Going into this weekend, my kayaking experience was limited to the EWU pool, local lakes, and the peaceful Little Spokane river float (with the exception of this ill-advised trip down the lower Spokane River this spring). But over the last two days, I think it's safe to say I came into my own as a whitewater kayaker, though not exactly on purpose. On Saturday, Gordon and I kayaked the upper Spokane River with our friend Duke. It is a pretty easy route with a few Class II rapids and a couple cool waves/holes. I did swim (flip over and exit my boat) at the tail end of Flora rapid when I hit a submerged rock, but overall I did very well and felt pretty confident.
Saturday afternoon, we got a call from our friend Drew, who we haven't seen in a couple months since he's been out in Idaho working as a rafting guide on the Lochsa River. We agreed to meet up in Missoula (about a 3-hour drive from Spokane) to check out the whitewater park there. We arrived there at about 7pm and got checked into a shady motel that seemed to be otherwise full of Hell's Angels. We spent the evening wandering around downtown Missoula (very cute) and checking out the local pub scene. The following morning, we got up, had breakfast and headed for the river (Clark Fork). The boys surfed the waves at the Whitewater park while I videoed them safely from the shore. Because it was early in the day, they had the whole place to themselves and did very well surfing the wave.
After that, we left one car down at the Whitewater park, loaded our boats and gear into the other and drove up the river a few miles. We put in near a bridge and kayaked several miles back down into town. It was a nice little run of mild Class II rapids, culminating with a run through Brennan's Wave at the whitewater park. We went out to lunch, then watched some crazy-good kayakers play in the waves at the park for awhile. We got a tip from some folks there that there was some good kayaking about an hour west of Missoula in the Alberton Gorge, so we took off to check it out.
Driving along the gorge, we stopped here and there and walked out to the edge of the gorge to check out the river. The area was very beautiful and the river looked mild and fun. We estimated it was mostly Class II water. So, we all got back into our kayaking gear (I won't go into the trials of pulling on skin-tight, cold, wet gear while hiding in the woods near the river) and set out on the water. We put in at the top of Alberton Gorge, at the Cyr Bridge put-in. We came up to a rapid right away, and it was fabulous. It was basically a straightforward wave train with very big water and a large, easy runout. Very fun; definitely gets your heart racing. The next two rapids we hit made us realize we were not in Class II water after all. I checked the listing at American Whitewater today and that whole section of the river is listed as Class III/IV.
You would not believe how big this water was. Some of the waves were easily 7 feet high and they came at you from several directions at once. I had a number of close saves in the upper rapids, somehow pulling out a brace at the last minute to keep from flipping. Drew had told me about his strategy of willing himself to stay upright, which seemed to work pretty well for me too : ). In our fourth rapid on the run, a long one called Cliffside, I went right into a hole and ended up flipping. I came right out of my boat and the boys helped gather my gear while I swam to shore (for any kayakers reading this, no, I don't have my roll yet). I got back in the boat, calmed down a bit, and we took off again, with just one rapid to go. This last rapid was also very nasty. Both Drew and I ended up swimming, then getting bashed against an underwater rock before making it to the shore. Gordon was toppled, too, but pulled off a mid-rapid roll like a champ. Drew's helmet has some nice gashes from where his head struck the rock. He also banged up one knee. I hit the rock pretty much as soon as I wet-exited, before I had the good sense to get my feet up, so I managed to smash my left ankle, right hip and right knee against the rock before I was shot out of the rapid and towards the shore. I'm pretty bruised, but amazingly not broken.
After that little mishap, we had just one minor rapid before the take-out. All in all, it was a pretty amazing run. I think we were all a little impressed with how well we did, considering our under-estimation of the rapids at the start. It was a really exhilarating ride; I am sure I'll try it again sometime, maybe in three of four years : ).