Respect, Reverence and Whitewater

A quick trip to Boise to visit my (used to be) little brother. Of course my brother wants to entertain so even before I get there he starts sending texts about current levels on the Main Payette (“10,000 cfs on the Main. Big Water. Big Fun!”).

I call him and tell him he’s crazy. My brother is a white-water canoeist and whitewater canoeists will insist that they, and you (if you happen to visit without a boat), go down river in a whitewater canoe because going down by kayak, raft or (god forbid) inflatable kayak would mean that you have no concept of style. It is better to look good for that brief moment before you swim, than to just get through.

Good whitewater canoeists are a pleasure to watch but the truth is, if you take a recreational boater and put him or her in a whitewater canoe, they’re going to swim. I am a recreational boater. Swimming class III whitewater at 10,000 cfs is not a normal past time of mine.

But one of the unspoken laws of being an older brother is that you can’t show weakness or fear to the younger brother. Little brothers can smell fear and once you let on that you’re afraid, the natural order of things is disrupted and respect and reverence are lost. And so when I got to his house and Charlie asked me if I wanted to go boating I casually said yes. Casually, like boating rivers at flood stage was just another thing I normally do. “It’s class III,” I told myself. “What could go wrong?

Photo by John Looze

The next morning I found myself stuffed into a dry suit and standing on the banks of the Main Payette with Charlie’s friend and long-time Idaho whitewater canoeist, John Looze. John Looze turns 70 this summer and I was to ride in a tandem canoe with him. If you’re going to ride in a tandem whitewater canoe in Idaho then ride in one with John Looze. This man has been beating people over the head with paddles for about 5 decades and he immediately tore into me. I tried to maintain that I knew what I was doing but within five minutes he called my bluff and tore into my brother.

“Charlie I thought you said your brother knew what he was doing?” John snorted. “You vouched for him and now it turns out I’m going down the Payette at flood stage with a novice? WTF!?”

Then it was into the boat and into the water for a trial by fire. Rule number one: “Never let go of your paddle!” Rule number two: “Never take your paddle out of the water!” Rule number three: “You will never touch the gunnels in my boat!” We started paddling and the rules kept coming. “Use your whole body, not your wrists. Save your wrists for sex.”

Five minutes of warm up then into the first wave train. “Rock your hips! Stay upright! Paddle! Draw. Draw! Dammit I SAID DRAW!!!!

Photos by Donna Looze

We pulled into an eddy just before the first big rapid, “GLOYF”. “Go left or you’re fired” if you work for a rafting company. Everyone else uses the other f-word. Charlie styled right down the middle but John gave it to me straight, “Given your dismal canoeing ability I’d say we have about an 80 percent chance of swimming this rapid.” I didn’t want to swim so we took the sneak, but even the sneak worked us over.

The sneak is not style. And getting worked over on the sneak is the lowest of the low. My brothers disapproving eyes glowered beneath his helmet. The older brother respect meter dropped a notch.

The next few rapids were a series of big wave trains with the 17′ tandem canoe launching off the waves and landing in the trough followed by a wave of water over the bow and into my face.

Rule #2: Never take your paddle out of the water! Photo by Charlie Finley

Everything was going swimmingly. I was using my whole body, I knew how to draw and I was rocking my hips. Then we entered “Mixmaster”, choppy and violent – especially at 10,000 cfs. The first waves crisscrossed before us but we punched though. The second wave launched us. The third wave ate us.

Swimming big water is kind of like falling. If you don’t anticipate the moment it’s not so bad. One second you’re tipping (death grip on the paddle), the next second you’re gulping, the third second you remember to cup your mouth to keep the spray out. By the fifth second you’re struggling to figure out which way is upstream and which way is downstream. Then you’re out of the waves, bouncing downriver and you automatically start kicking to shore.

Rule #1: Never let go of your paddle! Photo by Charlie Finley

Before I knew it, I was standing on river rocks in the sun with my paddle death grip. “There is no way I’m doing that again,” I thought as I coughed up water. Charlie paddled over to make sure I was all right and as he approached I took ten deep breaths to try and ease my trembling. The respect meter had dropped another notch when I swam. It fell even lower when he noticed my trembling.

We had one final rapid. The first wave gave us some air. The second wave dumped us into a trough that took our boat and knocked us sideways and we found ourselves cresting the third wave parallel and looking down at a mean drop. Down the drop sideways into the meat of the trough where an entire wave engulfed the boat – immediately filling it to the gunnels. I rocked my hips hard against the smash and John braced. The boat snapped upstream so hard that it smashed my fingers on the top of my paddle against a gunnel. We tipped. Water poured over the edge of the canoe. “Here we go again,” I thought. The respect meter was going to bottom out.

Then we punched out, right side up.

John let out a series of expletives; for about 3 minutes I all I heard was “HOLY MOTHER F- HOLY MOTHER F-! I’ve never had that happen! – HOLY MOTHER F-! CHARLIE DID YOU SEE THAT?!!! HOLY MOTHER F-! “.

Charlie pulled up next to us and drifted downriver smiling. While we swam one rapid we had pushed through the last one with style. Respect and reverence for the older brother had returned to my (used to be) little brother’s eyes. I had redeemed myself and order had returned.

Photo by Charlie Finley