Bear Trapped

Getting flushed in the Kitchen Sink.

Some days you’re feeling flush, some days you’re getting flushed—that’s the way it works. But more often than not, when I get near a kayak, it’s one of those “getting flushed” sort of days. And one spring a few years ago, with strong ambitions and weak judgment, I got flushed in a major way, right down the Kitchen Sink.

It was one of the first truly hot days of spring, when the last memories of winter fade like morning frost and dust begins to rise on the country roads. Tired of pre-dawn ski missions and sloppy bike trails, one of my regular partners-in-idiocy, Miguel, suggested that we drag the kayaks out of the shed and head to the Bear Trap Canyon of the Madison River. Nevermind that I was still a rank beginner, with only a handful of river days under my belt, and the closest I’d come to practicing my roll over the winter included dinner at Dave’s Sushi.

It took a while to unearth my (roommate’s) ‘yak in the shed—an ancient and gaudy tangerine-swirled Perception—where it had lain all winter. Other than some pieces of missing foam apparently carried away by vandalous mice, it looked ready to go. After locating the rest of our junk, we packed a cooler with celebratory beers and sandwiches for the takeout, and jumped in the trucks.

At the put-in there was a sign displaying the volume of water flowing down the canyon, as measured in cubic feet per second. While the exact digits escape me, to my best recollection it was hovering between “Too Much for You, Dumbass,” and “You’re Gonna End Up on the Local News, Loser.” But as I’ve proven to my insurance provider time and again, ignorance is bliss, and when you don’t know what constitutes high flow on a particular river, a number is just a number. Even a big one.

We watched another small group of boaters paddle into the turbulent current and whisk out of sight. “That water is really moving,” Miguel happily observed, as if I should be thrilled by the news. Minutes later, after conducting a thorough Tippy Toe Test, I discovered that the water was also the optimal temperature for breeding polar bears. So everything was pretty much ideal for a lovely afternoon of kayaking.

I nearly dumped it just getting into the current, but once we were headed downstream through mild riffles and small waves, the balance and motions began to feel familiar once more. For a couple of miles, the river was friendly and the views were fantastic. Cliffs rising 1,500 feet from the water contrasted with the vibrant green of spring growth and the narrow ribbon of blue sky overhead. Sage and juniper mingled with the aquatic scents of the river, and twice we noticed eagles watching us from lofty snags. And then the flushing started.

We could hear it before we saw it—the familiar low, energetic roar of moving water. I’d forgotten how exciting that sound is, and Miguel and I both whooped as we approached the first set of waves. They were tall and fast, but fairly predictable, and I enjoyed watching Miguel crest each wave in front of me before disappearing entirely into the trough of the next. A few turns and boulders kept it spicy, and I nearly went inverted a few times but managed to stay dry-side up with the judicious application of luck, paint-peeling vulgarity, and desperate, unskilled thrashing. At the end of the rapid, we eddied behind a boulder and caught our breath. “See?” Miguel grinned. “We got this!” The next rapid, however, was the one I was worried about: the infamous Kitchen Sink.

As soon as we heard the water pick back up, we headed for shore to scout the notorious rapid. The boulders were huge, and the water was churning between them like nothing I’d tried to run before. It looked like the best line was river left, but the rapids looked incredibly powerful, and the holes looked deep enough to swallow a raft full of tourists, not to mention my tiny tangerine torpedo. Still, we decided to give it a try, one at a time. And since I lost the coin toss, I went first.

Paddling hard left, I barely cleared the boulder, then dropped into the first hole. And dropped. And dropped. The underwater racket was incredibly violent, resonating inside my head as I waited to surface. Then I realized I was upside down. I rolled back up just in time to find that I was facing backwards down the river, and dropped immediately into another hole.

It didn’t take long for me to weigh my options and bail out. As I bobbed to the surface, paddle in one hand, boat in the other, I bounced off of a boulder and flopped into another hole, where I endured another beating before the river spit me out and I kicked for shore through more large, fast-moving waves, numbed by the freezing water, coughing, and totally freaked out.

My eyes weren’t working right, and I started to panic until I realized one of my contacts had washed out during one of my dunkings. Miguel was waiting to help me out of the water and pull my boat ashore, and for once he wasn’t laughing. “That looked bad,” he said. “You got worked over.” Luckily, I was fine, except for my shattered confidence and total lack of depth perception with only one eye.

It could have been worse. Bear Trap Canyon is far more remote than the roadside Gallatin or Yellowstone runs, and it would be a long hike out, especially with a major injury. Miguel decided not to tempt fate, and so he walked his boat around the Sink. No reason for both of us to get run through the disposal.

Downriver there was one more rapid, Green Wave, that I had already decided I was walking around. At the first sound of whitewater, I paddled in and found the path that paralleled the shore. I tromped along, carrying my kayak over my head, relieved not to try my luck again in another unfamiliar rapid. And then I found the snake.

Or rather, the snake loudly announced its presence by issuing a series of blood-curdling rattles. I couldn’t see the scaly, beady-eyed source of my most recent heart palpations, but I did what any rational, snake-fearing person would do: I threw the kayak as far as I could down the trail, screamed, and ran away with my neoprene skirt dancing about my waist like a tutu as I pirouetted around trees and high-stepped over snaky-looking roots, innovating moves that would in any other circumstance qualify me for reality television. Eventually—calmed by the therapeutic qualities of interpretive dance—my voice returned to a post-pubescent octave, I grabbed a large beat-stick, and marched back to retrieve my boat from the snake.

At the Warm Springs take out, a group of hardy tubers were preparing to brave the cool water when we wearily made landfall. Miguel handed me a beer and a sandwich, and said, “Well, that was… fun.” I thought about it for a minute, chugged my beer, and finally agreed. After all, some days you’re feeling flush, some days you’re getting flushed. That’s just the way it works.