Having an opportunity to jump in at the last minute on a Lower Deshutes float trip and then being able to get the necessary Saturday off work when one works retail, was no less than a miracle (actually my supervisor and fellow paddler Mary Moynihan covered for me, legend). Brett McNeil, long time friend (high school track and field) and raft guide had put the trip together and needed a sixth for the raft. I could rattle off his guiding stats here but probably wouldn’t do them justice as I am little informed when it comes to water sports, suffice to say he was experienced (guiding for several Oregon companies, previous owner of a rafting rental company, and extensive background in minimalist wilderness survival, amongst other things) and I was stoked to be participating even if I did suspect my seat was only available due to a last minute part-time-lady-friend cancellation. Happy to fill in where needed.
The trip began with a late night drive from Bend to Maupin. The most challenging segment was finding the campsite along the river where I encountered few sober people and many wrong directions, correlation? When I finally reached the site, I immediately felt included by Brett’s genuine and warm companions, however late my arrival. The next morning I woke to a tasty gluten free cinnamon roll from New Seasons in Portland where one of Brett’s friends was employed (Brett is gluten free too). What a treat.
Once we ate, packed the raft on the car, relieved our bladders, and began our forge of the river, I couldn’t believe the number of folks trafficking this stretch. I would estimate nearly 500 people camping, rafting, and other such recreating at the in put. In addition, through out the trip, signs of over usage were visible on every pullout and often on the banks. Degradation of vegetation and associated erosive washout (because the vegetation helps hold the shore line in place, when the plants are gone, this increases the rate at which the water can remove sediment from the shore) where just some of the observable effects of over usage. This seemed surprising and a gross daily, if only seasonal, miss-use for a wild and scenic stretch of public land and water especially considering the record lows in ccf (a measure of water discharge) seen on most rivers in the Northwest this year (result of a low snow cash from the precious winter).
Human impact aside, the most memorable moments of the trip were also the most terrifying! First, for a tinny stretch, Brett allowed me to take the rains and guide the boat! I was cocky from my first season paddle boarding and thought, how hard can it be? It is hard and confusing and committing. Every time I put the ore in the water to steer this way or that it seemed like I had the opposite outcome of what I intended. When there were no rapids it wasn’t difficult to adjust my mistakes but imagining the pressure when fast approaching a stray boulder seemed mind blowing. Then, the added stress of giving paddle directions to five other little to NO experience passengers, I definitely had a healthier respect for guides post steering the boat on a calm stretch.
After my brief stent as captain, my fear of water was challenge in a more tangible way. At the confluence of the White and the Deschutes River, crowds of people exited the river and walked up stream to body float natural slides and rapids in a more constricted and fast flowing section of the White. My fear of water started at an early age (if you are interested in reading more see Lessons from the Deschutes on connectivity and flow), and more recently I have begun to associate trust and allowing flow to happen in my life with committing to taking calculated risks in water sports. So, I followed the group up stream, watched Brett jump from his place on the outcop, toss and bump like a pin ball on the rocks that formed his chute and then slide down a small water fall into a whirlpool where he easily pulled himself back on the basalt formation. Easy right? No matter how I talked myself into it, I couldn’t jump… I had to scoot inch by inch closer to the water on the rock and then fall in when gravity got the better of me. In the water now and quickly approaching rocks, I kept my knees bent and bounced from surface to surface until the waters speed increased and I felt the pull of the fall. In a flash, under the water and then above it, I’d launched off the water fall. Now in the whirlpool and disoriented, Brett reached out for my hand, we missed each other and as I began a second spin in the pool, caught off guard, Brett says the expression on my face was priceless. Eventually he hauled me out beached-whaling across the lacerating surface, elegant as usual. This experience gave all new meaning to the name of the river ‘des chutes’*.
The last adventure of the day, just downstream from the water slides, entailed floating rapids in out life preservers, no raft. In this case there was no chutes, no comfortable path, just open turbulent water. So scared to jump, a long line forming behind us, and not enough time to scoot into the water off the rock as I had earlier, Brett walked up river with me to find a different entrance point, I could privately pet talk myself into the water. This allowed me just enough time to gain my composure and remind myself he had done this a thousand times before, many people who looked like they could barely swim where doing this. It was scary, it was a calculated risk, but I could do this. We found the shoreline again, a small in-cut basalt ledge hung a foot or so over the speedy water… I peaked over the edge, Brett held my hand, we counted to three and were in the water before I knew the difference. The entire float I squeezed his hand for dear life, I said over and over as repeated seemingly sky scraper waves approached ‘Are we OK? Are we OK? Are we OK?” His response was the same every time we crested, “Yes”. Swimming ashore after trying the gauntlet, my adrenaline didn’t seem to stop, for the intensity of facing a fear or the intimacy of sharing it so deeply with someone else, I don’t know. Either way, I felt alive and impacted. My forecast and hope for next river season: greater ccf, first round invitation instead of fill in, less wild and scenic degradation, more personal growth, and no scooting off the edge.
*des chutes is the origin of Deschutes, french for ‘the chute’ because the river has so many basalt walled sections resembling chutes.