The Test

Page 7 of 10
The Big Eddy

Phil Johnston at Orofino suggested the Big Eddy on the Clearwater just 16 miles below town, at Lenore, and we all wanted to paddle as early in June as possible to catch the high water. The site was perfect: 13,000 cfs of water coming around an S curve then dropping into a constriction with standing waves and huge eddies to each side, a safe runout below. In addition, an underwater shelf came about half way across the river from the bank opposite our launch eddy, under the waves, creating some nasty turbulence, boils and small whirlpools. One could hit the near side of the waves and have some pretty straightforward, Class II,1 two- to three-foot standing waves, or go further over, and have more complicated and unpredictable water. Below the waves, because of the shelf, the water was roiled and strong. The eddy line was not very sharp, but it was strong: a 4-knot eddy current2 eighty yards wide, swept up to a sand point and then curved in at right angles to the fast current above the waves. Once in that upper eddy, you were going to be delivered to the river. Yet it was all safe below, and we had a jet boat and kayak backup. Dick Barrett of Missoula and I had organized a crew. Everyone was experienced – several nationally and internationally – in kayak and canoe, and came with wetsuits, lifejackets, paddles and helmets. (Well, I forgot my helmet.) We were ready, but had not a clue what to expect.

Time to find out

On the beach, I outlined how little was known about the dugouts, how Lewis and Clark had ascended the Missouri in May-June high water, and that undoubtedly they had to cross the river often for better cordelling. No one we could find had tried dugouts in demanding conditions. I asked the crews to pay special attention to crossing eddy lines, and upstream ferries. We wanted to know, first, would they have avoided crossing the Missouri except as a last resort, and if they did cross, could they use the upstream eddies or not, how dangerous was it, and how much ground would they lose being swept downstream?

Walt's 18-footer took 3 paddlers, and eased out into the lower eddy. I took a crew of five others in the big 33' canoe. We had those on shore check our trim – we wanted to be pretty much neutral, with weight evenly distributed – and then we moved off shore into the eddy, trying draws and reverses to stop and go and turn and get the feel of the boat. By then we were in the upper eddy, not really by choice, but the boat felt stable and we went with the flow towards the upper eddy line and the main current, counting on decisiveness and top paddlers to handle whatever happened; we entered the main current at moderate speed and ninety degrees (no choice at that point), did not flip (surprise), and turned downstream near the eddy seam paddling hard to gain momentum and stability. The boat was rock solid.

Within thirty minutes the third boat (the 20-footer) was in the water, crews were switching boats and places, and whooping and hollering. Gradually we all tried more action in each boat, ferries through the turbulence, more aggressive crashing through the seam into the fast current, more waves. All day, in 6 hours of paddling, no one went over. At one point I was in the bow of the 20-footer when we surfed upstream for three seconds, bow buried in the foam. We came out of that two thirds full of water – a fair approximation of a fully loaded dugout – and had no problem paddling to shore. The heavy boat was slower to respond, of course, but not notably unstable.

Allan Bergmuller also did extensive poling (hand over hand, not walking) of the 18' canoe in shallow and deep, calm and turbulent water. He stood throughout with no problem (even when rammed amidship by the 33' canoe, which was, shall we say, committed to its line).

Figure 13

Solo Pole

One poling

Allan Burgmuller, an American Canoe Association open-canoe slalom champ, poles the 18-footer through the Clearwater River's Big Eddy.

Figure 14


Two poling

Burgmuller recruits Chuck Anderson for a tandem-poled tour of the Big Eddy.

The last hour of the day we spent paddling down to our eddy from a launch site a mile above. The current there was fast (3-4 knots?) but calm, resembling the fast sections of the Missouri Breaks, and we could try a few things not appropriate in the rapids. The 33' and 20' boats crossed from one bank to the other in an upstream ferry to measure how far they were swept downstream. Not a bit. We each landed at the other bank straight across the river. We had already proved that the trickiest water was no problem. Now we knew also that they could ferry across without losing ground. Why would they not have crossed whenever the opposite bank was even marginally better for cordelling? There may be reasons they did not cross often, but those reasons don't include any incapacity of the dugouts.

Then, as we descended the fast, flat water, we tried some paddling in reverse, in upstream back ferries, as if trying to avoid rocks in the descent by slowing down and moving sideways, a very effective way to position yourself in the river (as a raft does, by rowing back against the current). Some canoes are pretty unstable in this mode. Not the logs. No problem. We have to assume that back ferries were one of their tools in the descent (especially on the Yellowstone in a catamaran). We also tried fast eddy turns in and out of small eddies as we went. No problem. The boats were slow in turning, of course, though the light 18' (800 pounder) was much faster, but once the logs started their turns, the momentum made a nice sweeping finish, with very little rocking. Only once in the stern did I have to do a brief upstream sculling brace, to counteract an early end to the bow's downstream brace.

1. There are six general classifications of river conditions, from a recreational perspective. Class I allows a dreamy, mostly hands-free drift; Class II, with occasional waves that may be as much as 3 or 4 feet high, requires some control of the watercraft; Class III requires a boatman who can cope with rocks, holes, eddies, and sudden drops; Class IV rapids are real soakers, representing the upper level on the "fun scale"; Class V is scary for the best boater because of turbulent currents, treacherous waves, holes, and hidden obstacles; Class VI is off the charts, even for the experts, except during favorable river levels, which rarely occur, even for short periods of time. These classifications, especially the higher ones, are subjective. They are also different in Canada, as we discovered in the Nahanni. Conditions may change within days or even hours.

2. A knot is a measure of nautical speed, equivalent to 1.15 miles per hour. A 4-knot current is flowing at approximately 4.6 miles per hour.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program.