Big Day on the Bull Run River - June 2008

We, my brother Bruce and I, had a whole day ahead of us - no meetings, no urgent chores, nothing but time to spend on whatever we wanted. Bruce had steered me away from a surf session and we were discussing a kayak run on a local river. Water levels were very high in the wake of yet another rainfall - not at all uncommon in the Portland area that I call home.

We scanned our Paddling Oregon book and decided on the upper Bull Run river, the very river that supplies Portland with it's drinking water. Located in the western foothills of Mt. Hood, Bull Run was also a main source of electricity for Portland. The river is fed by Bull Run Lake and is a rainfall fed waterway. The paddling book had a small section dedicated to the run. Satisfied that the run was a fairly low-key one in terms of risk and demand we piled our stuff in the vanagon and started out.

Now I'm not saying that my brother is a thrill seeker. Nor am I saying that he makes unsafe decisions that result in near-death (usually my death) situations. I've had my face smashed while kayakking a spring runoff on the Sauk River, broken a rib while surfing a medium day at Seaside, lost feeling in many of my extremities after a paddle down the upper White Salmon during early winter, all of these events having one common denominator - Bruce. All I'm recounting here is the fact that a typically safe scenario can be turned into a drama in real life with the addition of one ingredient - my brother. I'm sure that the gods love him and that the devil has nothing to gain from his death. There is really nothing logical that can account for the reapers attraction to my sibling. All this being said, you the reader might wonder why I don't simply respond with a simple "no thanks" when my brother asks me if I want to do something. And I applaud you on your logic and can only report that I am a simple creature who - much like the hapless Charlie Brown trying yet again to kick the football being held by Lucy - is eternally optimistic and hopeful that the long listing of risky events has finally exhausted itself and we'll have no great stories to tell when we come out of this next adventure. So, the little brother again faithfully follows his older sibling into the mouth of the demon.

We steer the van across Portland into the hills below Mount Hood. After a time spent driving the backroads around the river, we find the put-in - a spot that allows us to park our car, offload our gear, and hike a short distance to a spot where we can launch our boats into the river. While surveying the river from a high bridge overlooking the put-in, we meet a couple of fellows also looking to paddle the run. One, a local from Portland, is a kayaker with more than a few runs under his belt. He's invited the second fellow, Jason, out from Connecticut for a taste of Portland life - complete with a run down one of our many whitewater river runs. Jason has less boating experience than Doug and his face does not betray his feelings about the amount of water rushing over the rocks below. He'd just as well sit this one out. We discuss the run in low tones. Bruce and I are happy to have other boaters to run with as it means that we don't have to peddle our bike back up the river to get the car at the end of the run. Besides, it's always cool to meet other boaters. An agreement on whose car is left where is made and the 2 groups part to prepare for the river.

Bruce and I start the process of suiting up and lose track of Doug and Jason. They reappear some time later with only Jason suited and ready to go. After all their gear has been dumped and after a scouring of the vehicle, Jason reports that there's only one helmet. A disappointed Doug urges his friend to make the run and the decision is made that Jason will use Doug's gear (a brand new boat and very high-end paddle) to give this stretch of water the go.

Some stretches of whitewater allow the paddler a bit of time to warm up and get loose before becoming challenging. The Bull Run, on high water steroids, does not. It's out of the gate and right into the maelstrom on this one. A huge wave train just below the power station was made up of 5 or so very large rapids. The water was moving fast, visibility to the next rapid was poor because of the huge holes between waves. Bruce set down through the section, I followed, and Jason brought up the rear. I kept my eye on Bruce to gauge a decent route for myself. If I see him get tractor beamed into a huge hole, I avoid that area. I go over (flip over) on rapid 2 or 3 but, fueled by excessive fear, flip rightside up in a quick second. We get about 1/2 way through the challenging section before trouble starts. Jason has turned upside down after rapid number 1 or 2. A typical roll maneuver will right him but these rolls are made much more difficult when being performed in a washing machine like environment. Jason makes the decision to eject from his boat and in a moment that could only have been terrifying, loses both boat and paddle to the river. He begins swimming toward the bank. Bruce has eddied out (stalled his boat near shore in an area with less current) and sees Doug in the current where he should flush out of the next few rapids in decent shape. I'm in the process of heading toward Bruce when I see the boat, partially submerged by now, heading downstream toward me like a targeted torpedo aimed at my broadsides. I paddle alongside of the boat in an attempt to push it toward the shore but it's got too much water in it and besides, I'm about to enter the next rapid. Doing so with a flooded boat beside me would be more than my skill level can handle and I steer clear of the boat. Bruce ensures that Jason is going to get to the side okay and directs his attention to the next rapid. He stays with the boat and makes his own attempt to push the now orphaned boat to shore. Instead of being able to push the boat, Bruce is jostled and pushed about by the waterlogged boat. He gives it a game effort and gives up only seconds before being pulled into the next whitewater section of the river.

There's a respite just below the top section that allows Jason to crawl to dry land. Brent paddle to shore to make sure he's okay and after some nervous conversation, Jason heads downstream along the river to begin the hike to find and retrieve Doug's boat and paddle. I put back into the river, frazzled and freaked out by the whole event, and take the safest route I can down to catch up with Bruce, the lost boat, or the paddle. I catch up with Bruce not far down the way and we pull over to recount, in very loud voices, what has just happened. We take out and scout the next rapid extra carefully, all the while keeping an eye out for the lost items in the water. The rest of the run is challenging but not very serious as compared to what was up top. We paddle toward shore as we near Dodge Park, the take-out area where we see Doug on the shore. "I only see 2 of you. Somebody's missing." Doug calls out.
"Jason bailed up top, the last we saw him, he was walking down looking for the boat and paddle." We call back. Doug lets loose of a few profanities and walks down to the water to help us out. As we pull off our paddle jackets and pfd's, Doug shouts out from inside his car. He's holding up the lost helmet, having just found it in the footwell of the car, and exclaims that he missed the run for no reason. We all let out a groan in sympathy for Doug. Bruce peels off enough layers to get into Doug's car and they drive off, looking for Jason in the woods between the river and the road. I start scouting the shore for the missing bits. A short distance down the river from where we took our boats out of the water I notice a bit of orange color in the water near shore. As I get closer I see that Doug's boat is lying upside down, just below the surface, where it has lodged in some weeds. The boat weighs A LOT and I note that there are no air bladders to be found. Air bladders serve as a flotation device for a boat once the pilot ejects. They keep the boat from filling completely with water and make handling of the boat much easier. This would explain why neither Bruce or I could get the boat to shore earlier. Dumping the water I drag the boat up to the carpark area and continue to search for the paddle.

Bruce drives back into the parking lot and we begin loading gear. He explains that Doug and he found Jason just outside the entrance to the park and have come up empty handed in their search for the gear. I show him the boat and we both grin, thinking how stoked Doug'll be that we found it.

After we're back in dry clothes we hop into the van and head back upstream. We pass Doug and Jason not far down the road and slow to hail each other. I let Doug know that we've a christmas present to give him and he lets out a whoop. We turn back into the parking area and transfer the boat.

more to come....