, but despite that, things went well. We did quite a swim with out tandem effort! Going from above the eddy prior to Mel's all the way to just before cable pool, at the rate the river was moving, this didn't take long. My thanks goes out to Ryan for his quick action and rescue boating skills, there is no way at all I could have pulled off anything similar had I still been in my boat.

Thanks to a good samaritan driver who grabbed the demo paddle I was using and Shane recovered we made it back to the take out only to hear that about 10 minutes prior Denny and Shane had gone through chasing our boats still. It is very very difficult to push a boat ashore in such strong water. We headed down to find the other boaters around Thurston Meadows, thinking my boat was under a logjam the guys set out to recover Laura's which was stuck on a sandbar or something.

I headed down to Tamihi to wait and see if my boat would come through. Merick and Dave shortly joined me and told me they'd seen it go through 2 hole drop and Alison Pool, at that point I tried to get ahold of Ryan to get the stronger boaters with their boats downstream to intercept. We were quickly joined by Kiah and his dad who saw the boat go by Slesse Trailer Park, then it came through straight vertical with no bow bag or forward center pillar to keep the bow afloat. We then saw it plunge through Osborne Road narrowly missing getting stopped on a rock or bush and the giant eddy formed on river left. We then went to Vedder Bridge to wait for it then got a call from Ryan, they'd recovered it at Wilson Road.

The boat wasn't in the same shape it was when I was in it, that's for sure, but that's how things go, I've got to thank Shane for recovering it regardless, and I know he and Denny tried as hard as they could to get it out prior. If there's anything any aspiring boaters should take away from this it's that you should be careful in making your decisions and mindful of the consequences as they rise in conjunction with the risks you undertake. Such is the boating life, it's all about what you're willing to push or gain and how much you're willing to lose. The best thing is to try to find a good balance of pushing your abilities and learning, but finding the fine line between that and going too far, and making sure you've got good people boating with you. If better boaters aren't willing to take you down a run because of your level, then don't do it. The case this day was that I felt I was on the safer side all factors considered if pushing my level and had the support of the people I was boating with.

Make reasonable decisions and have fun!

An example of the water that day (around Tamihi I think)

Shane, Denny and Laura passing by Carousel


  1. Good for you that you came out alive and could write about it!! I'm sure every body in your group learn something!! That was a lot of juice in there that day and I,m happy I'm an open boater, I don't need that much to have fun! But I know how it feel to make the choice to run or not to run.

  2. Great TR Adam!

    Thanks for Sharing your experience in deatil!

    I agree with your point on the "Thin-Line" Kayaking requires an strange mix of agressive approach combined with self awarness/restraint (ie Aggresive & Humble). The agressive approach is needed to learn and push our limits the restaint is needed to keeps us around to continue to push our limits...

    I'm glad to see that your still going strong and keen to kayak with deeper understanding/judgement.

    Cheers Bro,