It’s a very singular feeling to stand on the banks of the largest rapid that you have ever seen, and have the thought, “man, I sure don’t want to swim this,” float through your head.
Sure enough, I swam that rapid.
Cherry Creek in California, known as the most difficult commerically run stretch of river in the United States, was my first Class V experience. It was a quick jump from rivers that I knew very well and trusted myself on, into a deep canyon of “is there actually a line through this mess?” We flipped, we wrapped, we chased down our friends, we did that again, and then some more. We swam, but in a way that was more trying to comprehend what the water was doing with us and less prompting our limbs to propel us in a particular direction. We had gone as a group of ambitious young guides, but came home wide eyed with tales of our epic, having discovered either a new found love or strong distaste for our peers, and with lessons that we would carry with us for the rest of our lives.
Rafting is an amazing and incredibly unique way to experience the world around us; to see hidden geological wonders, springs that are rarely more than a trickle, corners of the earth that make you feel as though that moment truly belongs to you and that you truly belong to that place. It’s a rare feeling, basking in the gentle giant that is nature. Class V boating takes you to another side of that gentle giant. These runs, carrying big challenges and high consequences, are more equivalent to testing the forces of nature. You’re no longer simply enjoying it and basking in its glory, but entering the world of sharp teeth and thorns, respecting it for the wild and uncontrollable beast that it is, and embracing the fact that sometimes it bites.
The main lesson that I came away from Cherry Creek with, was that we hadn’t been ready to take on Class V ourselves. It had been put on a pedestal by all of the wonderful stories that I had heard about these runs…which were incredibly accurate when you stay in the boat. I did return to Cherry Creek eventually, first with an experienced guide on that run who truly did make one of the hardest runs in America look like a ballet, and then again with friends to form our own relationship with that river.
So much of class V is about going as a strong team, consciously leaving your comfort zone at home on the table next to your morning cup of coffee, having the discussion with your group and making sure everyone is 100% in. These steep and daunting runs are not places to be persuading friends with bold words. They are places to practice respecting people’s boundaries, places to respect that sometimes portaging is the braver choice. These experiences force us to respect the power of the river, and the value of progression.
That initial experience on Cherry Creek in which I became very closely acquainted with the underwater world and the granite grain in more rocks that I can count, lifted the idea of boating Class V to a much different goal than I had originally anticipated. I spent the next several years preparing myself to return, and that process wasn’t always fun nor was it always a planned lesson. It was a process of learning how to dance with the currents, how to anticipate where the water wanted to take you, instead of trying to control something that is so much more powerful than any human could hope to be. I spent a lot of time learning what happened when plan A went out the window, and how to be comfortable choosing and executing plan B, plan C, and sometimes even plan Z. I spent time swimming towards things and vigorously away from things, time getting boats out of places that they had no business being, and time getting people out of spots that they had no desire to be in. I learned how to be a part of a team, instead of an individual…reading others and knowing what to expect, how to communicate when words couldn’t be heard, how to support each other, and how to recognize the delicate moment of indecision.
The concept of whitewater began to change as I started challenging myself with intention. Forming a relationship with water, rather than moving down a memorized path, brings a different sort of focus. In this constantly sliding to and fro between the current lines, skirting the brim of this eddy to pull into the sweet spot of that wave, pirouetting around a boulder and sashaying into a questionably sized slot, watching the surge of a hole and choosing the precise moment to careen into its depths; It becomes a sort of meditation. Each individual decision is huge, with enormous potential for both success and disaster, and most of them made nearly unconsciously as the features so rapidly give way to one another. It becomes a graceful dance, creating a calm amongst the ferocity of that wild beast.
Part of that becomes the attraction to harder runs. So many of our days are built out of one trivial decision after the next, that the element of consequence in that dance becomes addictive. Each single moment involves a decision that is so paramount, and when done right, linked together to create something so beautiful, that the accomplishment leaves very little to be desired.
The magic of those occasions is then multiplied. Looking back on the irrational and chaotic cluster of boulders, drops, and endless frothing white that you just navigated, and then around you, floating in such a surreal place that can only be accessed by confrontation with the most relentless parts of nature that it has to offer, often full of steep and impossibly narrow gorges, laden in green moss and crystalline waterfalls and flowers that surely, in that instant, couldn’t possibly exist anywhere else in that same glory, fills you with an incredible concoction of impossible beauty and adrenaline and appreciation for life in all of its pits and peaks.
Feeling up to exploring the challenge of Class V whitewater? Join Wet Planet on the Farmlands section of the White Salmon or Wind River this Spring to let the most experienced guides around share the Class V experience with you!
Courtney Zink is a part of the Wet Planet guide staff and office team. Her fourth favorite thing about rafting is a tie between midnight runs and sandwiches.