Page 2 of 3
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.