Over the last several years we have spent a fair amount of time on specific stretches of the Kootenai River. Since we bought our canoe about 5 years ago, we’ve put in at the base of the bridge at Bonners Ferry and taken out at the convergence of Deep Creek many, many times. This stretch is slow, wide, deep and gentle. It’s a few hours of leisurely floating with easy access. When we purchased our kayaks a couple of years ago we started taking them down that same stretch. Last year, we decided to try new stretch and we put in at the convergence of the Moyie and pulled out at Deep Creek. There are a few spots on this stretch that require some pretty significant effort to maneuver through eddies but there is really no whitewater to speak of. A few riffles here and there, but they can mostly be avoided if you choose to. On the Kootenai, I have found it’s not the obvious whitewater, but the eddies that you need to be mindful of.
We had heard mixed reviews on the run from Yaak to Moyie. We have friends who did it in kayaks who said that it has some stretches that were more than they had anticipated. Someone in their party ran into a bit of trouble at the head of one of the islands. We also know people who have done it in rafts who said it was awesome. We decided that we’d give it a try.
We arrived at the launch at the Yaak convergence at around 2:15pm and began gathering the gear and getting ready to launch. We don’t normally wear our life jackets (more often than not they’re tucked back in the stern behind the seat) or use our paddle leashes because we’re comfortable with the waterways we generally traverse. Because we were not familiar with this stretch, we donned our life jackets and hooked up our leashes. We threw the camera and my cell phone in the Pelican box and tossed it on the floor of my boat. We stood on the shore together and prayed for safety and a fun day and we hit the water.
We launched around at 2:3opm and I was immediately uncomfortable. The river is moving rapidly through the launch area and it’s a little rough and there are scattered rapids. Rodd could sense my hesitation and offered that it wasn’t too late to haul to shore and drag back up to the launch. I was stubborn (stupid) and declined his offer.
We traveled on through riffles and rapidly moving water for the first half hour……then things started to slow a bit and the water flattened out.
Approaching the Leonia bridge….
At the MT/ID state line, you cross under the old Leonia bridge. The water here was pretty calm.
As you can see…..no worries…..we were enjoying the trip at this point.
After crossing under the bridge, probably less than a mile downriver, you hit what I think is the Boulder Creek convergence on the left. This convergence is followed directly by a large island. We had discussed the run with a couple of people and I had also read up on it. The general consensus seemed to be that staying to the right of the island was the smoother way to go. If you go to Bing maps and put in these coordinates, you can see the convergence and the island. (48.624018, -116.052125) Zoom in all the way, change it from road to automatic and you can see the area well.
The area at these coordinates marks where the trouble began. There is a very strong eddy here on the right at the head of the island. We wanted to stay right of the island. The problem was that we ended up crossways in the current. We were paddling hard to get across it when Rodd got pulled into the eddy. He flipped immediately and, like a moron, I tried to turn and paddle toward him. In doing so, I immediately got sucked in and flipped as well. The water was so swift there wasn’t a thing you could do. Swimming to shore was totally out of the question. After I surfaced, the eddy actually spit me out on the left and I started getting sucked toward the whitewater on the left side of the island. Meanwhile, Rodd is still swirling in the eddy. I WAS PETRIFIED!!! I have loved the water all of my life and I have never been in a situation on the water where I felt like my life was at risk…..until yesterday.
There must be a slight drop on that left side because when I went over it, we lost sight of each other. I had my paddle leash strapped to my right wrist. My kayak was upside down and obviously full of water and it was getting sucked downstream. One end of my paddle was jammed into the hull of my boat which was on the upstream side so I couldn’t get my paddle free of the boat……and I couldn’t get my arm free of the paddle. The leash just attaches with Velcro, but it may as well have shackled there with chains. I clawed at it but couldn’t get the Velcro loose. While horrifying, because it was pulling me downstream quickly and I couldn’t get loose of the kayak to even try to swim to shore, it was a blessing in disguise. Had I been able to loose myself from the leash my boat would have traveled on downriver without me and it was too swift to swim to shore anyway so I wouldn’t have gained anything. It’s funny the things you think about in situations like this. In the last several months I have lost about 20 lbs. I was wearing a pair of shorts from last season that are now too big. The current was literally pulling them from my body and I kept fighting to keep them from coming all the way off because I had visions of losing my boat, paddle etc and being stranded on the island and having to be rescued in my underwear!!!! Really? I’m on the verge of drowning and I’m worried about losing my shorts? Weird…….
From the time that we flipped I just kept praying that the Lord would protect us. Once we got separated I was begging God that Rodd would be safe. I was absolutely terrified because I couldn’t see him and didn’t know if he was still stuck in the eddy. The island is probably about a 1/3+ mile long and it’s quite wide. While I was being swept downstream I kept yelling for him to see if I could get a response but could hear nothing but the water around me.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, Rodd had gotten out of the eddy finally and was able to make it to shore. He was able to get enough water out of his boat to float it again. He was blowing his whistle and yelling for me but like I said, I couldn’t hear a thing but the water. He finally decided the best thing to do was to get back in his kayak and get to the tail of the island to see if he could find me.
At the tail of the island I finally was able to grab a snag that was sticking out from the bank and haul myself and my kayak to the shore. I drug my boat up to the shore and immediately sunk in what felt like quicksand. My left foot sunk about 8 inches and it started sucking my shoe off. I was able to pull my shoe out and get up onto the bank and then I ran, one shoe in hand, toward the right side of the island. I had just gotten to the other side when I saw Rodd come around the bend in his kayak. I literally dropped to my knees and thanked God for His mercy and protection. I have never been so scared of losing him. We still weren’t done yet because now I was on one side of the river and he was on the other and my boat was full of water. He had the bilge pump. By nothing short of a miracle, it was caught in his boat and he didn’t lose it. It wasn’t strapped in…..just loose on the floor of his boat. Another piece of equipment we never carry IN the boats. We usually leave it at the take-out to pump them out before we load them. On this day, we had thrown it in the bottom of Rodd’s kayak as a bit of an afterthought.
My totally swamped kayak……..It’s hard to see, but it was completely full of water. I was able to roll my kayak over and empty a bunch of the water. I then proceeded to see-saw it to try to remove most of it. Our kayaks don’t have drain plugs so it’s difficult to empty them without a bilge pump. I got enough water out to float it. Now I had to cross the current to get back over to the other side of the river. Any place you have the convergence of 2 waterways, you have an opportunity for trouble. Needless to say I was really nervous about having to cross the current.
Tail of the island………Rodd’s on the other side.
You can’t see it well in the image above, but at the tail of the island where the river rejoins itself, it sweeps hard to the left. There was a large snag directly to my right and I couldn’t move upstream in order to merge into the current and cross gently. I hit it hard and just focused on keeping my nose pointed downstream and made it across to Rodd on the other side. We hugged and cried and thanked God that the other was alive and that neither of us had lost our boat or paddle. This area is only about halfway through the trip. I have to say, I was really nervous to get back in the kayak and finish the run. BUT, there’s no other way off the river at this point, so we checked the damage, finished pumping out my boat, collected ourselves and climbed back in.
The rest of the run was uneventful. We had a few strong eddies to work through but nothing like what we’d come through already. We pulled up on the beach at Twin Rivers at around 7pm completely exhausted.
We walked away virtually unscathed from what could have been completely disastrous. We lost half of my kayak carrier, a Dajo water bottle and Rodd’s sunglasses. Funny thing is…..all of those items are designed to float and we didn’t see any of them. I’m sure they’re long gone. I also have a couple of puncture wounds on the bottom of my left foot where I stepped on something while I was running across the tail of the island with no shoe. Rodd dug some more pieces of stick or sand or something out of them for me tonight. They’re sore, but I feel pretty thankful that a few punctures and a lost kayak carrier are the worst of it.
I did learned some valuable lessons this weekend………
- Life jackets save lives. Wear them……that’s what they’re designed for.
- Pelican boxes really do protect your gear. They’re worth every penny you pay for them. Mine saved my camera and my cell phone.
- Swamped kayaks are VERY HEAVY.
- The Kootenai River ain’t just messin’ around! It’s a powerful river not to be underestimated. It’s not so much the whitewater……it’s the undercurrents and eddies. You’ll be paddling toward what seems like calm, flat water and they boil up out of nowhere. Some of them create actual whirlpools. It’s just like a giant bathtub drain.
- Taking this run in a kayak is VERY different than taking this run in a raft. One of the recommendations came from someone who had rafted it. You are MUCH more vulnerable in a kayak.
- When your gut tells you that something isn’t the best idea you’ve ever had……take heed. It’s probably not your gut but God trying to tell you something. Listen up dummy!
- If you get on a waterway and are uncomfortable, get off. It’s not worth it.
- You can fit a 10 foot kayak in an Expedition if you need to.
- Helplessness is NOT a good feeling.
- When in a situation where you think that death is a possibility……your life doesn’t flash before your eyes. You’re thinking about things like someone finding your fat, white, bloated carcass on a beach with no shorts on. 🙂
- God protects us even when we do stupid things.
- God is in control.
There are so many details about this entire day that confirm #12………some may seem insignificant, but to me they’re not.
- We left the Expedition at the take-out and the Vibe at the launch. If the Vibe had been at the other end, we couldn’t have just shoved my kayak inside since we were short half a carrier.
- We wore our life jackets. We never do that.
- We used our paddle leashes. We never do that.
- My paddle got wedged in my kayak and kept me, my paddle and my kayak together. Had I been able to unstrap that paddle leash I’d have literally been up the creek without a paddle…..not to mention, without a boat.
- Had either of us gotten to shore at a different time / place we could have missed each other at the tail of the island.
- My Pelican box was loose on the floor of my kayak and yet didn’t get lost when I flipped.
- The bilge pump was loose on the floor of Rodd’s kayak and yet it didn’t get lost when he flipped.
- We don’t have floatation bags in our kayaks. We only have the factory inserts. We’ve talked about adding them, but have never done it. Even still, they didn’t sink.
- I got spit out of the eddy while Rodd got trapped in it. Had both of us been stuck in it we could have gotten tangled up together and had worse trouble.
- We didn’t drown. People die every year on the Kootenai. God protected us even in our stupidity.
So, if you ever think you might want to make the run from Yaak to Moyie in a kayak, be very sure that you’re aware of the nature of the Kootenai and that you are aware it’s not a leisurely float. Watch the eddies. Wear your life jacket. Use a paddle leash. I would say this is an intermediate run. Like I said, it looks like it’s mostly a calm stretch of river. In a raft, it’s very relaxing. In a kayak it’s a different story.