Imagine seeing your guide being catapulted a dozen feet in the air, legs running airborne above water that's raging over boulders the size of a small car. Not a normal occurrence for my friend and river guide David Kinker or the Crooked River. Yet it's those moments that brought 27 boaters, made up of two catarafts, two rafts, and 16 kayakers together to celebrate an April day. The conditions for our trip are seen a few days to a week per year on the Crooked, and not necessarily every year. In our case, the high flows created about five rapids in the class IV and V range within towering narrow canyon walls. These required expertise in setting up safety lines and a high level of awareness at all times from fellow boaters.
This was a particularly talented group. And after nervously thinking about it all day, I joined officially at about 9 p.m. the night before our appointed launch. Organizer David Kinker, knowing that I have two young kids, was cautious from the start. He checked flows a few hours before our trip and officially declared it doable with relative safety, but adding, "Oh, it's gonna be big." Thanks to my friend Chris Marion who said, "On the water I trust Kinker with my life," and an extra nudge from my husband Scott, I was in. I had to embrace one of the reasons I live in Bend in the first place - that fact that lurking just around the corner is an adventure to be had when you least expect it. Kinker knew what a special opportunity this was to raft the Crooked River gorge and brought together some of the best kayakers in Bend. If you weren't one of the best, you would be hard pressed to come out unharmed on this 28-mile trek with water levels this high. Among us were Tim Thorton, owner of River Drifters, John Kramp, operations manager for Sun Country, sponsored kayaker Scott Backer, ex-Olympic kayaker Jason Bowerman, Greg Malery, an excellent boater with paraplegia, Franz Helfenstein, an extreme explorer who, among other things, has kayaked the Bering Strait. Finally, Kinker is a well-known local artist, educator, and a regular guide on the Grand Canyon, Owyhee, and Wind to name a few - not to mention the originator of the "Kinker Line" at Benham Falls.
We started on water flowing at around 3,200 cubic feet per second (cfs) and ended on water at 4,200 cfs because of the recharge from the area's springs. That's a volume comparable to the lower Deschutes in August, but with twice the gradient and a narrower canyon. The speed in laymen's terms amounted to about 6-7 mph on flat water and easily up to 25 mph through the bigger rapids.
The nervous excitement most everyone felt when we pushed off was somehow reassuring to me. I looked at Kinker and asked him how he was feeling, knowing very clearly how I was feeling. "Oh, I feel a little something; it's healthy," he said smiling. My boat mates Boston, Steve, Chris and I practiced some simulated situations. We had a few moments to ponder a redtail hawk nesting on a ledge, and then there it was - the bridge. The bridge that symbolized that the journey begins. It felt a bit like the gates in The Land Before Time. On the other side - the unknown. We entered into a deep, canyon-walled rapid resulting in a couple swims from another boat. Using my newly learned safety skills, Chris and I grabbed onto the lifejacket of one man and pulled him into our boat. "To feel so alive!" I yelled as we high-fived paddles after this first of many rapids. After another rapid, we had a kayaker with a broken paddle. Thankfully, another kayaker had a breakdown paddle stowed.
The breathtaking and epic journey down this river took us through Smith Rock. Flattening ourselves comically to make it under the footbridge, we were greeted by lots of energy and happiness from families and climbers all out enjoying this beautiful day. We coursed through the gorge beneath Peter Skene Ogden State Park catching sight of a bald eagle, beautiful, and an almost unidentifiable Ford at the bottom of the Crooked River gorge - not so beautiful. There was an almost tropical section of numerous natural springs pouring from beneath mossy rocks in the canyon at Crooked River Ranch. Kinker added his guiding wisdom with accounts of the river's history. He pointed out hidden petroglyphs and described the types of lava flows that resulted in the various colors and unique layering of the rocks. Near Opal Springs, we spotted a Dall sheep, adding to the wildlife experience.
The intensity continued through the gorge. I'm not exaggerating when I say the rapids at No Name, 1,2 and Whapty Doodle (the guide launch), had waves as tall as my shed. We went off the back of rocks the size of my Jeep. We rode the sides of compression waves like we were casually surfing, and we were airborne more times than I can count. I will never forget the image of a giant old growth tree blocking half of a rapid, slapping the water with a vicious thud. I watched the kayakers shoot off the top of a curl created just left of the tree's root ball. I was truly giddy with awe.
At Billy Chinook we had a prearranged pontoon boat and fishing boat to take us an additional seven miles from the river mouth to the boat launch. Filling the pontoon with about 13 people we laughed as it nearly capsized from the weight, pontoons completely submerged. Everything was funny at this point in the day as dusk settled in. The remaining folks got cozy by a riverside fire. As the sunset gave way to darkness, we warmed ourselves by drinking Kinker's special homebrew treat. As we later headed out by Maglite with six boats in tow, I pondered the day with a genuine smile on my face. All in all we were unscathed, minus a few swims, a broken paddle, and some gentle bruising; it was awesome. The confidence, the respect of the river's character, and the ability to act quickly in the face of unpredictability is a true testament of river people. What a Sunday.