When I climb into the boat, my wool socks instantly soak up the freezing water from the bilge. But who cares about being wet and cold, anyway, if I'm about to go hurtling through a watery boulder field?Just last month, two rafters died on Marsh Creek, a tributary. "Are you scared?" asks the woman sitting across from me.
"Yes," I reply.
Chewie, a mountain of a man with an Abe Lincoln beard and Hawaiian-print baggies, looks us over. "You guys aren't ready," he says, wearing the faintest of smiles.
After an agonizing delay as the last of the gear is stowed and lashed down, we push out into the current. Traves coaches us through a crash course in river paddling: forward, back, left back, right back, stop. The boat rocks and spins erratically while we splash with our oars—as volunteer galley slaves, we're pretty marginal. No time to worry about it: dead ahead the current dips into a hole and rears up nearly vertical, spitting a cockscomb of spray. We smash into it and an icy wave topples me into the bilge, still frantically trying to paddle. "Okay," Traves calls, "we've got our first rapid ahead. It's a long one, so don't fall out!"
The river straightens into a tumbling alley of standing waves, churning eddies, and swirling, sucking holes. Before there's time to think, we're crashing through the thick of it, furiously paddling and back-paddling, surging over crests and plunging down. Waves keep throwing me into the bilge and I keep scrambling out, chopping at the water with my oar. "Stop!" Traves yells. We're through. We sit there on the raft's pontoons, dripping and panting, as the rocky canyon walls glide placidly past.
Damn: that was fun. The sun has come out, the temperature has climbed, and the dark canyons have broadened to sagebrush valleys. It's starting to feel like a vacation.
"Forward!" Traves calls. We paddle to the edge of the current and ground the raft. The expedition's four other rafts haul up alongside, and the guides trek down a trail along the river's edge. I follow and find them standing on the bank a few hundred yards below, staring at a four-foot shelf of water. Velvet Falls.
After some discussion the guides head back to the boats and out onto the water. We round a bend and it comes into sight, an innocuous-looking dip in the river. "Forward!" Traves hollers. Paddles fly. "Left back!" We swing past a boulder. "Forward!" Digging manically at the water, we creep toward the shore, the waterfall boiling to our right. "Forward! Forward!" The hull drops, bounces us back up. As we hit an eddy and turn around, I realize: we're over the falls. Exhilarated and exhausted, we raise our paddles and clack them together Three Musketeers-style, whooping.
By the time we stop that afternoon to set up camp,the sky is a nearly cloudless blue. The smell of warm dried grass blows down the valley. After we pitch our tents the crew stokes a fire and cooks dinner under the fading sky. The fine quality of the food—grilled salmon, corn bread, stir-fried vegetables—is magnified by hard-earned hunger and the vast, unspoiled setting.
After dinner Chewie plays the banjo while the rest of us get into the beer. We sit and stare at the fire, satisfied. We're alive. We feel great. We deserve to feel great.
Two days later I'm sitting in a meadow 70 miles downstream, waiting to be airlifted out. The rest of the expedition is forging downriver for two more days, but I'm heading to Johnson Creek valley. Since the Frank Church is a wilderness area, motorized transport is technically forbidden. But when it was designated in 1980, all the exist-ing forest service airstrips were grandfathered in, aircraft being the only practical way to bring people and supplies deep into the wilderness.
I'm sunning myself on a rock, listening to the gurgle of the river, when I hear a faint drone to the west. At first it's hard to pick out the speck moving against the summer-browned peaks. It draws nearer, descending, and I can make out the distinctive high wings of a Cessna. As it crosses over a bluff on the river, the plane catches a downdraft; it lurches, trembles, and finally touches down on the rough grass strip.
The engine dies, a metal door swings open, and a burly, bearded man climbs out. He introduces himself as Barry Bryant and tells me to get in. He turns the plane, gunning the engine; as we gain speed the Cessna suddenly pulls free of the ground. Below us the river's roiling surface falls away.