While I am no expert river runner I do have a fair amount of river miles and different rivers under my belt and many more to come. This trip was a bit of a humbling experience for me. I very seldom get my wife out on these trips but this one she said she was going to go when I got the permit back in March. Being a class III river and having been in a flash flood on this river last year I did not want her paddling a kayak. So I purchased a 16’ SOAR inflatable canoe. These are tough boats and look just like an inflatable raft except they are narrower like a canoe. The idea here was two fold, keep her out of a kayak and out of the water and also to be able to pack enough gear to make it a comfortable trip for her. When it is just myself and my boys it is usually the pack it like you were going to wear it on your back theme but not this trip.
Along on this trip were 5 members of the Dallas Downriver Club (DDRC) and one grandchild and the 5 members of my family my three boys Alec, Jacob, Zachary and my wife. My boys are ages 17, and 13 yr old twins. They all are experienced paddlers and have made many trips in all kinds of water up to class V with me. The DDRC members included George Lackey and his 11 yr old grandson Lance, Bryan Jackson, Sam Sloan, Anita Goss, and Jim Coward all experienced river paddlers.
We all met at El Vado resort below El Vado lake on Thursday afternoon the day before our launch. We all got our boats packed and ready for inspection by Dell the river ranger whom checked us out for last years trip. He did not check the boats as he knew we had been down this river before but did go over the toilet system that we had and a few changes in the regulations on this river. I had rented a cabin for my wife and boys for Thursday night so she could enjoy a warm shower prior to launching Friday am. We ran our vehicles downriver to the take out the Thursday so we could get an early launch on Friday morning. I put up my hammock between two trees down by the river and next to the boats and slept there for Thursday night. This kept me under the stars and next to our gear. Really did not expect any issues but I did not mind at all, got to see some meteors perhaps some early Perseids.
Friday Aug 10
Everyone got breakfast down and final packing done so that we were on the water by 8:15 the first of several groups to launch that day. I wanted to get on 8 miles downriver to a site I had seen the month before and lay first claim and then do some hiking. This is only class I section of river so I decided to let my oldest and one of the boys paddle the SOAR and I put my wife in a kayak (OK Prowler 15) and I paddled my usual OK Trident 15. I wanted to spend some time with her to teach her how to paddle better and read the river, what to watch for and how to avoid simple obstacles and look ahead for where the river can put you into a sticky situation. So there is the little class one ripple about 100 yards from the launch where river right goes over a gravel bar and it is about 2-3 inches deep and river left goes into a channel in into a large semi sized rock the flow gently past the rock back to the right. We were out front so I told her watch what I do and just angle your kayak parallel to the rock and let the current slip you on by the rock. I went on and slid right on by the rock and then eddied out and look back and she is stroking like there is an alligator on her tale. Boom head on into the rock and over she goes into the river with kayak floating down to me and she is right behind. I get her and the kayak over to river left and get her back in. It is a 48 degree morning and the water temp is about the same and she is in shorts and a shirt and so am I. So here my principal objective of this trip was for my wife to enjoy this beautiful scenic river and I have her all wet and cold in the first 5 minutes, isn’t that special. She did not want to stop and change clothes or boat. She just wanted to start paddling. The sun was not really out either but it was warming up some. She made me proud being so tough and keep paddling the kayak. She warmed up while paddling and we stopped at a hot spring about an hour later. The boys and I and some other got in the hot spring but she declined. I just could not convince her that the sulphur smell was really a signal of good clean water. When we got back on the river I put her in the SOAR with me and the boys back in their kayaks.
After another hour of paddling we arrived at our first nights campsite on river right about 10:45am. Everyone got unloaded and set up camp. I got two big tarps set up for a meeting and kitchen area along with my hammock of course. After that a few of us set off on a hike to the top of the canyon rim, about a 1000-1200ft climb. There is no trail just a little sensible navigation back up river to a slope down to the river and then climb up the slope to the canyon rim. I told everyone stay sharp as I had seen two rattlesnakes on this hike last month. We all made it to the canyon rim and some stopped to rest and the rest of us went on to climb to a second summit overlooking the river. We were just upstream from a place called Aragon Springs where we had camped the year before. After the climb back down we all rested, napped, talked with some intermittent showers overhead. Dinner for us that night was cheese ravioli with chicken, dried tomatoes, mushrooms, onions topped with alfredo sauce and topped with some parmesan. Shortly after dark and a little visiting with everyone we were all off to bed. Amy got in the tent and I took the rain fly off for here to be a little cooler and the boys all slept out on the ground and me in the hammock. About 1:30 it started raining of course. I got the rain fly on for Amy and the boys crawled under the tarps and I got back into my hammock which was under the tarp also.
Saturday Aug 11
I got up and had a cup of coffee about 4:30 and then sat back and enjoyed my front porch view of the stars. A bit later everyone else started to stir and we made some great breakfast burritos. Everyone got packed up and on the river about 8:30 for our 10-11 mile paddle to our next campsite. Again I kept Amy in the SOAR and the boys in their kayaks. About 2 miles down you come to Aragon falls a tricky class III that has changed with the introduction of a new large rock from the cliff above. Everyone stopped and we scouted the rapid and set Alec down first then he signaled all clear for the next. Alec did not go down it as he had intended as a strong eddie caught the bow just prior to the rapid and drop off into a hole and he ended up going down backwards while wearing a helmet cam which clearly tells the story. The rest of us also wore our helmets and made it though just fine and were on our way. The river has several class IIs along the way with one more small IIIs. This gave me some valuable experience paddling the SOAR as I had never paddled on before.
We made camp about 11:30 and there was still a group for the night prior so I got out and hiked downriver to check if the next site was open and it was so we all made our way downriver to that site. This site was wide open and spacious with room to pull up the boats and ample campsites and even trees perfect for my hammock. Again I set up some tarps for kitchen and visiting just in case it rained, which it did off an on for the afternoon. After camp was setup the boys, Sam and I put our cameras in our backpacks and waded across the river then hiked up to a box canyon probably a couple of miles away. Later on we all practiced some swift water rescue techniques and rope throwing. We got each of the boys to walk upstream and then jump and wade out into the river then drift down. We each took turn throwing our rope bags to the boys and the boys learned proper techniques to hold the rope with us practicing the techniques of throwing and proper rope and body positioning and the use of another person and or tree for bracing. That night’s dinner was chicken and steak quesadillas. Shortly after dark I sacked out in my hammock and Amy went to the tent and the boys slept our under the stars.
Sunday Aug 12
I enjoyed my early morning quiet coffee and front porch view of the sunlight slowly peaking out and reflecting back into the canyon. Breakfast burritos again and we were all on the river by 8:00am for our final day of paddling, about 12 miles. The first stretch is pretty quiet as you enter into the Christ Monastery property. The river is very gentle through here for about 4 miles then the last 8 miles is a near continuous run of class II and III rapids. The first rapid is undercut rapid (II). I sent Zach and Jake down first followed by Alec then us and the rest of the group. Zach has run this rapid 3 times before in the same boat yet this time he hit a good rock and out he came. Alec a paddled down to assist and I was right behind. He did a great job of keeping his feet up and pointed downriver while being washed down with his butt hitting a couple of rocks then he pushed gently around a larger rock and then was able to get some footing and stand up. His boat was pinned on a rock just upstream from him. I came down in the SOAR and did not really think that rock would be an issue for the SOAR. I was wrong. The SOAR caught that rock mid ship then began to get water come over the low side and was about to flip. Amy fell out and I jumped out to keep it from flipping and pushed the SOAR off of the rock and Amy jumped back in. I held the SOAR in one hand and then got Zach’s kayak off and turned back over with the other hand and he got back in the boat. I got him over to the bank and pumped out a little water that came in the front hatch and re-strapped down a chair that had got a little loose during the event. Now Amy is wet once again. The rest of the group made their way down the rapid and Jim Coward came out of his kayak also but managed to get it over to the side and back in. Again, Alec had the helmet cam on and it told the story of events very clearly.
The next 3 rapids are Meandering, Skull Bridge, and Gauging Station and everyone made it through just fine. Zach was nervous going through each of these from his earlier experience. Then comes the last two rapids, “Screaming left hand turn” and “Overhang” rapids. Again I sent Zach, Jacob and Alec ahead of Amy and I. The boys all got through fine. I have run this rapid 4 times before with no issue. The best was to run it is to swing wide to the right and line it up straight then run down and keep a bit right as you proceed through. The approach on the rapid the water piles up on a rock cliff on river right but if you line it up you can avoid this. There is however a rock on river right just as you start down the rapid. For a kayak the rock is easy to avoid and even if you do hit it you just bounce off of it or skid over it. This is not the case for an inflatable that has a way of grabbing every rock it encounters (so it seemed). Sure enough I get us in there and get us on that rock. The back of the SOAR is stuck on the rock and the front (where Amy is ) is swinging down into the rapid then gets pushed against the rock cliff. The water starts to push down on the upstream side and begins to flip the boat. You guessed it, Amy is back in the water and I am next in the middle of this Class III rapid. Some how I managed to push the SOAR off the rock hang on to both paddles and get back in the boat. Amy is now hanging on to the painter of the SOAR and I am trying to keep control of the SOAR down the rapid with her hanging on. That of course made maneuvering the SOAR through the rapid near impossible. I can hear her under the front of the SOAR gasping for air and having a hard time all the while she is being carried downriver and hitting every rock along the way. I managed to get the SOAR over to river right about mid point through the rapid. I jumped out and got her pushed back into the boat. After a brief discussion I could tell she was spent. Now I had really done it. My tough wife was near her end, simply cannot understand why?
Well, we had one more rapid to go. The rest of the group held up as we collected ourselves. I did not do a very good job of lashing things down in the SOAR as I did not really believe in my mind that I could possibly flip that boat in this river. While the boat did not flip it was sure close and would have if I had not corrected it. I believe that Jim Coward came out of his kayak through Screaming Left Hand Turn also but made a quick recovery. We all made it through Overhang rapid without issue and on to the take out. We were the first group to arrive at the takeout and this was by design and it can get really crowded and pushy there in the afternoon when the outfitters and their large groups and rafts show up. We got everything packed up in about an hour then helped George load his raft and gear and got on the road about 2pm for the 12hr drive back to Plano. The one thing my wife said later that made the trip worth while is that all the pictures I have shown her did not do it justice and being there is person with her boys was worth all the rest.
I have been in the engineering business of failure analysis and root cause analysis all of my career and each event is a series of events that lead up to the culmination of the catastrophe. While there was nobody hurt on the river this time, my reflection says there were other events that had they occurred would have changed the outcome. Below is my initial list of things that I see I need to correct. This trip and river certainly humbled me and below is my initial list of things I see I need to correct. None of these are new to me just some good reminders. There were a lot of things that went right and were due to experience, preparation and teaching. Off course we all wear PFDs all of the time and our helmets through the rapids.
1. Any boat can flip on any river or any body of water and anybody can come out of the boat, “Flips Happen”.
2. Firmly secure any line or painter, they should not come loose in any event, entanglement can be a death sentence.
3. The rescuer must avoid putting themselves in a position of needing help. Get your own boat and body in a stable environment then work on rescue
4. Know your boat. If you have a new boat get, some experience in it before putting on in a class III river.
5. Firmly secure everything in the boat, nothing should come loose in the event the boat flips.
6. Stay calm
Here are a few pictures, I will work on loading the video later
The Rio Chama crew
The Hot Tub
My boys on top of the canyon
Top of the canyon rim
Alec at Tiger Wall
Alec and a little ripple on the river
Boys at the box canyon
2nd Nights Camp and crew
Geese along the river
Some scenery on the last day as the canyon opens up
More last day scenery
George and his grandson Lance
Alec working the water gun
Me after a cool off swim