Story: Brendan Wells // Videos: Todd Wells // Illustration: Martin Simpson
“What was a dark and empty silence crescendoed into a roar unparalleled by any other sound in nature. The paddlers ahead of me accelerated toward the towering giants and by the time I hit the first wave, the light from their glowsticks had completely disappeared as they sunk into the troughs of the waves, the force of the current sucking them from one side of the river to the other.
“All I could do was keep my forward momentum, hoping, praying that there wasn’t a massive river-wide hole that could stop us all dead in our tracks. The size of this rapid and the eeriness of paddling it in the dark was accentuated by the moonlight, which almost blinded me as it sat directly in front of the coming waves low on the horizon. Somewhat miraculously, the river swept us through its powerful torrents unscathed and we managed to avoid any trip-ending features or mishaps.”
As I look back at this crux of our team’s recent attempt to break the world record for farthest distance kayaked in 24 hours, I remember this clear challenge in vivid detail. Ask any athletes who have attempted a 24-hour endurance record, and they will tell you the same: The test is as much mental as it is physical. We certainly found this to be true, arriving quickly at the conclusion as our team of four assembled on the banks of Marsh Creek, an upper tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon, near the town of Stanley, Idaho. With record snowpack, paddling high-water levels, nonstop, into the heart of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness: This was a challenge beyond what any of us had ever known. And that’s saying something as our team consisted of some of whitewater kayaking’s most dedicated athletes — Tyler Bradt, Aniol Serrasolses, my brother Todd Wells and myself.
The 24-hour, moving-water distance record was last set in 2011 by Carter Johnson, who paddled 279.02 northern Canadian miles on the Yukon River. Johnson took a much different approach by paddling a long and super-lightweight kayak designed for flatwater speed. He also chose the high-volume Yukon, which moves quickly but is mostly flat. Our approach factored in a lot more gradient, running as many quality rapids as possible in whitewater-specific kayaks. That’s what we know, love and spend most of our lives doing.
Like many other expeditions and missions I have been on, this one came together at the last minute with a call from my brother Todd. He was not so much “asking” but rather telling me to grab our Dagger Green Boats and meet him and the driving force behind this trip, Tyler, in Idaho in two days. I was already on my way to Colorado for a paddling trip with Aniol, who – having recently completed a month-long descent of a tributary to the Amazon River where he was often paddling 10-12 hours a day – was more ready than anyone to take on this record attempt.
Tyler, who grew up paddling Idaho’s Salmon and its tributaries saw the river spiking and knew that this was the perfect time to make the attempt. The Main Salmon was predicted to peak at a flow of nearly 90,000 cfs and the Middle Fork was climbing toward 8.5 feet (16,000 cfs). Tyler also knew all of the sections fairly well, from our starting line at Marsh Creek, through the Middle Fork, down the Main and to the confluence with the Snake River. Tyler, my brother Todd, and I had dreamed about this adventure for years and we were giddy with excitement as we watched the flows rise and looked at the map and scale of our journey: In one day we would pass through the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48.
We knew that most athletes who attempt 24-hour records pursue them independently, typically with a support team. Although this trip may have been easier and potentially faster with a smaller group of two, we also knew the best part of this journey would be experiencing the highs and lows together as a team.
We woke up at 6 a.m. on the banks of Marsh Creek, scraped off ice from our kayaks, put on our drysuits, and packed last-minute snacks and gear. We went as light as possible, only bringing enough pre-cooked meals and sandwiches to get us through the next 24 hours. Additionally, we each brought extra layers and a sleeping bag for the unexpected night out. At 8 a.m. our team of four launched into Marsh Creek, flowing at around 500 cfs, which is a relatively high level and just what we were looking for. Within the next 20 miles, several large tributaries joined the flow. By the time we arrived to the iconic Dagger Falls, we were paddling a full-sized river.
That was only slightly over an hour in. Tyler wasn’t feeling “in the groove,” and decided to portage Dagger Falls, an intimidating Class V rapid. While the rest of us ran it with satisfactory lines, tension quickly rose in the group. We knew that this portage consumed over five minutes (or about one mile) of precious distance if we stuck to our goal of maintaining 12 miles per hour.
With that in the back of our minds, everyone picked up the pace and throughout the 100-mile Middle Fork section where our mile-per-hour average slowly rose from the low 10s to the mid-11s. We were just where we needed to be but not fast enough to build the cushion for the slower seven hours in which we would be paddling exhausted and in the dark.
The Salmon is a unique river, particularly at high flows because it maintains a steep and consistent gradient with very few slow-moving pools. On Marsh Creek and the Middle Fork we found mostly Class III and IV whitewater with a few Class V rapids and a few very hairy, must-make moves around or over logjams. Just over 100 miles and about nine hours into our journey, we reached the confluence with the Main Salmon where we transitioned from floating on top of around 16,000 cfs to about 75,000. By this point every team member had experienced bouts of energy loss and struggled with joint and muscle pain, exhaustion and the general discomfort associated with sitting in a kayak for nine hours straight. But we were getting close to our goal of maintaining a 12 mph average and offered words of encouragement to each other, knowing that we must keep up our paddling consistent, only pausing in the middle of the river to pee over the side of our boats or refill our hydration packs with river water and electrolytes.
Fortunately the Main Salmon, which was slowing building to a peak of 87,000 cfs with each tributary, helped us gain on our average speed and slowly build the cushion we needed for our paddle through the night. The Main was mostly fast-moving Class II punctuated by a few monstrous Class IV-V rapids that flipped us, spun us out, and tested our strength, skills and endurance as we a grew more tired and the sun dipped behind the horizon. The cold hit us first, and we all put back on our pogies and skull caps to keep as warm as possible, not having enough time to stop and put on extra layers for the night.
As the last rays of sunlight faded, we were left with only the faint glow of the half-moon. At this transitional moment in the journey, we eddied out for our one and only break outside of our kayaks. With the stopwatch set, we jumped out of our boats and taped waterproof flashlights and red and green glowsticks onto our helmets and boats, refilled our water and mustered our sore and cramped legs back into our kayaks. Somehow we took a whole 15 minutes to make the necessary preparations for night paddling, well over our goal of just a five-minute stop. After the break we knew that somewhere in the night we would need to make up the extra 10 minutes (2 miles) we had just used up.
While Tyler had paddled the Main Salmon several times before, it had always been at much lower flows and he had no idea where the biggest rapids would be during the night or what they would look like at flood-stage flows. All we could do was stick close together as a group, and only turn on our flashlights in case of an emergency in order to preserve our night vision. We had the moonlight in our favor for a few of hours, but it soon joined the sun below the horizon and we were left with nothing but following the red or green glow from our friends’ glowsticks downstream, trying to make out the banks of the river by the faint starlight.
By 2 a.m., after 18 hours of nonstop paddling, fatigue hit us all and hit us hard. We slowed our pace to just trying to keep our boats pointed downstream rather than keeping them moving swiftly through the water. We also did our best to keep conversations with each other to avoid nodding off in the middle of the river. In nearly complete darkness, we could only make out the rolling hills and valleys around us, but couldn’t tell which way the river turned or if a rapid was coming until we were fully amongst it. We did our best to stay in the middle of the river, avoiding what we knew were frequent logjams and downed trees along the banks of this section. Fortunately our timing worked out well and we floated through mostly sections of flat-water throughout the night.
There were, however, a few massive rapids with 15- to 20-foot tall waves that made our long boats seem like playboats. Between the exhaustion and lack of any landmarks, we couldn’t keep track of where the biggest rapid was, but each team member has their own story of running it. I was happy to be near the back of the pack during this crux rapid to see what happened to the green and red beacons attached to my friends helmets ahead of me. A giant house-sized boulder on the right side of the river constricted all of the water toward the left bank and created several waves that were easily double the height of our nearly 12-foot long kayaks.
What was a dark and empty silence crescendoed into a roar that is unparalleled by any other sound in nature. The paddlers ahead of me accelerated toward the towering giants and by the time I hit the first wave, the light from their glowsticks had completely disappeared as they sunk into the troughs of the waves or were sucked from one side of the river to the other by the powerful currents. All I could do was keep my forward momentum, hoping, praying that there wasn’t a massive river wide hole that could stop us all dead in our tracks. The size of this rapid and the eeriness of paddling it in the dark was accentuated by the moonlight, which almost blinded me as it sat directly in front of the coming waves low on the horizon. Somewhat miraculously, the river swept us through its powerful torrents unscathed and we managed to avoid any trip-ending features or mishaps.
Between the rapids we all experienced some form of exhaustion-induced hallucinations, nodding off for short times, and the lingering thought of how nice it would be to curl up in a sleeping bag on the bank of the river. This was the point where we all depended on having our best friends at our sides. Despite the back pain, leg cramps and headaches, everyone kept the mood as positive as possible, telling stories and sharing the details of our late-night hallucinations with one another.
At dawn (around 5:30 a.m.), time seemed to slow ever more. The sun took an eternity to rise enough to allow a faint reflection of light to play on the ripples ahead. Entering the Lower Salmon Gorge proved to be the hardest part of the trip yet. Everyone’s hands were raw, saturated and painfully blistering. Every stroke reminded us of each muscle that had been pushed to its physical limits. Our frustrations grew with our ability to keep our nearly 12-foot-long boats pointed straight downstream. On top of it all, nearly 90,000 cfs in this narrow canyon created massive boils and whirlpools, sending every paddler in different directions, zigzagging across the river and spinning out in giant whirlpools. Time kept slowing, but soon rays of sunlight shone overhead and onto the rim of the canyon, telling us the end was near.
Our 24-hour mark finally arrived and we looked at the GPS, which had tracked us through 287.6 miles of pristine river and wilderness. We pulled over, crawled out of our kayaks, exchanged a few words and many hugs, and passed out in a grassy patch of riverbank.
A couple hours later and still over 20 miles from our takeout, we awoke from our deep slumber to float leisurely to our takeout just past the confluence with the Snake River on the Idaho-Oregon border. The final float out was not entirely leisurely, as Todd peeled out of the finish line eddy right into a massive hole. Working your way out of a hole in a creekboat is one thing; managing to find your way out of a hole created by 90,000 cfs in a long boat is another. Todd ended up swimming and had to self-rescue, because everyone else moved so quickly downstream with no eddies to catch that we really couldn’t help him much. He nailed the self-rescue and we continued downstream, all realizing how lucky we were that something like that didn’t happen during our critical 24-hour timeframe, let alone at night.
Arriving to the takeout, we shared more hugs, laughs and stories from our journey reminiscing on all that we had been through in the last 300 miles and 30 hours. Each one of us learned something new about our capacity to handle one of the most challenging mental and physical experiences of our lives. We learned more about teamwork and what is possible in a kayak, and we are excited to see people push this bar further in the future. Whether a different river or a different flow, it will take special circumstances and a driven team, but hitting 300 miles in 24 hours certainly isn’t out of the question!
Here’s a look inside our experience:
— More from the Wells brothers’ production company Mountain Mind Collective.
— More paddling exploits from Bradt and Serrasolses.
— The Chase for the Salmon Speed Record.
— Grand Canyon Speed Record Falls (AGAIN)
— High water on the Middle Fork Salmon.