April 21 marked the first visit to Palouse Falls for Vickie Schloss of Spokane, and only the fourth for Tyler Bradt of Stevensville, Mont.
Both were in for a memorable afternoon at the Washington State Park and its namesake 198-foot waterfall on the Whitman-Franklin county line.
“We knew something was going on,” Schloss said. “A few kaykers were hiking down (to the pool below the falls) and several camera crews setting up. They weren’t saying too much, but we figured somebody was going off the falls.”
Without warning, at about 2:30 p.m., Bradt’s red kayak appeared on the top left side of the falls from Schloss’ perspective at the park’s overlook.
With a few quick paddle strokes, he steered the boat down a green tongue of water and quickly disappeared in the plummeting, billowing stream of white.
“I got pictures, but he’s hidden in the whitewater,” Schloss said. “It happened so fast, but then it seemed like eternity before he popped up clear over on the right side.
“He was OK, and everybody started cheering.”
The 22-year-old professional paddler had set a record in the unofficial realm of waterfall bagging: He’d survived the highest known waterfall descent in a kayak.
“On the Internet we found heights for Palouse Falls from 180 to 200 feet, but we dropped a rope, stepped it off and came up with 186 feet,” Bradt said Thursday in a telephone interview from the Bitterroot Valley.
“The signs at the park say it’s 198 feet, but we know we’re safe calling it at least 186.”
Bradt was relieved to learn that Schloss’ angle prevented her from getting a photo of him in midair during the feat.
“We have a media agent to market the photos and video,” he said. “Some of that should be coming out in the next couple weeks.”
Whitman County Sheriff’s deputies didn’t know about the stunt when contacted a week later.
“The consensus here is that it wasn’t a smart thing to do, but as far as we know there’s nothing illegal about it,” Deputy Ron Rockness said.
Kayaking since the age of 6, Bradt has been paddling “semi-professionally” since 15, doing a variety of projects and videos. His globetrotting resume also includes some oddball promotions, such as driving a Japanese fire truck fueled by vegetable oil from Prudoe Bay to Argentina.
“I’m only around home in Montana about two weeks a year,” he said.
“I’ve been working up to Palouse Falls most of my life, continually running harder stuff, leading up to this point especially in the last four years as I went off to the waterfall side of kayaking,” he said, noting that he set a world mark in 2007 by plunging off a 107-foot waterfall in Canada.
On March 4, Pedro Olivia garnered a short-lived record of 127 feet in his home country of Brazil.
“This wasn’t a mindless huck off a waterfall,” said Bradt. “It was a very calculated decision.
“I’ve spent a lot of time getting comfortable running higher and higher falls. I’m to the point that I’m practicing on falls in the 70- to 80-foot range. Only a few people in the sport have run falls over 100 feet.”
After scoping out Palouse falls a few weeks ago, he’d determined it was runable and devoted a week to paddling smaller waterfalls out of Hood River, Ore., to tune up before making the big leap.
“You work and work at getting the right entry trajectory, tucked forward and pressing to get the angle, paddle off to the left so it doesn’t come back into you.”
These tuneups were on falls a fraction the size of the big one.
“I figured Palouse Falls was a go at 5,000 cfs, but when I came back the third time it was down to 2,000 cfs and it looked even better,” he said. “It looked like a good lip for take off – that’s critical – and there wasn’t so much volume blowing out the landing.
“You don’t want to surface and get hit by the falls. The water looked like it would push me out.”
Overnight, by phone, he assembled a team of nine cameramen and reliable paddlers who were gathered at Hood River.
But Bradt was in Sandpoint up until 1 a.m. as a craftsman adjusted his prototype spray skirt to handle the forces of the plunge.
“I didn’t sleep much that night,” he said. “I woke up a half hour before the alarm was supposed to go off at 6:30.”
Nevertheless, he said he was comfortable that he had “the proper team for safety and everything.”
Helpers at the base of the falls would have a backboard in the event of a spinal injury. “That would be the worst-case scenario,” he said.
After two hours of preparations, Bradt carried his kayak over the rocks to the Palouse River above the falls.
He launched and ferried back and forth across the river just a short distance from the rim to scout the lip of the falls.
“That was pretty scary looking at that horizon line and seeing nothing but cliffs and blue sky in the distance,” he said. “I’ve never had a visual like that.”
While normal people would be in full cardiac arrest at that point, Bradt was sorting through other issues.
“It’s critical to have a green tongue of water you can use as a launching pad to dial in the angle you can control on the way down,” he said. “As I looked left, the river was cascading over rocks. I had to go right.
“But the lip was a lot more complicated than I expected.”
Rocks and waves were in the way to potentially disrupt his line at the last moment and leave him plummeting sideways, perhaps, and out of control.
“That threw me for a loop. The line was about a boat-width wide.”
In his mind he reworked his visuals of the descent as he bobbed in the river, planning his last strokes to the lip, imagining himself tucking forward and pressing chest to the deck for a perfect bow-first vertical entry.
“The worst-case scenario is landing flat on the bottom of your boat and breaking your back,” he said, “But I was comfortable. The only thing I really couldn’t work out in advance was how the wind might affect me on the descent.”
He describes the next few moments through the roaring fury of Palouse Falls in bursts of sentences and phrases:
•“I’ve never had such a feeling of acceleration as the water sling-shotted me down the lip.
•“A wild freefall sensation … falling, falling, thinking I was going to hit, and then still falling.
•“Impact … really violent. … I took a huge hit to the chest that jackknifed me back out of my tuck … I slammed the back deck … knocked the wind out of me … snapped my paddle.
•“Dazed … underwater … waiting for something else to happen … secondary impact from falling water? No.
•“I’m thinking, ‘Let me outta here.’
•“My whole body was in shock, but I still had a short piece of paddle in my left hand. I used it to row up.
•“Deep gray, fading to lighter gray.
•“I’m up. Trying to assess what’s wrong with me. I see Ian (Garcia) and Cody (Howard) in their kayaks, but I can’t yell to say I’m OK. I can’t say anything.”
Schloss estimates Bradt was underwater for 6-8 seconds.
“He and his friends paddled over toward shore, then he went back out in the pool and did an Eskimo roll,” she said.
A waterfalling kayaker’s version of a victory lap.
The day ended for Bradt much like any good paddling trip.
“We paddled out the seven miles, laughing and joking, to the cars waiting for us at the mouth of the river,” he said.
Next trip: “Norway and Iceland, leaving May 25 to film another video.”
Will you do Palouse Falls again?
“Once was enough.”