Saturday, April 14, 2018

A humbling day in the gorge

It was early April and the forecasted 60 degree day had us dreaming of willing risers. We saddled up the raft and entered the gorge despite the 40 degree water temps. Mandatory lifejacket conditions. Packed with all the gear we imagined we'd need was a dry bag of spare clothes for each of us. Along for this float was Stacy, my wife. This is one of the three special stretches of water that I had resolved to show her this year.

The day started off with a few stocked rainbows as we pin-balled between rocks while trying to steer clear of the anglers on the banks who were out for opening day of trout season. We made it through the upper sections within walking distance of the put in without embarrassing ourselves and entered a secluded waterway paralleled by a rail trail and nothing else for miles. The number of anglers dropped off and the soundscape of the gorge asserted itself.

Along an inside seam of a sweeping run we posted up in thigh deep water and showed my wife how to cast a switch rod with a double nymph indicator rig. She is a natural and was dead drifting momentarily. We talked about reading a river and where the fish would be with water this cold. After ten minutes of prospecting she set into a decent fish.

She may be a natural at casting but her fish fighting skills need some work. She started to reel in the wrong direction then laid about 20ft of slack into the run. While my brother and I shouted somewhat contradictory instructions she picked up the slack and got the fish on the reel, which we were all surprised was still there.

With continuous tension and a bent 11 footer she played the fish so I could net it. We were rewarded with one of the gorge's resident wild browns; an increasingly common little miracle in light of the polluted history of this watershed.

With frozen hands we kept the fish wet and snapped a photo before its vigorous release. We talked about our childhood memories of this river, of the dam that could do a better job of keeping it cool in the summers, of our hopes for its future. Then, we continued downriver.

I'll call it complacency, but we have only ourselves to blame for the trouble we found ourselves in a few hours later. The rapids in the gorge have names and we have a homemade book of maps with instructions for running them. We also have a spare paddle that can be used as a pushpole by the person in the bow. That book was unconsulted and the paddle was stowed when we slid into a hairy piece of water several miles from any road.

In seconds, we realized we were headed sideways over a drop of a few feet and that this raft was going to flip, that we were going for a swim and that our gear was going to be smashed.

Thankfully, we became stuck fast on the lip of the drop in some class III whitewater. Mark, sensing no other option, hopped out from the bow into the waist deep water, simultaneously unsticking us from the rock and spinning us into proper position by swinging us by the stern handles. As we went over the lip he attempted to reboard from the stern but slipped and was left standing against a boulder on the upstream side. We made it through the rapid, rowed to shore as soon as possible and ran upstream to offer assistance.

Mark was standing in the middle of the river with no way to cross to safety. We threw him an extra lifejacket and shouted across the whitewater to come up with a plan. He decided his best option was to kick up his feet and ride downriver while we backrowed into an eddy to catch him as he went by.

He cinched his wading belt and strapped on the second life jacket. I pulled hard to cross the river and got the boat near where we thought he'd come out. We signaled for him to go.

He sat back into the frigid water and was swept through the rapid. I pulled out into the current and he grabbed the end of the spare paddle that Stacy extended for him. Holding onto the pontoon, I ferried him to shore.

We were thankful for the dry bag of clothing and that this situation turned out the way it did.

The 60 degree day never materialized but dry clothes and renewed vigilance kept us warm enough. We fished our way downriver, bringing many more to hand. Mark even moved a monster on a streamer but we were ripping by too fast to make another cast.

Hours later we arrived at the pool we were hoping would be dimpled with risers. It was not. We let the tranquil waters ferry us to the takeout, and called it a day.

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