I've been wanting to write about the mental aspects of running difficult whitewater for a while but can never seem to find the time. When you have a great day running whitewater with friends in the sun it's easy to stay motivated and have fun. When you're on a roadside run and can get off the river at any point you don't need to worry about running out of light if something goes wrong. When you're on a run you know and love you already know how to ration your time and where the problem areas might be. Bottom line is when you stay within your comfort zone true class V mentality isn't needed in the same way it is when you extend out of it.
I'll start this off by saying I had an amazing day on the river this past Saturday. Dan and I ran some truly great whitewater in an incredibly scenic area. The trip, however, was not without its hiccups. We were paddling on the Olympic Peninsula, an area pretty far off the beaten path. Trips up there generally require a little more work than other places. Many of the runs require hike ins, the road situation is unpredictable, and there is always a threat of wood in the rivers. People don't get up there too often so beta is often outdated, or can become so after a big rain event. Also it seems that every year another gauge or two gets decommissioned, making flows a bit of a mystery. All of this adds up to every trip up there feeling like a mission.
On this particular mission we had our sights set on Jefferson creek. It is a tributary to the Hamma Hamma river and to my knowledge has only been rafted one other time, by us, at pretty low flows. We had tried one other time and were stopped by snow and multiple logs across the road. Another time we were up there the bridge was out right at the take out. This time we had no such problems, but we still managed to get lost trying to find the put in. Either someone messed up on the online beta or the signs have changed, but the beta we had was incorrect. We eventually were able to find where we were going and immediately recognized the put in. The river at first glance didn't look too much higher than the first time we were there, but within the first ten minutes we realized it was. Jefferson is a narrow, congested, and very steep creek. There is only about 50 feet of flat water on the entire 2.1 mile stretch, the rest being class IV-V Rapids. If you don't know the lines many of the rapids are blind and more than a few would be very difficult to portage. The road, not too far away as the crow flies, would be incredibly difficult to get to from river level. For such a short run the commitment level is high.
It is also not the type of place to be swimming, especially at high water. Unfortunately, swim is exactly what I did, within the first half mile. A quick high side by Dan combined with a bounce on a rock sent me into the water like a ball at the end of a Newton's Cradle. My sense of self preservation and quick reflexes aided me in grabbing the perimeter line on my way out, but my legs took quite a beating. The experience led us to be a bit more cautious in our downstream progress, eating away at our already foreshortened time frame. We also knew that there was a mandatory portage downstream, and that it could come up quick with the creek being so high.
All of these factors combine to make a very stressful situation. The thing about exploratory class V rafting is that these and other factors are always going to be present to some extent. Having a class V mentality means recognizing these things and not letting them affect your performance in the boat. The river doesn't give you a break because you're tired or scared. You don't get an easy stretch when you're done dealing with big rapids and take out doesn't come any faster because you're running out of light. It's up to you to deal with what the river is doing, not the other way around.
I could have easily gotten spooked by a swim on a potentially hazardous river, but we still had plenty of class V river to run, small eddies to catch above hazards, and a time frame to do it in. Class V mentality means looking at every problem fresh. It means not letting successes or failures color your judgement. It means making decisions efficiently based on your abilities and the present situation. In the end these things contribute to the success and safety of every river trip and are good to practice even on easier rivers.
My leg continued to stiffen over the next two hours we were on the river. Dan had to do all of the scouting and Willy, our kayaking buddy, helped with the portage and take out. Hiking out would have been all but out of the question. The thing is, it was still an amazing trip. The whitewater was too good not to have me smiling like an idiot at the bottom of almost every rapid. The rainforest scenery and steep canyon walls make you feel like you are in an untouched world. The sense of accomplishment of doing something no one else has done never gets old. You have to take the good with the bad, and sometimes it all boils down to maintaining the right headspace. When things are hard it's easy to forget that we all started doing this because it's fun and rewarding, and hopefully that's why we continue to do it.