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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.