The Midnight Run

Don’t trust the stories of river guides…  They are a rough and tumble rabble known for their ability to wildly exaggerate their skills and abilities while on a river.  Don’t believe this story of “The Midnight Run”…  It features a surging Class III and IV torrent and an escapade on the night of the new moon…  starlight, starbright…

Rafting brings me joy.  I love the activity, but I actually value the river more.  Living on its edge…  Captaining a 14’ raft down a canyon full of surging whitewater…  Sitting in the evening on the edge of the water watching birds and bats soaring above the river capturing the hatch of insects emerging from the gurgling and bubbling stream.  And then there is the sensory experience of the night usually enjoyed by resting on a pad watching the stars sweep across the heavens.

We were a group of river guides along a high desert river in central Oregon…  Living the vagabond life.  We were friends who had shared our river with others…  We provided the vision and verbal guidance to blast through towering waves and plunge over drops into surging holes…  We had told many tales and we were about to live another one on that special night with a new moon…  

When the moon disappears in the high desert once a month, it is truly a spiritual experience.   The crescent moon vanished.   The city lights are nowhere to be seen…  There is the sky above and when one looks above on the night of the new moon, there are the stars…  incredible stars…  twinkling and dancing in the heavens above.   It takes your breath away and stirs the soul.  Add a river to this sweeping skyward scene and you are swept away… literally.

We’re raft guides and good friends…  We trust each other and feel the attachment to the stars that are inspiring our hearts and minds.  We know the rapids of this river like a spider knows its web.   We have studied the pathways through the rapids…  We know the rocks and ledges and bubbling cataracts of the watercourse.  The beauty of our environment that night inspired dreams linking rafting, friends, the stars, and of course, the river….   We talked and decided to do something wild.

I recommend that my readers never do what we did that night.  A whitewater river has many ways of submerging you or banging you up even in the daylight.  At night, the hazards of a whitewater river reach up from the depths and it is easy to wind up terribly hurt or worse when the gods of the river see it as your time…  Don’t do what we do….

We gathered at midnight.  We were the crazy people of the river - adventurers drawn by celestial starlights to the river’s edge.  In the darkness we circled up, joined hands, and then we clambered into a raft and pushed off into the swirling current on a night of absolute blackness.  Perhaps absolute blackness is an exaggeration of that evening…  We could ‘see’.  Not across the river, but the night sky was filled with pinpoint lights of a million stars flickering and allowing enough starlight to guide us forward.  Jeff was our captain that night.  

After jumping in and shoving off we had ten minutes of moving swiftwater before our first rapid would appear so we practiced our teamwork and told a few stories of river monsters and UFO’s.  We joked away our nervousness noting the familiarity of working our paddles, yet finding ourselves disoriented by spinning in the current toward our whitewater destiny just downstream.  I was in the front right of the boat - a favorite place to hit obstacles first whether they be towering waves or the faces of a rocky cliff.

It did not take long and we could hear the first big rapid long before we reached it.  Out of the darkness came a roar of waters colliding with giant immovable boulders awaiting us around a hard right turn….  We could kind of see each other as dark silhouettes in the starlight..  We heard the commands to paddle left..right… back-paddle…  I took a wave in the chest, we bounced off a rock in the darkness and then we were through…   

Almost immediately, what was I making out ahead - an outstretched gnarly monster perhaps?   We were pushed to the right bank when I could barely make out a giant being with tentacles and hands emerging from the darkness as we spun in the current…  It was reaching for me!!!  “Hey friends…  LOOK OUT!!!”   I called out just as the raft passed under a tree with extended, naked branches rearranging our hairstyles and scratching our faces in the darkness.  We passed through and moved quickly downstream to our next challenge.

The next major rapid we were faced with is called Boxcar or Trainhole.  It is rumored a freight train once derailed into the river with a portion of the train vanishing forever into the swift waters.  There is a pour-over hole in the river there that is famous for flipping rafts and taking swimmers deep into the hole following a pourover.  Jeff tried hard to keep us lined up in the darkness, but as we reached the brink, we were turned a bit to the left and plunged into the heart of the maelstrom.  As my face was buried in a wall of water, I could feel myself slipping into the depths pulled by the unseen forces of the hole.  But I was a stubborn river guide and grabbed the center line just as I was about to exit the raft…  I survived along with my comrades and we kept floating downstream.

The next stretch of river is a place loved by fly fisher folk as it is quieter and passes through camping areas and has one lodge with a landing along the river's edge.  We were accustomed to the darkness by then and found it easier to pay attention to the constellations spinning overhead.  It was such a spectacle with the sounds of the river moving forth and the intensity of the overhead sky show lighting our way.  As we proceeded, I sensed a being in the murky darkness ahead.  Suddenly, the edge of the river erupted as a pair of mule deer jumped back  from the shallows not expecting a visit by yahoo rafters at 1am in the morning.   We waved as we passed.

In daylight, it is easy to see the most significant rapid in this stretch of the river when you can see a wall of vegetation climbing the hillside.  Much of it is poison oak.  The vegetation and spring is aptly called Oak Springs and nature has carved a complicated whitewater extravaganza on a blind curve in the river.  A rocky island splits the river with the right side hosting a large drop over a ledge into a turbulent hole known to eat kayakers and flip rafts end over end.  At night we knew it should be there, but none of this was obvious except for the roar of colliding waves and blurs of whiteness illuminated by stars where rocks were being pounded by surging whitewater.  A rock garden with sharp boulders and narrow channels follows the island and the main drop.

Each of us knew that this drop would be the moment of reckoning.  River landmarks would be few.  The island would try to bounce our raft into the main cauldron.  Swimming through the rock garden often leaves swimmers with cuts and scrapes at the best of time.  Winding up as a swimmer in the main hole usually means being recirculated in the tight eddy just below the main falls.  It was darker than we hoped.  We all hooted and hollered to bolster our courage and then hoped Jeff would find a way…  I have a memory of that run where I looked to my right into an abyss of foam below me as we passed upright through the tightest part of the run.  Frantic maneuvering immediately after the drop led us through the tortuous rock garden until we were past the chaos and calmness again surrounded us again.  As we realized we had survived Oak Springs in the darkness, a river dance commenced with only one of us falling overboard as we celebrated our feat and survival.

Now there is a Class VI waterfall downstream.   Shearer’s Falls would end any trip - day or night - in a bad way.  We had no interest in adding to the lore of people who accidentally have run this waterfall.  Our takeout at Sandy Beach is a much more forgiving ending to the Midnight Run.  The excitement of running the river at midnight on the night of a new moon was a memorable achievement, but it was the quieter stretches and views of the stars that have lingered in my river memories most vividly since.  It is not an adventure I would necessarily do again, but it was a fascinating night letting the river waters propel us into the void.  But please recognize, river guides tell many tales and not all of them are necessarily true.

- Kelly Smith, Chapter Outings Chair