The Most Frightening Whitewater Kayaking Experience In 8 Years Of Class V Boating

Prologue: I wrote this true story for Dennis Squires’ wilderness adventures book. Unfortudently Dennis died paddling in NZ several years ago so its unlikely this story will ever see print. I am posting it here instead.

First Decent of Augers Falls

You can see the tiny eddy in the crack of the rock at the top left.  The water level was much higher when Mike made his first descent.
Ever have such a bad experience boating that you could hardly talk about it or write about it for years. An event that instilled so much fear in your being that it would fundamentally shift the way you kayaked forever? Mike Burns and I had an experience like this several years ago on the Middle Branch of the Sacandaga in Upstate NY.

I had the kind of reputation that you really didn’t want to have in the kayaking community. People thought of me as a half-crazed suicidal mediocre boater who was willing to throw himself off anything and didn’t mind spending 25% of his time in crutches. My ego was bloating and my head was rapidly getting too big for my nerdy old-school Cascade helmet. Everywhere I went people seemed to know who I was, or at least had heard stories about how mentally unbalanced I was. When I was on the rivers, boaters would politely try to avoid me. Mike and I always had fun and spent very little time thinking about what other boaters though of us. After all, those were their issues not ours, right?

It was an overcast kayaking day like any other. Mike and I kayaked down the Boreaus at a low flow and were still game for another run at 3:00 PM when we took off. Another boater recommended The Middle Branch of the Sacandaga which he said would be at a good flow and had a handful of class V drops as well as some good class III boogie water. I quickly checked in the guidebook and there looked to be 2 sections to it, both around 7 miles long. This is where the mistakes started piling up.

Mistake #1) I just scanned the guidebook entirely missing the part about the heinous unrunnable drop that needed to be portaged. I would reread this book later and wonder how I managed to miss it.

Mistake #2) It was late in the day and I conned Mike into shuttling both parts, a total of 14 miles of boating. Even at top speed with no scouting or mishaps it still would have been dark well before we hit the takeout. Mike and I both enjoyed nighttime Class V boating. If you’re going to get stupid, you might as well be as stupid as you can get.

We put on the river and ran a bunch of little waterfalls that were less than 15’ with quick scouts. We hit a knarly drop on the first half that Mike ran and I walked. It was a long slide with some big holes and this incredible rooster-tail flume that shot up 10’ at the bottom. Mike screamed down the slide at Mach I, bunched a huge hole in the center barely slowing him down and then launched his boat 10’ into the air of the rooster-tail and landed with the nicest ‘poof’ sound I’d ever heard. The whole run took about 3 seconds and he was going so fast I could hardly turn my head fast enough to keep up with him. We found out later that even Dennis Squires didn’t run this drop, which was our litmus test for insanity. If Dennis wouldn’t run it or hesitated about running it then it qualified as real class V. Everything else was class III in our eyes. On the 2nd half of the run we paddled 3 miles for totally flat water. There was hardly a ripple and the sun had set long before. Suddenly things started to pick up. First it was class II, then class III and before we knew it we were running little 4-6 foot drops. I eddied out around a corner and said to Mike “Dude, its getting pretty fast in here and there’s not many places to stop maybe we should scout”. Mike reassured me in his awkward way by just pealing out of the eddy back into the river. We went over a couple more drops and came around the corner. I saw Mike facing upstream in his Mongoose kayak and paddling as if the back of his boat was on fire. My jaw dropped as I was confronted with the biggest damn horizon line I had ever seen in my life. The water was roaring like a freight train and the drop was so huge that I could see no mist at all off the bottom. Off in the distance I saw about ½ mile of solid class V in a very steep canyon. I did what any boater would do in this situation. I turned around and paddled like my life depended on it. The problem was that the water was moving fast and there was absolutely NO EDDIES. It felt like a bad dream. Mike saw what might be a tiny eddy that would fit only one boat at the very top of the fall. At the last second in a valiant act of self-sacrifice Mike spun his boat around and ran the drop forwards. Immediately after he dropped over I heard a loud crash and a short yell. As I was paddling upstream frantically and sinking closer to the edge headed for the tiny crack in the rock. It was a micro-eddy that was just big enough for one boat. The only way to get into it would to let my boat start to drop over the falls and then to paddle my boat up into the crack. If I dropped off while trying to get into the eddy I’d be running to whole drop backwards. I decided to risk it. My boat started to drift over the edge and the angle tilted down. I looked over my shoulder and I did not like what I saw. The total drop was about 80 feet and the first drop was over 35 feet onto solid rock with no pool. I paddled harder and more focused than I ever have in my life for over 30 seconds. I just hung on the edge for what seemed like an eternity, then the Y slowly started to climb back up into this tiny eddy. This is where the real problems began. All the water in the eddy was was coming up from underneath and then flowing out the top over the falls. I had to keep paddling just to stay in the crack. The sides of the crack were shear rock that went up 4-5 feet above the water. As soon as I stopped paddling the boat would drift quickly back over the edge. The crack was only 8 feet long and it would take less than 5 seconds to drift back over the drop unless I kept paddling. I was panicking in a major way. As soon as I stopped paddling I would start drifting back before I even had a chance to pull my skirt. The eddy was deep, too deep to stand in, if I managed to pull my skirt I’d be over the drop before I could get out of the boat. I spent the longest 5 minutes in my life paddling up into this crack trying to figure out what to do. I knew Mike was in trouble and I had so much adrenaline coursing through my body I was about to explode. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I threw my paddle up onto shore, pulled my skirt and jumped out of the boat all in one move. I grabbed a tree root with one hand and then grabbed the bow loop of the Y with the other as my boat fell over the drop. I slowly pulled my boat back up and threw it out onto land then grabbed my throw rope and started running down the gorge. As I was running down this slippery goat path and calling out Mike’s name I became more in tune with the severity of the situation. The first drop was bad truly unrunnable without severe damage to boat and body. Beyond that there was 2 other drops no sane man would want to run either. There was about ½ mile of solid class V with plenty of huge boulders and logs in it that was quite steep and non-stop. This section would have been fun to paddle and really, really bad to swim in. There was no Mike, no boat, not paddle. I remember the overwhelming fear about Mike being dead or pinned and then I realized that I was never going to find anyone else that I enjoyed paddling more with than Mike. Actually my exact thought was that I would never find anyone who was crazy enough to put up with my shenanigans. I imagined having to tell Karen and his 2 children Misha and Jessica about what happened. My heart sunk down into my feet as the chances of him being alive seemed slim at best. After going about 1/2 of a mile down I saw him crawling out of the river. He was crawling and could barely talk. All my EMT training went out the window as I hugged him violently and asked how he was. He thought his leg was broken, and the flesh was missing from his fingertips. He had run the first drop and smashed up the front of the Mongoose pretty good. On the 3rd drop that was a horseshoe-shaped hole his skirt blew as he dropped into it and he swam most of ½ mile of class V. He was so freaked out that he was trying to pin himself on the upstream sides of rocks. The swim was so bad that he clung so tightly to the rocks that as the current pulled him off, much of the skin at the end of his fingers was left behind. His body was bruised and broken so I told him to wait there as I ran to the road for help. It was dark and cold and it turned out he could walk so he limped out just behind me.

After about a mile we hit the road and I just stood out in the middle of the road and stopped the first car that went by. I told her there had been an accident and asked for a ride to our car. She had 2 crying children, but was still nice enough to drive us to my car. Once we got there we realized my car had a flat tire and she was a real saint and drove the other way 14 miles from where she was going to help us get back to Mike’s truck. I remember Mike getting undressed and being amazed at how much of his body was bruised. The next day we hiked back in and returned to Augers Falls. We took pictures of the falls and marveled that anyone could possibly have survived running it, a falls that totaled about 50 feet with 2 drops you would definitely NOT want to run and a 3rd that was just plain sketchy. We had a nice paddle out and found Mike’s Mongoose, which had been all smashed up from the first drop. His paddle was never found, but we were both just happy that Mike was alive and could paddle another day.

Epilogue: After 5 years of chronic hair-boating Karl finally decided to get a psychiatrist. He found out that all his suicidal tendencies revolved around unresolved issues he had with his parents. After joining an emotional support group for recovering hair-boaters Karl now has a reasonably well-adjusted life near Ithaca NY and enjoys his time with his son.

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