Carnage. That's what more than 100 people have come to the Lochsa River to see. They're craving it. They've brought lawn chairs and coolers stocked with Bud Light. They're making sandwiches on truck tailgates and boiling hot dogs on camp stoves. They've got point-and-shoot and video cameras. They're staking out the best views, climbing down onto the rocks to get closer to the action.
We're in Idaho, about 100 miles west of Missoula, just off Highway 12. We're next to Lochsa Falls, one of the gnarliest rapids on the river. All day rafters and kayakers have been trying to run it. The spectators want to see them fail, cheering the loudest for those who fare the worst. It's the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend. The sky's overcast. And the crowd hasn't seen nearly enough carnage.
Boats approach the rapid in packs of three or four. Many are catarafts—two inflatable pontoons connected by a metal frame, with a seat or two in the middle. The catarafters are playing it safe, rowing hard through the best line. That doesn't result in carnage.
Cataraft, says a river guide here on his day off, "is French for too fat to fit in a kayak."
A few tour company rafts make it through the rapid unscathed. A woman from Spokane, recording video with her iPhone, says "I wanted to see more popcorn."
Popcorn is when rafters are bounced out of their boats.
Others approach Lochsa Falls with bravado and are praised for their showmanship. Some catarafters row backward to slow down and attempt to surf the rapid. They get bucked like bad bull riders. In fact, there's some overlap here between bull-riding and rafting. The longer the rafters manage to stay in the swirl of the rapid, the better.
The spectators like a man paddling a ducky, and two others gripping paddleboards and wearing flippers. They also respond to a man with a chest-length gray beard and a sun-bleached life jacket who deftly slides through the whitewater. But they don't seem sated until a raft approaches with a man sitting on the bow without a paddle, feet dangling over the front, one fist in the air. Eight others are bunched in the back. When the boat crashes into the rapid, the man launches overboard.
That's the popcorn.
Often the river has its way, seizing a boat like a dog with a chew toy. It grabs kayakers, chews them a bit, and spits them out upside down. A woman in a light-blue kayak is capsized in the mouth of the rapid for so long I get nervous. She's just stuck there, cycling around and around. The cheering subsides as the seconds pass. The rapid finally kicks her out and she pops up and acknowledges the crowd with a paddle pump. The crowd hoots in appreciation. I resolve never to float the Lochsa in a kayak.
The YouTube effect
This Lochsa rodeo happens every year. It's an informal festival for rafters, the confluence of a three-day weekend and the spring runoff at one of the wildest rivers in the West. The Clearwater National Forest serves as host, and so far forest officials don't have a problem with it. It's remote: There's no cell phone service, and no gas, a road sign says, for 65 miles.
"Lochsa" is a Nez Perce word for rough water. Lewis and Clark described the river as "swift and stony." They called the surrounding mountains "steep and stony." They almost starved here. The spring-green mountainsides are rugged and uninviting. The river barrels and bends through them; meander it does not. Rapids have names such as Grim Reaper, Killer Fang Falls, Termination, and Picking Up The Pieces.