WELL, THAT HAPPENED: The River Wild

By on June 14, 2016

Coming face-to-face with nature’s relentless authority.

The river-ready author poses for what could have been his last photo.  (Photo: Heidi Clark Bellorado)

The river-ready author poses for what could have been his last photo.  (Photo: Heidi Clark Bellorado)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In Jackson, spending the day “on the river” can mean many different things. It could mean that you were whitewater rafting through Snake River Canyon or simply floating in an inner tube down Flat Creek. You might have driven over to Idaho and enjoyed a little river fishing, or taken a scenic float through Oxbow Bend smiling for tourist photos. I’ve enjoyed all of these water adventures (and more) during my years here in Jackson, so when I was invited to go on the river with my childhood friend Orion Bellorado and his wife Heidi, I didn’t hesitate to agree. The details of where or how weren’t important.

I simply asked, “When?”

I love being on the water. Even in Iceland, I was most comfortable standing on a boat at the mercy of the Atlantic. Here at home, I’d been tossed into the water at Lunch Counter, Snake River Canyon’s most famous rapid, and made it out alive. I didn’t see any reason why I should harbor any semblance of fear towards moving (or still) water. I knew how to handle myself. Or at least I thought I did.

Orion and Heidi brought me to their favorite stretch of the Hoback River (they demanded I keep the exact location a secret) and we began unloading our gear: dry suits, life jackets, paddles, etc. With all the warm weather we’ve been having, the chocolate, milky melt water swelled the river, and pieces of forest debris surged past us. The speed at which the river was flowing didn’t really hit me until we rested our vessels on the current. Orion was in a hard-shell kayak while Heidi and I paddled an inflatable ducky kayak.

The moment I sat down in the water, I felt my weight rest into the ducky like a hand pressing against a balloon. Sitting in the front, I realized I didn’t have any footrest or much back support, so I had to constantly flex my abs (they’re under there somewhere) just to stay upright. After a good five minutes of that I was struggling. It felt like I was holding a permanent sit-up position and needed to straighten myself out.

The river was ruthless. We dodged rocks, fallen trees, and floated past plenty of loose wood and bushes drifting through the water. The rapids were rough, and the ducky flopped around with each one we hit. I kept trying to keep myself upright but the rubber was slick and my dry suit slipped with every movement. It came to the point where I was basically lying on my back, unable to do another sit-up.

Let me be the first to tell you that lying down while going over rapids is a dumb move, but I had no choice. I couldn’t heave myself back to a sitting position. I completely lost all balance and control.

The river recognized that and attacked.

One pair of rapids spun our ducky sideways, and I rolled out into the incredibly fast-flowing icy water. In my shock, I didn’t think to bring my legs up and I kicked out underwater looking for a foothold. I realize now that I could have snagged my leg on something and drowned if I wasn’t lucky. My head shot into the air and I stole a deep breath. I could feel the muddy water in my lungs and latched onto the ducky trying to cough it out.

“Help! Help!” I gasped.

Orion paddled against the current and hoisted me back into the ducky. I ended up bailing out of the adventure early, feeling terrible, as though my inexperience ruined my friends’ day. It didn’t. Of course, I’m thankful to be alive, and it’s always a bit humbling to have nature, even on your home turf, remind you how powerless you can be.

Orion and Heidi are two of the many Jackson locals who understand the river and know how to master it. I’m thankful they were my guides. They recognize the dangers and are prepared for them. But there are plenty of people who aren’t as prepared; myself included. As we maneuver our current tourist season, it’s important to set the example and showcase the risks our area presents. No matter how much control we think we have, it can always be canceled out by Mother Nature. PJH

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