No matter how long it’s been since I’ve been in my kayak, or how far life has drawn me away from the river, when winter begins to melt out of the mountains, I am lured back.
I start watching the river levels. In anticipation, my paddle gear gets shuffled from the back of the garage toward the front. I patch that tear in the neck gasket of my drysuit because I know I’ll be cold, and I wait.
I suffered my first spring. I paddled every Class II creek I could find, creeks still rimmed in ice, wearing a secondhand, semi-dry top and some wetsuit pants, praying that I wouldn’t have to swim out of my kayak.
But I did. I remember doing jumping jacks on a beach downstream of Avery on the St Joe River, trying desperately to warm myself enough so that I was able to get back in my kayak and continue downstream. That spring I seriously considered trying something else. Eventually, though, I found myself paddling with people that knew what they were doing. They had drysuits. They stayed warm. When I bought my first drysuit, everything changed. I learned to kayak.
When spring circled back around the following year, I was prepared.
The mountains of North Idaho are full of whitewater that only comes out to play during spring, and kayakers will do whatever they have to do to get their whitewater fix. They’ve been biding their time all winter, patiently waiting for the sun to gather enough strength to pull old man winter out of the mountains.
Bribe some snowmobilers to drag a bunch of boats to the put-in? Done it. Hike a few miles up a creek through knee deep snow, pulling our kayaks behind us like sled-dogs pulling sleds? Done it. Bury a truck up to the axles in snow and decide to dig it out AFTER paddling? Done it.
Because when you slide off the shore and paddle out into a spring swollen creek, the world changes. Work. Bills. Busted furnaces. They all slip underneath the waves to be replaced by the epiphanic thud of boulders rolling along the creek bottom underneath you, the sound waves churning through the water, turning your plastic kayak into a drum. Everyday worries disappear under avalanche chutes terminating in crystal blue ice walls, towering over your head as you paddle past.
There are some creeks that exemplify this more than others. These creeks run a milky blue, as if they had drained straight from the underbelly of a glacier. They flow clear over granite bedrock all morning until meltwater from the remnants of snows still clinging to the canyon walls — snow that began melting as soon as the morning sun touched it — finally reaches the valley bottom, and suddenly turns the creek an opaque white.
Pondering the return of spring from your kayak while cresting waves grown tall by melting snow is unlike anything else I’ve experienced.
As spring advances, even creeks that usually trickle out of the mountains become torrents. The prospects for adventure multiply, and so does the danger. Swelling waters move fallen trees and debris, sometimes causing logjams. There’s nothing gut-wrenching like coming around a blind corner on a raging creek and seeing a tree across the channel in front of you.
I paddled the Lochsa River many springs ago when the water level was rising rapidly. I found myself paddling next to a bull elk floating belly up in the spring sun, huge antlers dragging on the cobbles below. I have always imagined that some truck hit him as he crossed the road that winter, and he died on the rocks next to the river. Then the spring runoff reached a point where an old bull elk from the mountains of Idaho floated away to the Pacific.
Whitewater kayaking is dangerous. If you are thinking about trying it for the first time I congratulate you, then ask you to seriously consider whether you will would enjoy finding yourself knocked upside down and backwards in whitewater, holding your breath, while your face freezes, as you try to roll back upright. If so, I promise, you will glow at the end of an epic day of whitewater.
There are several paddling groups in the area such as the Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club, and I’ve never met a kayaker who wasn’t willing to help someone new to the sport. Give it a try.
Spring always seems to come slow, then leaves quickly. As it vanishes, so do many of the creeks flowing out of our mountains. Paddlers begin trekking west toward Hood River, or to the west slope of the Cascades to continue their whitewater dreams. Others head back into the mountains to pursue other sports such as rock climbing or mountain-biking. Next spring, though, they will be watching the river levels rise and eagerly planning the first run of the season.