Monday, January 12, 2009

Excursion Article Series 07-05-08: Extreme Gros Ventre River Rafting

Caption: A kayaker plays in a hole near the launch area for the Gros Ventre River.

Gros Ventre River is one wild ride

Excursion: Gros Ventre River rafting

Length: About 2 hours

Difficulty: Expert

Distance: About 2.6 miles on river

Directions: Take Gros Ventre Road 2.2 miles to parking area by river. Leave shuttle at turnout. Continue on road until Taylor Ranch Road. Follow until just after bridge and launch from Slide Lake.

Helmets not optional.

That was the mental note I made as an eddied-out kayaker rapped his helmet and drilled me with his eyes. The kayaker’s thought crossed the whitewater loud and clear: “Idiots.”

And I felt like one too.

We rented a 12-foot self-bailer for the occasion, and the rental company was out of helmets, so we chose to risk it rather than throw out our plan to float the early-season high water of the Gros Ventre River.

What I didn’t know is just how dangerous the Gros Ventre is. It’s only floatable when the runoff really hits – late June and early July. Then it’s even dangerous for people that really know the river. The invitations on to our boat were selective; it was only three of us locals and our friend Jason Laughlin who guides for Dave Hansen Whitewater.

We put in at Slide Lake and Jason said he thought we should pray for safety.

What were we getting into?

We glanced at the fisherman we had displaced to launch, shrugged and listened to Jason pray for river smarts and safety.

With the “amen” came the butterflies. If a professional guide was worried enough to pray before we hit whitewater, I knew it was going to be one wild ride. While still on the lake, Jason briefed us to make sure we knew how to paddle. For this trip, “left side” meant “left side paddle forward, right side paddle back – and hard.” This ensured maximum maneuverability. He tested our execution and then we went onto the river.

We passed under the bridge and it didn’t take long to recognize the river’s nature. Not only does the whitewater come fast and frequent, but the whole river is littered with boulders, holes and half-submerged trees.

Not too far down, we saw a kayak pinned upside down against a flat boulder.

“I hope there’s not anyone in that,” our guide said. Followed by a less concerned, “I want to come back and get it later. It’s like a $1,000 kayak.”

The kayaks weren’t the only ones hitting boulders. We had several close calls ourselves, despite great paddling and steering. After scraping over several rocks into holes and bouncing off a couple more, we wound up pinned against a half-submerged stand of willows. The water billowed up behind us and suctioned the raft’s upriver side under.

“High side!” someone yelled – it might have even been me. At this point, I was already envisioning floating down the shallow river in my life jacket, feet pointed downriver for safety, flailing to avoid the labyrinthine obstacles. Luckily, or perhaps blessedly, after we jumped to the high side, the boat righted, we were unpinned and we continued on our way.

The whitewater was so constant that Jason had us under constant supervision.

“Right side!” he yelled. Two strokes later: “Left side!” One stroke: “Break!” Three seconds: “All ahead, go!”

The commands weaved us in and out of a maze of boulders, logs and snags. All of us knew how to read a river. For me it was a matter of waiting to hear the commands I was already expecting as we plowed through one wave after another.

We eddied out to scout out Hermit’s – the Big Kahuna of the Gros Ventre. The most passable route is to go right around a boulder and drop down a steep incline toward the left side of the river. Though it looked unnerving, we hit it perfectly – pure fun.

After the constant Class IV waves, the last leg is the only place to rest for long. Do not do this unless you go with an experienced guide who knows the Gros Ventre River. Period. The sheer technicality of the river could swallow a lot of boats, as indicated by the pinned kayak we saw. It is not as friendly as the Snake River. Also make sure you have a maneuverable self-bailer if you go.

“On the Snake you can get drunk and float in an inner tube,” Jason said, “but if you do that on the Gros Ventre, you’re signing your will.”

In fact, when we were past the worst of the less neighborly river, all Jason had to say was, “I’m glad I said that prayer.”

Caption: A kayaker braces herself to round a boulder in a tricky stretch of the Gros Ventre River.

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