Falling Big for the Little White
The spirit of a legendary river beckons kayakers to the edge
Like any living thing, the river changes. During the winter, one may find it swollen and pushing to escape its borders. In summer months, it may dry up to a stream. It dances to its own rhythm through the forests that line its banks. But the secrets that lie beneath the river’s surface truly arouse its spirit.
Jesse Bierman and friends carry their gear to the river to put in.
The Little White Salmon River is breathtaking; its icy blue waters roar over boulders and falls. But the river is legendary for more than its looks. Frigid temperatures, swift currents, sudden drops, and hidden caves make this river a joy ride for some and a deathtrap for others. The Little White, which flows into the Columbia River Gorge about an hour east of Portland, Oregon, is only for true Class V kayakers.
Spirit Falls, the run’s highlight, is a dangerous thirty-three-foot plunge near the end of the trip. In the last three years, at least five paddlers have broken their backs from landing too flat in the pool beneath the falls. Last summer, a visitor from Norway smashed his face on the rock wall, resulting in a crushed jaw and the need for reconstructive facial surgery. Despite these dangers, the Little White attracts world-class paddlers to its winding, raging current.
Andrew Maser leaves Spirit’s lip.
Before attempting an especially difficult run such as Spirit Falls, it is common for kayakers to scout the drop for any potential hazards and mentally fortify themselves for the experience. Billy Jones, twenty-nine, says he prepares himself by visualizing what he wants to do. “I just close my eyes and imagine,” he says.
Paul Heffernan, thirty-one, says he has no particular ritual before running the falls. “I just have to want to do it. I listen to whatever my body and head are telling me.” Heffernan also says if it weren’t for the “comfortable anxiety” he experiences when kayaking, he probably wouldn’t do it. “I might just hike instead,” he says.
Ben Rieff adjusts for the landing halfway down Spirit Falls.
Jones says he loves kayaking primarily because of the rivers. He believes there is a psychic connection between the human body, which is mostly made up of water, and the river. “How you think affects how you kayak,” says Jones. “Water is receptive to subtle energies. It’s the only medium where you can get that kind of action, you dig?”
Heffernan loves everything about kayaking, from the friends to the forest. “It’s been in my blood for a while. I don’t know how much I need it for my personality, or if my personality needs kayaking. I just love to do it,” he says. Heffernan began kayaking at age fifteen with his father in the waters of the Appalachian Mountains, near his hometown of Bristol, Virginia. Last fall, his father died in a kayaking accident. Yet he can’t imagine not kayaking because the river forms his only connection to his father, he says.
Back on land, Billy Jones reflects on his earlier run.
Many kayakers seem to feel a special bond with the Little White. “It’s easy to get to, and it has unparalleled action,” Jones says. “It’s so good you could do it for years and not be bored.” He says he believes that there is only one other river in the country that compares to the Little White: the Green River near Asheville, North Carolina. “So many kayakers wish they had this kind of quality in their backyards,” says Jones. Heffernan agrees. He says that although the Little White is not his personal favorite, “it’s the best bang for your buck.”
Travis Winn treats a cut with iodine after he smacked his nose with his paddle when he landed the falls too flat.
To safely navigate the Little White, kayakers must take the time to learn its secrets. They must understand the power of the river and its ability to evolve. Most of all, kayakers must respect the river, which holds their lives in its hands.
Spirit Falls is the heart of the Little White for thrill-seekers.
- Online Extra!
- An in-depth look at kayaking the Little White.