Summer Thrills

Excerpt from a feature article in Via Magazine by Maria Streshinsky

A wall of water rises up in front of us. White, foamy tongues reach for our raft. “Dig hard!” John yells. And we raise our paddles over the top of the wave and pull, sliding the raft up and over only to have to do it again. As the boat slips out of the last of a long train of waves, John grins.

“That was the Dragon’s Tooth rapid,” he says. “In summer that one can be a bear. There’s a rock at the bottom of the rapid that’s the size of a house.”

John McDermott has been running this water for 15 years. He knows the Klamath River, tucked into Siskiyou Forest of northernmost California, inside and out – every wave, hole, beach, and side canyon. As owners of River Dancers, he and his wife, Chantal, guide people (on rafts and in inflatable kayaks) through the rapids and riffles of rivers in Northern California and Oregon.

“This stretch of the Klamath is a perfect beginner’s river,” he says. “It’s great for families. We’ll bring kids as young as 6, and it’s also great for people who want to learn about white water, then head to the big water.”

We’re running a Class III stretch of the Klamath – from the town of Happy Camp to a place called Ti Bar. (Class I rivers are the easiest, Class VI are unrunnable.) In summer the water is warm enough for swimming through the calmer stuff, but recurring white licks of water and swirling whirlpools will keep any river traveler on his toes. “This is the wilderness,” John reminds us.

At first, I don’t feel deep into the wild – the river is chased by California’s Highway 96. But soon I barely notice the road – especially as we set up camp, eat plateloads of Thai chicken, and fall asleep to the sounds of rolling water.

Wilderness it is. The waters tumble south and west, past silty beaches, homesteads; under soaring osprey. Alders bend over the river, firs grow precariously above it. Our raft bounces, turns, and is sucked down into the green water where one current meets another. We all position our weight on our feet and lean into the raft so it won’t flip. Another lick of white appears above us. “Who wants to get wet?” John yells. I shriek, “Go for it!” And we head toward the big waves.

“Look at that hole!” Chantal yells from her raft, as we slide past a gaping green void. “Now that’s suction.” Then we paddle into calmer water.

Such is how California whitewater goes.

When we maneuver the boats to shore and head home along the same road I had cursed. I’m blissful to be able to keep the river with me as I drive.