The typical symptoms of nerves and excitement started just one day before our put in at the Illinois River. I considered this a good sign. Last summer before paddling my first class IV river (Tuolumne) these symptoms started three days before put in. I lost my appetite, withdrew from conversation, anxiously packed and repacked my bags. Deep down I knew there was no real need for all this stress, but I couldn’t help it.
From the turn off near Selby, Oregon, we took the long bumpy dirt road to the put in at Oak Flat and had a view of the river in the canyon below the entire way. This was a special bonus to jack my nerves up even more. Once at the put in, Grant and I packed our minimal gear into our little boats and passed off our sleeping bags to Kyle to carry in his inflatable kayak. “Self-support” was a misnomer on this trip. Though we were all in kayaks and had no raft to carry gear, Kyle’s IK is huge and there was plenty of room for our stuff. Not that it made him happy to carry it- our loaded boats were harder to control in moving water, and Kyle by far had the heaviest boat.
A light drizzle started just before we put in and this, somehow, had the power to calm me down and shake off the nerves. Thank Kokatat for dry suits! I stayed warm and dry inside mine and when the rain still hadn’t stopped after we reached camp I just left it on until it stopped.
The Illinois is a clear blue river in a deep canyon mostly in the Kalmiopsis wilderness. Much of it was burned in the Biscuit fire of 2002, and the forest is now a mosaic of old live trees, dead stumps, under brush and regenerating and sapling trees. The banks and cliffs of the river are often graced by the elegant but weird Darlingtonia plant- or California Pitcher plant, a carnivorous tube that thrives on the acidic ultramafic soils of the region.
Though the rapids were frequent, there was at least a small recovery pool below most and we stopped to scout the class IV rapids, giving me the advantage of seeing the route and markers in the river I wanted to follow. Not surprisingly, scouting improved my performance hugely over past trips down class IV where someone led me through blind and I had to “read and run” as I went. With only three rolls from careless moments in non-consequential rapids, I felt pretty good about the day.
Day two dawned sunny and continued with busier water, lots of fun rapids and the threat of Green Wall, the one class V rapid on the run. With a lead in class III rapid before it, we stopped to scout from far up stream before Green Wall. So far, in fact, that we couldn’t even see all of the lead in rapid that led to the small eddies we had to catch before flowing down the class V.
We set off into the class III, but my mind was so preoccupied with catching the eddy that I forgot to run the rapid first. My sloppy paddling led to a flip right about the place I knew I should be eddying out to avoid sliding into the entry chute for Green Wall. In a panic I gave one half assed attempt at rolling then quickly bailed out of my boat, let go of my paddle and swam like a rocket into the eddy.
I clambered up on the boulders to watch my boat swirling in the rapids along the green wall and down into the short pool below. While I hopped over the refrigerator and car sized boulders to the bottom of the rapid, Grant and Kyle scouted Green Wall and both had successful clean runs down it. Downstream we recovered my gear and I got back in my boat. Though I was shaken when we got to Little Green Wall (class IV), I got my groove back on and graced it.
I didn’t get a great look at Green Wall so I’m not sure if I would have run it, but it was disappointing to not even have the option. At least I didn’t have to portage my loaded boat over all those boulders. And Kyle again saved the day with his IK. I jumped aboard to get through the class II rapids to reach my boat where it had lodged on a rock downstream.
Our second night we camped on a small beach opposite a waterfall filled with tree frogs croaking. Tracks of river otter and bear criss-crossed the sand downstream. Grant lamented that he should have had us scout all the way down to the green wall since what was labeled as a class III lead in rapid had much higher consequences for mistakes. It wasn’t his fault that I swam. I can always opt to scout more, I just didn’t because I had been feeling confident that I could stay in control and catch the eddy. Had I been paying closer attention to myself I would have felt that I was too scattered and unfocused to perform. Lesson learned. It’s never a bad idea to scout or set safety below tricky spots.
I’m sure I’ll have another chance to run Green Wall. The Illinois is an awesome multi day trip. From the wildlife (otters, eagles, fish, mink, bears), to not seeing another boater the whole time, to the great whitewater, I’ll definitely be back.
Read on if you want to know more of what was going on in my head. The following was written in response to the topic “Experiencing the joy of doing” for Girls at Play.
As a relatively new boater I find myself overwhelmed with the advice people give me before a rapid. Go right/left, be ready to brace! boof! paddle! lean! Oh my gosh, give it a rest! It’s one thing to learn a sport as a child when our bodies are still experiencing everything for the first time so a few more new things isn’t overwhelming, but as an adult we think we know our bodies, but we only think we know how to move them.
My friends who have been boating many years take for granted the subtle micro adjustments their bodies make for balance and propulsion. Like a diver who has executed the same dive 1000 times, their bodies have learned to react without even thinking about it. Newbies, on the other hand, we have to remind ourselves to move this arm like this, hold your head down when trying to roll, etc. etc. I yearn for more naturalness in my boating, but I know it is something that can only come with time on the water.
A few days ago, two friends and I set off to run the Illinois River in Southern Oregon. I knew this river would have harder class IV and one class V on it and would be pushing my comfort limits. But I want to get better, so when approaching Submarine rapid, a class IV, I took my time. And yes, my pals coached me and were incredibly patient as I watched, looked, and just plain stared into the water until it nearly hypnotized me.
And that was when I actually felt like I could visualize myself moving in real time speed, entering the first narrow tongue on the right, preparing for the pillow that would push me left towards a recirculating hole, coasting around the next big hole and making a sharp turn to round the giant rock plug at the bottom.
I got into my boat, took my time lining up as I approached the entry, and then it happened; my conscious mind turned off and my body started doing. This was the sweet spot every athlete strives for- the moment your body reacts without the brain. “Let the intelligence of the brain bow to the wisdom of the heart,” is what my yoga teacher often says. I was doing without doing, and it was the lightest, most joyous moment on the water I have had so far.