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Staircase Run

I ran the staircase rapid on The South Fork of The Payette the 1st of August 1996 where I had a near-fatal accident. This is what happened.

Brad, Rich, Manny and I set of from the usual spot above Bronco Billy on the South Fork. We had a god run down to the play wave and stayed there for perhaps half an hour. Brad was 'smoking' that evening and suggested that we went down the left in staircase instead of the usual right (1). I had been rambling about the left side for a while so I was on for it. The water was pretty low, and from the road it didn't look like it would pose any great problems - just lots of fun. I had been down the run a handful of times so it was time for a change of line.

Brad went down ahead of me in his usual agressive style (2). I followed but took a line a little to the left of him. As I approached the channels by Whale Rock, I lined up for the shute between the two large rocks where Brad had just gone down. I got futher left than planned, and suddenly realised that the left side of the shute was a pillow with a smaller rock under it. I hit the rock despite some intense paddling (4) and my stern got pulled around to the left (5). My eyes met briefly with Brad's who was in the shute at this point. I was now going backwards down the narrow shute between the shore and the smaller of the two rocks in the river. The stern got stopped in the hole (6) whilst the bow continued down the rock so I was now sideways in the hole pointing towards the rock. In one smooth motion, the bow was sucked under and got stuck between the rock and what later turns out to be a massive log pinned in the drop (7).

I was facing upstream. The bow down to the left, the stern just free of the water up and right. The water was pounding down on the top side of the boat - and on me, pushing me flat on my back against the boat. My head was under water - only a few feet of the stern was above water.

I was completely stuck. Instinctively, I reached for my grab loop to get the spray skirt off. But because of the intense water pressure I couldn't bend my upper body forward - so I couldn't reach the "eject button". This was fucking serious. I tried reaching upwards for some air. My eyes were at water-level, or rather sometimes I could see out of the water, sometimes I couldn't. I couldn't get a breath of air though. I suddenly realized that this was seriously dangerous - I was probably going to drown here in this stupid river. I didn't really panic for some odd reason - I just thought that when I ran out of air I would swallow lots of water and die. While thinking these terminal thoughts - and others I cannot remember - I managed to peel the sides of my spray skirt loose.

The kayak must have taken in water as a result because it changed position slightly. It bent around the cockpit. You don't want to be in it when that happens. I felt an intense pressure on my legs - particularly the left one - as the boat began to fold up. This had a good side-effect, however: I got pushed an inch or two upwards. Occationally, I could now take a breath of half water, half air. I was still thinking of dying and each "breath" I took that left me alive came as a surprise. The pressure on the legs was getting worse. There was hope: if I broke my legs I could probably get out of this thing.

In this state of desperately reaching for the air/water mix, I suddenly saw Brad on the shore right next to me. "Get me out of here!". "Grab my boot!" I tried pulling myself up by his ancles which he stuck out to me. There was no way I could pull myself out. However, I did manage to get a little more free of the water - my head was now free most of the time, but I felt that that could change any moment. I told him to push the stern of the boat. At first he pushed the wrong way, upstream, which didn't make the legs feel any better. When he pushed downstream, the boat got stretched out in its natural position and I finally popped out. I quickly reached shore, with the boat continuing downstream. I folded my hands towards Brad to thank him.

He told me that he had eddied out just below the small rock - an eddy we had spotted from shore, but not an easy one to reach. He had seen me when I hit the small rock and went backwards and stopped instictively to see if I was ok. When I didn't come out on the other side he took a few paddle strokes and when he saw a bit of my stern sticking up from the entrapment, he knew I was in serious trouble. Without hesitation he popped off his skirt (8), abandonned ship and reached shore. He reckons that I was there for around 30 seconds before he reached me. I obviously felt it took a bit longer than that. I owe my life to his quick reactions. He picked up his kayak downstream somewhere but unfortunately never found his $300 graphite paddle.

We had to make it across the rapid to the roadside so we scrambled upstream through the rocks and bushes. There were a couple of kayakers on the other side who had witnessed the incident and they were ready with throw-bags in case we didn't make the crossing. Swimming across was interesting: the rapid that had almost killed me was 50 yards downstream, and that's where the current was going! Needless to say, I was swimming with maximum efford!

Days afterwards I was replaying the incident in my head. Being pinned was unlucky, but I was very fortunate getting out of that situation. What if Brad hadn't been there? What if the boat had pinned up-side down? What if the waterlevel had been 1-2 inches higher? What if the boat's frame had given in - with me inside?

Whatever. Fortunately, I am still around. And I think that I have learned from the incident so I can avoid similar situations in the future.

[insert philosophical waffle here]


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