Boatmen and Bedlam – a Rafter’s Story

Editor’s note: Kerry Walsh originally posted this story on the Utah Rafters and Idaho Whitewater Yahoo groups. We e-mailed him and asked for permission to repost it here, which he kindly granted.

Bed-lam (n) – chaos; a state of extreme confusion and disorder

Standing atop this green, rolling hill on the outskirts of Garden Valley, Idaho, I couldn’t help but recall the events that had unfolded two days previous while running down Marsh Creek on what was to be day one of an eight-day rafting trip. My friend, whitewater stallion Steve White, and I were on our way home to our families. We were a little light on gear, but grateful to be alive.

For several years Steve has rafted with a great group of very experienced whitewater boatmen from around the West. The de facto leader of this group was Mike Holstrom, a northern California boater with an impressive rafting resume. This I was invited to join the group on an early season Middle Fork trip.

I had never met Mike. In fact, the only person in the group that I knew going in was Steve. As the trip was organized and things gelled, I’d come to realize that Mike was most likely the single most organized trip leader I had met to date. Mike had a firm and impressive grip on the people, the skills, the gear allocations and the trip itself. Things came together smoothly as we moved toward our launch date of May 20.

Now, standing on this peaceful hilltop, looking across the green valley toward the steep canyon of the South Fork Payette, we were struck with the irony that lying at our feet was the final resting place of Dr. Walter Blackadar. During the 1970s Walt, as he was known to most folks, became a whitewater legend when, in his mid 40s he took up the sport of kayaking and, at the ripe old age of 49, made a solo kayak descent through infamous Turnback Canyon on the Alsek River in SE Alaska. As a doctor based in Salmon, Idaho, Walt traveled around serving his patients and used the opportunity to run all that Idaho had to offer and then some.

A river-spanning log could have put a fatal end to this Middle Fork of the Salmon raft trip, but an experienced team of rafters was able to recover and get out safely. As of Jan. 30, 2006, the log still blocked Marsh Creek-boaters beware!

Walt’s life ended in May of 1978 when he and some friends kayaked the canyon section of the South Fork Payette. About a half-mile below Big Falls, a mandatory portage even today, he rounded a bend and encountered a log strainer where he was snagged and drowned. Today the rapid is called Blackadar or Walt’s Drop and is marked by a brass plaque attached to a rock just above the drop. His ashes now rest in the Garden Valley Pioneer Cemetery beneath a beautiful river rock headstone, facing the river that claimed him.

Standing in the cemetery I had a hard time reconciling the fact that just three days had passed since Steve and I, along with Mike Howell, another boater on the trip, had passed through this same valley heading to the Middle Fork. Then as we drove along the Payette canyon, Steve, having recently read the book Never Turn Back, The Life of Whitewater Pioneer Walt Blackadar, by Ron Watters, recounted some of the stories of the man. We made several stops and looked down on the river, reconstructing the chain of events that ended so tragically. Little did we know that we would soon have our own story to tell.

Leaving the Payette behind we soon arrived at Marsh Creek, a small, meandering stream that winds peacefully through the valley alongside Highway 21 about 19 miles west of Stanley, Idaho. The tranquility of the put-in is disarming but every boater who chooses to launch at this location should be well aware of what lies ahead.

Marsh Creek serves as an early season put-in when road conditions do not allow access to Boundary Creek, the normal put-in. Many boaters prefer to launch on Marsh Creek if the water levels are right just because it adds another order of magnitude to the already spectacular Middle Fork. Putting on at Marsh Creek also offers one the unique chance to run a river from beginning to end. A little more than seven miles downstream, this little meandering creek, barely wide enough to float a boat, becomes the Middle Fork of the Salmon which, on its journey to the Main Salmon River, becomes the crown jewel of whitewater rivers.

In the days leading up to our launch, Mike Holstrom had monitored the river and road conditions closely, updating us daily. The Boundary Creek road reports were pretty grim as our date approached. The snow just melting off, thick mud blocked access to all but 4-wheel drive vehicles. Towing a trailer to the put-in was reported as impossible. As our group had at least one two-wheel drive rig and several trailers, we opted to go for the launch on Marsh and agreed to meet there the day before to rig.

At the put-in, I met some of the team and we quickly turned to rigging boats. I was happily rigging my newly acquired 14-foot Sotar cat and was shuffling the gear around on the aluminum Predator frame working toward that perfect arrangement. Everyone was taking the run seriously, which was a really good sign. Marsh Creek is not to be taken lightly. Despite the disarming put-in, the creek is fast, steep, technical and prone to wood. Everyone was carrying two spare oars, highly recommended for a normal Middle Fork trip, absolutely required for a Marsh Creek launch. Mike had divided up the group gear among the boats and things looked equitable. With the boats soon rigged and ready, most of us headed into Stanley looking for a warm room, cold beer and a hot shower. Mike stayed behind and camped with the gear.

Among the group were several boaters with multiple Marsh Creek launches under their belts. This trip would be Mike Holstrom’s seventh launch. Another guy had four, another three, so there was no shortage of experience. It was my first and I was looking forward to it.

From the put-in Marsh Creek runs approximately 7.5 miles to where it is joined by Bear Valley Creek entering from the left. The confluence of these streams forms the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Depending on what book you read, about 10 exciting river miles lay between the confluence and Boundary Creek.

In the morning we all met in town for breakfast and a mandatory pre-launch meeting. High on Mike’s agenda were the safety aspects of running Marsh. Two years previously, almost to the day, two men from different groups had died on Marsh Creek when they failed to negotiate a log spanning the stream. This fact had personal meaning to me since I had been invited to launch on a combined Marsh/Middle Fork/Selway trip that launched the same day as the two men who died. I had opted out as the launch approached due to high river levels. So group safety was a big topic and we all took it seriously. Just before we left for the river Mike called the ranger station and received the current conditions. The flow on the Middle Fork was around 6 feet and there were no hazards reported. We were a go!

We drove out to the Marsh Creek put-in; set up our trucks for the shuttle and hit the river around 9:30 AM. We passed the Marsh Creek gauge about a half hour later and noted that the creek was running at 4.55 feet. Weather conditions were good – dry, cold and overcast. There were patches of snow along the banks and the icy water was running fast and technical. It was definitely creekin’ – tight, twisty and steep. Trees and brush grew right down to the bank and many were leaning out over the stream.

Marsh Creek quickly picks up steam as it pounds its way down. At the flows we were looking at the run is considered class 3-4 with the well-known class 5 Dagger Falls thrown in as a bonus near the end, just above Boundary Creek. The first 7.5 miles, the true Marsh Creek, is almost continuous class 2-3. Our plan was to run down to camp at Gardell’s Hole at river mile 2.4, measured from the Boundary put-in. Our only planned scout was at Dagger Falls

Mike was in the lead and he had designated Steve as sweep. Steve, running his 14-foot Achilles round boat, was making too much speed to maintain the sweep spot and he quickly moved up through the line until he was pretty close behind the leader. I ended up assuming the sweep spot when it became obvious that Steve would have to back row the entire trip in order to maintain his position.

At our morning meeting we had planned to maintain spacing to always keep two boats in sight. It was a good plan and we tried hard to follow it but sometimes the creek was so tight it was all you could do to keep one boat in view. We had a system of whistle and visual signals worked out in case anyone ran into difficulty. Things were going smoothly. I was feeling pretty comfortable, even warm, in my new Palm Stikine dry suit. I was glad Riley at Andy & Bax had talked me into it.

Somewhere around 3 miles in, Richard Terry, rowing a 16-foot cat, caught a crab and broke an oar. It was good to see the safety plan come into play. Everyone stopped almost immediately. Eddies were slim pickings but there was no shortage of brush to grab onto. Five minutes of messing around and we were back under way. Around the next bend Mike and Steve were patiently waiting, alerted to the stop by the whistle signals. It was a good drill.

Around 11 o’clock and about 6 miles down river, we came into an area that Mike later described as “lake-like.” Thinking back on it I recall the creek widening into a sort of pool, not really slow, with a pretty nice eddy and what appeared to be a camp on river right. As I came around the bend into this section I could see all of the boats in our group stretched out in front of me. I was in sweep position with the exception of Rick Hill who was behind me in his hard-shell kayak.

I watched as the trip leader at the far end of the “lake” was carefully looking down river around a right-hand turn. The word spread boat to boat that this was the location of the fatal log encounter two years earlier. Even from my sweep perspective, I could see that both Mike and Steve were eyeballing the exit from the “lake” pretty closely. I watched as Mike settled back in his seat and pushed forward around the bend. Steve held back a few seconds and followed him around the bend in his red Achilles.

As I drifted closer I watched as each boat rounded the corner. As I made my approach I could see that the exit from the “lake” was a steep, narrow chute that soon, within 100 yards perhaps, made a right hand bend. It was about 30 to 35 feet wide and wall-to-wall whitewater all the way down. Everything looked OK and I made the move and was on my way.

I was running straight down the middle enjoying the clean, fast run. I came to the bend in the channel and suddenly spotted two blue cat tubes sticking up into the air hard on the left bank below me! A second later, as I was trying to figure out what I was seeing, I spotted Steve’s red Achilles bouncing around in the middle of the river with no one in it! Within a split second I saw a flipped cataraft further downstream! HOLY CRAP! I was in some of the fastest water we had seen all day with nowhere to go but down river.

THEN I saw the log…..

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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