By Tom Leigh (Riverlog – June/July 1997)

A Simple Run on Lower Stouts Creek (Into the Valley of Death Floated the Six)

I haven’t been paddling very long, but long enough to learn that kayaking can be a very humbling experience. A perfect example was a run down Stouts Creek after a heavy rain. It all started at the race setup Saturday morning. The St. Francis was running 3 feet above the bridge. When the powers-that-be decided to postpone the race setup due to high water, I should have suspected something. When the hair boaters in the group said, “Hey, let’s go do those creeks!” AI really should have suspected something. But they said Lower Stouts Creek was just a class II run with a few willows to contend with. No problem.

We assembled a pretty good group for a beginner’s run: Kevin Ruhland (a new boater), Marty Gain, Scott Becker, Don Dufaux, my son Nathan and me. What could happen on a class II creek?

Our group put in at Day Baptist Camp and expected a pretty easy run: Scott was the most experienced in the group. Don had run the creek last year during the clinic (at 40 inches). So what if the creek was at flood level? No problem!

Lower Stouts Creek has three different parts. The first mile below the put-in at Day Baptist Camp is flatwater rolling past some very pretty meadows. Kevin took a couple harmless swims in this section and learned the value of leaning downstream on peel outs.

The gradient drops noticeably in the second mile, creating 2-3 foot haystacks, which we eagerly charged through. Finally, some action! Kevin took another swim. Scott got tangled in a strainer during the rescue and had to bail. A very long swim ensued. I began to realize what creekin’ at flood levels involves. Where are the #$%&* eddies?

The third mile enters a section with frequent shelf drops, constricted bend and a few boulders. Very pretty. But on this day the current was running through large strainers, especially on the bends where the current was cutting over the bank. The absence of eddies and high cfs left less margin for error than usual, but did I adjust? Noooooo.

We began to string out. Nathan and I did a little surfing. I was feeling pretty confident. It was warm and sunny. What could possible go wrong? [cue ominous background music, please]

I looked up from surfing a nice wave and noticed I was alone. The creek disappeared around a sharp bend. I felt the current rushing under my boat. It seem faster now. I peeled out and descended two sharp drops. Still now boaters. I eddied below a rock and looked downstream. Nobody. I peeled out and as I rounded the bend saw a red hull 100 yards downstream. Two more sharp drops ahead of me. Faster current. Then I see Scott’s Extreme shoot up from below a horizon line, then another red hull. “Three swimmers,” I think, “Better go for the rescue.” I also recall hearing an approaching freight train.

Every boater has a moment of truth: the first combat roll. The second moment of truth is different for everyone. This was mine. My only thought at that time was to rescue the swimmers. I never even considered what might have caused them to swim! Well, now I know better.

I saw another boat pop up — straight up — from the horizon. Then I saw the hole, and realized this was the freight train. Two helmets were visible in the froth. I still had time to land above the hole, but like I said, now I know better. I saw a ribbon of dark water on river right and went for it. But the river gods saw my plan and foiled it. The dark ribbon of water curled into the river-wide hole and yanked my poor little Dancer backwards like a Texas bouncer on nickel beer night. (Chuck McHenry has since taught me the proper boof move). I knew if I turned sideways I was toast so I braced and leaned back and prayed for the stern squirt of my life.

(Note: the next several paragraphs of Mr. Leigh’s story have been omitted since their resemblance to a psychedelic dream sequence is unsuitable for this publication. We also suggest Mr. Leigh read more William Nealy and less Lewis Carroll. –Editor).

When I surfaced and tried to swim downstream I felt myself beckoned by the river gods to revisit the hole, so for once I followed my training and swam sideways to get out. Hey, it works! Kevin was on shore with wide eyes. Helluva first run, huh, Kev! Three boats were still churning in the river gods’ washing machine, but fortunately no helmets.

Scott finally came floating by and we pulled him out with a paddle. I saw Don further down the bank. We were all pretty dazed, but okay. But where were Nathan and Marty? I was prepared to lose gear, but not my son. I began to claw through the willow thickets to get downstream and eventually met Nathan coming the other way. We both spoke at once, “There you are thank God I thought you drowned are you okay where’s everybody else?” Apparently as I was climbing through the willows the hoe spit out our boats. Nathan and Marty saw three boats go by and no swimmers, so they imagined the worst. Marty was lying on a rock, hawking up a lungfull of water he gulped when he got rammed by Don’s captainless T-Canyon.

We spent the next 3.5 hours retrieving boats and gear and telling and re-telling the gruesome tale. We got pretty good at ferrying into strainers to drag two-ton plastics boats free. When I got mine I made a mental note: float bags and center foam pillar had been sucked out. Some kinda power! The equipment recovery included another couple of mishaps which I’ll spare the reader. Let’s just say we’re all a little smarter now.

But like I said, this was a learning experience, so for the record here are my observations:

  1. A hole which swallows all the other boats in your group will probably swallow yours, too.
  2. A rescue rope is useless if it’s in your boat and you’re not.
  3. It’s hard to free pinned boats without a rope, boat or paddle.
  4. It takes less time to scout a rapid than to free a pinned boat.
  5. Think twice when Don volunteers to be probe!