It’s a 70-degree bluebird day, mid-week in early June 2011, and 26-year-old Todd Richey and 27-year-old Matt Sylvester are riding the Red Rocket—a neoprene-stinky Subaru with 180,000 miles on the odometer—toward the Bitterroot’s Bear Creek, looking for wood.
Wood is bad. Wood blocks creeks, and Todd and Matt kayak creeks. Todd once turned a creek’s corner to find a downed trunk spanning his path like a splintery clothesline. He couldn’t go over it and he couldn’t go around it, so he popped his spray skirt on the approach and caught the log in his arms and pulled himself up onto it as the creek sucked his boat off his legs and under the log and gone. Todd paddles with a folding saw tucked under his PFD, just in case he or anyone else gets in wood trouble.
Take a moment to consider that.
There will be no wood trouble today, though. They’re just scouting.
Todd and Matt organize Best of the Bitterroot, an annual two-day steep creek race on Kootenai Creek, near Stevensville, and Bear Creek, near Victor. They’re scouting in preparation for what will be the event’s third year, if the weather will cooperate.
Steep creeking is a specialized echelon of kayaking in which primarily young people with large reserves of nerve strap their lower halves into blunt plastic shells and toss themselves down the wet parts of mountains with paddles in their hands. It is rightly considered an extreme sport. It is also, especially in Montana, an extremely temperamental sport, offering an almost vanishingly small window of viable conditions.
A creek that’s flowing too low turns creeking into a game of pinball. The kayaker is the ball, and the bumpers are rocks. A creek that’s flowing too high is basically a fire hose coming down a mountain. Though you will find no shortage of fire hose riders on YouTube, and in American Whitewater’s accident database, that’s no condition for a race designed to introduce new creekers to the sport in a safe and supported environment.
Cultivating new creekers is almost as important to the sport as snowpack and scouting wood. Friends don’t let friends creek solo. You’re gonna want a crew.
Unpenned from the car, Matt bounds up the Bear Creek trail hopping on and off rocks just because they’re there, until he finds the spot: a shady approach to the lower creek with a stone just a few feet off the bank. Matt knows the stone. It’s his gauge. There are no flow gauges on the Bitterroot’s creeks to tell you how high they’re running. You can read the differential between the USGS gauges on the Bitterroot River at Darby, upstream, and Victor, below the creek, and extrapolate how much flow the interstitial creeks are adding, but to know for sure, you have to go look. From experience, Matt knows just where the optimum flow hits his rock. Today, in early June, with the race scheduled for any day now, it’s still running too high.
“Three inches,” Todd says, “makes all the difference in the world.”
Today’s level, Matt says, is “butt pucker.”
Matt’s been checking this rock since the tail end of April 2011, which was, paradoxically, a crummy year for creeking in Montana. The ideal scenario is a heavy snowpack released gently and consistently through a cool spring and, with a little luck, into early summer. In 2011, a heavy snowpack hung on into spring and then cut loose in a blast of warm weather and rain, flooding the Clark Fork, Blackfoot and Bitterroot. Once the surge had purged, the creeks turned back into pinball machines in a matter of days. For steep creekers, it was a year of water, water everywhere, and entirely too much to run.
Todd and Matt will try again, and again, making the drive and scouting for wood and checking how much of their rock is wet until the creek drops to a level they consider safe. When it’s right they’ll send out the word via Facebook and cell phone, and with a few days’ notice the race will be on.
The sport of creeking, a subset of whitewater kayaking, combines the downstream-travel aspects of river running (moving from Point A to Point B, with all the logistical difficulties that implies) with the technical maneuvers of playboating on Class IV and V rapids. It generally takes place on high-gradient, low-volume waterways, i.e. creeks, but there’s no hard and fast line in the sand. You’ll find creekers limbering up on Lochsa River snowmelt in spring, and winding down the season on the dam-released North Fork of the Payette River near Boise come fall—both of which are bigger water than can be properly considered creeks. And if “creek” implies a range, “steep” is a matter of degree as well. It could mean an elevation loss in excess of 100 feet per mile, or it could refer to what Bitterroot-born kayaker Tyler Bradt does, which is huck himself over drops like Washington state’s 189-foot Palouse Falls.
Some of the best athletes in North American creeking come from the neighborhoods of Asheville and Hood River, Oregon, and Canada’s Ottowa Valley. What those places have that others don’t is year-round creeking water. Dedicated creekers with the means tend to spend their winters paddling creeks in Chile. Locals who can’t get away wait for Bear and Kootenai to come in, or for Big Timber Creek in the Crazy Mountains near Bozeman, or Lolo Creek across the Idaho line, or the Golden Canyon section of the South Fork of the Clearwater. (Todd and Matt have mentioned scouting a promising creek in Glacier National Park.) There aren’t a lot of un-run lines anymore, and finding a new one is hard work.
Creekers tend to know their spots, and those spots were the last place I figured I’d find a chance to converse with one of them. It’s difficult to talk to people when they’re flying down mountainsides.
So I tracked down Cheyenne Aura Rogers at Missoula’s Kettlehouse Brewery. Cheyenne, as many Missoula beer drinkers may know, is the kayaker featured on the brewery’s 16-ounce cans of Eddy Out. She is also one of a very few women among the dozen or so Missoulians who comprise the city’s few steep creek crews.
Cheyenne is almost inhumanly patient with the intolerably repetitive question that scaredy-cat landlubbers inevitably ask people who strap their lower halves into blunt plastic shells and toss themselves down mountains: Why?
The answer, of course, is because it’s insanely challenging and rewarding and fun. All of which sounds eminently reasonable to the landlubber, leading, on further examination, to the question behind the question: How does one overcome the sheer fear?
This is not, the landlubber insists, a stupid question. The Fear is real, no less for the accomplished creeker than for the awestruck landlubber. Todd had acknowledged it on our scout of Bear Creek, having just the week before blacked out in a recirculating eddy and gotten himself entrapped in wood. “I definitely said some prayers,” he told me.
“Anybody who says they’re never scared,” Matt had added, “is lying.”
The cure for The Fear, as extreme athletes prove to popular amazement time and again, is preparation and, paradoxically, caution.
Cheyenne: “I think if you don’t have the experience and you take a bad swim, you might think, ‘this isn’t for me.’ But if you’ve done it and you’ve accomplished that same thing that you swam out of, you feel more like you need retribution, or like, I got this! You have the experience to carry you through, to know that you’re capable of this, and know your mistake.”
She should know. Cheyenne took her own bad swim in the FIBArk kayak race on the Pine Creek section of Colorado’s Arkansas River in 2007.
“I was on my time trial, and there’s this ginormous hole right in the middle of the run, and you’ve got to either do a little sneak line—but there’s these pin rocks that you could hit and they could mess you up, or it could break your boat if you hit them wrong—or you come down and you keep trying to stroke just enough to clip the side of the hole. It was a high flow year, and I felt at that point in time that I wanted to be a part of the scene and be a part of this race, and I thought I was ready. The feature...sometimes you almost have a dwarf perspective before you’re actually there, and then you’re like oh my God, this is huge. I ended up clipping the side of the hole and it brought me back into it.”
The swim was caught on video and it’s up on YouTube (search for Pine Creek Boater Cross; that’s Cheyenne in the yellow boat at the 2:33 mark). The hole battered her for 10 seconds that looked like an eternity. She didn’t panic, and you can see her on the footage bracing purposefully, putting her skills to the test before finally popping her skirt and swimming out of it.
She’s watched that video plenty. Moments after her swim, world-class kayaker Eric Jackson got sucked into the same hole. He dunked himself with an intentional window shade move—a snappy, high-powered roll—and set himself up to rudder out of the maelstrom.
“I learned so much watching that,” Cheyenne says. “He had the experience to be aware and confident of where he was in that hole. That’s how you get out of that. If you have enough mind consciousness. And strength. It was amazing to see that. Because up to that point, everyone else who was getting out of that was getting lucky and flushing at the right point in time. And he actually threw skills down to get out. And it was like, wow.”
A landlubber watching steep creekers sees little but big balls, but mere balls, in creeking, are a one-way ticket to The Fear. Skills trump balls.
The point is that creeking, despite its superficial appearance as the most ridiculous sort of risk-taking, is actually one of the more carefully deliberate endeavors in all of paddling. First you learn to roll a kayak in flat water. Then you accustom yourself to the moderate rapids of, say, the Blackfoot. When you’re ready (sound judgment required here), you start running Alberton Gorge, progressing from just-don’t-swim survival paddling to a purposeful downstream dance from feature to feature. You meet new people, you challenge each other and yourself. Maybe you see a YouTube video of kayakers making Big Timber Creek look easy, or you get invited to watch a race on Bear Creek. Maybe you think: I could do that...
“The progression of what it takes and the commitment to get to that spot is a really beautiful thing,” Cheyenne says. “You can kind of refine your skills in a way that brings you a certain level of balance, muscle tone, muscle memory, so that when you step up and want to run something challenging, you’ve been training and working your way up to being ready to do that.”
July 23, a full month after Best of the Bitterroot’s originally scheduled start, the creeks are dropping and the race is on. Todd and Matt are unpacking gear in the Kootenai Creek trailhead parking lot when two rock climbers pull up and start unloading their own equipment.
One of them takes in the expanding profusion and says, “You’re gonna kayak this shit?”
“You guys are gnar-dawgs,” his partner says admiringly.
Matt says, “You guys are climbers? You are!”
“Naw, man,” says the first climber. “We’ve got rope.”
I note, not for the first time, the reflexive self-deprecation common to people who do extraordinarily difficult things very well.
Kootenai Creek is a short run, almost absurdly so in light of the coordinated effort necessary to run it: just a few hundred yards, less than a minute from start to finish. From a well-chosen rock near the end, you can see the whole course, minus a sharp turn at the top. You will be looking up. Eight kayakers show up for the race, including Todd and Matt and Cheyenne. Each of the eight takes two laps on the creek, with the times combined and recorded on Matt’s laptop. A safety boater waits in an eddy at the take-out, and radio relays with throw ropes are positioned on outcrops along the course. The laps alternate between spots of stony shade and blazes of white spray. On shore, boater Ryan Witkowski has a rock fall on his finger and loses a nail, leading to a short delay. Cheyenne breaks her $400 paddle on a rock and still manages to execute a dicey roll with the single-bladed remains.
Todd isn’t so lucky. He misses a must-make brace and then flubs a roll—happens to the best of them—and ends up swimming. I see him upstream, midstream, toppling face first over a drop, kayak behind him, paddle in hand, Go-Pro camera mounted to his red helmet, eyes big but composed. His crew fishes him out up a steep rock wall. He’ll regroup and complete a second run, coming in at 8th place with a DNF (did not finish) time of 1 minute and 11 seconds.
In the parking lot later, friends and family and awestruck landlubbers outnumber creekers by at least three to one, and I introduce myself to Matt’s mother. I ask if she worries. She tells me that she and Matt’s dad have had to acknowledge the dangers. They have friends who have lost sons to kayaking, but they’ve decided it’s unwise to squelch their son’s passion.
“Besides,” she says, “it keeps them out of the bars.”
Behind her, a kayaker named Zachariah Campbell reaches into a cooler in Todd’s van for a cold PBR. Todd, taking his swimmer’s medicine, drinks it from a neoprene booty.
The next day, on Bear Creek, the water is falling quickly toward too-low. Seven paddlers take on the longer run, about a mile, with a two-mile hike to the put-in. The Bear Creek run is arguably tougher, too, with features named Tijuana Crack Whore (an elbow-munching boat-wide crevasse), Hotel California (you can never leave...) and Brave Bear. Bear Creek is a one-lap, one-time race.
Todd bounces back to take Bear with a time of 2 minutes and 19 seconds—7 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Matt. Along the way he wins the Brave Bear award for navigating a long stone slide half-submerged and going over the run’s main falls backwards. His trophy is a bronze-plated—well, spray-painted, probably—neoprene bootie.
Bear is too long to take in from one vantage, and halfway through the race I exit my black-fly-ridden rock ledge and walk downstream to find another place to watch. Passing me, a woman walks uphill with her young son and two young daughters in tow. As they pass me, the littlest girl, in a pink dress, tugs at her mom’s hand.
“Mom, can I do the kayak race?”
Mom, having misheard, says, “That’s where we’re going!”
Two beats later, having realized what was asked, Mom clarifies: “Well, now, honey, we can’t do the kayak race.”
Not yet, anyway.