The first descent of a river most overtly refers to the first time a person succeeds in traveling that river; however, there can be notable first descents in different crafts, on extreme water levels, by people of remarkably young or old ages, and by women or men. Some seek the thrill of being the first ever, others simply end up on a first river descent purely by means of the love of being on the water—or because they hopped in a friend’s car not knowing what they were getting themselves into.
Among those who work and play on rivers, Idaho is informally known as the “white water state” for its number and variety of pristine rivers. From the steep creek drops in the Frank Church Wilderness, to big volume, Colorado River-style rapids of the Snake River, Idaho has it all. It also has a rich history of boaters with the skill and gumption to take on the unknown. Here are some of their tales and, as with all river stories, they are mostly true …
There was a distinct “pop” when Brian Ward, known to the river community as “B Real,” missed his footing with 60 pounds of kayak, camping and safety gear strapped to his back 8 miles into a 12-mile exploration hike. In 2009, Ward—almost always rocking some sort of flashy mullet or colored hairstyle—was on his way to do the first descent of the Upper South Fork of the Payette River from Elk Lake, and the only way to access the then-yet-to-be-run creek was to break through bushes and fallen trees, on and off trails.
The sudden snap of a log sent Ward into a forward projection and what he referred to as “rhino-ing,” in which a kayaker with his kayak and heavy gear load strapped to his back suddenly begins to fall forward and attempts to outrun his fall and avoid “turtle-ing,” in which he falls on his face with his heavy and loaded kayak acting like a giant turtle shell preventing him from getting back up to his feet.
Accompanied for the hike only by close friend and photographer, Mike Leeds, Ward was planning on soloing the creek. Despite the increased stakes of doing a first descent solo with a blown-out knee, Ward decided it was the best option for getting out: sitting and making challenging moves in a kayak would be easier than walking.
The Upper South Fork of the Payette runs through a spectacular and rarely visited amphitheatre, the backside of the Sawtooths towering on river right and the beauty of the Boise National Forest boasting on river left. Smooth granite slides and rippling smaller rapids create a mix of mostly Class II-III whitewater, with a couple of Class IV-V show stoppers mixed in (river difficulty is rated on a scale of I-V, I being the easiest and V being the most challenging).
Ward flowed down the river, recalling what he could from scouting on the hike up and getting out of his boat only when he absolutely needed to. He completed it successfully and recounted, “Having to be responsible for myself and having no one telling me what to do or what decisions to make created a real sense of freedom. I was responsible for everything that happened and my own well-being.”
Making his way down the crystal clear water, Ward found that most of the larger drops were “log choked” with enormous fallen trees, a characteristic of most Idaho creeks that has kept them virtually unrunnable.
“Most of Idaho’s creeks are just filled with wood,” agreed ever-humble Idaho white water legend Ryan Casey, who has done a first descent of an Amazon tributary in Peru, kayaked the world-renowned Class V North Fork of the Payette at its shattering high flow record in 2009, and set a speed record for paddling the 280 miles of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon in 35 hours and 50 minutes.
“But Idaho is unique because of the mileage of runnable whitewater and mileage of runnable white water without dams,” Casey added. “To be able to do something like 400-plus miles on the Salmon with consistent gradient, no dams and no portages, is so rare and it spoils us. But the first descents of some river sections date back earlier than the 1800s to the days of Native Americans in canoes and then Lewis and Clark.”
While the very early inhabitants and explorers of Idaho did navigate some of its rivers, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that water-craft technology for whitewater kayaks and rafts developed to a caliber that allowed the men and women of the West to begin pioneering descents of rivers previously thought to be runnable only by those with death wishes. Rob Lesser, Walt Blackadar, John Dondero and many others began cascading down Idaho’s pristine river canyons in a heyday of exploration, some for the glory of being the first, but most solely fueled by the fun of the emerging sport.
Sun Valley local Whiz McNeal started kayaking in the early ’70s with a group of friends that managed to boat by sharing makeshift equipment such as a hockey helmet, a homemade Visqueen spray-skirt, and two canoe paddles Duct-taped together. McNeal chuckled in recalling that, in terms of first descents, “Nobody talked about that stuff or cared. Everything was a first descent to us, it was all so new that we were just trying to survive.”
Ketchum resident John Dondero still remembers ordering a kit to make his own kayak and try it out. Soon after, in 1973, Dondero and partners started a kayaking manufacturing company, Natural Progression Kayaks, in an old dry cleaner’s shop on Sun Valley Road. The company sparked his career as an inventor and manufacturer; Dondero later founded the extremely successful company Eye Safety Systems (ESS).
Dondero’s quiet smile beamed when he talked about the early days of kayaking, as adventures that couldn’t fully be put into words unfolded. “Kayaking introduced me to so much of Idaho and gave me such an appreciation for the wilderness and backcountry, from the high desert to the mountains,” Dondero said.
He described himself as the “young kid that tagged along” on the first descent of the upper sections of the Owyhee River. A kayaking dentist from Twin Falls had scouted out the Owyhee from his plane. And with little more information than that, Dondero, Blackadar, and a couple of dentists and doctors from Twin Falls and Boise headed in to do the first descent of that remote river.
Taking on first descents in the current day and age, young guns scout and scour remote rivers of the world on Google Earth before running them. Still, in most ways, not much has changed. To do a first descent, one proceeds methodically, as best as possible, by stopping and scouting at horizon lines—sections of river that drop off so steeply that a boater cannot see what is below. Most river pioneers also do some research beforehand so that they know potential access points—areas where they can get out of the river canyon in the event that they happen upon an unrunnable drop that they also cannot carry their boats around.
For the Owyhee, the team scouted what they could by plane, but while running the river, they came upon a surprise 30-foot-wide thundering stair-step falls. A team member was washed over what is now called Wilson Falls, but, luckily, he survived.
Dondero later went on to do the first descent of the Susitna River in Alaska, that, to this day, is one of the most challenging rivers to run in the world. The team and the descent were featured on the ABC show “The American Sportsman.” Helicopters flew overhead and photographers shot from various islands and riverbanks.
Melissa Coriell, one of, if not the, first woman to ever kayak the Susitna during a trip in 2009, found herself calling Idaho’s rivers home as soon as she discovered them. The daughter of a military pilot, Coriell started to learn how to kayak while in college at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Sporting a wool sweater under a wetsuit and wool hat under her helmet, Coriell kept going back to the freezing Colorado rivers, and, despite a lack of warm, waterproof gear, simply fell in love with kayaking. After boating all over the United States, she said that, “Once I came to Idaho, it was the place I always wanted to return to every summer.”
Coriell gravitated to Banks, Idaho, the epicenter of the Payette River system. The North Fork of the Payette is a Class V rumble of steep holes and inconsistent crashing waves. It is a training ground for the best of the best en route to tackling the Everests of rivers around the world. But for Coriell, it just became home. She reached a comfort and skill level such that she could run Jacob’s Ladder—the North Fork’s largest and steepest rapid—at night, under the moonlight. When pressed, she had no idea if she could claim a first woman’s night descent of Jacob’s Ladder, and she really hadn’t thought about it. All she remembered was “the total Zen of the water, and the unique support and humility of the Idaho river-running community.”
Sun Valley’s Sean Glaccum, owner of Payette River Company, was born and raised in just such an Idaho river-running community. He started inflatable kayaking on family river trips around the age of 9 and soon after learned how to roll and paddle a hard-shell kayak. Glaccum remembers at a young age pouring over articles in Paddler magazine and dreaming of first descents, cutting out pictures of newly run rivers and taping them all over his bedroom walls. As he grew as a paddler, he quickly realized how many giants came before him and how a first descent in his home state would be hard to come by.
As soon as he finished high school, Glaccum travelled to Nepal with Guy Robbins, a kayaker he had met on the Payette River, who spoke of the wonders of the virgin rivers of the Himalayas. Along with river pioneer Gerry Moffatt, Glaccum and Robbins completed multiple first descents in Nepal, but Glaccum would still return home looking for something to check off as a first in Idaho.
He completed what he believes is the first raft descent of the Secesh River in Idaho and, ultimately, he did find some first-ever descents, one of which was on Lady Lace Falls on Upper Stanley Lake Creek. The splendor of Lady Lace Falls drops 25 feet. To run it, Glaccum motorcycled up the trail with his kayak on his back, kayaked down a small, tight granite gorge, perfectly ran the waterfall, and then very quickly made the most important and crucial move of the feat, which was getting out before the “Class VII death woodpile” just below the falls.
With the allure of first descents and the purity of exploration, one can’t help but wonder: is there anything left in the raw wilds of Idaho? Many say, laughing, the only one left is Shoshone Falls, a 212-foot waterfall that flows over a 100-foot-wide rim. Currently, Tyler Bradt holds the world record kayak descent of a 189-foot waterfall, so who knows what is possible and what lies ahead?
Others say there are plenty of first descents left out there in the white water state. One simply has to believe in tall tales, have a thirst for adventure, and not be afraid of bushwhacking. Without a doubt, they are out there, but like so many other river stories, their happenings—past, present—and future may stay on the river, only to be told in the humble smiles and bright eyes of those floating by.