The first time Fred Norquist asked me if I could make it out to shoot some photos with him and his crew, I couldn't. Now, after this fine thursday June 9, 2011, I swore to myself a silent and solemn oath. To never second guess myself when that inkling of a feeling that something big might happen comes. Because this day, something big happened.
I wouldn't have guessed while sitting in the cafe La Vie en Rose in downtown Bellingham at noon that in less than 4 hours I'd be thigh-deep in the frigid rushing waters of the northfork of the spring-swollen Nooksack River. Clutching rocks for dear life with my sleeves rolled up, another second guessing session approaches my mind while trying to navigate a mere 20 feet of river to get to my shot spot. Forced to cross about 100 yards from the final of three falls on beautiful Racehorse Creek, I still can hear nothing but the oceanic rushing roar of what seems like a few million gallons of water per second dropping about 60 feet into a tiny pool before running out in a rock garden and small log jam. The spray beads on my hat even from about 50 yards away. Even just scouting this beast of a waterfall is initimidating for me to watch as paddlers Evan Garcia, Fred Norquist, Sam Freihofer and New Zealander Ryan Lucas move in to pick the best line. The air blast whipping Evan's shirt around him as he moves to within 30 feet of the falls, crossing to check out the landing.
With lines picked and close to an hour scoping, scouting and mentally preparing, its finally Evan and Ryan who commit to dropping the triple waterfall run. Spanning about a quarter mile, the final drop is the monsterous falls to kiddy pool. With Sam at the bottom on safety check and man-brake duty (to prevent any boats and/or boys from slipping down river) Fred and I take up positions on the forested cliff sides of the river gorge to catch footage. Looking down from the slick mossy fern litter undergrowth edge to the rushing river and rocks below, I realize this isn't some state park or public viewpoint. Theres no railing, theres no safety net. There is no going back. And theres most likely no surviving a fall from our picture perches. I decide a windblown stump is a solid enough anchor for my dual camera wielding post and begin wishing I was as prepared as Fred, who has now anchored a rope between two trees, like railing, allowing him to lean slightly on a thin lifeline from the 50+ foot fall.
Evan and Ryan pop out of the top pool and get as close as possible to the edge of the first falls, but we would find out later it was pure commitment to drop; they, "Couldn't see a thing," as Evan plainly put it. Not being a paddler myself, I never would have guessed. There was any hesitation by either of them, as they gracefully and steadily kept there speed, skillfully backing to the drop-in point, deftly turning, taking a few solid strokes and positioning their bodies to brace for the moderately flat run out. Both giving a thumbs up after completion, even from about 200 yards I can see the ear to ear grins.
The second falls, directly below me, gave the illusion of some mad super highway of water. Watching the speed that Evan and Ryan flew through the second falls with was breathtaking enough, without being able to judge the actual bit of freefall they had to ride out.
Bagging up and running down the half finished trail to my photo post for the big mama, I assure myself the river isn't as cold as the first time I crossed it, but quickly feel that assurance as incorrect. I told Evan and Ryan that it would take me about five or six minutes to get to my spot for the final shot. I was glad to hear that they planned on getting out and scouting one more time from the top before dropping, not only for safety's sake, but because I couldn't imagine asking them to just sit there and wait for 'the photographer,' above what could spell serious damage to both their boats and bodies. This was not a time to leave any room for someone to get psyched out.
Seeing the thumbs up for the 'ready to drop' signal once again made my stomach tense when I looked through the viewfinder and had a better vision of what two men in two little boats were about to descend into. I threw up several prayers as Evan's nose peaked over the brink and he sailed through air, catching up with the freefalling water around him, taking the line he anticipated, skipping to 3/4 down the falls, turning his boat a perfect 90 degrees and coming to a splashing halt right where he wanted to, employing the 'hockey stop' that Sam had earlier suggested to avoid skimming out of the tiny pool into awaiting boulders.
Ryan was not so lucky. All of our hearts leapt as his line deviated just slightly to the (looker's) right of Evan's. He spilled over the brink, caught a spitting flake and tweaked the nose of his boat, hard. Turning him as abruptly as he impacted the water, he flipped once still gripping his paddle and bloodying his knuckles on the rocks underneath, knocking his Gopro clear off his helmet mounts with the skipping of his helmet on the rocks as well. landing in the bottom pool on his keel but rolling again, Sam was practically in the water waiting for him, ready to keep him and his boat from going downriver.
As both his arms lifted in a victorious "I'm ok" double fist pump, I know I sighed major relief. Hugs went all around as we all convened at the bottom. Ending the day on a frightening, but still majorly hyped note.
Left to right: Fred, Evan, Sam, Ryan
Ryan takes one like a champ; from the booty if you swim