There are about 20 men and women wearing helmets and neoprene spray skirts scrambling around a small basalt island in the middle of a thundering Snake River. There’s a rainbow of plastic scattered around, too. Their kayaks come in all hues: red, yellow, green, blue.
Most of them are crowded near the north side of the island. They’re staring at a place where the river curls through a slot and disappears within itself in a fit of frightening foam. They’re waiting for someone among them to muster enough courage to test these waters, but at 17,000 cubic feet per second Pair-a-Dice rapid is a solid, if short, class V. It is intimidating.

A man with a red helmet and ample crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes taps me on the shoulder. “This is great,” he says. “What a day. Where else can you paddle Grand Canyon-scale whitewater as a day trip?”

The span of Hansen Bridge is visible just downstream connecting two vertical basalt cliff walls. It dangles some 350 feet above the river and marks the beginning of the next test, a rapid called Let’s Make a Deal, where basalt columns rise from the riverbed creating five distinct doors through which to pass. Door two, says the man with the red helmet and crow’s feet, is safest.

But I’m happy, for the moment, to be off of the river’s surging currents and 10- to 20-foot waves, merely staring at its scale and power. Kayaking a river with the size and gradient of the Snake River in Murtaugh Canyon has been a renewed lesson in an ongoing education that focuses on one of the most important life metaphors. Control is an illusion. Only by working with a river’s currents and whims can a boater enjoy success. The bigger the river, the truer this lesson holds.

Building a Canyon

The Snake River in Murtaugh Canyon doesn’t often flow except for the couple hundred cfs released from an Idaho Power hydro facility. At a place called Milner, where the river first drops from the flats of the Snake River Plain into a small basalt gorge, the river is diverted to the north and south in large irrigation canals. The one on the south is the one that returns water to the river via the hydro electricity generation plant. This spring, however, there is ample carryover from last summer’s irrigation season, and the managers of the reservoirs on the upper Snake have opened the gates, letting the huge whitewater runs of the Snake River Canyon come to life for the first time in years.

Despite the modern-day trickle that usually passes for a river among the basalt ramparts of the Snake River Canyon, the geologic wonder of the canyon was built by water. When the world’s second most powerful flood poured from the Great Salt Lake over Red Rock Pass into what is now Idaho it found a chink in the desert’s basalt armor at Milner. The Bonneville Flood scoured the canyon for six weeks 15,000 years ago, moving house-size boulders and digging the canyon 100 to 200 feet deeper than it once was. All told, 1,128 cubic miles of water crashed through southern Idaho, carving out Murtaugh Canyon, Auger Falls and Shoshone Falls–a thunderous cascade taller than Niagra.

The canyon was a true impediment to early travelers. Washington Irving recounts the canyon’s early exploration in “Astoria or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains.” He describes five explorers aboard canoes discovering the Snake River Canyon for the first time.

“The wreck struck the rock with one end, and, swinging round, flung poor Clappine off into the raging stream, which swept him away, and he perished. His comrades succeeded in getting upon the rock, from whence they were afterward taken off.

“This disastrous event brought the whole squadron to a half, and struck a chill into every bosom. Indeed, they had arrived at a terrific strait that forbade all further progress in the canoes, and dismayed the most experienced voyageur.

“The whole body of the river was compressed into a space of less than thirty feet in width, between two ledges or rocks, upward of two hundred feet high, and formed a whirling and tumultuous vortex, so frightfully agitated as to receive the name of ‘The Caldron Linn.’ Beyond this fearful abyss the river kept raging and roaring on, until lost to sight among impending precipices.”

Today’s Snake River

In the first mile below Milner, the river constricts and drops at close to 100 feet per mile, producing a true class V experience fit for focused expert kayakers only. Settled within basalt canyon walls, the river then works on lazily toward the ominous horizon of Caldron Linn. It is several miles below this unrunnable waterfall that Murtaugh Canyon begins near the weathered agrarian hamlet by the same name.

Murtaugh Canyon is undeniable world-class whitewater. It has the rare combination of steep gradient, breathtaking scenery and lots of water—when it has water at all.

Since 1905, irrigation has largely dried the Snake below Milner from April through October. Canal companies are required to leave only 220 cfs in a river channel that can easily accommodate 50,000 or more. But the 57-mile reach of the Snake River from Milner to Hagerman is resilient. It gradually gains from several small tributaries, but more so from the plethora of cold-water springs that emerge from the basaltic water table of the Snake River Plain to the north. This poorly understood system of underground pockets and channels is among the largest fresh water aquifers in the world. By the end of Murtaugh Canyon, where the river is swallowed by yet another reservoir before tumbling over huge waterfalls near Twin Falls, freshwater springs pour from vertical cliff walls on the north side of the canyon. Farther downstream, in Hagerman, the cold, clean water from these springs gives life to the United States’ largest trout farming industry.

The Snake River is a true working river. It quenches the thirst of nearby residents. It feeds irrigation canals and greens the desert. It produces power that helps keep lights on at night. And it puts trout on dinner tables the world wide. But these benefits come at a price. The Snake River Canyon is a testament to the raw power and resilience of Mother Nature. But as the uses of this famed river multiply, the river has vanished. It is polluted with agricultural runoff and, most of the time, consists of nothing much more than a trickle.

This spring, however, things are different.

When we put on the river near the town of Murtaugh earlier today, we didn’t really know what to expect. My friend had run the river before but didn’t remember much. A quick scout of the rapids from a bridge near the put-in showed waves and obstacles similar to those we’d paddled before. But speed, scale and power can be deceiving from a perch high above a river.

When we let the current pry at our boats we were quickly whisked downstream into those same features we’d scouted moments before. Waves were easily 10 feet tall, perhaps as high as 20, and we couldn’t see downstream except when atop a huge, breaking crest. What I saw from those crests wasn’t encouraging. The river continued in that fashion for as far as eyes could see.

As instinct typically prompts, I fought the wild currents for a while before realizing the struggle was futile. The river would do what it wants. Mine was a job of working with the river to ensure safe passage. That means staying loose and confident, letting the river spin you when it wants and correcting such unexpected alterations with patience and humility.

But Pair-a-Dice is a little different. There’s a life-threatening recirculation on the north side of the river with which no sane river runner would flirt. And there’s nervous chatter among the paddlers lingering at the island’s edge.

Then, it happens. A man drags his boat to the island’s edge and snaps himself in. He takes a few paddle strokes, braces off a big lateral wave, then disappears in the froth, surfacing some 25 feet downstream, upside down. After a few failed attempts, he rights himself and paddles to shore below the rapid.

Then one after another, the kayakers roll the dice at Pair-a-Dice, vanishing in the tempestuous torrent before paddling on. My companion elects to run the drop. I carry my boat across the island and plunge over a 10-foot cliff into the current below.

When we reconnect downstream in a reach of towering breaking waves leading into Let’s Make a Deal, his helmet and clothing are askew.

“How was it?” I ask.

“I’m not sure,” he says. “I don’t really know what happened.”

“Did you come through upright?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t think so, but I didn’t roll. I think the river flipped me back over.”

After picking our way through the second door at Let’s Make a Deal, we arrive at a place where the entirety of this 17,000 cfs torrent drops over a river-wide ledge and then builds in a 20-foot-tall glassy wave that stretches from bank to bank. I turn my back to the wave and paddle forward, then lett the wave and gravity work in the upstream direction as I coast onto the curl and feel the hull of the boat rise onto a smooth hydroplane. I surf there for a while, a 15 mile per hour current passing beneath the hull, and I smile.

Only by working with a river’s currents and whims can a boater enjoy success. And sometimes success is defined as using the river’s strength to let you do what you want.

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Ed. note: I discovered on Monday that an east Idaho boater died on the Murtaugh on Sunday, April 19, the day after our trip. Read the Times News newspaper account here. For a video news report from Twin Falls KIDK TV click here.