Alone—as I slid down the loose canyon wall, kayak on my shoulder, 60 meters of climbing rope in my hand—I felt like I might be doing something I should not. There was a single tree between me and the cliff above the river, and I skidded down into it, wrapping one arm around the trunk and lodging my boat above it with the other. The small avalanche of debris that followed me down slid past my feet and over the cliff.
I could not see where it fell, but knew I didn’t want to do the same. Below me was the entrance rapid to Toketee Falls, a series of drops culminating in a 65+ foot-tall falls.
I grew up and started paddling a little over two hours from Toketee and had visited it numerous times over the years. I had seen it about four years ago when Toketee’s North Umpqua River was flooding, looking menacing and lofting trees and debris over the falls. Everything in Southern Oregon was flooded then, warm rains releasing low elevation snows, but in the coming years Toketee rarely had normal flows thanks to a small hydro project that diverts almost the entire flow around the falls.
The mixed bag of this hydro project is that while it pulls water from the river 99 percent of the time, it also has a water-flow gauge available to the public. On April 17, I woke up with plans to paddle somewhere else but looked at the Toketee gauge out of habit, and saw something surprising: the flow was at ~250 cfs and going up. I checked the previous years’ flows and saw it had only been above 75 cfs five times, usually for less than a day. Change of plans.
When we drove over the North Umpqua above the falls, I knew there was much more than 250 cfs, and I ran down to the falls to see it with the perfect flow. Yes, please. My mouth went dry and my heart beat fast. It was cold, but my palms sweat, my body tingled and shed layers without me even thinking. Possibly the only chance in years to run Toketee, and I was right there, staring at it, seeing the line, and feeling pulled in. It’s hard to distinguish between rationality and instinct, but both were looking through my eyes and telling me the risks were manageable, the rewards immeasurable.
I gave my camera to an innocent bystander, confused them in trying to describe how to use it, and said, “Good luck, Godspeed.” I got to that last tree above the water to anchor on, and left half of my rope for my boat, half for me. I lowered my boat over the edge and out of sight, and without knowing if it reached the bottom, slid my way over the edge. Finally riverside, I felt like I was doing something I absolutely should be. It wasn’t something I needed to conquer, just a place I loved being in.
I pushed off the rocks into current boiling out from a wood-choked falls and ferried to the other side of the river around two more criss-crossed old-growth logs. Two drops in quick succession, and I was in the cave above the main falls. I sat there for a long time looking out over the horizon line and looking back up at the gorge.
The walls wrapped around and arced out above me. Trees stretched out farther still, dripping with mist that swirled up out of the rounded cave. I still had a long ways to the bottom, but I couldn’t help but celebrate a little right there, looking over the edge at the tops of trees.
I thought about my friend Hendri, and how he would have loved this place, how he changed the way I was looking at things from that eddy, and how memories of him inspired me to get there in the first place. I took the last set of strokes calmed by these thoughts, and the world reappeared in slow motion as I rolled over the edge and into freefall.
Impact was very soft, but I didn’t get pushed away from the falls immediately. The column of water spun and pounded me, and I felt it hit my boat, then my back, then boat, chest, until it spit me out intact. I paddled over to my friend Jared Sandeed, who was setting safety in the pool, gave him a hug and maybe even breathlessly said the falls was awesome. Toketee was done for me, but it wasn’t overcome or mastered, beaten or deafeted, and it still falls indifferent and impartial as ever.
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