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The Dead Hand Journal

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05

My son, his wife, and her 7-year-old son joined me for a full day of white water rafting on the Salmon River, out of Riggins, Idaho. We signed on with Mountain River Outfitters owned by Jess Baugh, son of my friend and partner Paul Baugh. About halfway through the day, I opted to take my turn in a ten-foot inflated kayak.

Although it’s not entirely obvious, wild river “waves” are not really waves in the traditional sense. Rather, they are humps and holes caused by large rocks protruding from the bottom. As the rushing water pours over these boulders, it dumps downstream, creating a “hole” that can suck an unwary kayaker to the river bottom – sometimes twenty to thirty feet down. (You probably see where this is going!)

The trick is to approach the “wave” square (if you have to approach it at all), and to paddle as hard as possible in order to get through it, rather than into it.

These nearly permanent river features have names. At “Telegraph,” one of the larger features we passed all day, I decided to show my group what a 68-year-old tough guy can do. I set myself square to the large lump of water swiftly approaching me. I paddled for all I was worth, and found myself perched on the top of the hump, poised to sail through successfully to the downstream side. At that moment, a strong wind gust hit my starboard bow, turning me broadside to the “wave.”

In a split second, far faster that I can relate, I was rolling over and over as I headed for the river bottom. In moments the kayak was ripped away, and I was left in the hole wearing a life jacket and holding my paddle.

I knew my only way out was to climb out – that was to swim as hard as I could in whatever direction I was pointed. I had gulped a lungfull of air as I realized I was about to tumble, so I had a minute or so to get out. The water was sucking me forcefully downward, while my life jacket was pulling me to the surface. I felt like I was being ripped apart. I can’t report that I timed myself, but it seemed to take forever before I was floating gently downstream with the hole safely behind me.

I was wet, but except for my pride, undamaged. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!

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