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.
The rafters come from all over the country. This year, Michael Anderson took a train from Indiana to Glacier National Park and then pedaled his bike to Missoula en route to a Lochsa campground. Some float, some just watch. At Lochsa Falls there are river rats in "Raftafarian" T-shirts, teenagers playing Uno, inebriated 20-somethings heckling rafters, an elderly couple, and a wiener dog-clutching mom. The trucks are from Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, and Washington. On the window of one dusty truck topper someone wrote "My girlfriend is dirtier than this."
The Rogers family, from Lewiston, Idaho, is hunkered down with their RV, tents, and ATVs for the weekend at the Lochsa Falls pullout. The night before, they stoked a bonfire on the pavement and put their generator across the highway, running a cord to it. "We don't miss anything," says Darla Rogers, inside the RV where they'd made biscuits and gravy for breakfast. "If you're going to do it, you might as well do it big."
The Rogers came because of YouTube. A lot of the people here did, including me. YouTube hosts Lochsa highlight reels packed with nonstop carnage, like porn for whitewater hounds, and they've gone viral. Just about everyone congregated at the falls has seen them. The rafters are hoping to star in them.
"It's an exhibitionist's sport," says Derek Farr, who traveled here from Grangeville, Idaho. "It's the Academy Awards of rafting. People spend all this time in the wilderness with no one watching. This is their time to shine."
Marty Engledow, a thick man with a sun-pinked face, in a cap and black sunglasses, is the guy behind the videos. He owns Rapid Action Whitewater Photography, based in Lowell, Idaho. They're the only videographers here that are officially permitted by the Forest Service. Engledow and his cousin Jimmy are at the river today as part of a four-man camera crew. They've been coming just about every Memorial Day Weekend since the mid '90s, they tell me.
When YouTube blew up, in 2006, Engledow says, "I thought, 'Let's put something on and see what happens,' and we got a lot of hits...So now we do one for this event every year."
It wouldn't be the event it is without Engledow's videos. Those videos have also changed the way people run the river.
"People ham it up because they know they're on camera," he says. "People will row upstream to try to surf because they know they're on camera. They might try to do a back flip because they know they're on camera. They might take an inflatable couch, a pool toy, a love doll through it."
Engledow says the videos are educational: They show people "the way to do it and the way not do it." Mostly, though, it's the way not to do it. That guy who popcorned off the front of the raft earlier in the day?
"He's going to be on YouTube by midweek," Engledow says. "If you make it through the rapid you usually don't make the cut."
All week waters have been rising around Montana and Idaho. But it's been cool here. The river isn't flowing as fast and high today as some expected.
"Friday was carnage day," one river guide says.
"A little bit more carnage wouldn't hurt," says Farr.
Death, and grace
On Saturday, as the Rogers family hung around their RV, a sheriff's car raced by, then an ambulance. They heard a helicopter overhead. Eighteen miles upstream, in one of the more technical sections of whitewater, four rafters had fallen out of their boat.
According to the Idaho County Sheriff's Office, two of the rafters were able to swim back to it. Another safely made it to shore. The fourth, Randy Eroen, 35, an electrician from a suburb of Madison, Wisc., did neither. Kayakers accompanying the raft threw him a life rope. He couldn't reach it. The river swept him downstream.
The kayakers caught up with Eroen and found him unconscious. By the time someone called 911, the kayakers had pulled Eroen ashore and were performing CPR. They were unable to revive him. Medics couldn't either. "That kind of, you know, changes the mood of everything a little bit," Darla Rogers says.
It was the first death of a rafter on the Lochsa in anyone's recent memory. Heather Berg, the wild and scenic rivers administrator for the Nez Perce and Clearwater national forests, has worked the Lochsa for 10 years and can't recall another one.
The medics were called to a point near milepost 132. Peter Grubb, founder of Row Adventures, one of the local guiding companies, says the boat might've flipped on Lone Pine: "That's actually a pretty nasty rapid that has a big hole in it."
The rafters were approaching Castle Creek, at mile 131.2, perhaps the Lochsa's largest, most demanding rapid. The Forest Service's Lochsa River Guide describes it this way: "A long, twisting rapid whose half-mile length is not totally observable from the water at any one time. Large holes become large waves at high water, and everything pillows left off a huge block of bedrock at the bottom of the rapid. Considered un-runnable at high flows. Must scout. Cannot be seen from highway."
Eroen's obituary said he was an avid outdoorsman who loved water sports. His family asked that memorial donations be sent to a river restoration effort in Wisconsin.
On Sunday, details of Eroen's death are scant. People talk about it, they shake their heads, but the party goes on. In the afternoon, a group of rafters and kayakers navigate Lochsa Falls then pull their boats ashore and join the crowd. Still in their wetsuits, they crack beers and jockey for a spot with a good view. "It was incredible," says one of the rafters.
A half-mile downstream, around a few corners from the crowd, a foursome from Missoula don wetsuits and walk paddleboards down to the water's edge. Taking turns, they stand on the boards, crouch, and paddle onto a big, clean wave called Pipeline. It's a treadmill of smooth rushing water and they ride it for a minute or so at a time, weaving easily back and forth and then falling away. There's a gracefulness here, on a river that seems to be nearly devoid of it. There are few spectators. No one's shooting video.
Marty Engledow has posted his 2011 Lochsa video—eight-and-a-half minutes of carnage set to twangy surf music. Search YouTube for "Lochsa River Madness 2011."