Written by Aaron Babcock
So I had planned this trip for over a week. A month and a half ago I had just run the same stretch at 12000. The trip had been very successful, and I was hoping for a chance to see it a little higher. Looking at the weather forecast and reading the discussions every 12 hours I was pretty confident that the Illinois would be at least as high as our last trip, probably higher, and this was what I was looking for. At first I was thinking about 15k, then 20k, then 30k. Friends were trying to convince me not to attempt it. I considered this, but the fact that we had run it so well at 12000 less than two months prior sealed my decision.
The day before our planned run the storm hit. It was an epic rain storm in the Southern Oregon area. Not only was there a lot of precip, but it all came down quickly. We had over four inches of rain in less than 12 hours near my house in Williams, and this usually means about triple in the coast range. The river rose quickly to 27000 cfs Friday afternoon, but as quickly as it rose it started to fall. Our plan was to catch the river just after the peak to miss most of the wood, but unfortunately this would mean running at night, which wasn’t going to happen. I really wanted to see the Illinois at a higher level than last time. A couple friends of mine, Quin and John, met me at my house Friday night, and we drove to our shuttle drivers house, “Bearfoot Brad”, in Gasquet that same night. Brad and his wife Jamie are the most hospitable people I know, and have always left their door open for this soggy, wet paddler. After drinking a few beers and listening to the rain start coming down again, we all felt a slight hope that the river would start on the rise again.
4:30 AM. Brad wakes up, turns on the computer, and starts his daily routine. Looking at weather forecasts, and prepping his daily report. He reports the level of the North Fork Smith every morning at 8 AM and has been doing it for decades. It was hard to sleep with a highwater Illinois trip looming over my head. So, sleeping on Brad’s couch, listening to him type away, eventually I got up. After I woke up I was elated, and a little sick, the river was rising again. 21000 cfs and rising. Also, over the course of the past 48 hours word of our trip had spread and there were more than three of us ready to go that morning. Over the course of the night more had showed up…
While I had been sleeping I had missed a few calls while I was sleeping from my good friend and soon to be backseat rider Kelsey. He had been stuck at the California border for over an hour and some people had been there for over 3. This was bad news. We had to drive that way, and if he couldn’t get to us, we couldn’t get to the river. We had no idea what was going on, but fortunately Brad’s wife Jamie works for Cal-Trans. One phone call later we found out a power line was down. “Well,” I said, “surely the power company will be out there soon to fix it. We should just pack up and go.”
I left with the boats to start rigging and another vehicle stayed back to wait for Kelsey who surely would be not far behind. Well, we got to the border, and traffic was stopped. We made fun of a guy who instantly jumped out of his car and started walking down the road. An obvious looky-loo. Then we made more fun of him when he started running back towards his car. Surely they are letting traffic through now, and he didn’t even make it to the front. He got in his car and drove around the truck in front of him into the other lane. “Huh,” we said, “what is he doing?” Well, he kept going, and then traffic started coming the other way. Apparently a couple truckers had found a 20 foot tall tree top that had broken off in the wind and were holding the sagging powerline up out of the way. Thank you truckers!!! We drove under the powerline and we were headed to the river. And this is how our trip started…
This trip started small and grew over time, and should have shrank if I would have listened to my conscience. (Crossroads #1) But, everyone who was on this trip at least called themselves “Class V Guides”, whether this was on Burnt Ranch, Cherry Creek, or their experience had evolved into boating in water not normally run by anybody. But, the fact remained that I didn’t know everyone, and I should have, and will in the future demand that…
We had 11 boaters and 6 boats when all was said and done. Myself, and my friend Kelsey would take the medium boat and play safety for George and Shawn who were to R-2 a smaller green boat. Matt, Kim, and Tim were to R-3 a large boat, Ryan rowed the smallest boat, Quin rowed the orange boat I had taken last time, and John rowed a larger boat with Hiya riding a backseat. It took us a while to get things organized with this many people.
It is amazingly hard to explain to people, even experienced boaters, what the water is like in this situation. People are severely disappointed if you tell them to come back when the water is lower. It surely is a knock to the ego, and who are you to say what type of boating they should do. Creature Crafts are great boats, and they allow us to explore water that would normally be out of the question. However, they are just boats, and people have gotten into a lot of trouble with the thinking that the boat replaces skill, or even that you can just strap in and go along for the ride. We had all excellent boaters on this trip. Some had been on the 12000 trip, others had not, I knew most, but not all. Everyone performed to the best of their ability, and every boat had some mishaps. We all stuck together, and we made it out. However, for me, personally, I made a pact after that trip not to go on these types of trips again with people I hadn’t boated with fairly extensively. Lesson learned.
Nonetheless, after a few hours of blowing up boats and rigging we were off. It was about 12:30 PM. The first 12 miles were fairly uneventful if you tried to stay out of the features. Matt tested his boat out in a enormous wave and was flipped right off the bat. He was in an R-3 setup and was unable to roll, but eventually he figured it out. R-3 set ups are great if everyone is together, but it exposes your paddlers to the river, and this is not always a good thing. His two paddlers, although experienced, had never seen this type of water. Panther Creek to Clear Creek seemed similar to last time. Bigger waves (15’+), large laterals, and the center for the most part was the place to be. There weren’t too many big holes, but the laterals, and the boils really messed with you. My friend Kelsey who was riding in my backseat was stoked. I was still nervous, and it was a ton of work to maneuver the boat. I told him not to get too stoked, we haven’t seen the big stuff yet.
We made it past Clear Creek Rapid, my nerves eased, and I began letting my guard down after that. (crossroads #2) At 12000 the rapids from here until Fawn Falls were fairly inconsequecial. It appeared that it would be the same again as we moved down river. There was a large lateral coming off the left bank in rapid #27. I thought it would be fun to ride that lateral from left to right. We hit the lateral and I pulled back on the oars. We accelerated back to the right and we were all good. Unfortunately at the end of that lateral a large wave slapped the boat from the right and I flipped. Kelsey and I did not get the boat back over very fast. Perhaps 30 seconds passed until we reflipped and this was right before dropping into one of the biggest and most retentive holes on the river.
The hole was one of the strangest features I had seen, and I was able to get one good forward stroke in before we dropped into the meat. It swallowed our boat, and we spent a very violent minute or two mostly underwater. I had the ride of my life along with Kelsey in the backseat in rapid #29. Don’t flip above that rapid if you think you’re going to have a hard time righting your boat back upright. We surfed on our top for a LONG time. Eventually we would bounce up and do a barrel roll just long enough to get a partial breath and get sucked back under water. Our feet were out of the foot cups since we had just rolled a couple seconds before dropping in. This may have been part of the issue with the boat. Also I was in the Rescue Craft which is outfitted for a motor. Part of the back floor is cut out. Not sure if this would be part of the issue of upside down surfing or not.
It is a moment that I still remember vividly, both the thoughts that went through my head, and the darkness that enveloped us. I can’t say for sure how long we were in there. There were multiple boats waiting for us to come out, and I heard anywhere from 1 minute to 2 minutes. I feel it was more like one minute. Near the end, or what I thought might be the end of us, we were sucked down and everything got really dark. Kelsey and I both thought that was it, but somehow we ended up in our boats on our side, and floating downstream. My vision was quite blurry, and my muscles were cramping up. One oar was bent, the other was tangled up in the boat, but somehow Kelsey and I made it to shore. We regrouped with the rest of our party and took a 20 minute break. John gave me some beef jerky. It was good.
After Pine Flat Rapid, which was just a middle hole/wave feature we drifted for quite a few miles with little to worry about. Eventually we made it to Fawn Falls which was more forgiving than at 12000, but there were still some weird features on the left. The Green Wall was easier initially as the hole on river left was not nearly as retentive, but the eddies at the bottom were very strong, and the waves were just as erratic, with a huge lateral at the bottom coming off of the right wall.
George and Shawn got stuck in the river left eddy. My boat and Quin’s got stuck in a roomadoom on river right in the middle of the pinch point. It was very violent in there. I remember Quin and I looking at eachother and Quin yelled, “We’re in a really bad spot”. I was thinking the same thing. John’s got flipped in the Green Wall, was on it’s side entering the pinch point and kept going. Ryan chased him down. Matt made it through and eddied out on river right. Quin and I circled in that room for a while. The water seemed like it was going by about 60 mph. With some communication between our two boats somehow we both got out, but only after I was slammed into the wall backwards which forced a front flip out into the current.
After I got out of the room I eddied out on river left near a waterfall and started the process of hiking upriver to find George and Shawn. This was going to take a while, and I was preparing myself for an overnight stay. However, when I was about a 100 feet above the river I saw them pass by. They got out on their own, but kept going. The river was not going to let them eddy out. By the time Kelsey and I got back in the boat they were well downstream and out of sight. We got into our boat and let Quin know we were going. We played safety for Quin, so he led. It’s full on from here on with huge waves, laterals with some big holes to mix it up for the next 3 miles. There is a huge rock on the left of the Little Green Wall that was nearly covered, and as the surges of the river rose and fell, the feature would change. It was one of the scariest, and most awesome things I’ve ever seen. I’m pretty sure this was the biggest, and most continuous piece of whitewater I had seen yet, and on a scale of 1 to 10 as far as what creature crafts can handle I’d rate it an 8. That’s making me feel like I’m underrating it. Every corner I’d pass I was dreading seeing George and Shawn as I knew that meant something had gone wrong, but at the same time I kept hoping we’d catch up to them. Right before Collier Creek we found them eddied out and safe. I was relieved, and we kept going looking for John and Ryan. We eventually caught up to them about 3 miles downstream. We all regrouped, and knew we had made it. When we got to the takeout the water was nearly up to the campground.
There were a lot of lessons learned on this trip. I am happy that we all survived this trip, and I don’t regret embarking on it. My boating skills grew for sure, but most of all I learned about group dynamics, and who I can rely on when on the water. Every person on this trip pushed the limits of their boating skills and despite what you might feel on decisions here and there it’s just too easy to make that call afterwards. It took me a long time to watch any footage of our trip down the Illinois that February without getting sick to my stomach. At the time of writing this, nearly 8 months later, it is still a great reminder to me of the power of water, and my boating practices have certainly evolved. However, if the Illinois comes up to 20,000+ again, I can guarantee I will be considering another trip.