We walked nervously back and forth between the car and our boats, strapping things on here and there – our feet leaving footprints in the new fallen snow. There was no one else at this boat launch tucked into the woods at the rivers edge. The footprints were ours alone. We stopped to shoot each other nervous looks.
Eventually we couldn’t procrastinate any more and we half-carried, half-dragged our vessels to the rivers edge. The current looked fast, we could see the water sweeping over the gravel bottom of the river. Was it really a river for beginners? Should we be doing this in the winter? Would it take us 3 days to reach my truck parked at a boat launch 45 miles downstream? 4 days? We really didn’t know. We climbed in and lurched back and forth until the the sand and rocks decided we were ready, launching us into the embrace of the river.
The current grabbed Ellen’s kayak and within minutes she was just a speck far down the river. Snow fell all around and my flat-bottomed raft did lazy 360 degree turns.
Eventually I caught up and we laughed about how fast the river was, how green we were, and the crazy number of bald eagles that dotted the shore, how bad it would be if one of us capsized. How we should try to stay together.
After a couple hours we saw a gravel bank and we paddled fast and hard, sliding up onto it and clambering out of our awkward crafts. We didn’t want to chance trying to find a campsite in the dark. Opening a big air-tight zipper on my raft let out a hiss. I pulled out dry bags that were hidden inside of the air chambers. And inside of these, our tent and sleeping bag. We slept there that night, in view of the Marblemount Bridge, listening to the river rushing past.
We woke in the morning to the sound of large boulders being thrown in the river outside, only to realize it was actually the sound of hungry eagles diving for their breakfast. We packed slowly – our fingers so cold it took us over 2 hours before we shoved off our little beach. The current grabbed us again and we marveled at how fast we were moving while our legs were motionless.
The day went by fast with number fingers, numb toes, and too many eagles to count. Attempts to take their pictures were foiled by thick gloves and cameras nestled in dry bags. We saw three boats filled with tourists with big zoom lenses drifting by and anglers on the shore straight out of LL Bean catalogs. Rapids came and went, waking us up as the waves crashed over our bows – putting butterflies into our stomachs. We promised each other we would never try anything harder without taking a whitewater class.
We spent the second night on another sand-bar, baking a sweet-potato in the small campfire and finding it caramelized and still warm the next morning. We drifted fast and hung tight going through the class II+ rapids near the town of Concrete, our hearts racing. Not long after, we spied our take-out and breathed deep sighs of relief. Within minutes we were in my truck with the heater running full blast, sitting on towels in our wet suits, windows fogged up and a kayak sticking out the back. Laughing and making plans to come back in the summer.
Big thanks to: Erin McKittrick and Bretwood Higman – whose journey from Seattle to Alaska by foot and water introduced me to the idea of pack-rafting many years ago and continues to inspire me. I highly recommend her book and their movie for a truly great adventure story.
And thanks to my friend Jessica Kelley, winner of the 2018 Kyle Dempster Solo Adventure Award, who used the award for an epic bike-pack-rafting adventure last summer in Alaska that made me sit up and take notice, as her blog posts always do…
Thanks also to Matt Jenkins who walked with me for many miles on the Annapurna Circuit last fall, relaying his pack-rafting experiences as a wilderness ranger in the Grand Canyon and helping me pick out the right pack-raft when I returned to Seattle.
We owe a lot to Corey who we met in a parking lot after seeing his post on Craigslist under ‘kayaks.’ Corey not only sold us a really sweet little touring kayak, but patiently answered many of our questions about paddling in the pacific northwest.
Last, thanks to Ellen for choosing this adventure over a beach in Mexico during the holiday break (and also for letting me use the more comfortable sleeping pad). May we have many more adventures connecting trails and lakes and rivers and maybe even oceans.