I originally wrote and published this piece in January of 2015. Recently I've been spending a lot of time thinking about risk and reward, and how our perception of it changes as we age. I have chosen not to add to this original piece, and instead may write more about this in an upcoming post. However, I feel that much of this still rings true for me.
All photos have been added since original publication.
Clancy Reece is name that resonates with every Idaho boatman, and even boatmen further away. He was a pioneer in the sport of whitewater rafting and an avid lover of rivers everywhere but mostly of his home river, the Salmon, and the river that would eventually take his life. Clancy Reece was known for the saying "Anything Worth Doing is Worth Overdoing" and that saying led him on some crazy river adventures including rowing the Salmon river from its headwaters to the pacific ocean in an handmade dory (a wooden boat favored by old time river runners.) It was in this same boat that he, along with a few friends decided to set a time record on the flooding Salmon river in 1996. And it was on this adventure that Clancy Reece met his demise.
The spot where Clancy Reece and his 2 companions found themselves in the water was just mere miles upstream from where, in May of last year, I faced the reality of the risks I choose to take. House Rock, is just that, a big rock, at most flows. Above 30,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) it becomes a hole big enough to swallow a greyhound bus. If you know the river this hole is easy to miss, there are crisp green highways of clear, smooth water on either side. But the hole is nearly invisible from above.
In May of 2014 the Salmon River was running 56,000 cfs. Still nearly half of what it had been when Clancy Reece set out to set a time record, and not a particularly concerning level for a group of experienced river guides out for their yearly all staff trip. In fact, the mood was one of excitement for the coming trip. Big water and warm weather sat on the horizon to dust off the winter and get ready for yet another summer living the dream.
The morning of the second day dawned warm and clear. I was regretting not bringing my neoprene wet suit because while the day was hot, the water still held the frigid reminder of winter. I knew I would be ungodly hot in my dry suit and we wouldn't hit the big rapids until the next day so I opted for running pants and a long sleeve t-shirt. The shirt I had jokingly referred to as my "visibility in the water shirt" because of its bright pink color.
We were encouraged to have a mix of more and less experienced guides on each raft and to let the guides with less oar experience row. They day was uneventful as we caught up with each other about winter jobs and hopes and dreams for the coming season. The water was high, so it was pushy and, especially for the less experienced oarsman, the eddies were a constant fight to avoid. Its a natural part of any high water trip so we weren't all that concerned when our boat got well behind the boat in front of it.
Most of the group guided on the Salmon, but the stretch we were on was not one our company ran commercially very often and many of us had only seen it once, or maybe never at all. I had only been down the "Riggins stretch" once previously, the year before during the staff trip when the rookie guides, me included (having previously only guided on low volume rivers,) had balked at the "high water" (it was 25,000 cfs)
Even as we approached what looked like some sort of obstacle in the river, I felt little fear. I was the second most experienced river guide on the boat, but I let my superior take the task of guiding the newer rower on the oars. I have always felt that to many voices is just confusing and frustrating. In the days and months that followed I came to find from my conversations that no one really had any idea what was coming. As we encouraged the woman on the oars to avoid the obstacle, the power of the river began to take hold the only though in my mind was "well, we are going to hit it, I've been in sticky situations a hundred times the only thing to do now is to see what this river has in store for us."
Later the other guides would ask us what things had been said on the boat, was there screaming? Had I thought of jumping and swimming for shore? After all, a body is safer swimming that kind of thing away from a boat full of metal and wood and numerous other things that could hurt a person. Maybe, if I had known what was about to happen I would have felt any of these things. But I didn't. All I felt was determination. I would will this boat through what was to come. The people on the boat were dead silent and the oarsman had stopped rowing. Looking back, it wouldn't have mattered one bit.
As our boat floated, slow and sideways, over the lip of what I would later discover was called House Rock Hole, I suddenly realize that we were in deep shit. I, having grown up on rivers, threw myself at what river guides call the "high side" of the boat, knowing with all my heart that my 140 pound frame was not going to change a damn thing.
I have flipped boats, I have fallen out of boats. I once had a swim in a remote river well above the arctic circle where I was in the river for 10 minutes and swam two class 3 rapids, I thought that was a bad swim. When the force of that hole hit our boat I realized that I have never, not in 4 years of professionally guiding or 15 years of running rivers, known with complete honesty what a river could feel like. Unlike my previous swims, I never felt my hat or sunglasses get ripped off my face, I never felt the rope I was clinging to get ripped from my hand. I just knew I was in the water.
I don't know how long I was underwater. My friends who occupied the five or so boats in front of us and in the safety boat behind us said it was long enough for them to get nervous, really nervous. Amazingly after hours of swiftwater training, many miles on rivers and countless war stories, I didn't know I was being recirculated in a hole. I knew that every time I came up for air I was pushed back down. I knew that when I reached for the surface I was grabbing pieces of boat, oars, frame, dry bags, but just as soon as I grabbed them, they were yanked out of my hand.
We had been occupying a fully loaded 18 foot oar boat, Three passengers, one rower. From what the guides downstream saw our boat flipped 3, maybe 5 times, in the hole before it was released. The frame was ripped apart and the four of us were under there somewhere. Being tossed around and around in a hole full of more water than you can imagine.
Its amazing the calm you find underwater. I remember thinking I needed to get my feet up, get swimmers position. Then I remember thinking that I was an idiot. This was flood stage salmon, foot entrapment should have been the least of my worries.
Finally, when I didn't think I could handle one more pummeling, the river let me go. I guess in my mind I knew then that I had been in a hole, but it still hadn't really registered. I tried to take a deep breath and found I couldn't and my instincts kicked in. I looked downstream, realized I could make it to shore without the risk of getting swept into another disaster and swam for my life. I grabbed the rock and didn't even have time to register my safety before the last boat came into view. I was urged to swim to it because where I was wouldn't have been an easy landing for that boat and there were still others somewhere in the water.
Thankfully the adrenaline was still in high gear so I didn't question the command. I was hauled onto the boat and collapsed, I think? threw up maybe? My memory becomes blurry at this point. I remember picking up the other experienced guide a few hundred yards downstream. I remember his toothbrush floating around in the eddy beside him, an ominous sign. I remember getting reprimanded for talking to much, very uncharacteristic of me. I remember a fellow guide running up the road and yelling to us that everyone was okay and regardless thinking that CPR was being preformed when I saw a guide laying on the upside down boat which had been pulled to shore. I remember thinking I was warm, but being shoved into dry clothes and sitting in a daze as guides worked frantically to fix the broken frame and to assure that the four of us were okay. We were, but that doesn't mean the flip didn't have a lasting effect on all of us.
The experienced changed my view on risk and on the things that I enjoy doing. The relaxing, early season trip had turned into a nightmare. I didn't sleep much, and I honestly don't remember much from the rest of the trip. Just wanting it to be over, wanting to get on with the season and put the near disaster behind me. I do remember approaching what was supposed to be the biggest rapid of the stretch the next day. I remember hiking up to scout with all of the other guides and I remember puking in the bushes. I couldn't run that rapid, couldn't even think about riding a boat through it, and I didn't have to. So I relented to the river and I walked around.
An experience like that changes you. Suddenly, the Moyie, a fun class III river in northern Idaho, which I had spent the week before the staff trip training on and was about to guide for my second season in a row, was terrifying. I hated going to work, I was petrified and I thought I had lost my love for the river, which scared me even more. I heard that the woman who was rowing the boat quit. I didn't blame her and it would be lying to say that the thought never crossed my mind.
Slowly over the course of the summer I began to regain my confidence. It didn't come without moments of ungodly terrifying fear like I had never experienced before while looking at rapids I had run plenty of times. Or without the none too rare admonishment from other guides that "everyone takes bad swims and you really just need to get over it."
The season ended well and I had a great summer and found my love for not just rivers, but the mighty Salmon returning. Something had changed though. While I never considered myself fearless, I now found myself calculating risks to a much greater degree. All of those fears, even a glimpse at the uncontrollable not breathing, intense fear I found on the river the following days came rushing back to me as I looked down at the Big Couloir in Big Sky, Montana on a ski vacation with my family this past week. My dad had been talking about that run for weeks. It was "the run" to do there and as I looked at it my body was flooded with two very strong feelings. I was going to ski that run and I was going to feel fear that I wasn't sure I was ready to feel again.
My mind began getting flooded with these thoughts. Why do some people get these fears and some do not? Fear is our human response to protect ourselves from dying a likely death. However, I am part of the group of people who thrives on feeling that adrenaline. Isn't an short life full of adventure better than a long life living in absolute safety? What is absolute safety anyway? After all, driving your car on any given day is more likely to kill you than rafting a flooding river, skiing a gnarly line or climbing a vertical cliff right?
At breakfast on our last morning as my dad and I discussed the Big Couloir and my career as a ski patroller, my mother burst into tears. What she was feeling was not fear for her own life, risks made under her own decision but rather fear for the lives of her family, the ones who were making the decisions to ski a big run or raft a flooding river.
I have no doubt that the Big Couloir is an amazing, terrifying ski run and I have no doubt that I could ski it, but at that moment I made the decision that this was not the time. What if, on that off chance that I killed myself or got seriously hurt, it happened on this fun and relaxing family vacation. Who was that fair to?
Fear and risk are incredibly tricky things. The little risks we take day to day, even as adventure guides. Which waves we hit with guests, and which we don't. How fast we drive our cars, or ski or which cliff we jump off of. Even, for some people, how much money they put in a slot machine. Each is calculated, albeit in very different ways. So what is the right amount of fear? The right amount of calculation? I don't know and I think it is different for everyone, Is anything worth doing really worth overdoing?