The Klamath Challenge

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Ishi Pishi is the Klamath's only Class VI rapid, where luck plays a larger role thanskill in surviving it in a raft. Many ghosts roam its rocky foam. From the river canyon above, Ishi Pishi looks like it's half rapid, half waterfall. It is a 300-yard whiteout, spiked with house-sized boulders and 15-foot holes. Named by the Karok Indians, Ishi Pishi means end of the trail.

They knew what they were talking about. Over the years, many Karok dip netters have fallenhere and drowned. The most recent deaths came in the mid-eighties when three Indians took a motorboat across the river just above Ishi Pishi in order to fish on the far side. The motor cut out, the boat was swept through the falls and flipped, and all three men died.

Only one team of rafters is known to have run Ishi Pishi and survived, although the boat flipped and there were several injuries and near-drownings. James Quinn of Oregon led a team of rafters in a 17-footer, a big river raft by any standards. Brad Throgmorton, a steelhead guide who lives just above Ishi Pishi, was offered a seat in the raft, but decided to watch instead.

"They hit a big suck hole, and the raft started to wallow," Throgmorton told me."The oarsman jumped out of the boat, holding onto the railing, hoping to catch the current with his body to pull the boat out, but he was swept right out and the boat started to flip. Quinn's leg stuck between the bottom of the frame and the boat, and then it flipped upside down. With my binoculars, I felt like I was in the boat with them. I've done enough rafting so that I was living it blow-by-blow with them. My knees were actually trembling and I lost my breath."

It was a miracle that no one drowned, although Quinn came close. He came out of it with a broken hand and a warning for all rafters: Do not attempt it. At Ishi Pishi, we took his advice andportaged.

Next we were on to the Ikes, a long series of 10-foot rollers, Grand Canyon-style rapids and waves, big water made even bigger by the flooding of the Klamath. They are Ike, Big Ike and SuperIke. In a raft, you head for each crest and try to punch through, disappearing under water for a few seconds, then plunging straight down into a deep river hole, the hydraulics of the suck hole yanking you and the raft under.

"We should be reaching the Ikes by midafternoon," said Claypole, looking at the map while I guided the boat, directing it with various oar strokes. "But to get there, we'll have to get past Savage, Mixmaster, the Trench and others." After a while, you begin to feel like you're in a submarine, not a raft.

When you're at the oars, the idea is to point the boat at the shoreline, keeping trouble spotsdirectly in front of the raft. Then you can pull the oars back with all your might, rowing to stay away from rock outcrops, flip holes and vortexes that can haul you down and keep you there.

The river is like a motor on your boat, pushing you at 5 to 10 miles per hour, sometimes faster. But this motor never turns off, and that forces you to make snap decisions. The river does not wait for you. To keep a fresh man at the oars, we would trade every 30 minutes or so.

Rafts that flip at the Ikes often go completely airborne at a 45-degree angle before turning over and dumping their occupants.

At one big rock, I tried to skirt the raft along the edge of a whirlpool, but it literally sucked us in and spun us around 180 degrees before spitting us downriver. At least we were still upright. "I better take over at the Ikes," Claypole said with a laugh.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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