Moonlight bores a hole into our camp as we wrestle loads to the boats. We launch at first light. While the Bruneau River is fed by snowmelt from the Jarbidge Mountains, the water is warmed to 70 degrees by the sun-baked rock. Immediately the overhanging canyon walls engulf our small rafts. In contrast to the desert above, we paddle through a lush grotto. The curtains of basalt are laced with wispy strands of vegetation, peaked by volcanic hoodoo spires, and ruled by raptors. We watch eagles, owls, hawks, kestrels and falcons perform aerial acrobatics above our rafts.
Running at just below 500 cfs, the river vacillates between placid and technical boulder gardens. We split our time in tranquil awe and on-the-edge-of-our-seat maneuvering. Our reality becomes clear: Surrounded by vertical walls, to abandon the river we would either need a rack ready to tackle 5.10 climbing or run the river to its take out.
Near the end of the run lays a five-mile section of sustained class-IV paddling called, simply enough, “five-mile.” While we had hoped to position ourselves to run it by 4 p.m., we were late. Lower water translated to slower paddling. Milking the most of the day, we paddle into the first set of rapids at 6 p.m.
The canyon narrows and the river disappears. I quicken my pace, pick a line and maneuver in, around and over the sharp rocks. A paddle in the water translates to forward traction. Exhilarated, I turn to see how Chris is faring, but all I see is the black bottom of his raft tossing over the big water. I hear Chris shouting. It was either the paddle or the raft—he was asking me to catch his raft.
Chris entered the first drop and immediately ran his boat’s nose up on a rock. He was then immediately sucked back into the eddy’s rinse cycle, flipping his boat upside down while still securely in it. Running it upside down, he was putting our decision to use bike helmets as paddle helmets to the test.
Shaken but not stirred, he caught his raft and resituated, and I led a route between two rocks that are quickly blocked by a split boulder. Unable to maneuver quickly enough, my boat wedges in the crack. Water immediately starts to suck over the spray skirt.
Taking the same path, Chris is quickly faced with the same situation. “You don’t want a part of this fun,” I share. He bounces off my boat, pushing me deeper into the splitter. My port-side sucks under, catching the full force of the flow. I pull out of the skirt and immediately suck under boat and into the crack. I kick frantically and finally surface long enough to grab onto solid rock and pull myself on top of the erratic.
My boat completely wrapped around the rock, I look at Chris only to see him fumbling with his camera. He looks up and flashes a grin and a thumbs-up.
I finally pry my boat from the river’s grip, point it downstream and launch myself off the four-foot boulder like I’m dropping into the bucking chute. While my dismount scores aesthetic points, the force pops the horseshoe-shaped seat in half. I paddle the rest of the evening by Braille, reading every hidden rock with my tailbone. Rather than pushing it further, we choose to make camp for the night and let the anxiety of the day’s events wash over us before tomorrow’s paddle.
Now fully educated in the school of scouting, we start the next day with a cup of coffee and a walk downstream. With water levels dropping each day, these rapids are quick and fun with small pools between them. As we descend, the steep walls give way to the hot, arid, sagebrush desert. We stop to scout the last class-IV, Wild Burro. Not willing to be taken for a ride, I make the easy portage to its left and watch Chris have a discussion with his inner youth. In the end, we both agree the trip is early and we’ll have plenty of opportunity for big water.
By noon we paddle up to our cache and make the transition from boats to bikes. Of course, our first stop is the Bruneau general store, where we stock up on fluids and snacks and grouse about with the store’s owner.
Outside the store, the thermometer reads 100…in the shade. Once on the road, we’re drinking upwards of two liters of water an hour without urinating. We ride from township to township to keep the reservoirs filled and throw electrolytes back by the fistful to counter the frequent heat and exhaustion cramps. Chris, an exercise physiologist who specializes in thermoregulatory physiology, is great fun on junkets like this. He’s quick to illustrate why we hurt and shares how close to the limit we’re pushing it. Fifteen miles of paddling, 40 miles of riding and our first significant transition, we finally stop to make camp next to the Blair Trail Reservoir below Bennett Mountain. Chris turns to me and says, “And that’s only day two!”