FISH CREEK — The parking lot at the raft and kayak put-in for the Lochsa River here was a little quieter than normal and the crowd of spectators downstream at Lochsa Falls along U.S. Highway 12 was unusually sparse.
But the river was running a beautiful green color Friday. Its famous rapids were white and frothy like they always are this time of year, and avid boaters were determined to ride the rain-and-snowmelt-swollen torrent like they do every Memorial Day weekend.
“We wouldn’t miss it. It’s a great river. It’s a lot of fun,” said Eric Landen, of Kent, Wash., who has been rafting the Lochsa for two decades. “We were going to come as long as they didn’t stop us at the border.”
As is the case with almost every facet of society, COVID-19 has upset the normal rhythms of the whitewater subculture. The U.S. Forest Service has closed designated campgrounds along the Lochsa to help slow the spread of the viral illness. Wilderness Gateway, which normally turns into a small city during the holiday weekend, sat empty.
But whitewater junkies weren’t going to be denied their fix. So they improvised. Many camped in any little spot they could find outside of the designated Forest Service campgrounds. Which made for close quarters.
“There is no social distancing. It seems almost like a back fire,” said Mat McGrath, a catarafter from Missoula, Mont. “That being said, the river running is still pretty much on par.”
“The river don’t know there’s COVID,” his pal, Fletch, from Victor, Idaho, chimed in.
Fletch goes by just one name, “like Cher,” and believes people need to get out a little bit to keep from losing their minds.
“If you are trapped in your house, people are going to go insane. People go insane enough as it is in Idaho,” he said. “I think I heard the governor say something like that.”
McGrath, a bicycle mechanic, said he’s been piling up the hours at work and hitting the river relieves his stress.
“I’m thankful and glad to be out here. It’s a great way to get away from the madness,” he said. “I can’t tell you how nice it is to be out here.”
Landen and his crew stayed in cabins associated with River Dance Lodge at Syringa.
“You are supposed to self-isolate. We are in our own cabin so that is very easy to do,” he said.
Darrin Willard, of Bozeman, Mont., stood at the pullout above Lochsa Falls, the river’s infamous boat-flipping rapid where spectators often gather in large numbers this weekend. He and his buddy, Scott Johnson, of Missoula, noted the peanut gallery was a little thin Friday. The two planned to run the river but stopped to watch a group of boaters slide down the tongue of the falls.
Willard pumped his fist, whistled and yelled when the rapid had its way with some of the thrill-seekers.
“I’ve been coming down here for 29 years. This is an awesome place,” he said. “I live in paradise and I drive five hours to come here, so that says something.”
Other looky-loos cheered and clapped at the mayhem. Terry and Darlene Burke, of Clarkston, come every year to watch people they know run the rapids.
“It’s anxiety-riddled excitement,” said Darlene Burke. “It looks dangerous and you hope nobody gets hurt.”
They were part of a small crowd, maybe 15 people, who watched the carnage — whitewater slang for boaters who flip or otherwise have mishaps on the river. They noted the Friday kickoff to the weekend was spooky quiet.
“There is no traffic,” said Darlene Burke. “It’s sad. I mean it’s almost eerie for a holiday weekend.”
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