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Into the Maelstrom


Mushroom rapid on Cherry CreekThe author nearly found herself up the creek while navigating the Class V waters of one of North America's most treacherous rivers.

By Yi-Wyn Yen

Featured in Sports Illustrated Adventure Outdoor Sports August 30, 2002

It felt like a 400-pound man was sitting on my 98-pound frame. Everything inside me felt squished. Suddenly, my chin strap was choking me. I ripped off my helmet.

"You need to put that back on," my river guide Scott Armstrong barked over the roaring water.

"I can't," I yelled back. "I think I'm going to barf."

My three friends and I were about to embark on perhaps the most difficult commercial whitewater rafting trip in the U.S. Randy Ching, Jeff Jordan and Bob Hebeler had all run Cherry Creek River in California's Sierra Nevada canyon last summer, so they knew what was coming. This was my first trip. In order to pass go, we each first had to pass a swimming test, which meant cannonballing into the raging water and swimming upstream 10 yards in a Class III section towards the bank.

"All right, Yi-Wyn," Armstrong said. "It's your turn." Shell-shocked, I strapped on my helmet and peered over the right edge of the boat. My head was pounding, and I felt everyone staring at me. I regretted not calling my mom before I left to tell her I loved her.

Cherry CreekI plunged into the cold, crisp water, gasping as the currents forced me downstream. Seconds later I frantically flapped my arms to push my way upstream. My initial goal was to impress the river guides and my friends with my superb swimming skills. Now, all I cared about was having made it to the other side alive. I survived, but the barfing feeling came back.

The final part of the exam was up next: swimming underneath the 14-foot oar boat. The swim exam, which a strong, intermediate swimmer should be able to pass, was just a preparation for the big show, which is why fewer than 100 people raft Cherry Creek each season.

Rivers are rated on a scale of Class I (akin to kayaking in your bath tub) to Class VI (unrunnable because chances of serious injury or death are high). Cherry Creek is a jaw-dropping nine-mile run ranked V+ for its technical maneuvers, massive drops and powerful currents.

"I've run that during May when the water level is crazy," says elite kayaker and professional climber Tim O'Neill. "It's really a Class V+ because not enough people die to make it a VI."

"The first time we went last year, we were so tense throughout the whole trip," says Jordan, a high-powered general manager at eBay and the alpha male of the group. "It was the first trip [the rafting company] was running for the season and before we started, all the guides held hands and prayed. When they got back into the boats, they ran their hands across this huge boulder and bowed their heads. It freaked us out." The guides explained afterwards that they were honoring a former colleague who had passed away from cancer. "That would have been useful to know beforehand because we thought they were praying for us to not fall out of the boat and drown," Jordan says.

This bit of news didn't give me much comfort, however. This was only my fourth time whitewater rafting, making me the least experienced among the group. I was also the only woman among the group, which included seven river guides. The previous night I dreamt that my body slammed into a large granite boulder and that I got sucked into an undercut and couldn't pull myself out. Needless to say, I didn't sleep well as my friends and I camped outdoors at Pine Mountain Lake in Groveland, Calif. with hundreds of bats swarming 15 feet above our heads.

The most memorable of the fifteen V to V+ rapids was Toadstool, a nasty and unforgiving drop that flips more than half the boats passing through. Armstrong spent 15 minutes prepping us on where to swim if we didn't clear the horizon.

We outwitted the first rapid and charged ahead, confident that we would be able to perfectly position the oar boat seven feet between two large boulders that led to a 10-foot drop. "Hard paddle left!" Armstrong screamed. The command called for Jordan and me, sitting on the left side of the boat, to crank our paddles, but Ching and Hebeler, pumped with adrenaline, dug their paddles too hard and pushed us too far left.

We were suddenly wedged high side onto the menacing boulder as the boat began to tip downward like the top half of the Titanic. Jordan, a lead paddler, tumbled headfirst over Hebeler as the boat dropped into Toadstool's hole. A millisecond later, Hebeler, a veteran triathlete, got ejected from his lead seat and then Ching was thrown out backward, his legs flailing mid-air. Somehow, I managed to defy the odds, leaning forward and pressing on my heels, to stay in the boat with Armstrong. Hebeler and Jordan managed to swim to the right side of the boat and grab onto the handles as we continued down the remaining 100 yards of the rapid.

I leaned over and grabbed Hebeler by his life vest and saw a glaze of shock in his eyes. I turned and saw Jordan bleeding profusely with a boxer's cut caused by a blow from the wooden oar. "That's the first time that happened to me. I've never fallen out before," said Jordan when we finally reached the calm, green water. Blood continued to drip down the left side of his face as he shook his head in disbelief.

I nodded my head sympathetically and snapped a few close-ups. Ching, though, was the true star of the day. He found himself sucked under the boat and managed to scramble across the left side of the river to an eddy. "It was the only time I was really scared," says Ching, who makes five commercial and private rafting trips a year. "I thought I saw an air pocket underneath the boat, but then I started choking on this big gulp of water. All I could think about was getting my head above the water fast."

With our nerves rattled, we didn't have much time to regroup because we were onto the Miracle Mile, a vertigo inspiring run that drops 200 feet with five Class V rapids. (Cherry Creek boasts an average of 150 feet per mile, while the Colorado River's Grand Canyon averages six feet per mile.) Before each major rapid, Armstrong explained where to swim if we had to abort the boat. But at Lewis' Leap (V+), Armstong said, "Try not to fall out here. If you fall out, you have to figure it out on your own."

We barely escaped Lewis' Leap, a stomach-churning 15-foot drop. We got stuck at the top of the boulder with a perfect view of the violent whitewater roaring below us. Teetering over the edge, we were forced to jump to the front of the boat and immediately scramble back to our seats as it tipped over the edge. Armstrong screamed, "Hold on! Hold on!", but I could only hear the quiet. On a previous trip, Armstrong had taken a man from West Virginia who boasted about the Upper Gauley, a Class V run considered the beast of the east. "We flipped at Lewis' Leap. The guy had the bejesus scared out of him," Armstrong says. "He stopped bragging about the Upper Gauley after that."

As we pulled into Meral's Pool, the take out point at the South Fork of the Tuolumne, Ching congratulated me on my first successful run. "I can't believe you were the only one who didn't fall out," he says, "The only thing about Cherry Creek is, how can you expect to raft anything else after this?" I smiled and gave him a high five. Ching was right. There was nothing easy about paddling Cherry Creek, and nothing more thrilling.

Read more about Cherry Creek.

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