The modern world with all its traps is hard to escape. The smartphone by my bed beeps and I am awake. It is far too early. An email has arrived. Long time white water pioneer Doug Ammons is talking of the Stikine again-of the river that roars, and the feelings that echo, and the whispers that surround the yellow sign. Doug wants to know about my fall on the portage around the humbling Site Zed. He is putting a book together and wants my take on events. Over five years have passed since I dropped into that chasm, and those encased walls still repeat in my dreams.
I still think of the place daily, glad that the magnet pulled then and so pleased to have fallen in with a crew at the right time. As the years move on the magnet pulls even harder. It simply was not a one hit run. I appreciate that team more now. How we all fell together without words. Silent soldiers on a self-dedicated mission. Bonded brothers–a family without the ties of blood.
How do I talk about the fall I took at Zed? I can’t.
Is it strange to have blocked the negative from my mind?
Perhaps the team can, but I cannot. Although I will try. It seems important sometimes. It is not about the runs others made; it is much more personal. It is not an ego trip or a social media whirl. It is an inner journey.
Parts of the trip in that significant canyon, the negatives, the missed lines and hard knocks still wake me from sleep as they form into nightmares. Those missed moves and tiredness are the monster under the bed. The monster changes its face when I think of the two failed attempts I had taken years before. Now they seem like the stories of a different man that I wove into my own fabric.
The first failed attempt was the last of the Triple Crown. The Alsek and Susitna were complete and the Stikine siren was loud and clear. As a mistress she punishes you. This first time we sat around the beach and waited for the level to drop. We looked at the marker while group dynamics drifted away–it was time to call a no. At least for me it just was not right. I did not feel positive.
The second time, a year to the day later, on the scout at Entry Falls two of our three man team pulled the plug. They walked away and my choice was made for me. The Stikine forces your hand, makes you question, and cuts you down to size. She makes the world shrink to a single moment. It is not about pride, it is about where the soul goes (if you believe in such a thing). It brings all those angels and demons from your past right to your mind. It kicks you down like you never imagined and keeps kicking.
Doug asked me to think about my fall, which I have not done before. Now the words just come and come. It is six a.m. UK time as I think hard, in bed, wind blowing outside writing this on my phone. Making clear choices. Clear debate on the action on that river. Lots of things have passed since then. The moments in the canyon do not fall easy in my memory, it is not a linear story board, but just fragments. Mostly it is first person views, but sometimes it is like watching a cheap VHS movie.
Previous choices to walk away from the call of the river, one of my doubts, one forced by another’s hand, left a chip on my shoulder.
Perhaps that made me stronger?
I will never know.
Parts of the river descent replay in my mind with ease: the paddle in, Entry Falls, it felt like a choir was singing all the way. V Drive, from the scout to paddling the line, so vivid-I can even tell you the number of strokes I used, or so it seems.
Then I have memories that are harder to recall. The missed eddy to scout at Wasson’s then running blind always melts into the portage at Zed. I was tired, beaten and at the back of the pack. What happened on the portage, a tale so close to the terror of a boy’s own adventure novel, of my slide and fall. That is blocked, although pieces of the jigsaw appear now and then.
It was late in the day and I was beat. I still have no words for how tired I was. We shouldered our boats that night and left our supplies at camp. My ankles are badly damaged from previous kayaking incidents and the uneven rocks did me no favours. I struggled behind the group. Slowly I watched with care and controlled the placement of each foot. First left then right with all the weight of my shouldered boat. It seemed long and painful. My friends were out of sight when I lifted my eyes to find a route. I went right, the high road, through the splintered maze of rock.
It was easy at first, then not so much. My foot slid. And I was falling. A few feet I could cope with, but this, this was more. I’ve kayaked smaller waterfalls. Twenty, thirty feet, I can only guess. I forced my kayak in front and waited for it to jam thinking I could use the cockpit as a ladder.
Too late. Steady at first, trickles of dust and gravel ran down to my back. I fell faster, but as always in those times, it is replayed in cinematic slow motion in my mind. I crumbled onto my feet and stopped, still. Then it happened. The trickle of rocks became a stream, the stream a river, a growing rock infested river-alive. I hunkered down close to my boat and tucked my head. I could hear them rolling.
Twack, thud, twack, thud.
Time and again rocks bounced off my boat, the odd one deflected from my shoulder and helmet. My arms covered my face and they too took a beating. Perhaps this was why I had put my elbow pads on when we left the bridge and the yellow sign. I was the only one to do so.
The dust took some time to settle as I lay on the cold boulders a beaten heap. I tried to stand, to walk. Even with all the adrenaline my ankles cried with pain. They were not broken, just twisted badly. I sat and reflected. Ten feet to my left the giant roared, Zed all hungry.
The dust had settled by the time Max retraced his steps. I know he thought I was just resting. I tried to explain, but Zed turned me into a child again. I fumbled for words, stuttered, stammered. Like I did at school. It took some minutes for all the team to congregate. Then the truth appeared. As falls go, it was big. As a consequence go, it was big. A broken leg or worse and things would have got interesting.
Like the loser in a bar room fight, tail between my legs, I felt that walk of shame. The others helped with my boat and we walked in silence to the camp spot.
A clear night, silence and thoughts. That is all that I left behind. It was not enough. In the morning the rocks again needed to be navigated before that crux ferry and the quest downstream.
Darren Clarkson-King has spent over sixteen years exploring rivers across the Himalaya. He has also kayaked in Europe, Canada, Alaska, Thailand and Morocco. He has countless first descents and solo descents to his name. He is owner and head guide of Pure Land Expeditions. He works with N.A.R.A, the Ladakh Tourism Authority and the Kerala government to promote safe adventure sports and safe working practices.