Monday, September 22, 2014

My Worst River Float Trip Ever? Guest Post by Dave Stewart

Have you ever been in that moment when you are on the verge of a major accident or when you slip and are starting to drop something really expensive? Things seem to slow down to almost super slow motion in that moment. That moment before you dump a boat in a whitewater rapid feels exactly like that.

This happened to me the first time I dumped a boat on a five day float trip through the lower Deschutes River Canyon. On that trip I learned the real power of a river and what it feels like when the rapid and current completely take control.

Picture of a drift boat floating the Deschutes River Canyon with the high desert the background.
Floating the Deschutes River Canyon
As fly fisherman we all spend lots of time around streams and rivers. Some of us use floating devices to get to fish and some of us might even run class IV+ whitewater to get to fishing water. I find myself falling into the latter category frequently on my camping and fishing trips.

Even if you don't run class IV whitewater, this article is going to give you some useful tips that will ensure you stay upright the next time you are challenged in the river.

How Our Trip went Down

Tyler and I were on day 5 of a float trip through the lower Deschutes River Canyon. We were getting ready to drop into one of the smaller rapids on the river and were preparing as normal. This rapid has three different stages which we call upper, middle and lower. We were dropping into the first one (upper).

As we dropped down and hit the first big wave, I felt the boat continue to keep falling back until I had that realization moment of, “Oh no, we are going to dump the boat.” I thought about all of our fishing, camping and outdoor gear sinking down to the bottom of the river and gone.

After the raft flipped over on top of us, Tyler and I luckily popped up next to the boat. In the short moment we had before going into the middle section, I yelled to Tyler, “We have to flip this raft back over or we are going to lose all of our gear.”

Tyler, in a dazed state, agreed and I helped him stand up on the bottom of the raft and we worked all of our weight to help flip it over. Luckily, the 50 mph wind gusts that flipped the boat in the first place also helped flip the boat back over and saved most of our gear that was tied in.

So there we were, sitting on the bank of the river looking at a large pool below the rapid that had milk jugs and other associated cooler stuff floating on the water surface. We would walk downstream for the next mile picking up gear that had fallen out. I learned a few valuable lessons that day that I would never forget.

Picture of Dave and Doug Stewart in a drift boat on the Deschutes River with the semi-arid canyon in the background.
Dave and Doug Stewart on a float trip down the Deschutes River. 

Dangers and Lessons Learned

It is important to remember that even the most calm rivers can be extremely dangerous. People drown every year on so called “easy’”rivers because they are not prepared or just make stupid mistakes. Take a look at this link for the top 9 tips for boating to help insure you have a good trip.

Looking back on this situation I learned two big things about boating. The first was that balance in your boat is critical. We didn’t have enough weight in the front, and when we hit the big rip it just tipped us end over end.

The other big thing that I didn’t do was to prepare properly for the environmental factors. Wind can be a key factor on any Deschutes trip, and I probably should have waited out the wind in this situation. If we would have camped out another night, gotten up early and headed out before the wind picked up the next day, all would have been good.

The Irony 50 Years Earlier

Overcoming our fears are a critical part of growing as an individual. Whether it’s speaking in front of a group, sitting down for an interview or boating, confronting the fear will allow you to grow as a person. The important thing that you have to do is manage the fear and risk. You can decrease your chances of getting in trouble if you wear a life jacket, stay sober, balance the boat and stay off the river during nasty weather.

I learned a lot from my dad, Doug Stewart, and I wrote an article that discusses this transition directly. He taught me how to row, fish and manage a rapid in my life jacket. I learned from him and the mistakes he made. The ironic thing is that the only rapid he ever dumped in was the same one that I dumped in on the Deschutes. He did it about 50 years earlier at the same exact spot. Here is the link to his story of that memorable day with my grandfather.

I don’t remember how the camping was on our trip, how good the fishing was or how anything else went down. I do remember that point when I realized I was dumping my boat like it was yesterday. I learned some amazing lessons that trip that I still hold onto today and know that these can help you as well.


Next time you are getting ready for the big river float trip, think about what you might do when that crazy situation hits. Do you have all of the gear ready to go? Have you read the guide book or talked to someone who knows the run? Thinking about a few of these things might save your boat, your gear and maybe your life.

Dave Stewart blogs at and can be reached at He has also published a new ebook, A Beginner’s Guide to Camping, which you can find at his website as well. Dave would love to connect with all of the readers, so if you have a moment click over and say, "Hi."


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