If it’s true that people watch auto racing for the crashes, it also stands to reason rafting spectators are in it for the flips.
And if you love watching whitewater carnage, there’s no better place to be on a weekend from late May into June than sitting in a lawn chair along the Lochsa River at Lochsa Falls.
The spectacle has become a Memorial Day weekend viewing festival.
There you’ll see a steady stream of rafters and kayakers smashing through the rapid’s raft-flipping waves. A good number of them won’t make it through right-side up and that is just fine with the boisterous spectators who gather in the pullout at milepost 114 on U.S. Highway 12 near Lowell, Idaho.
“They boo when you make it and they cheer when the boats flip,” said Marty Smith, owner of Three Rivers Resort and Rafting.
His company runs rafting trips, but also uses still and video photography to document rafters and kayakers as they run the river known for its nonstop whitewater action. Memorial Day weekend frequently coincides with or near the peak of spring flows on the Lochsa and attracts hard-core boaters addicted to big water. But it also draws a festive crowd of spectators.
“It’s pretty crazy. We have a ball up there,” said Steve Bateman of Nezperce.
“If I wasn’t almost 60 years old, I’d still be rafting. Anymore, I like to watch.”
Over the past eight seasons, Smith has produced and posted YouTube videos documenting the Memorial Day action under the title “Lochsa River Madness Lochsa-info.”
“They are basic carnage videos,” he said.
Boaters are indeed aware of the videos and the crowd, and they play to both, said Dave Breidenbach of Spokane. Known as Big Wave Dave, for about 15 years he has been leading a group of boaters that call themselves “The Raftafarians” on Memorial Day weekend trips to the Lochsa.
Boaters try to show off for both the cameras and the crowds and the spectators do their best to goad boaters into going big.
“On Memorial Day, everybody goes for that shot to get the biggest air because everybody wants to be in Marty’s video,” Breidenbach said.
It can also get a little weird. For some boaters it’s not enough to run the falls in a raft, cataraft or kayak. Some of them have taken to riding pool toys and other, more risque, inflatables through the rapid.
“To make the video you have to go through on a naked blowup doll or on an air couch or get big air,” said Breidenbach, who grew up in Clarkston.
Smith notes the Lochsa is a frigid, powerful river for advanced boaters.
Its swift currents and hypothermia-inducing temperatures can be dangerous, especially to people without experience or the proper gear like highly rated life jackets, helmets and insulating clothing.
“It’s a Class IV rapid but they are (experienced) boaters and you see all sorts of stuff. There are guys and gals who jump out and swim through. Of course, you need to be wearing a dry suit and be properly dressed,” he said.
At night, Breidenbach said many people head to Three Rivers Resort to watch replays of the day’s events at the bar. Some large groups camped at Wilderness Gateway and other campgrounds also play video highlights at night.
The bigger the water, the bigger the carnage.
River flows dictate the action. Last week flows came up, cold nights and a snowstorm high in the Bitterroots brought the level down again. The river was on the rise again going into this weekend.
“We still have lots of snow, and the new snow we had last weekend adds another week or more to the rafting season,” said Mike Smith, Marty’s father.
“It’s looking good at this point. The only thing that could foul up the rafting is a warm rain at high elevations,” he said.
An informal gauge at the Lowell Bridge helps river runners peg the “Fabulous Fours.” The river running at the number 4 on the gauge produces ideal wave-surfing conditions. Flows above 5.5 feet and around 3.5 feet create a difficult wave.
“Friendly Four is still very powerful but the wave doesn’t really peel back on itself,” Smith said. “When it’s like 3.5 and 5.5 and above it seems the wave falls back on itself and creates more of a barrier.”
On Thursday, the flow was at 4.5 feet. “Marty’s out on the river,” his dad said.
Outdoors editor Rich Landers contributed to this story.