William Nealy stated that you should always do a quick spit check before you put-on a river or run a drop. The idea being that if you're to scared to manufacture saliva, maybe you should re-access your life choices. As I was gearing up to put-on the Upper Five I took his advice and confirmed what I already knew: my heart was racing and I was nervous. No spit wads were to be shot today! Having only seem flickers of white water on the drive to the put-in, and haveing witnessed a couple swims on the Lower Seven the previous day, my adrenaline was at an all time high. As we floated down to the top of Steepness (the first rapid on the Upper section) I remember thinking that I hadn't been this scared for a river since my early days of kayaking. Looking back on it, the idea of pushing my comfort zone and putting on my first big water river was probably fairly similar to my early days when I was pushing my limits and tackling my first class IV rapid. An impending new experience can often breed fear. But, as with all personal first decent, before too long, I was thoroughly initiated and had gotten my first taste of big water class V. Next up was Nut Cracker. We had put-on the creek with a group of over 20 paddlers, so I chose to hang near the back and keep close to Dan Rubado. Someone shouted "stay right" as we were rolling in and then it was on. Punching holes, crashing through waves, and trying to boat scout from the top of each pile! The NF is an exercise in reactionary boating and boils down to a big game of follow the leader.
The rest of the Upper 5 blended together completely. Somewhere in there I remember Dan describing a line as "Left, then Right, then cut left, then back to the right, and finish with a boof on the left..." It went by pretty fast and before long, we were paddling across the lake that separates the upper 5 from the middle 5.
Up until this point, things had seemed fairly manageable and despite my nerves, I was having a blast. Not that the fun we were all having decreased as we passed beneath the hanging bridge into the crux section, only that I noticed a serious increase in the difficulty of each rapid. Not only were the drops longer and more continuous, they also featured more dramatic moves. Bad Jose stood out to me as a particularly rowdy section in the middle 5, so did Bouncer Down the middle. Loose hips never flip!
After a particularly long rally, we came to a mellow section of river and Rubado announced that we had just completed "chaos, pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, and maybe some other named rapid?" Things can really flow together as a first time paddler on such a continuous river. I was really just following helmets all day. By this point I was really starting to get a feel for the river. Unlike creeking where the difference between a few inches can mean the world, the NF features fairly wide open lines and most rapids can be run a variety of ways. As a result, your paddling becomes more fluid and interpretive as you inevitably end up being thrown around the river.
I knew from the get-go that I wasn't going to run Jacob's Ladder, so as we approached the portage eddy, I quickly hopped out of my boat and made my way downstream to watch as several other paddlers in the group made short work of Rodeo Hole, Rock Drop, Pencil Sharpener, and Taffy Puller. Nice work boys.
I was now in familiar territory having run the lower 7 the previous afternoon. That didn't make the Golf Course any easier. This rapid has to be damn close to a mile in length and there must be a multitude of lines to chose from. I spent the first 1/3 of the rapid more or less on river right, before making my way to the center and then to the left to finish er off. So many holes to punch! A swim here (or anywhere on the NF) is a really big deal.
Next up was Screaming Left, which seemed to be one of the 'thinner' lines on the entire river. And finally Jaws I, II, and III. I had witnessed a swim on Jaws the previous day out of a particularly sticky hole right at the top of Jaws I. As a result, I ended up boating scouting the entire series while trying to retrieve gear amongst the chaos. All had gone well, but needless to say, I was happy to have some folks to follow for my second trip through. After making the mandatory move to the right at the bottom of Jaws III and looking back up river, I came to the conclusion that for me, Jaws is the most difficult rapid (other than Jakes) on the Payette.
We blasted down the top bit of the lower 5 before taking off at our river side camp site and enjoying a few adult beverages in the shade. As the group dispersed (some went to hot springs, others to do another lap) I decided that I wanted to put back on and finish the full top to bottom run (minus Jakes). Brooks was kind enough to join me on a quick route through Juicer and Crunch all the way down to the confluence with the SF Payette.
The weekend as whole was truly top notch. With warm weather, warm water, beautiful camping, beer, friends, more beer, and amazing hot springs, the Labor Day Payette experience is one for the books and a trip that will become an annual pilgrimedge for me. What an amazing river and what an amazing weekend.
All photos were taken by Catherine Loke.