Please enjoy the following journal writing from Dave Brabec about last years Pre-Season trip. This was Dave’s first time on the MFS/MS trip so we figured 8′ on the MF Lodge gauge was as good of flow as any. It’s fun read and great to hear someones perspective that is new to these great sections of river.
“Better than any other table! I love it!” Nelbert, the 77-year-old boats man raved. Jake’s “Fire pan “was a four legged platform 6 inches above the ground to burn your fire on. It allowed the fire plenty of air, cleaned up easy, and could be taken apart to store on one our 16 foot rafts. It’s also required by the ranger who checked our boats and equipment, before allowing us down the Middle Fork of the Salmon. We were pre-season, no commercial trips had begun, and everyone else seemed to have canceled because the river was high, and forecasted to get higher.
Jake was our trip leader and had hand made a lot of the equipment we used. From raft frames to kitchen tables, he had perfected the design through his experiences on the river and his tinkering in his shop. His expertise as a welder of metal and plastic had almost surpassed his reputation as a rafter. But when you live next to the Rogue River and travel the Wild and Scenic portion every month of the year, with trips to Alaska, The Grand, and these 8 days of the Salmon snuck in between, its hard to surpass your reputation as a boats man no matter how ingenious you are at building rafting equipment.
“Jake its so light!” Nelbert had said putting the fire table together. “You took the original design and made it 10 times better!” When you are a 77-year-old rafter like Nels, you are always looking for lighter ways to travel to remain independent. That’s how Jake and Nels had met. Nels had shown up on the Middle Fork by himself, the kayakers he was supposed to meet had never shown up, “so I just loaded up my boat and went by myself.”
As you spend your days on the middle fork you stop and soak in the hot springs alongside the river,
“Nels showed up one day and would camp with us periodically.” Jake said and smiled, “and if you guide as long as Nels has, you learn to be a pretty good cook.”
Nels loved the kitchen Jake had made along with the three collapsible sinks that fit in between the tables. He loved how sturdy they were, how easy they broke down to fit in the raft, how the washing, drying, and storage all fit together. Nels wasn’t the only one; many of the commercial outfits on the Rogue uses Jakes equipment. Jake’s problem is quality, his equipment lasts too long. “They don’t have to buy a new set because it doesn’t break,” Jake said, “it’s kind of a Catch-22 that way.”
Jake and his wife work part time as nurses to supplement their income. They also have better control over their schedules working for the hospital so they can make the raft trips they want. When you call Whitewater Worthy, you don’t get a secretary, you get Jake. If you leave a message, then he’s probably doing a shift at the hospital or on the river. If he doesn’t get back to you that day, then he is probably on a raft trip and it is best to e-mail him. He will call as soon as he gets reception.
Nelbert, the 77-year-old boats man has “been on the river since the sixties!”
He is a smaller man, “I’m only 130 lbs.!” he says when I try to force seconds on him to help finish off our dinner. He is always up early to make coffee and start the fire. His t-shirt says,
“Snackccident-(V)-When I eat all the bacon by accident” Nelbert will bring 8 lbs. of bacon with him on this trip. He also goes to bed early, usually by 7.
The river is high and still rising. Four guys stopped at our lunch spot, its a hot spring with a military tombstone for a WW II vet who died when the culvert he was digging caved on him up to his chest. They found him in the spring. “He survived the war and then came home and died digging a long trench” says Jake.
The four guys who we met were Mormon-they told us they didn’t drink when we offered them a beer-and weren’t prepared; they had gotten stuck on a woodpile and rammed an oar off when they hit a wall on the side of the river. The dad wore a bike helmet. They had fixed the oar tower with raft straps, “They should have brought bailing wire,” says Jake.
Theron and Jake’s boat spotted a wolf on the shoreline getting a drink. He pointed and said, “Wolf!” as it scampered up the hill.
“You see that goat?” I asked Jon who had missed it.
“It was probably a sheep,” he said, “I’ve seen 3 sheep but only one goat floating this river.”
It had been the wolf.
The kitchen is a series of tall metal tables the size of a sitting bench because that’s what you’re actually doing when it’s folded on the raft. The legs can fold out and two tables connect with sliding poles creating a hole between them to hold three collapsible sinks made of raft rubber. Jake made all of these.
One sink is colored brown-for soaking-, one red-for washing-, and one blue-for rinsing-the rinsing sink gets a cap full of bleach. Then the dishes are put in a net bag-also stitched by Jake-that hangs off the side of the table. It is long and narrow so the dishes can air dry. Music from a portable speaker is always playing and people are either gathered here or around the fire. No one complains about the dishes because you get to pick the music, plus the bar is always set up there.
Today I found out Nelbert’s real name is Nels. Forty years ago, he got the new name on a Grand Canyon trip. He is a short man with a slight hunch from age, and he sometimes shuffles when he walks. If I met him on the street, I never would have though he could raft a boat now.
The one give away is his hands. They are large and powerful. Last night he told me I was going to ride with him,
“Need some new conversation!” Nels always talks with an exclamation point if you want to quote him correctly.
This next morning I was really nervous. The river had continued to rise and Nels was the last to be ready. I had to help him put on his dry-suit, the thing you have to wear when rafting in spring. You can wear anything for insulation underneath and then put on your dry suit. It has a large zipper from your right shoulder to your left hip and is airtight. I then helped him with his shoes.
“You have to have shoes that stay on your feet because if you get tossed and lose your boat, you’ll probably have a long walk!” Nels had just taught me how to cook 2 lbs. of bacon all at once in an 8 by 8 pan that morning and when my breakfast eggs I cooked for the group didn’t work out, he told me.
“You let the eggs set up first before putting in the fried peppers and onions, that way they won’t be runny!” Nels is a great cook for rafting trips with multiple people.
But we weren’t cooking breakfast anymore. We were about to get on a river at 8 feet.
“It’s the highest I’ve seen it in 40 years.” Said Jon our 72 year old whose done this trip at least once a year.
Huge trees would float by and the logjams you see high on the bank at mid-summer where being formed now. Before shoving off Nel’s needed a screwdriver, which Theron grabbed for him to adjust his oars. Then Theron and I helped him put on his dry suit which he can’t put on himself. After waiting 45 minutes Nels said he was ready.
“Nels, your life jacket.” Theron reminded him after he said he was ready to go.
“Oh yeah.” he said, as I handed it to him.
We start off and quickly move at 10 M.P.H. without paddling, measured by Jakes phone.
When we hit the first rapid, there was a wave in the middle that would be the tallest of the day. That was the mystery behind every turn, Jake was familiar with the river at normal flows but rarely is it seen at this level and some rapids disappeared while others are newly formed.
Nels began to tell me a story about his buddies not showing up and floating a river by himself last February.
“I flipped with no dry suit,” I wondered if it was because he couldn’t get it on by himself, “I had a real bad swim!”
He was reading the water well as we traveled swiftly down river, “half a mile down river I found an eddy, it was on the wrong side of the river but you take what you can get.” When he made it to shore, he dug himself a small hole and covered himself in leaves and needles to warm up, “The ground is warmer that time of year, like a dog does you know?” He had learned this in his air-force survival training in the 1950’s.
“I then walked a mile back upstream to cross in a safe place, I only swam for a minute and a half then.” He walked another 2 miles with no shoes on until he met some kayakers 75 yards from the parking lot, “they thought I was crazy, they gave me a pair of shoes!”
We came onto the big wave just right. I was sitting in the front and when we hit I put all my weight forward like I was ramming a door, holding on to the straps. Nels ferried right to avoid a large hole that would turn any boat to hit the next rapid. Jake later said he was mad that Nel’s was, “so far right” but I think Nel’s was doing all he could.
“One thing you learn is you never stop flying a plane until it’s tied down!” Yelled Nels as we went through another set of rapids not marked on the map from the high water. Nels had flown some the first military jets in the 1950’s, he wasn’t able to hug the inside corner as well as our float continued down river, he was either fatigued or drinking too much beer but I doubt think it was the beer because he kept complaining about, “not having time to drink!”
Today was the biggest day yet for waves. The river was higher than the day before and unbeknownst to me their was a short discussion amongst some to wait a day. Theron had left his tent up in case the discussion was to lay over.
I didn’t want the details of which rapids they were worried about, the middle fork is so narrow there are few eddies to swim to, or row your boat to, allowing yourself a rescue or a scout for the next rapids. With the water so big you never knew if a logjam was around the corner, large logs had been passing by our camps for the last few days and regularly escorted us down the river.
Every bend of the river meant you rowed to the other side, everyone wants the inside corner where the water is generally slower and the big waves where taking the outside corner where water gathered speed and hit rocks, walls, and caved in on themselves. Water this high created waves usually not there, and this brief moment to exist seemed to spur the waves into an even more menacing if short lived life.
Nels began to tire and his efficiency with the paddles dwindled, a few times he wasn’t strong enough to make the maneuver he was hoping for, giving us larger and larger chunks of those short lived, large, and scary waves.
“This Ain’t No Disco!” Nels yelled after a few harrowing moments when you wondered if the boat was going down the backside of one wave with enough momentum to climb back up the next one. I stood up front bracing my legs on each side, one hand on the front strap of the boat and the other holding on to the strap connected to the folded down table I usually sat on. If any part of the front made it to the top of the wave, I was leaning over the raft to help it continue over, like a roller coaster about to drop. If we went backwards, we could flip.
“Big Wave Dave!” Yelled Nels.
More like “Oh dear God hold on because here comes another giant wave Dave” I thought.
“Those White Water junkies in the Grand canyon need to come to the middle fork in high water! There’s no drop and pool here!” He yelled over the roar of the rapids.
Drop and pool meaning you “drop” into the rapid which ends in a “pool” where you can make a rescue, fetch a boat and reorganize. Today was only drops and no pool for rescue.
Nels would swear, “Goddammit!” every now and then at the river when we came through an especially rough patch.
One time we hit the top of the wave and stalled, this is the moment when things can go bad. Its like mother nature has borrowed lady justice’s scales as you teeter atop the wave-backwards is flip and forward is stay and roll on.
I looked back at Nels, his oar went back making the handle go forward as we momentarily surfed atop the wave.
“Don’t lose your oar or some stupid shit like that!” he had said cruising down the river. He didn’t let go but holding onto the oar meant he was launched out of his seat at the top of this wave.
“I’m only 130lbs!” he had told me.
I grabbed him, while he stood, his right hand still holding the oar. He looked like Superman about to take flight. I held on to him and pushed him back toward his seat.
“Thanks goddammit!” He yelled.
At the confluence of the middle fork and the main Salmon, the middle fork grew by a third but the river became much wider.
Nels pulled over immediately.
“What’s up?” Jake yelled over.
“Firewood!” Yelled Nels. He parked us in a large eddy and we proceeded to add firewood stacking it and bundling it with our rafting straps.
“We’re staying at the end of this road,” he pointed to a dirt single lane road above us, “There ain’t no firewood at that campground!”
Nels is always tending the fire, in the morning he is first up. Coffee and a fire are always going.
Sometimes he hides some firewood by his tent at night.
“So they don’t burn it all!” He proclaims, “Then I got to go looking for it!” He points a long strong finger at me like a preacher in a pulpit,
“Nope, can’t have that!”
He carries a bucket and gathers smaller pieces with it, the same bucket he pees in at night so he doesn’t have to go to the river, a tough journey for a 77-year-old rafter at night.
Nels showed me how to cook bacon 2lbs at a time in an 8 by 8 pan all at once.
“You cook at low heat, fat side down” he instructs, giving a little secret only river guides who cook for 20 years know, “cover it and let the water evaporate slowly, separate it then, when its sitting in its own grease, turn up the heat and take the cover off.”
It worked like a charm, perfect bacon all at once.
“Nine pounds at once is the record!” he proclaims.
That night he cooked Apple Blow Out cake after his dinner of baked potatoes and roast beef, “got to use green apples or the whole thing goes to shit!”
He had me fry the green apples in brown sugar and butter.
“Best if you use maple syrup!”
He moves around the kitchen showing and telling people what to do, there are no second guessers, who nod every time he gives us instructions.
One of Nels favorite rules is “Don’t throw away any food until the end of the trip.”
But we regularly throw it away when he’s not looking. Since he cooked this meal, we have to check about his leftovers. Kelsey and I have come up with a theory. Nels has Cute Girl Syndrome. This means if a cute girl asks him for something he always says, “Yeah Sure.” If anyone else asks, then he gives an honest answer. I elect Kelsey to ask Nels about his leftovers but Theron goes ahead by himself and asks. He returns with directions to save the roast beef and sauce, which came out of a can with an expiration date of 2 years ago.
“Theron!” We yell, “We had a strategy, use the cute girl!” We point at Kelsey.
“If Kelsey had asked to throw it away, we would be putting it on the fire!” Kelsey nods and laughs, “Theron! We had a strategy!”
We don’t help him find storage for the roast beef; something harder to do each evening with all the leftovers Nels is asking us to keep.
Jake built his raft frame, stove, tables, groover, and other things too numerous to name for this trip holds court around the fire table. He planned our trip and does all he can to make sure its safe but no one can predict 8 ft. of flood stage water. That’s the one thing you realize when the plane drops your stuff off. There’s no turning back or early exit. There is literally one way out and that’s down the river. He shows us all how to call 911 on the Satellite phone.
“Ask for a short haul helicopter,” he says, “We are down from Whiplash and talk fast, you may only have 30 seconds of reception.”
A few miles down we find an overturned catamaran floating in an eddy. Its oars are ripped off and a seat is bent back, but its still well inflated. We flip it back right side up and Jake and Theron put on oar rings. Someone mentions being happy not to find a body when it flips back right side up. We take our spare oars strapped to the boats and paddle it down to a private residence 5 miles down river. We hear it is from the middle fork and they don’t know about survivors.
For our last night we camped on a hill with a slight incline, game trails came in to our camp like half a wagon wheel. On our fourth night we had camped at the confluence of the middle and the main Salmon. A single lane dirt road came from over the hillside to end at where we camped. A single car camper was parked above and he got madder and madder as we unloaded our gear on the shore. Eventually he slammed his doors and left in a huff. He could have joined us and heard tales of our harrowing day or anything involving Nels, a true ambassador of travel, friends, and family but instead he drove off leaving a pair of nice shoes and socks.
The next morning we load the boats for the last time. We scout the only rapid of the trip, mostly because there was no way to scout the others. Everyone makes it through and when we reach the take out dissemble the boats and load them into our trucks. We say our good byes and soon are on the road. When we pass through Riggins, the first town, we stop to watch a commercial trip try to take some rapids. The first raft flips and we see the passengers all hold on to the side of the upside down raft. When we cross a bridge over the little Salmon, there is a group of people looking from the bridge, one with a walk talkie; the dive team has a truck parked on the side of the road. One person drowns in that river that day, they still haven’t found the body, a second woman drowned there 3 days ago.
Written by Dave Brabec