It was June, 1997, and whitewater kayaking was experiencing a golden age. All disciplines of the sport were peaking, from freestyle to slalom racing, and at the front of the explosion was the newest and greatest – extreme kayak racing.
Extreme kayak racing pushed the comfort zone of even the most accomplished paddlers of the time. As opposed to traditional racing held on moderate sized rapids, extreme races were staged on the hardest sections of river possible. Paddlers would charge through class 5 hydraulics and over cascading waterfalls, often head-to-head against several other competitors.
That year your daddy was the head organizer of the most prominent extreme race in the country at the time, The Gorge Games. The race was to be held on the Green Truss section of the White Salmon River in July. In addition to organizing the kayak events, I also had every intention of winning the extreme race. For months I had been training, both physically and mentally. By June, I was in top condition and was training with my long time friend, Rich Weiss.
Rich was my hero. In 1991, while training together in Canada, I saw what real work ethic looked like. I taped his Champion Series race profile picture to my dashboard, and for the entire 1992 season I looked at it before every workout to get inspired. By 1997, we both found ourselves living in the Colombia River Gorge and again started paddling together, preparing for the Gorge Games. By late June the rivers were swollen with snow melt, and we were running them at levels that I’m certain had never been tried before.
On June 25th, the Green Truss section was peaking at 6 feet, over double the normal level. Rich and his wife Rosi showed up at Outdoorplay, my new kayak shop, in the late afternoon. He was carrying a photo of himself to add to the shop’s wall of fame, which he autographed. It said,
Tree – Keep smokin down the river
Your friend, Rich
We hung it on the wall above the cash register, I grabbed my kayaking gear, and we headed for the Truss. Rosi was along for the ride, or, more accurately, to drive our shuttle. She would drop us off at the top, and then wait at the bottom until we arrived. This was a regular occurrence, as Rosi hardly ever left Rich’s side. They were more or less inseparable, two of the most in love people I had ever met. Everybody knew it.
At the put-in, the water was brown and angry. Rich and I dropped in and ran a couple rapids. When pulling over to catch our breath, we questioned whether or not it would be runnable. We didn’t use its name. We didn’t have to. We approached the horizon line and pulled over on the left bank. It boomed like an explosion. We walked to the lip and caught our first glimpse of Big Brother, the 30 foot waterfall and crux rapid of the Green Truss section of the White Salmon river.
At double the normal water flow, Big Brother looked ferocious. The normal line on the right side of the river was completely closed out. The well-known and dangerous cave on the right side was being hammered by a torrent of water pushing in from the hydraulic at the base. Getting pushed into the cave at this water level would be ugly. Complicating the issue was another nasty 10 foot drop right below called Little Brother. The current was moving so fast at this water level that the chance of having to run Little Brother right after Big Brother was 50/50. Rich and I sat in silence.
After a while of staring at the drop, I started to see a line on the far left side. By jumping over a 3 foot pour-over leading into Big Brother, I thought I might be able to access the left side. With enough speed and a strong last stroke, I envisioned my boat clearing the hydraulic at the bottom, thus avoiding the cave. The distance between the pour-over and the main drop was small, maybe enough time for 2 paddle strokes. But I saw it in my mind’s eye.
I told Rich I was running it. He put on his big, Richie, ear-to-ear smile and said, “Good luck, I’ll watch from here”.
I don’t remember being nervous. I don’t remember being scared. I paddled aggressively into the pour-over and nailed the move. But the distance to the main drop was much smaller than I had anticipated. I had enough time for only one stroke. I paused, waiting to feel my boat right on the lip, then launched the most powerful stroke I could muster. It was quiet. I felt my boat falling. Then I hit the hydraulic at the bottom. The power of the water immediately flipped me over, but the speed I had generated from the last stroke carried me through. I rolled up and barely scratched my way into a small eddy just 5 feet above Little Brother. I gave Rich the thumbs up to let him know I was ok.
I looked up at Rich through the mist. He was staring at the waterfall, his hands tucked into his lifejacket. One minute passed. Then two. Then three. At the time it didn’t register, but looking back on that moment, I saw trepidation, something I had never seen in Rich before. He looked down at me, far below, sitting in-between two powerful drops. I was getting bounced around in the small eddy while clinging to a rock. It looked as though he was considering walking around it. I put my hands up and shrugged, indicating “it’s your call”. Then I pointed at my watch and tapped it, indicating “make the call”. Rich smiled at me, looked at the drop for another second, and then disappeared over the horizon line. That was the last time I ever saw him.
I watched the horizon line waiting for the first glimpse of Rich’s boat. Finally it appeared and as I watched him clear the pour-over my first thought was, “Oh no, he’s going way too slow”. He approached the lip of Big Brother with little speed and appeared to stall. I waited for the powerful last stroke, but he seemed to just fall off the drop. His boat was slightly off line, and he skipped off a shallow section during the fall. Upon hitting the bottom, his boat did a back somersault into the hydraulic and started violently cartwheeling toward the cave. Then it was gone.
I immediately marked the time on my watch, knowing the seriousness of the situation. I wanted to know how long he had been under. I stayed in my boat waiting for him to wash out. With the strength of the current I knew there would be no hope to rescue him before he was swept over Little Brother. But, if I stayed in my boat, I could follow him over the next drop and hopefully get to him below.
Then, in an instant, his boat shot out of the falls and pinwheeled over Little Brother. But there was no sign of Rich. He was pinned behind the waterfall in the cave. I climbed out of my boat onto a narrow, slippery catwalk of rock shooting out from the cliff wall and started throwing my rescue rope behind the curtain, hoping he’d grab it. Forty minutes later I gave up.
My hands were now shaking. All of a sudden the canyon felt dark and unfriendly. Getting back into my boat and running Little Brother, alone, was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. After that drop I was able to scale the cliff. From the canyon rim I looked into the river and saw no trace of Rich. I ran through the forest, heart pounding, until I came to the road. A truck picked me up and took me to a pay phone where I called 911.
Next came the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. From the pay phone I walked across the street to the take-out where Rosi was waiting for us. She looked surprised to see me. With my stomach in my throat, and on the verge of tears, I told her that the love of her life, her soul mate, and the father of her unborn child, was dead.
Search and rescue arrived, and eventually found Rich’s body pinned on a tree downstream from Big Brother. They rappelled a 200 foot cliff, and by 11:45 pm they were wheeling the body into an ambulance back on the main highway where I waited. Rosi squeezed her 6 month pregnant body into the back of the ambulance with him, and the door slowly closed behind her.
The funeral came and went, as did all the questions of how and why. A couple months later Rosi gave birth to a baby boy and named him River.
I buried the pain and fear and shame in the deepest place I had, and Rosi and I never spoke again.
After Rich died I continued to kayak, and despite having some of the best river experiences of my life after the event, it was never the same. I put my focus into climbing instead, and over the years I continued to cheat death more times than I probably deserved.
So why am I telling you this story my sweet Soleil? I don’t know. I really don’t have an ending to this. But since you were born, those feelings seem to be creeping up from the deep place I stuffed them.
I have tremendous envy for friends I know who have had kids, yet continue to push the limits in their pursuits. In the same breath, I have seen too many of them perish. And I can’t bear the thought of leaving you.
I often wonder what was going through Rich’s mind during the long minutes he stood alone, so uncharacteristically, at the top of that waterfall. Did he know? Did he sense it? What was he thinking? What was he feeling?
Aside from your birth, the most magical times in my life have been the suspended moments in which time and thought stop, and pure life begins. Waterfalls. Big walls. Remote adventures. Solo missions. This is where the moments that defined my life were found.
Now I find myself struggling to answer questions.
- What am I willing to give up? What am I willing to lose?
- At what point do the risks I take no longer enhance my life, and how do I find the balance?
- And most importantly, what do I want to pass on to you, because I already see the crazy in your little green eyes.
These are the reflections I’m having as I process what I’ve done in my life, contemplate what I have left, and prepare for what you may choose to do in yours.
Perhaps in teaching you how to measure risk without the extra weight of ego and fear, I will learn to find the balance myself, and together we will get the most out of this already too short life.
All my love,
Big Brother shown at low water. The ledge of rocks above the waterfall seen in this photo created the pour-over we used to run the left side line at high water.
Another low water shot showing the normal line. A truly beautiful and magical place.