8 Catarafts (Aaron Williams, Dave Allen, Dave Becker, John Miesaloski, aka Puma John, John Meier, Mike Babcock, Mike Horner, Shelly Becker), 1 IK (Eric Klein), 1 Hardshell Kayak (Leif Kirchoff)
Level: 800cfs and dropping @ Naselle, approx 1000cfs in the Grays itself
Date: Nov. 14, 2009
Watch the Video
John Meier wrote this brief but very descriptive summary statement so I will start with that:
“Wow….what a run. 8 cats, 1-Ik and one hardshell kayak. 4 1/2 flips,
multiple pins and a couple of swims. A couple of portages, 2 broken oar
towers, 1 broken seat, 1 cracked frame and maybe one cracked leg.” — John Meier
Saturday morning Nov. 14, 2009 found us driving South to the Grays River, a tributary of the Columbia located in the Southwest corner of WA. Dave and I had run the Grays two years before in 2007 and we remembered it as continuous, steep and technical Class IV-IV+ in the upper section, a small break before the 3 major rapids of Superbowl, Picnic and Broken Paddle which were all solid Class IV+ followed by braided Class II the rest of the way to the takeout. The Grays is one of those out of the way rivers and has a very remote feel when you are in the canyon.
We stopped in Tacoma to pick up Puma John who would be running his new 12’x20” Sotar Legend and continued South on I-5, down the Columbia and finally winding around through small towns and logging areas until we reached the put-in to the Grays. There is now an actual gauge on the Grays river but when we ran in 2007, we used the Naselle gauge. Currently, the Naselle gauge was 800cfs and dropping and we estimated that it would be within 50cfs of what Dave and I had previously (and at the time thought was a bit low).
The upper part of the Grays canyon contains several drops that are steep and stacked with few eddies and places to stop. The first big ledge is within hiking distance of the bridge just downstream of the put-in (where the whitewater section starts). Dave and I both remembered this drop as being fairly significant in 2007 complete with a catboat aerial display, some near backflips, several blown oars and very little recovery before the next Class IV drop which requires a must make move to the left. Today, we would have a total of 10 boats which is a lot for a river of this nature. Out of the 10, only Dave and I and Mike Horner had ever run the Grays before so erring on the side of safety I said that I wanted to hike down and scout the first drop before launching and suggested that it might be a good idea for everyone else who was new to the river to do the same as I remembered lots of potential for bad things to happen there. Hiking in to scout meant getting a later start to an already short day but it was daylight well spent. Dave and I and almost everyone else scrambled down from the bridge and bushwhacked our way to the first big horizon line. What we saw was much different than what we had remembered. it appeared as if the large ledge with the riverwide hole had broken up and was now shorter with a clean chute right of center (at this flow). The rapid below still required the mandatory right to left ferry.
Happy with what we saw, we hurried up, ran shuttle and launched. It did not take long at all to get down to that first ledge, which was preceeded by a super narrow passage at the bottom of a Class III slide. Nobody had any trouble with the first ledge or the rapid below. After a short pool, the river drops over another significant ledge, probably in the 8’ range. Mike Horner was the lead boat and I was next. We both knew this rapid should be boat scoutable but it was difficult to see a clean route. Mike had just been on the Grays the week before at a much higher level and this section of river gets a lot steeper with less water. Mike was in a one boat eddy on river right and I was in water that was moving slow enough where I could row in place. I wasn’t close enough to see if the right was good or not, there was also what looked like a possible chute on the left but neither of us could tell if it was good or if it landed on rocks. I asked Mike if he wanted me to ferry over to check out the left, all the while wondering if that would commit me to running the left since stopping options were not good and the river was walled in. Mike inched a bit closer and announced the right was clean but totally vertical “point right to left” he told me as he disappeared over the edge. I waited until I could see him emerge from the bottom, happily, right side up then I approached the lip, spotted the right to left tongue and dropped over the edge. My 12.5’x22.5” boat is made for drops like that and it was big fun. The river below was narrow and fast and relatively flat but walled in. There were not many good eddies – I heard Mike yell that Puma John was upside down. I eddied out as best I could and rowed in place until I could see what looked like John’s boat secured by the shore and in the process of being re-flipped. Figuring that John was OK and that lots of other people were in a better position to help than me, I focused my attention on the next twisting and somewhat blind drop just downstream. It looked pretty read and run but disappeared around the corner so I used the time to scramble down and take a look. The rapid ended up being straightforward Class IV with multiple options.
Everyone regrouped in the large eddy where I was pulled over and I learned that John had gotten knocked off his cat in the process of trying to re-flip it. His cat then became wedged in a dicey spot between a boulder and the right bank. Dave B. was able to get to John’s cat and dislodge it using his own boat as a forklift of sorts while John was able to get to shore and eventually reunited with his boat.
The river mellowed out a bit after the next drop and we floated through an incredibly narrow scenic canyon. I had remembered this part of the Grays from the first time as it is not that often you can float in so narrow a canyon with catarafts and oars. Presently a respectable horizon line appeared above a drop that would have been read and run except for a large vertical piece of wood on river left that we could not tell if it was in the river. We passed the “eddy out” signal back through the line of boats and this time, Dave B scrambled down the bank and gave the all clear signal. I stayed in the eddy with Dave making sure that eveyone knew to go left and then Dave and I ran the fun little twisting drop. Shortly thereafter, eveyone again eddied out on river right. It took me a minute to realize where we were but then I quickly recognized the unmistakable huge rock and logjam on river left that marks the entrance to Superbowl.
The last time we ran, we had scouted Superbowl on river left so Dave and I headed over there and got out. I grabbed my video camera and scrambled up on top the rock for a good vantage point for both scouting and shooting video. Dave and I noticed that the entrance looked a little different. Instead of being able to go down the middle and gut the big hole at the bottom, it looked like you were going to get surfed to the right off a 3’-4’ ledge and shot into a jet of water going just past a large flat rock and then through the large hole at the bottom. To me, it looked if you squared up to the 3’-4’ drop after being surfed, you could very well not have time to square up the larger and gnarlier looking bottom drop. My plan was to enter center, get surfed right, take the hit, and then be straight for the bottom. Dave said he wanted to run first so he could film from a good spot at the bottom on river right. The plan then, was Dave would go first and I would go last and we would get video from two different angles. I got ready with the camera as Dave entered the drop. He started out in the center and then to my horror, I watched as he was sucked to the right by a sleeper current well above the first ledge and where he intended to go. His boat became lodged between two large rocks at a precarious angle. All I could do was watch and hope that he didn’t pull the boat over in the process of getting unstuck. Dave was the probe and he was all alone with no safety and not a ton of extra room between Superbowl and Picnic (the next big rapid). Dave kept his cool and was able to figure out how to weight the boat and get off the rocks right side up. He then highsided off the flat rock and through the bottom hole which validated my theory that if you surf off the top ledge, the water will take you where you want to go.
Thankful that Dave was OK, I waited on top the rock with my camera for other people to run the rapid. Several people made the ferry over to river left where I was and started portaging their boats. Mike Horner had portaged this rapid the week before at high water because the holes were terminal at that level. I was pretty sure my idea would work – I didn’t know why Dave had gotten blown off line at the top but it looked to me like if you drove hard you would cross the current and enter where you wanted to be. I told Mike and John M (who were also thinking about portaging) that I was going to run the middle and was met with a skeptical look. Dave and I had even communicated from across the river after he eddied out and I pointed at the original route and gave him the “good to go”??? question?? signal and he gave me two thumbs up. Mike said that he would run but wanted to enter far left instead of out in the middle. Far left was a safer route but super rocky and manky and looked like lots of places to get stuck. Mike did succeed in finding a place to get stuck but luckily not that far out from shore. I waded out in water that was past waist deep holding on to rocks and was able to grab his rear tag lines. I pulled as hard as I could and yelled for him to climb on the far front of the left tube all the while taking note of all the new places in my drysuit where water was coming in. Eventually the boat became unstuck and Mike disappeared into Superbowl.
I continued up to my boat as I was not in a good place to see his run. That was unfortunate because Mike had the best run out of all of us. He didn’t have a previous run in Superbowl to skew his thinking and must have figured there was enough time to square up to the drop after the edge of the top ledge and pivot to meet the bottom hole and it worked out great. Had I seen that, I would have attempted the exact same thing. Instead, I did exactly what I had planned to do entering center, driving hard across the current surfing right, taking the hit and being straight at the bottom. It worked, but not for so many style points. All in all 5 boats ran (Dave B, Mike, myself, John Meier and Dave A) – there were a couple unintentional surfs and pop-ups but nobody had any major issues.
The next big rapid shortly downstream is Picnic. The general layout of Picnic in both 2007 and this run is a maze of rocky mank leading into two back to back significant ledges which flushed into a tight narrow steep walled chasm. On river left at the bottom there is a small eddy and beach, otherwise, the current moves in a hurry toward the final large rapid, Broken Paddle. That is where the similarities end. In 2007, the “normal”? left entry was blocked by wood forcing an entry on river right through rocky shallows, occasionally getting stuck while making one’s way to the 2 bottom ledges which actually seemed larger (yet cleaner) at the time. I would give the 2007 Picnic a strong Class IV+ rating. Now, we found ourselves staring at what can best be described as a Class V+ mess. Instead of trees on the left, we now had a death sieve with a few pieces of wood tossed into strategically bad places for good measure. All of the water in the left channel was heading directly toward this. On the right side of this channel was an “island” of sorts and to the right of that was a very technical, very narrow channel with fast moving water that was barely a boat width which I later named “The Poop Chute” for multiple and obvious reasons. To the right of that was more impassable mank. The one redeeming factor about the Poop Chute was that the water coming out of it was flowing past the large rock that marked the right boundary of the death sieve. If you somehow made it that far, you would bypass the death sieve and get fed violently into the first ledge. We scouted for quite a while and discussed various options. There was a group of people who felt they could start left and make a death ferry above the death sieve. These were Class V boaters with Class V skills and small boats that were well suited to a move like this. In my mind, I saw the death ferry as being technically possible but gave myself less than a 50% chance of actually making it. You had one chance to get to one place that was deep enough to use your oars to initiate a move to the right. ALL of the water was working against you and the channel was extremely rocky, extremely shallow and there was NO plan B. If you messed up this move, you were hosed with what looked like zero options. When I looked at that move, I pictured in my mind a similar type of situation in a rapid called “Starts-With-A-Bang” on the Cascade river. This rapid has since changed and the move is no longer there but it used to be a tricky entry move to avoid a large ledge and had the same kind of rocky shallow fast moving water that was not helping you get where you wanted to go. The major difference is the move on the Cascade afforded an alternate line far left if you blew it – and – even if you ended up running the ledge it was not a death sieve. I’ve probably blown that move more times than I made it. At the time, I judged the death ferry not to be a good idea (at least for me) and decided I would deal with the Poop Chute and everything that entailed actually getting to it.
Dave B. and Aaron had already started over to the right side of the river. While we were scouting the death ferry, we saw that Aaron was lining his boat down the left bank of the “island”. I made my way over to the right bank and started negotiating the many obstacles between me and the Poop Chute whose entrance was marked by a small log perched on a rock. Eventually, I got to where Dave had pulled his boat over a little nuisance tree. There was good current going around the end and at first I thought it would be easier to row rather than drag my boat over. That’s when Dave told me Aaron had tried that and the current was deceptively strong and he had gotten carried too far left and over to the “island”. Dave and I lifted my boat over the tree and he said he was going to stay behind to help any others who were going this way which meant that I was now the probe if I was OK with that.
The first time I ran Picnic, I had been the probe and things worked out fine. This time was much harder. I slowly and deliberately worked my way through the mank toward the marker log taking extra care not to get caught in currents that were going into bad places. I remembered the time when I “probed” a center route in a similarly manky rapid on the Cascade called Bridge Wreck that did not go as planned. I then had to carefully pick my way through the rocks and find an escape route without flipping. I was in very much the same situation here, sometimes I could get an oar in the water and pivot, sometimes I had to use the rocks to angle my boat so things would work out in my favor. It was a mentally and physically exhausting game of chess I was playing and my boat was 160 lb chess piece. Puma John with his much smaller and lighter boat eventually caught up with me as I was nearing the entrance to the Poop Chute. I was making progress at the pace of a glacier but knew in about two minutes I would be entering a steep rock filled autobahn with probably no place to use my oars. “Keep the boat straight at all costs when entering the chute” was the only thing on my mind.
When at last I did reach the entry I spun around and was able to enter straight, however, my left oar immediately caught in some rocks. I gave it a good yank and it momentarily came free only to be sucked under and caught again. With supreme effort, I was able to once again free the oar but noticed it was bent at angle where it would not be of much use. I shot down the chute as the large rock at the edge of the death sieve rapidly got closer and closer. Even though I knew the water was going past the rock it was still a scary feeling. I swept past the rock and INSTANTLY my right tube shot high into the air. I truly felt that I was going over and hoped I would be able to self rescue in time above Broken Paddle yet a voice inside my head was screaming “CLIMB”. I instinctively started climbing the high side. The boat felt vertical and my efforts felt futile. It lurched a second time and somehow I found footing and climbed even higher, the little voice saying “keep climbing, you’re not done yet”. It seemed as though I had climbed all the way around my tube when I felt the boat start to stabilize and momentum shifted the other way. I slammed down right side up, slammed through the bottom hole, quickly got on the oars and eddied out at the little beach. Somehow, by the Grace of God I had made it and that is my only explanation for why I did not flip there.
There was no time to lose, I needed to replace my bent blade so I could be safety for John who I knew was close behind me. I had just barely gotten my spare blade on when Puma John came through the bottom of Picnic on his upside down cat. He knew that Broken Paddle was imminently downstream and was able to self rescue before running it but not in time to scout. I shoved off and gave chase rowing as hard as I could and yelling to eddy out. John knew that Broken Paddle was downstream and at first thought he was alone on a boat he did not yet have full control of after self rescuing. He later told me he was glad when he heard my voice and knew somebody else was there but there was not time to eddy out. An absolutely HUGE horizon line was looming ever closer on the left side. I believe what happened is the double drop in the Broken Paddle of 2007 turned into what is now a big ledge in the 10’-12’ range. I watched John line up, start rowing very hard and disappear off the edge of the world. Seconds went by and I did not see him and did not know what happened to him. Finally I saw John downstream and right side up. I have been boating with John long enough to know that he is not going to blindly row into an obvious dead end. There was a line there and now I too would get the opportunity to figure it out on the fly. The drop was easily as big as my boat and I could see a nice tongue kicking out so I aimed for that and dropped in. The landing was baby soft and Catalina and I shot out the tongue at the bottom.
John and I eddied out on river right and waited for what felt like an eternity. We both knew there wasn’t much daylight left, there was serious scary stuff upstream, people may or may not be in trouble needing help and at that point we were walled in with absolutely no way to get back. We also did not know what the right side of Broken Paddle looked like and were fairly certain that nobody in their right mind would take the line that both of us had just run blindly without scouting – potentially a 3’rd portage? We sat there for at least 20 minutes and probably more like half an hour. All Dave Becker knew was that John flipped at the bottom of Picnic – he did not see my run and did not know my fate. He had no way of knowing that John and I were waiting safely in an eddy discussing how this was the hardest “Class IV-IV+” run either of us had ever done.
I scanned the walls looking for a way up. Not only were they vertical, they were overhanging in places and looked altogether slippery. Realizing there was no way I was going to be able to get back upstream without risking major injury, I resigned myself to waiting and hoping things were OK. I took stock of the extra fleece and food I had with me figuring I would soon need it to keep warm as I was soaked to the bone from a combination of water innundating my leaky drysuit and sweat from the exertion of Picnic.
Finally John decided to try and ferry out in the Class II’ish rapid downstream to see if he could see anything or anyone or ANY boats. He yelled to me that he saw Aaron and there was also an upside down cat. Dave Allen was on top of his orange 14’ Wave Destroyer and Aaron was yelling at me that Dave was hurt bad and I needed to help get the boat over. Dave was screaming in agony and Aaron and I were able to get the boat wrangled over to the side and John and I tied it off to a large tree. Dave was in a lot of pain and thought that his leg might be broken after it had gotten crushed between his frame and a rock. He had flipped at the bottom of Picnic, rode through most of the bad part of Broken Paddle on his upside down cat and had gotten his leg badly crushed somewhere near the bottom. We got Dave stabilized, and re-flipped his cat. Both oar towers and the seat were broken. The right tower was hanging on by a small piece of metal while the left was able to be made useable. I figured out how to “fix” the right tower by running a strap from it to the outside D-ring so the boat could be rowed out. Everyone else was still upstream and we were burning scarce daylight. The rest of the river was Class II and Dave was wondering if maybe he could try and row his own boat out. We didn’t think that was a good idea, I offered him my boat so at least he wouldn’t have to deal with his boat in the condition it was in. Still, there were a lot of braided shallow areas, if Dave needed to stand up to flintstone the boat he wouldn’t be able to as he could not walk. We knew we needed to get downstream, the drivers to both of our rigs were still upstream with the keys, and more importantly, we wanted to know if everyone else was OK. We were discussing our quickly changing options when Eric Klein (our IKer) came down. This was very fortunate as Eric also drives a cat and we could strap his IK to the back of my boat as a seat for Dave and Eric could row out the broken cat. While we were in the process of doing that, the rest of the group made their way down. We learned that many people had portaged Picnic and the right side of Broken Paddle was Class IV and everyone ran that.
With rapidly falling temperatures and fading sun, we quickly ran the remainder of the river and got to the takeout at dusk where warm vehicles and cold beverages were waiting. I didn’t find out until the drive home that I was the only person who ran Picnic that did not flip. Dave Becker told me that he stayed upstream helping everyone around the tree who was not already portaging and he ran last. Dave A. was in front of him and Dave B. watched as his “safety” violently flipped at the bottom just moments before he himself flipped. He said it was nasty and that he breathed a lot of water but knew he had to self rescue ASAP. Dave was able to pull off a lightning fast re-flip and therefore was able to get all the way over to river right and eddy out above Broken Paddle in the scout eddy. Dave also told me that Aaron had run into some kind of dead end while lining down the “island” and tried to get out and row around a rock and was swept into the current leading into the death sieve. Keeping his cool, he was able to stop his forward momentum in a very tiny eddy on river left where he and his boat were able to be pulled with a rope up the vertical rocky bank on river left and out of the river. At least one of the people who was portaging had a front row seat to the unfolding carnage. There was little glory in “running” Picnic that day and although the portage was long and arduous (on the heels of another long and arduous portage at Superbowl for those who portaged both) I’m not entirely convinced it was that much more work than dealing with getting to the Poop Chute. Superbowl was a fun rapid, the left line in Broken Paddle was big and clean and fun (probably more “fun” if you scout it first). Picnic was a ton of work no matter which way one chose to get around it. I would go back to the Grays and do it all over again but next time would want more water. Talking with Mike Horner who has run it much higher, it seems there is probably a window where Superbowl and Broken Paddle are still runnable and Picnic gets less manky. Mike portaged both Superbowl and the entrance to Broken Paddle at high water so too much more water would not be good.