Tuesday, February 26, 2008

January on the Little White Salmon.


Its Sunday, three of us are driving from Corvallis bound for the Little White Salmon and all I can think of is a way to get out of it. The LW is at one of the perfect levels: right around 3ft. It a cold grey day, its been snowing like crazy and we know there will be feet of snow at the put in. Fortune seems to stack in my favor when one of our group, already in Portland, calls to back out. He’s feeling sick and now we don’t have shuttle. “Come by and grab a bike,” he says. “What about Canyon Creek?” I say. Chris and Rick have similar feelings but are less vocal about it and we borrow a bike and finish the snowy journey to the take out where we pile out, relieve ourselves in different directions, drop the bike and drive up the steep and snowier that expected roads to the put in. “Chris, are you sure you want to bike in this?” I ask, betraying myself again and again. At the put in after some tense, ‘I don’t know what do you want to do’ Chris G says, “quit your whining and get dressed, lets do this.” At the end of the day we are all smiling, and happily BSing about the drops: “Did you see my line over S-Turn?” “Yea, you had a sweet boof!”, “Wasn’t Wishbone weird.” The day showed we were all competent and capable and left me wondering what we (especially me) were so worried about and why I’d been putting Joe off for so long.


I’ve been down the Little White perhaps 15 times since I started creeking in July of 2004. The first was in the spring of 2005. I had a great day, was left riding high, thinking I was pretty badass and wondering why it was such a legendarily hard run. Over the next few years, a series of experiences would eventually leave me with a heart-pumping, pit of the stomach, voice quavering feeling about it. I’m no badass, I’m certainly no local paddler running 5 laps a week after work at 3.8ft and higher, but I do alright and the LW is certainly within my skill level. I’ll happily put on longer, harder, more technical rivers without the same nerves so what the heck happened? For me, it started with a Jefe. I had an unfortunate time surfing in a sticky ledge hole above a sticky ledge hole above a sticky ledge called Horseshoe. It left me somewhat shaken. I lost confidence in my ability to drive that boat and navigate that gorge. A few boats later, I was following Chris Korbulic down at a healthy flow and suddenly, I couldn’t hit my lines, couldn’t boof, blew a few eddies and even if I could catch an eddy, I’d soon be seeing Chris K’s head disappearing around the next drop. By the time we got to Island, I was pretty pissed at myself before realizing I had a large crack under my seat and the boat had several gallons of water in it. I had a long hike out for my bad day to sink in. It all stacked up to a losing ‘head-game’ on that river.


All paddlers deal with fear, nerves, the head-game at some point: new paddlers, seasoned paddlers, those in between. To paraphrase Steve Fisher: We are all between swims, as you get better they get farther apart and worse. I think the same can be said for dealing with the fear when things start stacking up against you. Except perhaps one well known paddler who has gone on record saying something like “I don’t really feel fear…” Well, I’d tell him that fear is just a word. The idea behind it is universal combination of questions: How likely am I to screw up and how bad is it going to be if I do? When you fall on the negative side of either or both, that’s something like fear. Its not always rational and its not always bad. The fear that paralyzes, when you lose it on the river, is bad. The fear that focuses, keeps you in the moment, is arguably one of the major reasons we are all on the river and what keeps it exciting and keeps us coming back.

Call it fear, call it whatever you like. It’s just a word. The balance is different for each paddler, different for each day, different for each river. There are paddlers without as much skill or experience as some, who are willing to huck themselves off big drops, knowing their chances of a clean line are minimal but not caring about, or not thinking about the consequences. Where the balance falls is obvious for them. There are paddlers who have years of experience, are so smooth and clean they never even get their faces we let alone miss a line but will never boat anything with significant consequences because the risk isn’t worth it, and of course there are those paddlers who have tremendous skill and experience who run the biggest drops clean. We all fall somewhere in there. What kind of boater are you?


I know that I am not a true hucker and probably never will be. I care too much about having a clean line, worry too much about the consequences. I’ll never be a Chris Korbulic, or Jesse Coombs. I know I don’t have enough experience or skill to be exceedingly confident yet: If I look at a big drop for more than about 20 minutes, I’ll talk myself out of it. Take Frustration Falls on the Oregon Salmon for example. We paddled up to that drop and I knew I was going to run it. An hour later, I was cold and had looked at the crux too long and convinced myself out of it.

Experience will come, its something we can all use a little bit more of, mastering my fear… who knows. To boaters that know me, I’m fairly conservative and I like it that way. I hope to get my head on right enough to run the big drops and be confident, but I’m not going to rush it and it may not ever happen. I’m ok with that though. I’m just happy to have gotten back on the Little White, for a clean, confidence-building run with friends who understand my fears, share them to a certain extent, and finish smiling and happy to do it again sometime soon.

Fast forward to a few weeks later, I was sitting up at Dr. Greg’s cabin on the hill near Hood River with Johnny, Brian, and Dave having almost an identical conversation. “I want to get back on it but it scares me,” someone says and for me it’s good to know I’m not the only one that deals with fear on the river. Its good to know the Little White gets in the heads of other boaters I know and respect. Everyone in the room agreed, if there is one river that is run regularly that everyone should respect and never take for granted, never stop being just a little nervous on, it’s the Little White. It’s good not to be alone.


Thanks to Rick Cooley for the photos.


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