Cramer Rapid, Middle Fork Salmon

Here is a little story I wrote several years ago. I like to go back and read stuff like this on cold winter days. It makes the time between now and River Season seem not so long…

Recollections of a Rapid

The name Cramer never raised fear in a Middle Fork boatman’s heart before late summer, 2003. An isolated rain storm induced Cramer Creek to rise far beyond its normal streambed. The torrential flashflood forced huge boulders and debris into the Salmon River at the mouth of the creek. But even then, the rapid was just a little more exciting than the Cramer people floated in life jackets. That all changed in early summer, 2004.
Spring run-off brought more than just high water. The unstable boulders in the river were forced into new positions, and Cramer Rapid morphed into an unrecognizable frenzy. Exaggerated stories of monstrous holes and 15-foot waves began hitting the river community. By mid-June, Cramer was rumored to have flipped a sweep boat.

Sweep boat in Cramer
Running a sweep boat through Cramer Rapid, Salmon River, Idaho. No, this one did NOT flip…

Dad and I got swept up in the fuss and tried to get down to see this new Cramer for ourselves, but time never allowed us to break away from pre-season duties. So it was that we embarked on our first Middle Fork trip of the season with anticipation and a little dread about the very last rapid on our schedule.
You couldn’t escape Cramer. People were discussing it in the gas station in Challis. Snippets of excited voices and suggestive arm motions caught one’s senses at the river store in Stanley. By the time we reached Boundary Creek, people weren’t speaking of anything but Cramer. The bulletin board in the permit station urged everyone to SCOUT CRAMER! Advice was being given to end trips above the rapid if there was any doubt about one’s abilities to make a successful run.
After a hurried hour of dislodging a six-day trip’s boats and gear from the trailer, I trotted down the ramp to ask another boatman what he knew about Cramer. He didn’t seem too happy to ease my mind about it. “Don’t ask me about Cramer,” he said. “I don’t want to have to run it 50 times before I even get there!” I headed back up to our camp at Dagger Falls, not really worried about the rapid. How difficult could it possibly be?
Well, it was pretty interesting.
We woke up the last morning of the trip with instructions from Dad to “rig to flip.” Our gear was tightly secured that morning, right down to the fastening of those stubborn latches on the coolers. The four of us and our guests were prepared for a great adventure.
We heard Cramer before we saw it. As we rounded the bend above it, the wind changed and the full force of the rapid slammed into our ears. Occasionally we caught a glimpse of froth and spray on the horizon, and we instinctively pulled the last bit of slack from our lifejacket straps.
We secured our boats to the rocks on river right and clambered up the bank to make our inspection. Our guests were urged to remain in the boats, as “we will be right back.” In truth, I knew there was a great possibility that if the guests saw the rapid for themselves, they may have wanted to walk around it instead of ride through. I really wanted their weight in the front of our boats to help punch through the enormous waves.
It was at this point that my knees began to tremble. I tried to blame the rising shiver on the fact that I was freezing from getting a face full of water in Rubber. My tactic was gone the second I finally caught sight of Cramer. I had never seen waves like the ones before me. The second wave presented the greatest challenge. It marched up into the sky and finally broke over on top of itself with a deafening roar. A surging hole bordered the left side of the furious waves. A series of sharp boulders had cemented themselves near the mouth of Cramer Creek on river right. Studying the rapid proved a boatman’s only chance was to hit the tongue leading into the waves just perfectly in order to thread that precarious needle between the hole and the rocks. If one positioned himself too far left on the tongue, he would be pushed off the wave train into that terrifying recirculation.
I looked at Dad, who now had his battered cowboy hat pushed back on his head. He was rubbing his forehead in thoughtfulness and murmuring, “Hmmmmmmmmmm,” over and over. He stepped away to relieve himself in the weeds along the road. Nervously, the rest of us exchanged anxious glances, and suddenly we felt like doing the same.

Scouting a big rapid
Bill Bernt, in his classic rapid-scouting, contemplative pose.

I stared at the monstrosity below me. Finally I said, “Dad? I don’t think I can do this.” The road was trembling beneath our feet like a continuous earthquake. He never took his eyes off the rapid, just simply said, “Well, you don’t have any choice.” Looking back, I should have taken that as reassurance that he didn’t doubt my abilities, but it didn’t register at the time.
We began to put a plan together. Dad, with his big water experience in Grand Canyon, would go first. There wasn’t much we could do but line up, row into the rapid, push with all our might, and keep the boat straight through that second, terrifying wave. After that it appeared we would be home free.
Half an hour had passed. Dad went into the bushes again, and then the four of us trekked silently back to our boats. We double-checked our lashes and made sure our guests knew which straps to grip tightly. We made sure they could barely breathe in their cinched lifejackets. We went over the spiel of what to do if one finds himself in the water. And then we coiled up our ropes, secured them tightly to the sterns, and pushed off into the current.
The sun had yet to hit the river. Another shiver rippled through my body. It seemed Dad was going way too slowly. I kept having to pull back on my oars to give him more room, and this started to worry me. I wasn’t getting the momentum I needed to punch those waves. Finally Dad dropped over the edge and fell from sight. It seemed like an eternity. Then there he was, almost vertical on the crest of the second wave. And…HOLY &%$#! That boat was not moving! It seemed to hang there in time and my breath caught in my chest. Dad’s right arm was extended above his head, trying to get purchase in the water, anything to keep the boat from twisting left and going over. And there I was, poised to drop slowly into the tongue, and nothing to do but hope for the best. Vaguely I heard my guests’ excited voices somewhere in the abyss in front of me. Then finally, magically, Dad’s boat crashed over the wave and dropped out of sight again.

Cramer Rapid 2004
Cramer Rapid, Middle Fork Salmon. June, 2004, when it was big.

Before I had time to be glad Dad was safe, I found myself staring at the toes of my two passengers and all was eerily quiet. I could see nothing but a deep green room with splotches of white froth sliding passively along the tips of my oars. I drew in my breath as we gradually began crawling from the recesses of the river. I dug my right oar into the turbulence and held on with a strength I didn’t know I possessed. Instinctively I leaned into the weight I knew was coming. The wave that broke overhead pressed my body into the seat and its chill left me unable to breathe. Water filled every cavity the boat offered. The next second we were purged from the river’s icy grasp, and the boat crashed over the Wave from Hell. My lungs filled with air, and unbeknownst to me, forced out a yell that burned my chest till the next morning.
I had done the impossible!
Aside from being completely soaked with icy, June snowmelt, the three of us were right-side up and grinning from ear to ear. The next few seconds were an incomparable succession of steep descents and climbs, and soon we were riding out the tail waves. I turned in my seat with an indescribable sensation, and an awareness that the biggest rapid I’d ever experience was behind me.
My legs didn’t stop shaking until we had the trailer halfway loaded. All four guides had made it through the rapid without too much trouble. Between all the excited voices at Cache Bar ramp, it was a wonder we could hear anything else at all. Twelve different perspectives of Cramer competed with each other on that fine, blue-sky Salmon River morning.
Those moments at Cramer Creek haven’t escaped my memory. I have run bigger water since, but still remain deeply impressed with Cramer as it was that day in late-June, 2004. I have run the rapid numerous times since then, and even more times in my mind. Whenever I wander back in time, I inevitably recall those waves and my body starts shivering with anticipation. These memories get me through bleak, winter afternoons and perk me up during the drudgery that is not river season. I look forward to many river adventures in the years to come, but those few moments in Cramer remain indelibly marked in my memory as one of the best.

Cramer Middle Fork Salmon
Stephanie Ellis running a drift boat through Cramer Rapid, summer 2011.

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