Big Water Bruneau
I caught an eddy (barely), slammed the back of my raft’s right pontoon into the rock she was perched on and screamed: “Jump on if you can.”
Dorita jumped strongly and landed in a cat clawing belly-flop on a fairly-soft dry bag.
OK, I thought, now I have to get back out into the current without hitting any rocks.
It really did seem like a good idea at the time. Dorita’s about to turn 70; father, Ed, had been wanting to raft Idaho’s Bruneau River. We had rafted the 40-mile Class IV stretch previously and thought it as a great trip. Ed had done various whitewater day trips with us and we decided to do the trip with him as a 70th birthday present.
Since it is good to have more than one raft on remote trips: we invited our buddy Ben, who also had Bruneau experience. He wanted to bring his 70-year-old outdoorsman father too. Dorita’s sister Renae didn't want to miss a party and decided to take an inflatable kayak down the Bruneau.
The Bruneau's tributaries rise inside northern Nevada and then join for a brief but steep run to the Snake River in southern Idaho. The Bruneau has a short springtime window of optimal runoff for raft trips. We wanted to be on it while it was running between about 1200 – 2000 cfs. Below that level, we would be damaging rafts on unavoidable rocks and above that level was a wee bit more dicey. The BLM river guidebook strongly recommends not running the river above 2500 cfs.
The best date for all of us was Memorial Day weekend 1995. The river would be crowded, but we planned on an afternoon launch and two nights on the river.
The Bruneau runs cold in May since its major tributary, the Jarbidge, drains high snowfields. We supplied ourselves with Kokatat Gore-Tex drysuits to maximize cold-water survival time… just in case something ugly happened.
The chief reason the Bruneau is not a popular boating river is its “Class V” access road. It can be impassable during wet conditions and it is always a slow and tough journey, on a 1940s four-wheel-drive mining road, with a long, scary descent down to the river.
We drove into the river from our homes, got our four boats rigged and were on the river by mid-afternoon. The Bruneau was running at about 1600 cfs and looked as expected: muddy and damn cold. Ben and I were each rowing big double-pontoon AIRE Cougar catarafts. Dorita had a small, oar-rigged AIRE Puma (the sports car) and Renae had a AIRE Lynx inflatable kayak.
The upper Bruneau canyon narrows to less than 100 feet wide at points, with basalt cliffs that go up for hundreds of feet. The scenery is spectacular. The river level was perfect for the big catarafts, and despite the slight mishap of Renae flipping her inflatable kayak in a small waterfall and spending way too long exploring the bottom of the river, we made camp in good time.
Our camp was typical of Bruneau River camps: a narrow side-canyon mouth, guarded by verdant poison ivy (oak), with a sagebrush flat above the river to pitch tents and party on. We celebrated “cheating death” in the usual river-runner fashion.
Day two was a cruise through more tight canyons, interesting rapids and spectacular scenery. Dorita was “the queen of the river” with her highly-maneuverable raft. Renae spent more "down-time" exploring underwater, then gave up on her inflatable kayak and rode in Dorita’s raft.
Night two was spent on a large sagebrush bench, just above river level. We camped early and had two groups of boaters go by our camp in the late afternoon. An old friend, Steve Jones (Jonesy), was with one of the groups that we knew would be camping just downstream from our location. That night we watched a huge lightning storm to the south. It appeared to be centered on the Jarbidge Mountains, where most of the Bruneau’s water comes from.
The next morning I rose early and upon walking down to the river, noticed our boats were floating freely, rather than resting on a small beach. The river had changed in texture and now resembled a chocolate milkshake.
Hmmmm… the beach was now covered with water too. I made sure the boats were tied off solidly and wandered back to camp for coffee and breakfast. After breakfast, we all went back down to the river and noted a lot of debris, including whole trees bobbing down the churning water. The water that had been chocolate was now a rich dark red color. Hmmmmm…. that lightning storm must have put down major amounts of rain upstream.
We broke camp, loaded our gear in the rafts and discussed what to do. The river was obviously higher, but we couldn’t really tell how much it had gone up. Finally, we decided to wait around for someone to float by and see what they thought of the water level.
We were about one mile above the main set of rapids on the Bruneau. Five-Mile Rapid is a near continuous Class IV technical and tight run for 3.5 miles. I think of Five-Mile Rapid as an interactive carnival ride, with ugly penalties for mistakes.
It seemed like Five-Mile Rapid might be scarier at much higher water levels, but we figured we could run it with our big AIRE catarafts. However, Dorita’s smaller boat might be overmatched by huge waves and big holes.
After standing around in our drysuits for an hour or so, we got impatient. Ben offered a toast to the river gods, spilled a little liquor into the water to calm it and we launched boats.
Immediately after launching, I realized the water had come way up and was undoubtedly approaching the 2500 cfs level that the BLM warned about. Just around the corner, we shot by one group of rafters who waved frantically at us, but we were unable to stop.
A bit farther on, we could see the rafts and kayaks belonging to Jonesy’s group. As we got closer I realized everyone was lined up on shore, waiting for someone to float by. I was a little shocked. Jonesy has a wealth of big-water experience, used to own an Idaho rafting company and was the River Unit Supervisor for filming the whitewater movie, The River Wild. I really had figured his group would be working their way down the river.
Seized with the “bravado of the damned,” I jumped to my feet and waved at Jonesy as we floated by. I yelled “SEE YOU IN HELL, JONESY,” and waited for a witty retort.
I thought: “We’re truly damned if the professionals are standing on the bank waiting for inspiration.”
Just above Five-Mile Rapid was a small lake, where the river had backed up. We pulled the rafts together and had a brief discussion, spiced by Ben passing around a flask of “nerve-tonic.” It was decided to put Dorita and Renae with their small boat in the middle, with Ben leading and me following.
As we lined up and started into the rapid Dorita told Renae: "We probably aren't going to make it through this upright, but if we do, all glory will be ours!"
They flipped in the first big waves. Dorita was keeping the boat pointed downstream and each huge standing wave would nearly flip them over backwards. When she attempted to avoid a large rock in the wave train, the slight change in angle was disastrous.
Dorita never got to take a deep breath; she was suddenly upside down, seated, holding the oars, gasping for air. Her worst boating fear was real and happening; she was trapped under a raft. She pushed down and out and rocketed to the surface (the air trapped inside her drysuit added considerably to the buoyancy of her PFD). Her raft was out of her view, but the nearby shoreline looked good. She did her best Michael Phelps swimming imitation and suddenly was in a small eddy at the edge of the river. Adrenaline propelled her up onto a basalt boulder. From that perch, she peered into a watery hell and saw her upside-down raft accelerating downriver towards house-sized holes. With some relief, she noted Renae was clinging to the raft.
I had been about 150 feet behind Dorita, noticed the raft flip, then long seconds later saw a dry-suited figure suddenly appear on the boulder. Since there is no trail down the Bruneau, and occasional sheer rock walls, being stranded on that hostile shore was not good. It was imperative for me to get out of the raging main current and try to pick her up. I caught an eddy (barely), slammed the back of my raft’s right pontoon into the rock she was perched on and screamed “Jump on if you can!” Dorita jumped strongly and landed in a cat clawing belly-flop on a fairly-soft dry bag. OK! I thought, now just get back out into the main current without hitting any rocks.
As I started pulling my way back into the raging red torrent, the raft took off like a porpoise. Suddenly, the boat hit a rock I couldn’t avoid. Both Dorita and I were launched off the raft by the impact of the collision. My hands were ripped off the oars and I flew out of the boat like Superman. By sheer luck, my right hand happened to grab an oarlock as I flew by and only my head went in the river.
Seeing the chaos ahead, Dorita had buried a hand under webbing and held on with a death grip. On impact, she somersaulted into the water, while still clinging to the webbing. Our wonderful raft had not flipped and instead wallowed tail-first into the large eddy behind the rock we had collided with. That allowed me critical seconds to extract my right foot from a sandal that had somehow become stuck between the rowing frame and the raft. It also allowed Ed time to help haul Dorita back out of the water.
Meanwhile, Renae and the upside-down Puma continued their now terrifying way down the Bruneau. Renae knew she had to stay on the upstream side of the raft, to avoid being pinned between it and a rock. However, every time she got on the upstream side, and tried to deploy the flip lines, the raft would pivot and put her on the downstream side. Meanwhile the raft was crashing into rocks and they both were plunging through huge holes and giant waves.
Ben had also seen the accident and started maneuvering to affect a rescue. Every time he got close to Renae, he had to instead concentrate on surviving the next raft-eating hole or rock. The BLM Bruneau guidebook rates this obstacle-course section Class IV+ at normal water levels. After about one and one-half miles of constant hellacious water, the river slowed into another small lake and Ben was finally able to save Renae. I caught up soon thereafter and we managed to tow the upside-down Puma raft to the river bank.
Renae was very tired, but was not suffering hypothermia from her too-long immersion in snowmelt water. She said she could not have held on much longer. I don’t believe she could have lasted through the ordeal without a drysuit. Dorita’s raft was in worse shape from its upside-down float trip. The heavy steel-tubing frame and one oar were broken, from impacting rocks.
We took a break, while deflating the Puma. It got lashed onto Ben’s raft and the frame got lashed onto mine. Renae rode the rest of the way with Ben and his dad and Dorita stayed with Ed and me. I think the extra weight helped us get down the rest of Five-Mile Rapid without further disaster.
Despite taking about an hour off the river, we still hadn’t had any other boaters catch us. Ben led the rest of Five-Mile, while I prudently maneuvered out of the wave train whenever I saw his raft stand up vertically or skirt around a huge hole or rock. After spending the first half of Five-Mile Rapid both trying to save Renae and not kill ourselves, the second half of the brown-water hell seemed merely… extremely out of control.
After Five-Mile, the river was calmer for a while, until Wild Burro Rapid. Wild Burro is below a small lake in the Bruneau, made by a long-ago landslide that dammed the river. It is a “very interesting” Class IV rapid at normal levels, since a narrow exit at the right side of the landslide/dam leads to a steep descent down the landslide/dam face, with huge standing waves at the bottom, then shortly thereafter, a cliffside to avoid on the left.
Wild Burro was the most exciting single rapid on “flood-day”. I had ended up in the lead, and suffered a panic attack when we realized the right-side exit was blocked by debris. However, there was enough water to exit straight over the top of the dam. I’ve rarely been more scared than staring at the churning maelstrom of huge waves at the bottom. When we got through that rapid, we broke for lunch. I was still so hyper from my "adrenaline rush" that I was shaking.
After lunch the canyon opened up, and we had calm water for a few miles to our takeout. When we reached the end of the trip, we were all very subdued, very tired, and almost in a state of shock. Dorita found some cold beers to sip on and calm our nerves as we broke the rafts down and loaded our vehicles.
After bidding farewell to our friends, Dorita and I drove down-canyon to the small town of Bruneau and then stopped by a restaurant to make sure the load was tied down properly, before highway driving. At this point a deputy sheriff came trotting out of the restaurant and bustled up to us. In some astonishment, he asked, “Did you folks just get off the Bruneau?” We replied in the affirmative.
He then proceeded to tell us that the Bruneau was flowing at 3500 cfs and there were all sorts of rafting disasters upstream. The lightning storm the night before had caused massive snowmelt in the high peaks at the head of the Jarbidge River and the ensuing flood had ripped out the road to the little town of Jarbidge, then rolled down to the Bruneau River with masses of debris included. The sheriff had spotted upside down rafts from the canyon rim.
To say the least, we were stunned that we had rafted the Bruneau at 3500 cfs… 1000 cfs over the recommended maximum river level. No wonder it had been so out of control. We drove home feeling very wrung-out.
The river flood made the regional news. It was reported some people abandoned their gear and hiked out of the Bruneau. One of my friends from Ketchum had a moment of wisdom and hiked out five miles with his kayak over his shoulder. Some smart and patient people waited days until the water went down, then boated out.
A few months after the Bruneau epic, I ran into Jonesy in Boise. After exchanging pleasantries, I asked him how his party had fared on the Bruneau. He said after they decided to commit to the flood, they had descended the river cautiously with their kayakers as safety boaters.
I complemented him on engineering a safe descent for his party, through a boater's hell, then I leaned in closer.
“Jonesy, was it Class V water?” I inquired.
Steve had to think about it for a little while.
He replied: “Ray, it was real big Class IV.”
Ray is a sales rep for both Kokatat and Katadyn products. He visits every year to give us great gear clinics. He and his wife Dorita are enthusiastic boaters, backpackers and photographers.