It was a sound unmistakable to any experienced kayaker: Echoing up through the canyon a couple hundred yards downstream on the lower Klamath River came a growing roar — like spiteful thunder tethered to the earth and raring to escape. The sound, and the ominous sight of a riverwide horizon line trimmed in white froth, sent adrenaline pulsing through the bodies of our six-member raft and kayak crew. These were signs that a big drop was coming, and lead kayakers Monty Schmitt and I instinctively pulled out of the main current and into upstream eddies where we could stop to scout it out. We were following Whitewater Safety Rule No. 1: Never barrel into a rapids, especially a class IV — a large one with hazardous obstacles — without first seeing what you’re getting yourself into. The culprit in this case was Big Ike’s Falls, a rapid featuring a giant swirling hydraulic wave the size of a Volkswagen van. Definitely not for beginners.
On the other hand, we weren’t exactly pros, either. Each summer for the past four years, our small cadre of rafters and kayakers has been driving up from the East Bay for long weekends floating down the lower Klamath and other gems among California’s great waterways. On this particular Memorial Day trip, five were in kayaks. Our lone dissident was Ann, who wanted practice guiding a raft with oars — normally used to carry gear on long trips. None of us are advanced boaters, as the initiated are called, but rather outdoor enthusiasts who are just as happy drifting down a calm, meandering stream as running a rapid. Yet we’re experienced enough to know that even the most familiar river is full of surprises. And Big Ike was about to reinforce that lesson yet again.
The Klamath River watershed drains a large part of northern California and southern Oregon before it finally flows into the Pacific Ocean. Its headwaters begin as delicate streams a person could simply hop across. But as one small stream after another mates with the Klamath, it grows into one of the largest rivers in the West. On this late spring day, the mighty river was running about 7,000 cubic feet per second — a goodly amount of water. The flow volume of a river is constant along its length; when the bed is deep and the banks far apart, that water can flow lazily, but when it hits a narrow chute or a shallow, rock-strewn section, the serenity can turn violent. At Big Ike, the Klamath forces its way through a large tumble of granite that constricts and transforms this normally gentle giant into a writhing, churning beast.
From the calm eddies just above the falls, we dragged our boats ashore and ventured downstream to meet Big Ike in person. Clambering over the massive tumbles of sandy rocks, we found a vantage point on a huge slab of granite overlooking the falls on river left. There below was the rapid’s gaping maw. Large round boulders channeled the river into a narrow chute, resulting in a giant hole — a roiling pit of whitewater. There were narrow slots on either side where the waves were smaller and looked less threatening, but this was not going to be easy. Gusts of wind coming up the canyon threatened to push boats off course. And several complicated rapids downstream of Big Ike made it hard not to think what would happen if you blew your line and got sucked into the hole.
To imagine what that would be like, climb into the industrial-sized front-loader at your local Laundromat and stay through the rinse cycle. Not all holes are the same, however. The ones known as keepers can recirculate you incessantly, making it difficult to escape. Others will hold on to you for a few seconds — which can seem an eternity — and then spit you out, humble and gasping for air. Fortunately for us, Big Ike was more one of the latter, but no one was grasping upon that as a reason to try it out.
Scouting a rapid is like standing atop the high dive when you were a kid. The longer you look, the more you psych yourself out. After much discussion of fears and doubts, and a few stories about harrowing experiences in similar rapids, we struck a plan. The two least-experienced kayakers would lash their boats to the raft and travel downstream on foot. Monty and I would run the line on the left, secure our boats downstream, then clamber back up on foot. Monty would then shuttle the remaining kayak, and I would join the pair in the raft. Those already downstream would set up safety ropes for us in case things didn’t go as planned. They often don’t.
Another complication was of the canine variety. We had Grommit and Bear along, and while both were competent swimmers equipped with their own life vests, none of us wanted to see our naively eager sidekicks circulating in that hole. We decided to walk the dogs around the rapid along the left bank — a challenging task in itself, given the boulders.
As we pondered our plan, everyone felt that nervy anticipation: “Didn’t I just go to the bathroom?” “What if we blow it and get sucked in?” As if in response to that question on everyone’s mind, we heard shouting and looked up to see one of our kayaks blowing offshore. We all stood paralyzed as it wobbled, slowly drifting toward the main current. Any impulse to swim out and rescue it was quickly quashed by the thought of what lay downstream. So we went with the inevitable, and cheered as the shiny blue kayak slipped into the rapid and down into the center of the hole. For thirty seconds it did cartwheels, somersaults, and mystery moves until it finally got spit out and slogged on downstream, slowed by the mass of water it had taken on.
Monty and I were Ike’s next victims. We approached the drop one at a time, and each managed to find a line that just skirted the hole. Safely through and exhilarated, I labored back upriver to try it again in the raft. We had two paddlers up front and one hauling on the oars, all of us wearing helmets and feeling very determined. It was hard work to get out into the flow, and we were immediately pushed off course by the gusting winds and strong current. Then came a split-second decision to alter course and paddle into the eddy on the far side of the river. From this place of respite, we gathered courage for another try.
We pulled the oars in unison and the raft slid downstream. As we hauled back into the current, our friends onshore could see the concentration in our faces. The oarsman shifted position constantly, first pulling on the oars then standing up to make sure the craft was right where he wanted it. Things looked good at first, and we held our line. But as we approached the lip, the persistent wind drained our momentum and the raft began to drift off course. Nothing mattered now but the force of our strokes. We could hear cheers from the shore, but the wind and the strong current overcame any bravado. In slow motion, it seemed, the raft nosed over the edge and went vertical. As we plunged into the hole, our bow disappeared in white froth, then suddenly jetted upward as the rest of the inflatable craft dropped in. We held on for dear life and for a split second it looked like we might ride it out. But Big Ike wasn’t finished: As the stern was sucked in, our raft twisted and flipped.
The most striking thing about flipping a raft is the quiet calm that washes over you as the thunderous roar of the rapid is silenced. Your eyes open to millions of tiny white bubbles, and then sunlight filters through and you emerge into clear green water. You drift, essentially made weightless by the buoyancy of your life vest. The water on the Klamath was a mercifully balmy sixty-some degrees that day. But it’s not all peace and bliss, what with the raft upside-down on top of you and hazards waiting downstream. We quickly worked our way out from under the raft and bobbed to the surface. Then safety ropes were streaming through the air and shouting voices asking if we were okay. One of the ropes was tied to the raft and the folks onshore hauled it into an eddy. Instantly we were bursting with excitement, all talking at once as we recounted the plunge. The stories continued as we righted the raft and floated the easy final mile to our takeout, the spot where we leave the river.
The thrill and adrenaline of shooting the whitewater, of course, is only part of the allure. River-running offers a beautiful wilderness experience and lots of peaceful time to bond with your companions. And there are lots of good spots for beginners: On a previous trip to Clear Creek, a Klamath tributary, two friends new to river-running came along in inflatable kayaks. That run offers two-plus hours of relatively easy Class II whitewater winding through a tight canyon, where high cliffs and lush vegetation provide a sense of intimacy. Such slow and easy rides let you pay attention to your surroundings, and that day along the river we spotted blue herons, deer, otters, turtles, black bears, and bald eagles. Relaxed, luxurious lunches are also possible — it’s easy to pack a dry-bag full of treats (avec Grey Poupon, of course) — and stuff it into a raft, canoe, or kayak.
Whether you float on your own Huck Finn log raft or invest in the latest highly engineered kayak, the most important thing is to spend quality time on the river. And while Northern California — with its glorious coastal range and massive Sierra batholith — boasts some of the best whitewater in the world, you needn’t be an adrenaline junkie to enjoy it.
Monty Schmitt also contributed to this article.