For most of us, hucking an 80-foot waterfall isn’t even on the life list. But for First Ascent kayaker, action photographer and experienced adrenaline seeker Darin McQuoid, launching into the fray is just another day on the job and another day in the boat. After loading up the boats, road tripping with with his crew to the McKenzie River in Central Oregon and scouting what are two massive 80-plus roadside drops, they went big. The crew dropped in and the first three stuck it successfully while Darin got the shot, but the fourth boater’s skirt imploded on impact leaving the team to deal with the aftermath of what could have been a much more serious incident. The second falls presented an even harsher aftermath. The team triaged, evacuated then evaluated…with Darin and the remaining members deciding to give the second falls a shot the next morning after the injured member of their crew was safe and safely en-route to the hospital. This is the full story of the road trip. -EB Editor
Words and Images by Darin McQuoid
I’m in. We’re headed to two eighty-foot high waterfalls. Anxiety comes too easily sitting in the van for nine hours, with nothing to think about except these falls. I’ve come as the photographer. This mental approach will make it possible to travel and sleep with less anxiety. I bring my boat just in case I’m inspired to run them, but have more weight in camera gear than anything else.
Sahalie and Koosah Falls are on the McKenzie River in Central Oregon. Once world record setting drops, these falls have now been repeated a handful of times. True “park-and-huck” roadside waterfalls, we can drive up, run one of them and get back in the car. There is an added element of safety on a park-and-huck waterfall, as emergency services are only minutes away. This is in contrast to a waterfall in a remote canyon where the decision is a complicated process involving a multifaceted web of risks versus rewards. In a remote canyon, the focus is moving down the river and safety precautions must consider the challenges of extraction. How long and dangerous a portage is has heavy influence on the risk factor calculated into each drop. The reward factor involves downstream progress in addition to the adrenaline and self-gratification that comes from styling a challenging falls. Here, there is no need to run these rapids, the reward does not include downstream progress: we drove here; we’ll drive away from here. For me, the decision to run these falls is a balance between risk, consequence and intrinsic personal reward.
Arriving in the afternoon, we gear up and prep for Sahalie. To find a unique angle, I hike a mile and half with 50 pounds of camera gear to the far side of the river. Four of the team run Sahalie Falls, the fourth’s skirt implodes, paddle breaks and he gets thrown a rope from our safety team. There is no pool below Sahalie, and in the recovery process, his boat is lost downstream. The dynamic for running the falls dissipates as we finish the day recovering his kayak and scouting Koosah falls downstream.
The team scouts Koosah again in the morning and with nervous smiles, everyone gives it a thumbs up. Once again I hike my gear around to shoot. Sunlight shines as the team rotates through positions: one running the falls, one in a kayak at the bottom and one more with a rope at a downstream log-jam. As a light cloud-cover veils the sky, the fifth person plunges over Koosah with a seemingly good line, but he rolls up using only one arm. The safety team below helps him attain shore just before the logjam, and the team heads to the parking lot. I pack my gear and hit the trail, thinking the day is over.
After half the group heads to the hospital, those left discuss the injury (thankfully not life threatening) and realize we still have enough people to safely run the falls. The easy option is to call it a day and go home with some beautiful pictures. Yet, in the morning I had a great feeling about Koosah. Checking in with my instincts, I still have that feeling. The lead-in rapid requires finesse, and a perfect line is present. Thinking about the risks, I decide I want this drop: this one is worth taking a minor injury for.
In the moment I feel the potential, and expectation, of kayaking an ideal line over Koosah outweighs the risk. There are only a few warm-up strokes into an eddy above the rapid. Over my shoulder I can see the horizon line and exactly where I want to go in the rapid. Subconsciously, I know that the falls are pounding relentlessly below and the noise must be surrounding me, but there seems to only be silence. I come in as slow as possible, taking one stroke through a curler at the lip, letting it take me slightly left as the falls transition to vertical. I hold one long stroke down the falls, feeling everything line up. I toss my paddle and tuck forward, still falling with enough time to wonder if I could be tucked a little tighter…then I hit the bottom. The aerated water is surprisingly soft, I submerge for a second or two and emerge from the base of the falls upright with an indescribable feeling of elation and relief.
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