Fascinated by what it must be like to run a big waterfall, the stars align and allow Leland Davis pull back the veil on one of his last remaining whitewater mysteries.
Suddenly, I’m alone. A parade of others have dropped through the slot, leaving me in a calm bowl of crystal-clear, frigid water enclosed by blocky black basalt walls, their steep upper flanks coated with a thick, fuzzy blanket of bright green moss and ferns. From the eddy where I sit, visual examination of the pitcher-spout-slot through which the river leaves my sanctuary yields little information as to what lies beyond. There is no other possible exit from the boxed-in canyon. The drop could be eight feet tall, it could be eighty; but I already know the answer to that mystery. The height of the drop is why I’m here.
I peel into the gentle flow and slowly approach the spout, gaining a bit more perspective through the narrow rocky portal and across a chasm to a steep cliff wall about a hundred feet away. I keep my boat angle straight and try to match the exact speed of the water. As the magic carpet of flow begins to accelerate beneath me, I put in a rudder to hold my angle, lean forward, and concentrate on doing nothing else at all. It’s harder than you might think. When the lip of the drop arrives and the full scale of the plunge becomes apparent, every ingrained instinct screams out that I should paddle, or pull away, boof, flinch, or close my eyes – do something, anything in the face of the maddening assault of sensory overload that’s rushing in. Still, I do nothing.
There’s no way to put the genie back in the bottle. I’ve entered a whole new world.
The world tilts crazily to vertical, and I can see the full view now over the bow of my kayak – a narrow white highway of falling water stretching out before me, its distant nether end exploding into a raucous boil of seething froth eight stories below. I focus completely on the place where my highway meets that boil – where I want to go – and the whole world melts away until there is nothing else left. Gravity reaches up and takes hold.
Twenty-five feet down, I release the paddle and shift my hands forward to my cockpit rim without taking my eyes off that boil. It’s a game of chicken to see who will flinch first, a game that I must not win. I tighten everything and remain still – fascinated all the while that such a large feat is accomplished not by great strength or speed, but by a multitude of adjustments so minute as to be almost imperceptible. Everything around me blurs into a streaking rush of acceleration. The boil hurtles up to meet me at an impossibly fast rate, the bottom sixty feet of freefall taking the same amount of time as the top twenty.
I tuck my head an instant before I’m enveloped in an explosion of white thunder that hurls my tensed body backward with the force of a high-speed car accident. I feel the boat bob to the surface upside down, and I allow instinct to take over. It’s a relief – not only that I can now do something in response to this inconceivable experience, but also that my body reflexively knows exactly what to do. I snap off a roll and look around.
Everybody’s here. There’s some confusion over near my wife Andria – she’s upright and laughing, but she’s no longer wearing a helmet. One friend has swum and is pulling his boat up onto the steep, rocky bank. Everyone is OK. Some are laughing, some are celebrating, and some are just staring slack-jawed back up at the path we just traveled. It’s time for me to turn around and look up too – to marvel at where I came from. We’re in a wide, towering cathedral of stone and moss – a giant, natural, vertical-walled amphitheater encircling a pillar of whitewater that reaches like a glowing celestial roadway back to the shady purgatory eddy which now seems so very far away. The Metlako road only goes one way, though – and I’ve traveled it. There’s no way to put the genie back in the bottle. I’ve entered a whole new world.
But therein lies the rub: sometimes when you pull back the veil on a mystery, you realize there’s a lot more to it than just finding out what’s inside.
I had wanted to run a vertical drop over fifty feet for a decade – just once, for the experience – but had never found the perfect conditions. I had also heard plenty of nay-saying over the years: “Anybody can paddle off a tall drop;” “It takes more balls than skill;” and “Running waterfalls is a young man’s game.” The truth is, none of those deterred me. I was fascinated by what it must be like, and by the delicate balance of will and skill that it must require. What kept me away was opportunity – never finding the right drop at the right level, with the right group, at a time when I could afford to lose boating(work) time if I got hurt. I know…excuses, excuses.
I also knew that waterfalling is a lot harder than it looks, so I wanted to make sure I got it right – after all, the penalty for a mistake from that height can be severe. I incessantly bugged friends who had run big drops with questions, receiving tons of good information on technique over the years. I practiced plunging my bow underwater over and over on a ten foot drop on one of my local runs, but there was nowhere else for me to really “step it up.”
Then, a strange thing happened this spring. I suddenly felt ready. I was driving across the country and had just rolled into eastern Washington when I heard Metlako Falls was running. I was on vacation with no guidebooks to research, no clinics to teach, and no trips to guide. Coincidentally, I had also just turned 40. After a decade of waiting, I figured I had better get on with my goal of running a big drop if I was going to do it at all. I called around to try and find someone to go with (a tall order), and discovered that there was an all-star group of huckers going on the day that I wanted to go. The stars had aligned – it was time to fall.
In the end, I achieved my goal and safely found the experience I sought. I walked away unscathed from the most incredible few seconds I’ve spent in a boat since I did my first squirt boating mystery move over a decade-and-a-half ago. But therein lies the rub: sometimes when you pull back the veil on a mystery, you realize there’s a lot more to it than just finding out what’s inside. It’s that way with waterfalls just as it is with squirt boating and many other kinds of paddling. There’s a wellspring of experience available that goes far deeper than the glory of the first big ride. So instead of simply learning what the experience was like, I discovered that there is so much left to learn…and that I’m not too old to try it again if the stars once more align.