The dangers of our trip struck home after just 15 minutes on the water. We beached the 12-foot rafts, then hiked along the shoreline to scout a rapid called Caldera, which appeared to be nothing but whitewater and waves for 500 yards.
"It's called Caldera because it looks like a boiling cauldron," said Dean Munroe, our chief guide. It was running at 6,000 cubic feet per second, or six times its normal velocity.
We pushed off toward Caldera Rapid and when we hit the first river hole, the boat dropped 15 feet at a 45-degree angle. Everything went black. Later I figured out why-I had closed my eyes. I sensed ice-cold water everywhere. Am I in the raft or not? How long can I hold my breath?
It was just a few miles downriver from there, at a rapid called Ambush, where Munroeand two others once wrapped their rafts around a rock. A metal snap on a hook actually straightened, and the line attached to it came shooting back and struck Munroe in the face. He broke his nose and was blinded in his right eye.
Since that accident, Munroe has run thousands of miles of rivers. He is believed to be the first rafter to run the McCloud River, Hell's Corner Gorge on the Klamath, and Wooley Creek, a feeder stream to the Salmon River. He knows what it is like to be out on the edge, and he likes it there. He looked at Caldera Rapid like it was an old foe he knew well, but feared.
"When the boat hits a wave, the front will rise up and get pushed back," Munroe said."It feels like you're hitting a rock. The paddler has to reach in front and bite into the water to pull the boat down. You've got to reach out and grab water like you're grabbing for a life insurance policy."
From my perch at the front of the raft going down the Cladera, I felt like a hood ornament on a car sailing off a cliff. The raft would crash down into a water hole, disappear under the river waves, then pop up 30 yards downstream.
I shook the water from my eyes and noticed I was still in the boat. My paddle had disappeared, so I just hung on as well as was possible.
So this is Caldera, I thought. The first of a thousand rapids.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication