Thursday, June 5, 2014

Lochsa River, ID - Memorial Day Weekend 2014

Every Memorial Day weekend, a core group of buddies and I head to California for some classic kayaking down granite-laden rivers and amazing weather. Unfortunately, the multi-year drought that the state has been going through had soured our yearly tradition, especially these last two years. In 2013, we ended up driving far too many road miles for far too few river miles; although we did get on the MF Stanislaus, which really surpassed our expectations, in both beauty and quality of the whitewater. Although that run was great and we always have a great time just camping and hanging out as a crew, we told ourselves that if Cali suffered another low-water event, we'd head elsewhere the next year.

As Memorial Day 2014 approached us, it became clear that California would once again be hurting for water; in fact, even more so than 2013. With snowpack averaging ~25% for our favorite drainages, we started looking elsewhere, with Idaho being near the top of the list. For years, a good buddy of mine, Joe Bushyhead, has been trying to get me to go to the Lochsa over Memorial Day weekend, where hundreds of boaters and spectators (of all types) convene for the Lochsa Madness river festival. Knowing that going south wasn't much of an option, it wasn't too hard to convince the crew that our best bet was to head east. Of the core Memorial Day crew, we'd have Roman, Chris, Shawn, and myself; with the only person missing being Jason, who couldn't make it due to work commitments. We'd also be joined by Alex and his girlfriend Nichole, and of course, we'd be meeting up with Joe and a bunch of his Idaho buddies.

Aside from the Lochsa, I had hoped to get on some other runs in the area, like Lolo Creek, Kootenai Creek, and one or two of the runs on the SF Clearwater. With our departure date approaching, it became clear that we would have plenty of water, due to heavy snowpack and unseasonably warm weather. I was actually concerned we'd have too much water, limiting our run options.

Our levels. We would be there from the 23rd to the 26th.

From Eugene the drive was ~10 hours, and since Roman (who I was driving with) wasn't able to leave town until after noon on Thursday, we only planned to make part of the drive, getting as far as we could without pushing it too far. We ended up camping just east of Walla Walla, which is famous for its sweet onions as well as a recent onslaught of wineries. Waking up on Friday morning we reconnected with the rest of the Oregon crew in Clarkston (WA), where we got some food at a local diner before finishing up the drive to Wilderness Gateway, the campground where almost everyone would be staged during Lochsa Madness.

Once in Idaho, we drove upstream along the Clearwater River, which contained an impressive amount of water. While pulled over at one spot to go to the bathroom, I was in awe at the amount of water and how fast it was flowing -- apparently the forecasted flows had been correct. Our first glimpse of the Lochsa came near Lowell (ID), where it converged with the Selway to form the MF Clearwater. From Lowell the campground was ~25 miles upstream, conveniently located between the Upper and Lower runs on the Lochsa. Once we reached Split Creek we kept our eyes on the river, since this was the take-out for the lower run and it would allow us to get an idea of what we were in for. Before long we reached a rather large gathering of people, who were hanging out at one of the pullouts, which could only mean one thing, we had reached Lochsa Falls. It's at the falls that folks sit back and watch the shitshow unfold, as rafters, kayakers, and other crafts roll the dice on getting through upright, sometimes with dynamic consequences, which always brings cheers and jeers from the carnage-hungry crowd. After hanging out for a bit, we decided to head up to Wilderness Gateway to find and setup our camp for the weekend.

Roman, workin' the crowd

A Creature Craft finds its way into Lochsa Falls

Cowboy up!

A boater gets side slapped in Lochsa Falls

About to get barreled

A spectator watches a ducky blast though the falls

Now that's a tongue!

A captain buries his crew

Bracing for impact

The calm before the storm

Even though it was only early afternoon on Friday, almost all of the campsites were spoken for, but luckily Joe had shown up the day before and secured us a nice spot. By the time we had set almost everything up, Joe showed up after running a lap on the Upper Lochsa. After a small celebratory reunion, a few of us cracked into the beers, to the point that it probably wouldn't be a good idea to put on the water that day. Joe, who was also looking to get in a lap on the Lower, was only able to convince Alex to join him for an evening run. I offered to run their shuttle and take photos along the way, which they graciously accepted. Both had good lines throughout the run and as I met them at the take-out, Alex shared his excitement on how big it had felt with the relatively high water level, which was ~18,000cfs at this point. Even though this is a solid flow already, temps that day had hit near 90 degrees, so we were pretty sure that it would be even higher the next day.

Joe suits up for a lap on the lower run

Joe and Alex starting off the run

Finding the first of the good stuff, below Fish Creek.

Joe enters House Wave

...and gets a huge boost off the crest

The boys in the middle of House

Dropping into Grim Reaper

Joe lines up the meat line on Lochsa Falls

Gettin' pitted

Joe & Alex get into the thick of it

Alex, partway through the Pipeline wavetrain

Finishing up at Split Creek

That night we met a bunch of Joe's buddies from Idaho, who were all extremely friendly & welcoming, and all had better than average looks. For the most part, the whole campground turns into a bunch of intermingled gatherings, where the whole night could be spent walking from fire pit to fire pit while engaging in good conversations with great groups of people. Being a homebody, I mostly hung out at our camp, but I still had plenty of opportunities to meet people as they popped in and out of ours. Eventually the fire started to dim and one by one we headed off to bed, looking forward to getting on the water the following day.



Tall tales around the campfire

The next morning I woke up fairly early, so I decided to take a stroll down to the river to get some fresh air. Usually when waking up during a camping trip I'd be adorned with a warm jacket and stocking cap, but on this morning the temps were quite mild and I probably could have gotten away with just wearing shorts. As I reached the river it was visibly higher than the day before, just as we had assumed. Since there was no cell reception, we wouldn't know by exactly how much, but the river itself appeared to handle the extra water well. That said, it certainly looked full and was moving extremely fast, which I knew would only be exaggerated by being on the river in our kayaks. Looking at the gauge once I got home indicated that it had gone over 20,000cfs.

Our Saturday morning ended up being a fairly lazy one and we wouldn't actually get on the water until almost noon, which was just fine by me. As we drove over the Lochsa, coming out of the campground, we discovered that we were not the only ones that would be putting on for a lap at this time, as the river access point was already jammed up with people getting ready to launch -- this was certainly a different experience from our traditional Memorial Day trips to Cali, where we'd usually have the river to either ourselves or shared with a couple other small groups. When we finally got down to the water to put on, I was still trying to figure out who was actually in our crew. When all was said and done, I believe we had nine people, which was certainly a bigger group than I was used to paddling with.

Author's note:
Since this river was not really conducive to taking photos while on the water, all of the photos that support the narrative were taken during other laps from the weekend, that I wasn't on the water for.

Once I was all geared up, I pulled away from shore and paddled into the current. Paddling under the road bridge and dropping into the first rapid, if you could even call it that, I immediately knew that we'd be dealing with a lot more water than I'm accustomed to. Even though it was more riffles than anything else, the water had a surging feel, which was also visually apparent in the eddy lines that blocked the slack water along the banks. Just about the time I was telling myself that this would be no place to swim, two kayakers from the group behind us were floating down the river, sans their crafts. With two empty boats and swimmers in the water, everyone jumped into action to corral the carnage before it floated further downstream -- I was actually surprised with how fast they were pulled to shore. One thing that was obvious from this little event was that my usual safety gear, a throw rope and pin-kit, would probably prove useless in this environment.

Chris leads off the rapid just below Boulder Creek

Once the swimmers and gear were secured, we regrouped and started heading downstream once again. The few miles between Wilderness Gateway and Fish Creek really didn't contain any rapids of significant size, but I was still feeling a little out of place in the big water and wasn't really sure I wanted to head down below Fish Creek, where the bigger drops on the run resided. Furthermore, there were a lot of logs floating down the river with us, of all shapes and sizes. After pulling into an eddy for a few minutes and receiving some words of encouragement, I got my head back together and decided to give it a go, reinvigorated for an exciting day on the water!

A common site on this day

It may not look like it, but that's a big piece of timber

Below Fish Creek we had a couple more miles of warm-up water, which suited me just fine. Then the river made a sharp left turn, where Joe motioned for us to make for the inside of the turn. As we wrapped the corner I could see why we had stayed away from the right side, which appeared to have a uniform pour-over hole and not really a place you'd want to be. This rapid also contained some fun rollers, which we paddled back to the center of the river to catch. I later learned that this rapid is called "Otter Slide".

A cat boat sinks a pontoon in Otter Slide

Not far below Otter Slide was a fun series of crashing waves, and then Joe, who had been giving me beta, told me that we were approaching "House Wave", one of the best drops on the run. This rapid was easily identified by a cliff wall along the left, and giant lead-in wave that broke from the same side. As I slid down the green tongue leading into the rapid, it certainly felt like we were paddling into the belly of the beast. Even though I took a more conservative line further right, it was still huge, with a giant wavetrain that continued for quite a ways below.

Chris, startin' off the goods

Shawn picking out his line

Chris enters House Wave

Going for the hero line at House Wave


More big splashy water continued below House, until we reached another big drop, "Grim Reaper", which I had remembered seeing from the road. Two things had struck me about this rapid, 1) it didn't have the cleanest entrance and 2) there was a big nasty hole on the bottom-left of the rapid, which I definitely wanted to avoid. Joe confirmed that it was in fact that rapid, just before dropping out of sight and into the maelstrom. Hot on his trail I dropped in and battled my way through the choppy offset waves that did their best to capsize my small craft. Making it though the drop upright, I peered over my left shoulder and caught a glimpse of the hole on river-left, which I was pretty happy to be clear of.

Chris enters left on Grim Reaper

A boater digs at the chaotic entrance to Grim Reaper

Getting surfed toward the bottom of Grim Reaper

Another fast mile below Grim Reaper was a large set of haystacks, which if timed properly, would allow for huge water-boofs off the crests of them. It's hard to put into words the experience riding up & down these monster waves, but it feels like you're riding down the back of dragon, who is in mid flight.

A fun wavetrain below Grim Reaper

Follow the leader

More juiced up boogie water followed, until it let up a bit where a large gathering of spectators lined the bank on river-right. Of course this could only mean one thing, we had reached Lochsa Falls. A few of us decided we wanted to give it a quick look from the road, so we hopped out of our boats, climbed up the rocks, and walked downstream to the viewing platform. The good news was that the whole rapid was flushing through, with no holes that would hold a boat for an extended period of time. The meat line was center-right, through the gut of the converging waves, which was followed-up by a large wavetrain. After watching a few boaters take the hero line (with varying results) and still not completely confident with my big water combat roll, I looked to see what some of the other line options were. The one that looked best to me was certainly more conservative, entering center-left with left angle. It still had some fun wave-holes to deal with, but it was much more straightforward and I was confident with my chances of getting through without issue. With my line picked out, I headed back to my boat to give it a go.

Lochsa Falls traffic

Waiting for the show

Chris takes the smooth line at Lochsa, center-left

Joe, going for the gut once again

Jimmy drops into Lochsa Falls

Threading the needle

Getting a face full!

Another dynamic outcome at Lochsa Falls

Marty proves that Lochsa Falls is certainly surfable

As I climbed into my boat, snapped on my skirt and slid into the water, I was held up by a large group of catarafts that were lining up for the falls. I had absolutely no desire to drop into the rapid with one of those floating undercuts, so I decided to wait them out. After what seemed like an eternity, a spot opened up so I grabbed it while I could. I aggressively ferried into the current and toward the left side of the river -- even though I was still well upstream of the falls, the current was moving downstream in a hurry. Once I was lined up where I wanted to be, I patiently floated toward the lip of the drop. The first move was driving up and over a medium sized lateral, which was followed up by some steep green water into another larger lateral. My line went about as well as I could have hoped for, and I barely got my head wet. Now below the crux of the falls, I watched as several other crafts came down the wavetrain, through a thick layer of fog that had settled at river level - it was like watching ghost ships pass by and then eerily disappear.

Not far below Lochsa Falls we regrouped with our crew, at "Pipeline". At normal to lower flows, Pipeline is considered one of the best play spots anywhere -- a large glassy wave that is frequented by kayakers and surfers alike. Although it was surfable at the higher levels that we had, your only real chance was to catch it on-the-fly, have a fast boat, or a combination of the two. For me, just riding through it and the following wavetrain was entertainment enough.

Joe sizes up Pipelne

Past Pipeline the river mellowed out a bit, with "Termination" essentially blown out and pretty uneventful, unless maybe you were hard river-left against the wall. Split Creek Rapid and the one just above it did have some fun wavetrains, with offset haystacks that did their best to slap/flip you from the both sides. In fact the upper rapid did take me down-- I was pretty happy that I was able to roll up in the middle of it quite easily. Split Creek also happened to be our take-out, where we used the conveniently placed stairs on the other side of the footbridge that crossed the river.

Getting a nice water boof of the top of a wave --
Plenty of opportunities for this on the Lochsa!

Chris and Shawn, after another lap on the lower

Joe, taking advantage of the takeout amenities

I was super happy that I had stuck it out and finished the run, after being a little apprehensive and feeling a bit out of my element in what felt like an ocean. Even though I'd had a great time, I called it at one lap for the day, and instead of joining some of the others for a second lap, I drank beer and played photographer. That night went pretty much like the night before, with plenty of beers and stories around the campfire, until one by one we all snuck off to bed.

An end to a great day on the water

The next day we did another lap on the lower, after getting a pretty late start. The weather this time around was wonderful, with bright sunny skies and temps in the mid to high 70s. The run felt much more manageable, mainly because I knew what to expect from the bigger rapids, but also because the river had dropped a few thousand CFS over night. Probably the most significant change was how much less wood was floating down the river, which made it a lot less sketchy. For this run we only had Chris, Roman and me, and I don't think anyone even flipped on this one. Of course I was still taking fairly conservative lines and I'm sure things would have been a lot different had I been running more aggressive ones.

On the Sunday before Memorial Day, we did do the bottom half of the Upper (Nine Mile down), which is below the most of the big stuff and proved fairly uneventful; that said, it was still fun and only whetted my appetite for getting on the stuff above. Unfortunately it wouldn't happen on this trip, since we ended up breaking camp and making half of the drive back to Oregon that evening.

Starting off the run, with a little less water
(photo by Shawn Haggin)

The author in the middle of some Lochsa boogie water
(photo by Shawn Haggin)

Chris gets vertical at the entrance to Grim Reaper
(photo by Shawn Haggin)

Roman gets lost in Grim Reaper
(photo by Shawn Haggin)

The author in the calm water below Grim Reaper
(photo by Shawn Haggin)

Chris takes another run at Lochsa Falls
(photo by Shawn Haggin)

The author goes for the conservative route through Lochsa Falls
(photo by Shawn Haggin)

Past the meat
(photo by Shawn Haggin)

The author in the middle of the Pipeline wavetrain
(photo by Shawn Haggin)

Bringin' it home!
(photo by Shawn Haggin)

The author makes a rare cameo
(photo by Shawn Haggin)

Parting thoughts:
What a great weekend on the Lochsa with old and new friends! It was also a great backup plan for our normal Cali trip. I mean really, what can you say about the Lochsa that hasn't already been said many times before? It's big, friendly and a whole lot of fun! Although it's Idaho class III/IV, if you're not used to paddling big water, it's certainly going to feel like the top end of that rating, especially if you're at all unsure about your big water roll. For the lower (Wilderness Gateway to Split Creek), which is the only section I can really comment on, pretty much all the rapids only require one move. You basically line up the rapid and then hold on/enjoy the ride. With only a few holes to contend with, the only real hazard would be the potential for a long/cold swim, especially at the boomin' flows we had. I was actually a bit surprised with how many people I saw swim, with most getting out relatively quick.

Would I go back? Absolutely, especially if California is dried up again next Memorial Day weekend. I will say that it would have been nice to get in some different runs, like Lolo Creek or one or more of the runs on the SF Clearwater. Unfortunately everything else in the area was running a little too high and/or people weren't that motivated to venture beyond the confines of the Locsha -- It's more of a hangout & party atmosphere, as opposed to a trip where you are trying to hit a bunch of different runs. Even so, it's a great place to be over Memorial Day, and one that every boater should experience at least once!

Some footage from the weekend:

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