Into the Gnar

Into the Gnar: Kayaking the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

“They have a cancellation!” my assistant, Sharon, said as she put the phone in my hand. Reservations for rafting on the middle fork of Idaho’s Salmon river are hard to get. It is one of the worlds most beautiful and remote wilderness rivers, one hundred miles of pristine white-water, snaking its way through the deep canyons of the Sawtooth Mountains.

A limited number of private permits to raft or kayak are given out in a lottery in order to manage the limited campsites along the river. There are usually a few cancellations each year, so I had told Sharon to call every day at noon in order to check for a cancellation during the week August 1- 8.

I took the phone from Sharon and spoke to the forest ranger, who told me that there had actually been three cancellations for that week. I turned to my computer and began checking each of the days astrologically. I noticed that on one of the days the Moon was in Uttara Ashadha Nakshatra. “I’ll take  August second.” I said.

Uttara Ashadha Nakshatra is symbolized by the tusk of an elephant. It is related to Ganesh, the Hindu deity who is the remover of obstacles. It is a preferred nakshatra for having successes in any undertaking. We needed all the help we could get for overcoming obstacles. With only two weeks to prepare, I had just made a reservation for a trip that would require an experienced river guide, a gear boat and lots of planning. The rules of the river forbid the holder of a private permit to “hire” a guide for money, so we needed to find a guide that would come for the sheer pleasure of rafting one of the world’s most beautiful rivers. “Noooo problem,” I thought, “Uttara Ashadha’s shakti is the power to create an unstoppable victory.  Ganesha will pull us through."

Normally, the preparation for a trip like this is a joint effort. However, in this case, my two traveling companions, Mark and Betty, were on a bicycle trip through Canada. Like most bicyclists, they were spending long days on the road, and camping at state parks, church lawns, and sometimes staying in an occasional motel. They would be returning three days before the river trip would begin, so the bulk of the preparation for the trip would be up to me. Although I have white-water rafted on rivers several times with Mark, he was really the instigator of this trip. I had never done such a long trip before, and really didn’t know how to organize it. Mark had told me that I needed to find a guide, and a river raft to carry our food and camping gear. Beyond that, I would need to rent an inflatable kayak. Mark and I planned to do the trip in kayaks, while Betty would ride in the river raft with the guide.

I began by calling every guide service in the Stanley, Idaho phone book, asking if anyone knew of an out of work guide that would like to do a trip for free. Private river trips are not allowed to pay their guides, for fear that it will infringe on the business of the commercial companies. Needless to say, my desperate inquiries were met with a less than friendly reception from the professional river rafting companies. I also tried river-guide associations, and an online forum or two. I even called all of the REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated) stores in the San Francisco bay area as well as Sacramento, and asked the workers there if they knew any river guides that would be interested. The prospects for doing such a long trip on such short notice were looking rather bleak. “The thing about planning a trip beginning on Uttara Ashadha,” I thought, “is that in order to overcome obstacles, you have to first have obstacles to overcome.” After a week of constant dead ends, I got a call from a friend of Mark’s that knew a guide who was willing to do the trip. The guides name was Brodie Sullivan. He owned a river raft, and had all the gear we needed. He would be coming with his friend, Brian, who was also an experienced river guide and kayaker.

I spoke to Brodie briefly on the phone the week before the trip. “I’ll be showing up in Stanley on the day before we leave,” he said. “I have all the gear we need, but you will have to do the shopping for food. I will be guiding a couple of other river trips in California in the mean time, so I might be hard to reach.” I agreed, happy to have overcome the first major obstruction, and put my mind on assembling my personal gear. I would need a wetsuit, river boots, paddle jacket, a helmet, and of course, I would have to rent an inflatable kayak.

When Mark and Betty returned from their bike trip, they were elated to hear that I had found a guide. We assembled a menu for the trip, and they volunteered to do the shopping. In the next couple of days, Mark tried to contact Brodie several times, hoping to finalize some last minute details, but he was nowhere to be found. “He said he would be on a couple of river trips and out of touch,” I said. “Yeah, but he should be able to at least give us a call between trips, and we need to talk to him about the gear,” Mark said. Mark had done a number of Middle Fork trips and was reluctant to trust that an unknown guide would simply “show up” at the last minute and have everything we needed. As our departure date got nearer, Mark started to get worried. “We really need to talk to Brodie and coordinate some things,” Mark said. “We need to finalize the details!”

I left for Stanley, Idaho, two days before the river trip was supposed to start. I was flying my Cessna 177, Cardinal. The thousand-mile trip took me just five and a half hours. As I got close to Stanley, the rugged terrain of the Sawtooths rose up in front of me. I was flying at 11,500 feet, just above the jagged peaks. As I flew, I made a constant scan for places to land in case of engine failure. The Cessna’s single 180-horse power Lycoming engine is very reliable, but it’s only a single engine, and airplane engines do occasionally fail. An engine failure here in the mountains would be a major predicament. I searched in vain through the rocky terrain below trying to imagine how I would manage an emergency landing. I thought of other pilots who have landed on mountain ridges or flown into stands of trees and lived to tell about it. “Not many walk away from that kind of landing,” I thought.

The airstrip at Stanley is pretty spectacular. Surrounded on all sides by huge peaks, the long dirt strip sits on a high plateau, just above the little town. The airstrip is frequented by back country pilots who make their livings shuttling rafting gear and rafters to remote airstrips along the Salmon river. Landing at such a high airstrip requires the pilot to be constantly aware of the many rapidly changing environmental conditions. Wind-shear can cause rapid loss of altitude on landing. Taking off in temperatures above 70 degrees in such thin air can cause an excessively long ground roll and the inability to become airborne. The results are usually fatal.  As I banked into the base leg of my approach, I could see the clusters of buildings, mostly log cabins, that make up the town of Stanley below. I thought about how fast my plane would be landing due to the thin air at this high altitude, as I nervously put down my flaps and adjusted my airspeed. “I really don’t want to land too long on this runway,” I thought. “Otherwise, I might roll right off the end and down the steep bank into town!” Such are the thoughts of a pilot before he lands. In reality, the Stanley airstrip was plenty long to handle any reasonable landing, and my landing turned out to be a reasonable one.

In the mean time, Mark and Betty had started their journey as well. Normally, they would have flown with me, however, we had so much gear with us that it filled up my plane, as well as their car. So while I was enjoying the mountain scenery in my plane, they were stuck driving the entire way from Healdsburg, California. Their trip took a grueling sixteen hours. While I was relaxing in my hotel room, my cell phone rang. “Heard from Brodie yet?” Mark asked. “Not yet,” I said, “but don’t worry, he said he would be coming at the last minute, so he’s not really late.” This explanation didn’t really pacify Mark, who had now been on the road for twelve hours and had downed at least 7 cups of coffee trying to stay awake. He had nearly fallen asleep and almost hit a deer on the road. He was worried about the lack of communication, and he was in no mood to give Brodie a break. So before we hung up, he launched into a three minute coffee-rant about how irresponsible Brodie had been for not calling us.

Mark and Betty arrived late that night, so I went to bed early and met them at breakfast. Mark’s mood had improved dramatically. “It’s amazing how much difference a little sleep will make,” Mark said. Even though he was still worried that Brodie might not show up, he apologized for his coffee-jag-rant and we settled in to discussing the trip. “In any case,” I said, “even though we haven’t heard from Brodie yet, don’t worry, we are starting the trip tomorrow on Uttar Ashadha Nakshatra. It’s symbolized by the tusk of an elephant. The tusk belongs to Ganesh, the remover of obstacles.” “What’s the tusk symbolize?” Mark asked. “It’s from a story,” I said. “Once Ganesh was sitting next to the great Vedic sage, Veda Vyasa. Vyasa said, 'I would like to write the Mahabarata (a great Indian epic tale) and I need a scribe. Would you (Ganesh) please be the scribe and write down what I say?' Ganesh looked at Vyasa and said, 'On one condition. I will write, but you must keep talking in one continuous stream. If you pause even for a moment, I will stop writing.' Vyasa, amused by Ganesh’s condition responded, 'Alright, I agree, but I have my own condition. You must keep concentrating while you write. If you lapse in your concentration for even a micro second, I will stop talking.' Apparently this arrangement was agreeable to both of them, because Ganesh then broke his tusk and used it as a pen to write the Mahabharata.”

Apparently, both Ganesh and Veda Vyasa were listening as I told this story, because at the very moment that I said, “Ganesh broke his tusk,” Mark, who was eating a blueberry pancake, winced and got a painful expression on his face. He put his hand to his mouth and pulled out his tooth. “I just broke my tooth!” he said. Uttara Ashadha is doing its thing,” I said. “You’ll have to write a story about this trip,” Mark said. “Want to use my tooth as a pen?”

Unhappy about the prospects of doing an eight day river trip with a broken tooth, Mark immediately got on the phone to find a dentist. He found a dentist in Ketchum, an hour south of Stanley, who was willing to give him an appointment that afternoon. Betty and I went to a bookstore in Ketchum while the dentist put a temporary crown on Marks tooth. Then we returned to Stanley and went to White Otter river rentals to pick up my kayak. Around 9 p.m., the phone rang. “It’s Brodie!" the voice said. “We just pulled into Stanley.” The last of our obstacles seemed to have been removed. Ganesh was doing his job.

We found Brodie and Brian at the gas station across the street from our motel, filling up Brodie’s truck. Brodie apologized for the lack of communications, and filled us in on their activities for the past few days. Apparently they had been on the river constantly and out of telephone contact. During their long drive to Stanley, they were not able to get cell phone reception. On the way, they had a flat tire and had also lost a cooler that had fallen off the back of the truck. In their mad rush to make it to Stanley in time for the trip, they hadn’t slept for thirty six hours. “We’ve basically been on continuous river trips all summer,” Brodie said. “I haven’t even taken a shower for the past three weeks!”

The next morning we all got up early and drove up to the departure point, called Boundary Creek, in Brodie’s truck. It took a couple of hours to register, pump up the two rafts, slide them down the ramp to the river, and finalize the packing. “Are you ready for this?” Mark asked me, as he handed me a life vest and a paddle jacket. “I guess,” I said, feeling a little nervous. “Come on up here,” Mark said, sensing my uneasiness. We hiked up the river bank to a vantage point. Below us, the Salmon River, made its way through a garden of boulders. Its crystal clear waters bubbled and frothed against the forest-lined banks of the Sawtooths. “See how the white-water begins down there just beyond that first boulder?” Mark said. You need to stay to the right. Just remember a couple of things. Keep your kayak perpendicular to the waves or else you’ll flip. Momentum is your friend. Paddle aggressively into the waves. If you do end up flipping, keep your feet down stream and float on your back or you will get pummeled by rocks. And never ever try to stand up in knee deep water. That’s a very good way to get killed.” “Thanks!” I said. “That’s a comforting thought.” I was secretly thinking, “What in the heck have I gotten myself into?”

My first day of Kayaking was relatively uneventful. I religiously pointed the front of my kayak into the waves and paddled like my life depended on it. Marks advice paid off, because I managed to stay upright. It was about 95 degrees, and the icy river water felt refreshing as it splashed against my bare legs while crashing through oncoming waves. “This is great!” I shouted to Mark, as his kayak pulled up next to mine. I felt like a fourteen year old kid on a roller coaster ride.

Our second and third days on the river were equally enjoyable. In calm sections of the river, we relaxed and floated while we took in the dramatic scenery provided by the Sawtooth Mountains. The towering granite mountains plummeted into deep forested canyons to make way for our little floating caravan. In one place we saw a family of river otters sunning themselves on the sand. In another we saw nine mountain goats traversing a steep embankment. We stopped periodically and soaked in luxurious natural hot springs along the river’s edge. At one point we stopped and hiked to a giant cave that had ancient petroglyphs carved on its walls. In the bigger rapids, we became more serious and focused. Mumbling my new mantra, “Momentum is your friend,” I aggressively pointed my kayak into even the biggest waves and managed to keep myself from flipping. “This isn’t so hard,” I thought to myself, “just keep the front end of the kayak pointed in the right direction and paddle hard. Nothing to it!” Famous last words.

At the end of each day we made camp at designated campsites with names like Funston, Cow Creek, Lost Oak, and Solitude. We had reserved these camps at the ranger station on the first day, just before we started the trip. Brodie and Brian did most of the work setting up the camp. Mark, Betty, and I took care of our personal gear, and Brian and Bodie had dinner waiting for us by the time our tents were set up. Then we all sat around the camp fire and talked.

Brian and Brodie, who had been rafting rivers constantly all summer, regaled us with tales of other river trips. “Once a group of us rafted down a level five section of the Rogue River at night on a new moon when it was completely dark,” Brian said. “What!” I said in utter disbelief. “How could you do that? How could you see?” White-water is rated from levels one through five. Level five is huge water that can easily flip any raft. “How could you tell where the big holes, boulders, waterfalls, and all the other big scary stuff was?” “We couldn’t,” Brian said calmly. “We couldn’t tell where we were going. We couldn’t see anything because it was completely dark. We just had to feel our way through the rapids.” “If you couldn’t see anything, what was the point?” I asked. “Sometimes it’s just fun to go into ‘the Gnar’,” Brian said. “The what?” I laughed as I asked. “The Gnar,” Brian repeated. "You know, big, 'gnarley' waves are a river rafter’s dream."  Gnar is short for gnarley, but to rafters it can also mean the unknown. Going into the gnar means you are casting your self into the unknown and surrendering to the flow of the river. “Wow!” I said. “That’s an amazing perspective.”

Suddenly, I saw these two unwashed, unkempt, long-haired vagabonds in a whole new light. They were modern-day yogis, but instead of spending their time meditating on the banks of the Ganges, they worshiped the Gnar, the unknown, rafting on rivers in California, Oregon and Idaho. Whether you call it the Gnar, the Tao, the Zone, or Sat Chit Ananda, devotees from all cultures have been casting away their possessions and their security, while seeking a direct experience of the Self for thousands of years. Without knowing it, Brodie and Brian had become devoted river-sadhus. After three days of rafting, I was beginning to understand why they had given up the conventional lifestyle in order to become river guides.

I was feeling pretty confident, as I got into my kayak on day four. I had survived for three days without flipping, and felt that I had taken most of what the river had to offer. We were floating on a calm stretch of the river. I pulled my kayak up next to Betty and Brodie’s raft. “You’re probably gonna’ flip today,” Betty said. Betty had rafted this river several times and knew its rapids by heart. She had seen many other kayakers flip on some of the rivers bigger rapids. “About a mile down river we will go through Cliffside, a big rapid named for the way the white-water crashes against the side of a cliff before the current changes and washes out into an eddy. “Thanks for telling me,” I said. The eternal optimist, Betty had been telling me since the trip began, that I would definitely flip at least four or five times before we were finished. Flipping is not really any big deal, as long as you don’t mind the sensation of being in a large washing machine turned on high. Normally the big water just flushes you down stream without a problem. As long as you know how to hold your breath and can catch a breath between waves, it isn’t a problem. On the other hand, where there are waves, there are also rocks, and it is very easy to get your body dinged and bruised if you flip in the wrong place. That’s the part that makes me uncomfortable with flipping. You just never know what lurks beneath those pesky rapids.

We continued downstream and stopped in an eddy just before the beginning of the Cliffside rapid. Mark, who was an experienced kayaker, pulled his kayak beside mine and talked me through the rapid. “You have to enter over there on the right," he said, as he pointed to a large boulder sticking out of the river. “Stay to the right of that boulder at first and then work your way to the left. There are three big holes. If you make it through the holes, then you have to start paddling hard to the right. The river hits the granite wall just below the holes so you will have to paddle like mad in order to miss it.” “Okay,"  I said nervously. “Just follow me,”  Mark said as he started toward the boulder in his kayak.

I waited about 30 seconds and when Mark rounded the first boulder, I started paddling. As I came around the large boulder I could see the angry, foaming white-water below. I paddled hard, trying to make my way to the left, to avoid hitting a large rock, and immediately saw the first hole. The river was flowing over a rock formation that caused it to make a three foot drop into a large foaming pit. At the far end, large waves crashed backwards into the hole ready to chastise any kayaker who dare enter. I pointed the tip of my kayak strait at this chaotic mass of white water and paddle with all my strength. It was like riding a horse down a steep embankment. I leaned back as my tiny kayak slid down the water fall and hit the bottom of the massive hole. I immediately reached forward and aggressively dug into the oncoming retrograde wave. The kayak lurched and bucked as it broke through the wave and out of the hole. “I made it!” I thought. “Only two more to go.” I relaxed for a split second. The kayak continued to buck in the big waves, when suddenly a huge lateral wave came from my left. It picked up my little boat and flipped it like a pancake. I was suddenly swimming beside the upturned kayak. “Hang on to the paddle,”  I thought, as I grabbed the paddle that was floating beside me. “Feet downstream,” I thought, maneuvering myself to avoid the rocks as my body rushed through the foaming white-water. There were two more holes ahead, before the river would hit the granite wall.

I managed to keep myself horizontal as my body was flushed down river. I spent most of the time under the rushing, foaming water, so I passed through the next two holes without even realizing it. Although the adrenaline was pumping, I remained relatively calm and was able to catch an occasional breath between the big waves. Just after the last hole, I came up for air, still next to my overturned kayak. I could see the granite wall twenty yards ahead. The angry river was getting ready to slam my body right into it. I moved my arms to adjust my position so that I would hit the wall feet-first. I hit the wall and pushed off with my feet as the current changed to the right and swept me into the eddy. Mark, Betty, Brodie and Brian, were all shouting as I passed their boats. Mark pulled up next to me with his kayak and helped me turn my kayak upright. I pulled myself back into the boat and paddled over to the bank of the river. Mark pulled along side me. “Your first swim,” he said. “Congratulations, you’re not a novice any more!” “Thanks a lot,” I groaned. Now that the adrenaline began to subside, I started to shiver. I was exhausted and hungry, but I felt happy to have made it through, unscathed.

During the remainder of the trip, the river moved through progressively more dramatic terrain, and eventually through “The Impassable Canyon,” so named for the steep cliffs that line the river banks. Each day brought a new set of surprises, as the river’s ever-changing currents moved us downstream. I seemed to lose all sense of time, and effortlessly adjusted to alternating stretches of calm water, followed by white water rapids. I was no longer worried about flipping, even though Betty’s prediction that I would probably flip at least three more times, eventually proved correct. As I floated through those canyons, not knowing what magical scenery or raging currents the river would produce next, I could only feel the deepest sense of awe and wonder. I felt like I was part of something bigger than this single river. I was connected to the infinite flow of nature. The unknown lay before me like a boundless abyss. I had entered the “Gnar”.