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Lochsa:  Wild, Scenic, Home

Lochsa: Wild, Scenic, Home

I moved to Missoula for graduate school a few years back. I had a few old, dear friends who lived here already, wonderful people I knew from my days of guiding cold river trips in my home state of Alaska. One of those friends used to fall out of touch every spring for days or a week at a time, emerging only briefly for a text message flurry with friends and family before vanishing again. He was disappearing to the Lochsa River, just on the Idaho side of the state line, about two hours from Missoula. It seemed he wanted to spend every possible moment at the Lochsa, and I couldn’t quite grasp from far away the supposed allure of this place that continuously stole him away.

That first year at the University of Montana, as a Master’s candidate in Environmental Studies, I read about the evolving history of federal protections for wild rivers; learned to view healthy landscapes as expressions of ecological connectivity; and fell deeper in love with this place that inspired intellectual creativity and tireless commitment to community.I explored the mountains around town and reveled in the common love of learning and recreation and celebration among friends. I was completely sold on Missoula.

That first spring, as the rivers began to run and the afternoons grew warmer, I went kayaking as much as possible on the Alberton Gorge of the Clark Fork, a canyon just west of town with violet cliffs, splashy whitewater, and big sandy beaches. And it was also in the early spring that people started to talk about the Lochsa – the buzz was palpable, like a low rumbling in the belly of our town, a frequency on which all local kayakers and their loved ones vibrated. The idea of paddling the Lochsa grew into something really big in my head. I read the American Whitewater description a dozen times, trying to string together the legendary rapids that defined a stretch of river I’d never seen. I listened to friends describe it – everyone with their own anecdotes for good and bad and really bad runs through Grim Reaper, Split Creek, and Bloody Mary. I watched a few YouTube videos of hapless rafters getting surfed and then trashed by the surging froth of the venerated Lochsa Falls. I read about the different water levels, and how some rapids get bigger with more water while others wash out. I grew nervous and intrigued by the Lochsa, anxious to see it, captivated by the lore of its whitewater and its distinction within the history of river conservation in our country.

The Lochsa flows freely – it’s not dammed anywhere along its course – and its water levels are therefore determined by snowmelt, rainfall, and discharge from tributary creeks. It flows 70 miles from the mountains of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness toward Lowell, Idaho, where it meets the Selway River – together they form the Middle Fork of the Clearwater. The Lochsa, as part of the Clearwater River system, was designated a waterway worthy of federal protection in the 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Clearwater system was one of the eight original rivers promised strategic guardianship by Congress via the Wild and Scenic Act.

Lochsa, to the Nez Perce people, is a word that implies rough water. To the Salish, it is Ep Smɫí, which means “it has salmon.” To anyone who’s spent significant time there, Lochsa often comes to mean something like “home.”

Missoula’s community of female kayakers is anomalous: there are more highly skilled, highly supportive lady boaters here than anywhere I’ve lived or paddled. Each year a grassroots event called Ladies on the Lochsa brings local girls together to run the river with encouraging friends, abundant sequins, and cute ripper boys transformed into enthusiastic shuttle bunnies. The first time I saw the Lochsa was with this group of girls.

My friend and I got there the night before to camp and scout the river. En route to the Lochsa, you lose cell reception just outside of Lolo, Montana – of A River Runs Through It fame – and you don’t get it back. You drive up and over Lolo Pass, and as you crest the pass you start to tumble away from Montana and into Idaho, where the speed limit drops and the local highway patrollers are ready to slap speeding out-of-staters with hefty tickets.

The entire length of the whitewater section of the Lochsa is roadside: it parallels Highway 12 and its major rapids can be scouted from pull-outs along the road. The pullout above Lochsa Falls turns into a lawn chair circus over Memorial Day weekend; the spot at Pipeline surf wave is a cedar-shaded roadside sanctuary for neoprene-clad hydrophiles. The good news is that, on a bad day, a boater can haul herself out of the river and up to the road, tail between her legs or simply relieved to inch closer to a warm truck or cold beer. On a good day, motivated kayakers can make multiple laps on their favorite sections of the river, hitching rides or setting quick shuttles, as most of the traffic on Highway 12 in the spring is Lochsa traffic. Everyone is going boating. The corridor beckons to river lovers within a five-hour radius of the Fish Creek put-in.

The next day, on a drizzly Idaho morning, I ran the river for the first time, surrounded by 17 incredible women, some of them Lochsa newbies like me, and others – Cheyenne, Alley, Jess, to a beautiful few – veterans who called the river home. Brooke Hess, the freestyle phenom who got her start at Zoo Town Surfers so long ago, showed me down her river that day, coaching me as well as one can when the rapids get loud and my heart beats into my ears. I drank the water that day: I was indoctrinated into the clan of Lochsa lovers, people who go to Lochsa to refill their souls, to lose touch with mechanized reality, to let go of time (the Montana-Idaho time change is persistently challenging and so often it’s just disregarded), to spend days and nights with a community of river people who share profound reverence for a wild waterway where cell phones don’t work, dog-friends run free, and the high mountain snowmelt runs crystal clear.

I now have my own collection of Lochsa anecdotes that I feel lucky to share in wistful conversations about this fabled forest paradise. I’ve had my own good days on the Lochsa, some bad days, and a couple of really bad days. But mostly I’ve had really good days, where all my favorite friends share meals and hugs and high fives; where sunshine sparkles through veils of morning mist; where communities of rafters, kayakers, river-boarders, surfers, cat-boaters, Forest Service rangers, and packs of smiling river dogs converge in a springtime wave of gratitude for one superlatively wild river.

Thank you to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System for continuing to advocate for and protect waterways of ecological, recreational, and historical importance. To sign American Rivers’ petition to protect 5000 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, go here. Join us on the Lochsa this spring as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

HOW TO BE PREPARED FOR A LOCHSA RIVER TRIP

HOW TO BE PREPARED FOR A LOCHSA RIVER TRIP

Okay. So you are heading to the legendary Lochsa River.  It’s time to get fired up.

The Lochsa is a designated Wild and Scenic river in north central Idaho. It’s a free-flowing (undammed) river, and in the early spring offers some of the best whitewater in the world. The river is cold, and a typical spring day on the Lochsa presents a mixture of rain, sleet, snow, and maybe a spot of sun if you’re lucky. With these thoughts swirling through your head like foam in an eddy, it’s essential that you be prepared for the adventure. We are here to help.

Before the Trip

Gas. The Lochsa is located in the middle of nowhere. There is no gas between the Lochsa Lodge and Kooskia, ID. Fill up your gas tank in Lolo, MT or Kooskia, ID.

Food. If you plan on camping or running the river, you have to do your grocery shopping before you arrive in Lowell, ID. It’s a great idea to bring some pre- and post-trip snacks. There is also a great café in Lowell called Ryan’s Wilderness Inn.

Beer. If you think you have brought enough, double it. You can always bring surplus back home. Don’t short -change yourself here.

Yourself. You need to be a proactive self-rescuer and a willing paddler on the Lochsa River.

Camping comforts. If you’re spending the night in the Lochsa corridor (and we strongly suggest you do!), don’t forget the creature comforts you need to deck out your campsite: firewood, coffee, French press, camp chairs, pop-up tent/tarp, yard games (like corn hole or horseshoes), rain gear, and warm, dry layers.

During the Trip

Gear. Bring Capilene, merino wool, or polypro to wear underneath your wetsuit. Make sure your layers aren’t too bulky, as thick, bunched-up material will not be comfortable or keep you as warm under your wetsuit.

Camera/Go Pro. If you want Go Pro footage, bring a mount for our helmets. And you’ll want to make sure your selfie game is strong.

Snacks. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

After the Trip

Warm/Dry Clothes. There is nothing more comfortable than being warm and cozy after being on the river all day. Add a nice warm hat to your post-river kit, as well.

Extra Cash. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, cash is king. Paper bills can be used for a trade, tip, or gambling at river camp yard games.

Water/Beer. Bask in the glory of the Lochsa River: make sure you drink some water before having a beer!

 

RIVER LOVE

RIVER LOVE

RIVER LOVE

What do premature wrinkles, rancid polypro, sandy kisses, and rock-solid communication have in common?

Human relationships are hard. But for the paddling partner who’s also my special human, it must be extra tough.

When I get scared, I get grumpy. If plans change at the last minute, as they often do with boating, I get grumpy. When I get hungry, I get grumpy. (“You’re telling me you didn’t bring any snacks?”)

I don’t like it when my layers are still wet from the day before. And when I get cold, my partner is the first one to hear about it. (“Can I please borrow your pogies?”) Although I can feign toughness with the best of river guides, when my special human is around, I am decidedly less stout.

There are a lot of challenges:

Sometimes my special human-slash-paddling partner gets his lefts and rights confused, which is clearly a significant communication deficit when we are running whitewater together.

One time, he forgot his sopping wet dry suit in the rooftop box on his car for a month. That’s disgusting and I told him so, but I have admittedly committed similar offenses.

Another time the roof rack fell off of my car on an interstate at night, going 70 miles per hour, with his brand new playboat attached. Significant cosmetic damage was sustained to both already-battered vehicle and sparkling new kayak. I was visibly shaken, and he had the compassion to wait a day before inspecting the extent of the injuries to his boat.

On my first time down one difficult run, I didn’t make a move and slid backward through a blind slot between giant boulders. I had no idea what was at the base of the drop and I was terrified. I yelled his name as my boat fell over the lip and I landed in the pool beneath it, unscathed. He was there, waiting, his eyes as big as plates. We had both hated the way his name sounded as I yelled.

Sometimes he wants to paddle things that are beyond my skill or comfort level, which means I get left behind or I am unhappily demoted to photographer. This, above all the other things, is the biggest challenge for me to accept and overcome.

At a springtime whitewater festival near our home, I asked him to show me down a section of whitewater that was definitely a step up, but for which I felt ready. He said he didn’t think it was a good idea, and I was, consequently, furious. The next day, as I spent the morning ruminating on his choice to disregard my wishes, he secretly ran that section multiple times, seeking out the smoothest, most straightforward lines. After his full day of competition that afternoon, he showed me down the run. His lines were excellent; I barely got my face wet. My heart swelled.

At that same festival, before his own race, he had stayed and watched as I competed in a slalom race for people who aren’t ready or willing to run gates in hard whitewater. He cheered me on. I took third place and was uncommonly proud.

It’s nice to celebrate the victories together and to encourage one another when things go wrong; to cuddle in the tent when we’re cold and wet; or to remind each other to re-up the sunscreen when our noses start to get pink. There’s no substitute for the comfort of my special human’s hand on my shoulder when we are scouting a big rapid. And quesadillas for dinner, together, after we have worked or played all day on the river, taste better than any fancy five-star meal in the city.

There are few experiences that couples share that are as potentially transformative and instructive as running (or not running) whitewater together. Navigating the swirling emotions and physical challenges inherent to the sport will put any relationship to a series of unique tests. The trust that should exist between paddling partners is tremendous; factor in our individual insecurities, fears, expectations, and the unjust pressure we place on our special humans, and a powerful maelstrom emerges.

There’s also the beautiful, simple connection that comes from running rivers with our loved ones. We see each other at our strongest and at our most vulnerable, each of us dancing with a force so much larger than ourselves.

The river is quick to put us in our places and remind us that the petty things don’t matter as much as we often think they do; it moves with the grace I hope to emulate within my relationships.

A love born on the river is a special thing indeed. Over the years, many inspiring, intoxicating river people have flowed into and through my life, and for the most part, the love we’ve shared on and for the river hasn’t waned, but rather simply changed: morphed and meandered, as the river does with the passage of time. Some of us marry and raise families, others remain married to the river, or to memories, or to a fluid and dynamic future free of attachment or obligation.

Just as the river itself cannot be controlled, I wouldn’t dare try to tame or subdue the singular spirit of river-borne love. For all its challenges, I simply wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

A WOMEN’S – ONLY GUIDE TO RIVER LIFE

A WOMEN’S – ONLY GUIDE TO RIVER LIFE

Ladies, let’s talk about peeing in the woods. More specifically, let’s talk about peeing on the river. Or off the back of a raft. Our guy friends have it easy; as women, we have to put a little more thought into our river adventures.

NATURE’S CALL

When nature calls on the river, remember this timeless adage: “Dilution is the solution to pollution.” With few exceptions, most visitors to Western river corridors are encouraged to pee directly into the river. If there are no bushes or bends to protect your modesty, try to “face your danger:” squat facing the crowd to avoid mooning any unsuspecting onlookers. Resist the strange temptation to wade into the water and pee through your shorts, as this practice will result in an odor that won’t earn you many friends on a multi-day river trip. On the rare occasion where your guide can’t or won’t pull the boat over to shore, you might be compelled to pee of the side of the raft. Just ask your crew to avert their eyes, dangle your rear end off the tube, and hold on to the rope that runs around the perimeter of the boat. And if you’re serious about your river recreation, you might consider investing in a SheWee, otherwise known as a Lady J.

Always clarify your outfitter’s policy on managing solid waste. River guides would much rather explain (multiple times, if necessary) their #2 system than have you guess and botch the job.

THE MONTHLY VISITOR

When your menses coincide with your river trip, it feels best to be completely self-sufficient. Put some tampons inside a little Ziploc bag. Tuck another Ziploc bag inside the tampon bag. The inner bag is for your waste; the outer bag is to keep it all dry and contained. Put the whole package in a little dry bag or a pocket in your lifejacket. Keep it clean within the well-sealed outer Ziploc, and properly dispose of the inner Ziploc (with used tampons, applicators, and plastic wrap) when you get back to the outpost or to camp that night.

LOW BLOOD SUGAR

You need snacks. And plenty of them. Don’t let your blood sugar plummet. We burn a lot of calories on the water, and you need to regulate your blood sugar. Don’t let hanger interfere with your fun.

COLD FINGERS (and toes and noses and…)

Ladies often get colder than our male counterparts. Plan ahead, and bring cozy clothes for on and off the river. Synthetic fabrics (like fleece) and wool are best, as they dry quickly.

LOOKING GOOD

The river brings out our natural beauty, so there’s no need to apply makeup before you go rafting! Mascara will run, curls will fall out, straightened hair will get curly, and we all end up looking like drowned rats. It’s best not to look like a drowned rat with lines of melted mascara streaming down its face.

MUSCLES

Never let any dude tell you you’re not strong enough to (a) paddle up front, (b) pull yourself back in the raft, or (c) pull his ass back in after he’s tumbled overboard. Girls are often better paddlers than guys because they (in general) take instruction better and are more responsive to paddle commands. They often have better coordination and flexibility, which are huge assets in a paddler. Be aggressive when you paddle, flash your gorgeous smile for the camera, and go crush some waves with the best of ‘em!

 

Kids and Rafting

Kids and Rafting

All kids should go rafting. It’s not only a great way to “unplug” from the daily consumption of electronic devices that we are all so accustomed to but it’s also a great way to explore the outdoors and have fun. Here is some advice for your next adventure on the river.

Pick the right river

A river company will help you make this decision based on 2 important factors: Age/Experience. Short is sweet for many young kids. If it’s your first time rafting, it’s crucial that your first experience is a good one. This sets the foundation for the success of future trips.

 Take Risk

The river can bring out the best in all of us. Taking kids out of their comfort zone will allow them to discover new things about themselves and will give them confidence on and off the water. Your river guide will also give you sound advice and approval before your kids decide to jump off of a rock or swim a rapid.  Let them rip!

Food/Water

Most guides are well prepared and pack extra snacks and water in their day bags. However, don’t rely on it. When kids are playing hard, they get hungry and thirsty. Bring some snacks such as trail mix, bars, chocolate, and water to keep them from crashing.

Extra Clothes

Many young kids are all skin and bones. Bring some extra synthetic clothing for them including a windbreaker in case they get cold after swimming in the river. You would be surprised how often we offer kids a fleece sweatshirt or hat when it’s 90 degrees out..

Responsible Parenting

A guide prerequisite is being a people person. Many of us have kids and are childlike. We like to have fun. We love kids. However, we are not babysitters.   If your kids play hard enough, they will probably be too tired to argue with you anyways.

 

If you could do a snapshot of a kids attitude and behavior before and after a raft trip, it’s night and day. Post trip, kids reminisce about swimming rapids, paddling, jumping off rocks, playing games, and water fights. Get kids out on the water!

A Day in the Life of a Lochsa River Guide

A Day in the Life of a Lochsa River Guide

It’s still dark when I open the rain fly. Six thirty. I swear I just walked away from the hot fire and cold drinks to pass out happily by the rushing river.

Quietly, we round up the crew and head downriver. We have two hours to get everything in place before the guests show up. The team breaks off into individual tasks, some fill and rig rafts while others count helmets and life vests. It’s always a guessing game sitting in Lochsa country. No cell service. No way to change the plan.

Coffee is consumed rapidly in between stacking rafts higher than a bus or piling paddles into the trailer. What looks like chaos to the few guests that show up early to watch “guide TV” all flows smoothly together as the rest of the cars start to show up. The essential gear is handed out and the bad jokes start to roll. You can feel the excitement and anxiety pouring off the paddlers. Many have never been whitewater rafting before. I play the role of comedian, teacher and, of course, guide.

The bus ride is filled with questions and stories of river trips past. The boat ramp is a flurry of work as the rafts get shoved in the water and pumped full. The PFDs are snugged tight and the helmet cams are rolling. The work’s not done for the day yet but for the next few hours everyone that worked hard all morning gets to enjoy the thing that brought us all together. The river.

The miles flow by quickly. A hot lunch is much needed on cold water trips. We prep and cook as guests lounge in the sun or crowd around the heater in the rain, reliving the trip this morning. Service with a smile, and usually a bad joke or two. The dishes washed and ready for the next day, we load up for the final 10 miles of river.

The take out is the same flurry in reverse: restack the rafts, collect the helmets and vests, and load back into the bus. While the guests revel in the glory of a day on the mighty Lochsa, the guides get to work. Gotta wash and hang dry all the gear and get it sized and put back in place for the next day.

The rafts deflated and the sun hanging low in the sky, we head back upriver to our fire and cold beverages. Six thirty is gonna come quick tomorrow and I couldn’t be happier about it. 

5 must-see spots you might have missed on the Lochsa River

5 must-see spots you might have missed on the Lochsa River

5 must-see spots you might have missed on the Lochsa River

We have guests that come to the Lochsa River year after year. Our Lochsa guests ebb and flow like the river: some folks are just starting a multi-year “Lochsa Run” and for others, the run is coming to an end. It always amazes me how this river brings so many folks together each year, congregating at all the popular spots like Wilderness Gateway, Fish Creek, Split Creek, and Lowell, ID. The Lochsa boasts cold, clear water, towering wilderness, and cedar trees that hover over the river. In short: it’s a badass place. No matter what draws you to the Lochsa River, it’s that connection to the river that brings us all together each spring.

Most folks come to enjoy the thrill of the rapids. The Lochsa’s world-class rapids overshadow so many other amazing features in the river corridor. Perhaps you’ve already floated the Lochsa and never noticed the spectacular creeks, side hikes, camping, and waterfalls in the area.

Here are a few things that you might have missed on your last trip or something new to look forward to.

Fish Creek Butte Trail

Have you ever waited for hours at Fish Creek for your raft/kayak buddies to show up? Well, next time you have some time to kill, get your legs moving and do a quick hike. You head up Fish Creek and hang your first left at the bridge (Trail #223). Once you start hiking, you will come to a junction. Keep going uphill, as the other trail goes along the river. Hike until you get to a nice overlook. From there, you can get a nice overhead view of all the action taking place down at Fish Creek and the Lochsa River.

Historic Lochsa Ranger Station

This ranger station is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The station is full of history and there are plenty of old photos and literature that illustrate what this place was like years ago. A visit to the ranger station is a great way to get connected to the area.

Stanley Hot Springs

This primitive hot spring is a 6-mile hike in from Wilderness Gateway campground. It’s not recommended to do this hike during the peak of spring runoff, as you will have to cross Boulder Creek at high water. Try to do this adventure before spring runoff or during the hot summer months. Trail #211 is located right before you get to C loop in the campground.

Horsetail Falls

Horsetail Falls is one of the more technical rapids on the Lochsa River. Because river runners are so focused on the run, the falls itself is many times overlooked. At Mile 114.8, if you look river left, there is a beautiful waterfall. You can access the falls via kayak or raft by pulling out on the river left, just above the rapid.

Selway Falls

Selway Falls is a magnificent sight at any time of year. It’s a cauldron of whitewater and siphons. Bring some cold beverages and have fun discussing “what if” scenarios if you were to one day choose to run this rapid. From Lowell, cross the Lochsa River and drive about 19 miles up the Selway River.

Tips on how to dress for cold weather paddling

Tips on how to dress for cold weather paddling

Living in Montana and other northern states can be difficult in the winter months when temps aren’t exactly ideal for kayaking. Here are some tips on how to dress for success while kayaking in winter conditions, from a kayaker who always finds herself shivering!

 

DRYSUIT

In my opinion, a drysuit is one of the most important pieces of safety gear a kayaker can own.  Not only does a drysuit extend your paddling season by several months – or in some places make it possible to paddle year-round – but it can also save your life in the case of an unexpected swim in 40 degree water. If a drysuit is out of your price range, dry bibs and a dry top used together can be a good substitute.  I recommend Kokatat drysuits and drytops, as I have always found their gear to be extremely dry, reliable, breathable, and comfortable.   

 

UNION SUIT / FLEECE ONESIE

Though this one-piece layer is not entirely necessary, I do find it to be the most comfortable way to layer for warmth underneath a drysuit. You don’t have to deal with tucking shirts into pants, shirts bunching up to your chest, and most importantly the chance of you getting a wedgie is diminished quite a bit. NRS, Immersion Research, and Kokatat all make great union suits.

 

*Pro tip for women! Make sure you buy a union suit with a butt flap if your drysuit has a drop seat!

 

ADDITIONAL FLEECE/SYNTHETIC/WOOL LAYERS ON TOP (depending on temps)

I am a naturally cold person, so I tend to wear more layers than most other people I see on the water. If I am paddling in the winter when it is below 35 degrees, I generally attempt to wear as many layers as can comfortably fit underneath my drysuit. This usually works out to be one silkweight layer for wicking sweat, one warmer long underwear layer (Patagonia’s capilene 4 works great!), one thin fleece (Patagonia’s R1 is my favorite), along with a union suit.  

 

ADDITIONAL LONG UNDERWEAR ON THE BOTTOM

One lighter long underwear bottom worn underneath a union suit is usually all that is needed, since your legs are protected from the elements by your kayak.

 

THICK FLEECE/WOOL SOCKS

Acorn fleece socks are the only socks I have found that keep my toes warm inside my drysuit during the winter.

 

NEOPRENE MITTENS

Pogies work great when river running in fall weather. But once the thermometer drops below 35, or if I am playboating in cold water, I find that mittens are the only way to keep my hands toasty warm. The NRS Toaster Mitts are my mittens of choice. They even have a handy snot-wiper on the thumb!

 

NEOPRENE SKULL CAP

The best protection against ice cream headaches!

 

OVER-THE-DRYSUIT NEOPRENE SOCKS

I only added these to my gear collection this past season, and I am so glad that I did. By keeping dirt, rocks, and sand away from your drysuit socks, they will greatly increase the lifespan of your drysuit and help keep it 100% dry for much longer.  

 

BOOTIES WITH GOOD TREAD

Falling on your butt is sometimes inevitable when walking to the put-in over icy trails, however, a bruised tailbone can be mitigated by buying booties with good tread! I recently purchased a pair of Astral Brewers and am super happy with how sticky the soles are on slick surfaces.  

 

YAK TRAXS

These are not always necessary, but can definitely come in handy when hiking over icy portages.

 

EAR PLUGS

A must-have item for playboating at all times of the year! Swimmer’s ear can be extremely painful and can take you off the water for weeks at a time if it isn’t treated properly.  Mack’s waterproof silicone earplugs can be bought at most drug stores and can be reused several times. They even come in a handy case that can easily fit in the pocket of your PFD.

Summoning The Motivation To Paddle In The Winter

Summoning The Motivation To Paddle In The Winter

Summoning the motivation to paddle in the winter

Paddling and surfing in the winter is quite common here in Missoula, Montana, and, crazy as it seems, it’s one of my favorite times of the year to enjoy the river. There is a feeling of hardiness when you slip on your wetsuit or cold PFD while snow is at your feet, ice is floating in the river, and the air you’re breathing is frosty. Wintertime paddling is not for the faint of heart. But once that cold water splashes you in the face, you get a sudden sense of appreciation and self-awareness that reminds you that it’s all totally worth it.

Here are some creature comforts that will make paddling in the winter much more enjoyable.

GEAR

No doubt, the right gear makes all of the difference. It also makes winter river sports enjoyable. If I’m cold, I’m miserable.  

Winter kayaking gear (on top of the year-round essentials): skull cap, drysuit, synthetic layers, neoprene mittens, and paddle wax.

Winter surfing gear: 5/4 wetsuit, 5/4 booties, and 5/4 mits.  

A BUDDY

It’s definitely harder to motivate when you’re rolling solo in the wintertime. Finding a friend to go with is not only a good idea from a safety standpoint, but is also great for holding you accountable when you might want to bail.

WARM BEER + COFFEE + TEA AT THE RIG

Your body is working hard out there to stay warm. Having some hot tea or coffee at the truck sure is nice for after your icy surf session. If beer is your thing, there is nothing more enjoyable than a warm PBR on a cold day.

A COZY CHANGING SET-UP

Having a dry surface to stand on is clutch for getting dressed and changing. Really, any barrier between you and the ground will work. I recommend using an old foam sleeping pad, door mat, or car mat. It’s also a great way to keep your gear clean and in good shape.  Of course the changing robe (aka, the snuggie) is also a great piece of gear to have. It serves as a towel and private changing room, all in one.  

SHORT IS SWEET

It’s cold! So don’t beat yourself up if your winter sessions aren’t as productive as your summer sessions. Just be stoked that you motivated to get out on the water.

My First Year Guiding

My First Year Guiding

I position the bright blue raft a little too far left in the river, but have run out of time for a correction. Excitement and fear rising in my chest, I grip the oars and hope we will hit the surging wave at the right angle. All I can do sometimes is hope.

“ALL FORWARD! PADDLE FORWARD!”

My voice is a high-pitched screech. I’m just as nervous as the folks seated in front of me. We crash over the rapid just inches away from a rock, bumping then sliding through. Frigid water careens over us. The right side of the raft dips a little too low pitching everyone to the side. Screams and laughter bounce off the rock face along the shore as my oar is jerked from the oarlock. I’ve got to keep the raft from hitting the next rock, but I have lost control. I grab for the oar, no one in the front of the raft notices my frantic scramble. My arm is wrenched forward as the current catches the blade of the oar, raft starts to spin. Oar snaps into place, head count, deep breath, back on track.

A little rattled, I let the water’s energy calm my racing heart. Breathe in. Breathe out. I watch the river’s ripples float past, never making the exact same shape, a constant dance of newness. In the front of the raft the clients laugh and make dinner plans. I ignore them for a minute. Turning my head left, I see layers of mountains backed up by a blue and white sky. For a second I am lost in them. A bald Eagle floats overhead. I make a quick prayer to the river, giving her my gratitude and asking for her protection, then snap back to reality, it’s time to have some fun.

Afternoon sunlight glints off the river’s surface, a myriad of sparkles spreading outward. We take turns telling jokes, travel stories and talking about our favorite sports. Our raft floats past fishermen, kayakers, other rafters, and beach goers in brightly colored swimsuits. We hoot, shout and holler back and forth. River people are their own breed. A whole community whose dominant intention is joy, excitement and appreciation. On the river, there is a silent agreement, we will always help someone in need. The stakes are too high to be individualistic. This quiet agreement creates a wonderfully eccentric harmony.

I wasn’t exactly sure what whitewater raft guiding entailed when I decided to take the job. I knew I could do it, whatever it was. I’ve never been afraid of the outdoors. The Zoo Town Surfers headquarters is located on the Alberton Gorge about thirty miles west of Missoula, Montana. There were several of us training to become guides, mostly men. Our first trip down the Gorge, an eleven mile stretch of the Clark Fork River with class II and III rapids, was terrifying, exciting and super cold. It was late May. Even dressed in wetsuits and dry-suits we were shivering. The summer spiraled out from that cold start into an exhilarating, exhausting and magic set of memories and lessons learned.

I learned: The river’s force can be lethal. There is no space for anything other than the task at hand. Letting go of control is inevitable as the river’s power propels the raft forward. There can be no fighting against, instead the flow must be ridden with trust, courage and ease. It is a deeply respectful partnership, river and guide, but both know, the river holds the power. Power of water surging onward, falling, cascading. The sound, the energy, the flow, tumbling toward its destiny. We’re all tumbling toward our destinies. Truths, moments, lessons constantly revealing themselves. The ripple, the current, can’t slow it down, must move at its pace or it will drown you. The river arranges her shores into rock faces, exposed pastel colors displayed on towering surfaces. Teaches us vulnerability is beautiful. Teaches us, there’s nothing wrong with turning inside out and showing what we are made of.