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Story by Frank Preston with images and video by Ben Stookesberry and Frank Preston

“Pull!! You have to pull harder!”
“That’s all my weight,” I say, sweat dripping down into my eyes. I can feel the pain in his voice
and I share the frustration. But I can also feel my grip slipping on his wet drysuit arm.
Ben Stookesberry is lying chest down on a log about 4 feet off the ground next to Old Man
Creek in Idaho. I am pulling his left arm with all my strength and all my weight, trying to reduce
his dislocated shoulder. We have been on the go for 7 hours today, reading and running class V
for all of those hours that we weren’t portaging through the temperate rainforest bushwack.
Within a half mile of the confluence of Old Man and the Lochsa, our takeout, Ben dislocated his
shoulder in a long, steep, pushy rapid. As luck would have it, he didn’t hit his head, and due to
his years of expedition kayaking experience, he was able to roll before getting pushed against a
section of granite bedrock that I could get to in order to stabilize him. Had he swam, or gotten
flushed downstream, we would have been in a much worse situation, as the creek drops 380
feet in this mile.
“Have you done this before?” I ask, hoping he will say that yes, it happens all the time and that it
will go back in and we can paddle the rest without an issue. “No. Never,” he replies.
We both know what that means. Not only will it be harder to reduce the dislocation, but he won’t
be able to paddle if we are able to get it back in. In the best case scenario, from where we are,
we could bushwack downstream, cross the Lochsa River, flag down a car, and get to a hospital,
within 6 hours. If we are lucky. But without getting his shoulder back in, we don’t have the
amount or type of pain meds to make that sound realistic, even if the dislocation isn’t cutting off
blood supply to his lower arm, doing damage to his vasculature or nervous system. We both
know this but neither of us say any of that.
I pull the small med kit out of Ben’s boat and give him a strong loading dose of IBuprofen. We
don’t have anything stronger, but even if we did I wouldn’t want to have to deal if we got him
hopped up on heavy pain meds. The Ibu will help a little, but relaxing the muscles is tricky,
especially for someone who kayaks as many days in a year as he does. His shoulders are
extremely strong, and at this moment exceptionally tight- from 4 long days of hard work to get
here, and from the adrenaline of the situation. I palpate around the joint to see if I can feel
exactly where the head of the humerus is. Maybe I can figure out what direction I need to pull
with one arm as I massage the muscle and try to push the head of the bone back into the socket
with my other arm. It is hard to tell through layers of clothes, but I think I find it. After trying a few
techniques without success. We try another angle, but this time I am determined. The longer the
shoulder is out, the harder it will be and the worse the recovery.
I straddle the log in front of him, facing him. I look him in the eyes, and I am impressed with his
focus, his lack of acknowledgement of the pain that he has to be in. I grab his arm, and tell him
to lean back. As he leans back, putting more and more of his weight on his arm, I do the same. I
make sure to have a good grip and I slowly but steadily increase the force I am exerting. I tell
myself that if this doesn’t work I’m going to have to put my feet on his chest and use every
ounce of muscle in my legs. I am working hard, putting an uncomfortable amount of force into
this. I remind myself that I need to think of it as pulling his arm off of his torso. Just as I think
that, there is a jolt, a pop, and a look of surprise and relief on Ben’s face. Both of us knew that
the dislocation was reduced, and I didn’t need to ask Ben if the pain was less. That part was
obvious from the grin on his face.

Old Man Creek is one of legendary status for the Missoula boating crowd. From the Lochsa
River, as people float by, they look up and see a steep creek, plenty of water, and a log jam of
historic proportions about a quarter mile up. Every adventurous kayaker has talked about hiking
in. Most have heard a rumor that Doug Ammons hiked in, broke his boat, and hiked out. Kevin
Billingslea, the unofficial leader of the former A-Team of Missoula kayakers supposedly hiked up
a ways with his boat. As far as I know, Old Man Creek has not seen a full descent, but there is
rumor of someone in a ducky doing it. Even if it has been done, I wanted to see what was up
there. Certainly, with 3000 feet of gradient in less than 10 miles, it couldn’t be runnable, and
even if it was, it would have to be choked with wood. But what if it wasn’t…
Ben and I started hiking at about 4 pm on Saturday, at an elevation of 2100 feet, and made it to
Stanley Hot Springs for our first night’s camp. 4 ½ miles and 1700’ of vertical done, 8 miles and
almost 5000’ of uphill left for tomorrow. But the first miles were easy, fast, temps were cool, and
there was a hot springs at camp. I had no idea what Sunday was to dish out.
Two hours into Sunday we had made it 2 miles, and gained 2000 feet. The next thousand feet
wasn’t so easy, as we got to steep snow at 6300 feet. We still had a thousand feet before our
highest elevation on the trail. After 6 hours of hiking, we had made it halfway for the day. I
started to question my ability to make it to the river, let alone be able to paddle once I was there.
But Ben hiked on, driven by a next level amount of motivation and ability to push through
discomfort. So I kept going too. My backpack system was starting to move from uncomfortable
to heavy, and beyond to crippling pain. If the weight was on the hip belt, I couldn’t feel my hip
flexors, and when I took the weight off my hips, I could feel knots in my shoulders developing.
How the fuck is Ben carrying his boat on his shoulder this entire way, and why does he not
seem to think this is hard?!
Our high point, Stanley Butte, at 7300 feet gave us amazing views of the Selway-Bitterroot
Wilderness and the surrounding areas. While not the highest range by any stretch, the relief is
big, and the vastness hard to comprehend. Granite peaks covered in snow, falling steeply into
old growth cedar and douglas-fir forests for as far as we could see in every direction. In front of
us, the Crags, a set of 7000 foot peaks whose north facing slopes drain into Old Man Creek.

Finally, after two days of hard miles, we could see where we wanted to start our adventure.
Once down at the creek, we took a break and swatted at mosquitos. “On Upper Cherry, the
mosquitos can be super bad, but once you paddle down a bit and run some class II it’s way
better,” Ben said, optimistically pointing out that we too could get down out of the first meadows
section into steeper creek for a better night sleep. So we suited up and paddled through flat
meadows that gave way to small granite rapids. One wood portage and one clean ledge boof
later, we eddied out in a small eddy above a steep series of slides. On top of a granite dome we
found a camp with no bugs, and great views. After over 11 hours of hiking and an hour plus of
boating, we were ready for some rest.
Ben and I were on the same page in the morning about the slide; runnable, but the potential to
break a boat on the big chock stone rock in the center of the slide was too high given how
remote we were. And there was no shortage of gradient downstream, so one rapid wouldn’t
make or break our trip. The first steep section went like that- runnable bedrock rapids with some
bigger runnable drops that just didn’t seem conservative for us to fire up. So we walked some,
ran some. The second gorge looked more committing, so we did a long scout downriver, to see
how much would be runnable, or if we should take the easy portage route around a dome on
river right. But there was such good fun whitewater in the lead in rapids that we entered the
gorge. We debated the next series of bedrock rapids, which all would go, but not for me that
day. Complex lead in rapids to vertical drops, one with a room of doom eddy, all with no good
safety plan, led us to rope our boats out of the gorge and around the middle section. But there
was more downstream, and we ended up running a few slides that went better than anticipated.
We were finding our rhythm, getting into a groove.
The third gorge was the Mega Gorge, dropping over 200 feet in just over a tenth of a mile. I
didn’t think this one would be runnable, but the geology looked amazing when I had scouted on
all the topo maps and the satellite imagery I could find. It came complete with what Ben dubbed
the “God’s Gift to Portaging”, which was a gentle, open swampy meadow around the river left
dome that constricted the water into the boulder choked cascade. So we gave the Mega Gorge
a look, then walked the God’s Gift Portage, arriving at the confluence of Old Man and Chimney
Creek for a late lunch.

At this point, I was nervous. Previously, given the character of the river, I had looked at the
gradient and figured it would be unrunnable, and the portage decision would be a no brainer.
But not in the final seven miles, as the creek drops over 2100 feet for an average of 300 feet per
mile. That doesn’t take into consideration the fact that there were steeper sections and some
more “mellow” sections of 200-240 feet per mile. Keep in mind the Little White averages 238
feet per mile, is well known, gets cleaned of wood by locals, and is still considered a test piece.
What if we guessed wrong on the flow? What if Old Man is a wood choked mess? What if there
are no eddies and we have to portage everything? And who am I to be attempting this??
We talked about taking it slow before seal launching into the boulder garden, but the seal launch
was like being shot out of a cannon, and I was rattled. Immediately the notion of “taking is slow”
flew out the window. But Ben is one of the best, if not the best at descending into the unknown
with a miraculous blend of conservative decision making, bold kayaking, calm, and
super-human strength. I was a little kid trying to keep up with my older brothers on my bike
through the neighborhood, but Ben was comfortable leading, and with very few exceptions we
were on the same page about what to scout, and what to walk. At around 4:30 pm, we were
scouting a smaller drop from a log elevated 15 feet above the river. I went first, boofing into the
eddy on the right, as we had discussed. When my stern came around I felt it tap something, and
saw the log out of the corner of my eye. Once in the eddy, I whistled and alerted Ben to the log.
He avoided the log, but we stopped shortly after to discuss our options. With the sun blindingly
low on the horizon, and given the creek’s direction of flow, reading and running was becoming
hard, and even scouting from shore hadn’t allowed us to see the wood. It was a dangerous
situation, so we called it for the day and made camp in a beautiful forest that had long ago
experienced one of the largest fires in recorded history. The 10-15 foot diameter burned out
cedar stumps were all that remained of that old growth, while an 80-100 year old forest had
taken over.

Tuesday, our final morning, we put on with confidence that we would finish the creek and make
it home that night. The morning was a blur of boulder garden, but we were on our game. It was
adventure boating at its finest, as corner after corner revealed runnable rapids without wood. I
walked a few that Ben styled. One was so steep that it was hard to figure out how a boulder
garden could be so clean and so runnable. He was perfect, blasting out of the last constriction
at a hundred miles an hour with no chance to catch an eddy before the next section. I had
scouted as I dragged my boat down, and knew that it was free of wood, but also free of any
eddies. He launched into this drop on a blind corner and made do with what he saw. It was an
amazing display of reading and running hard white water. I not only scouted, but then saw Ben
run it, and I still got flipped in one hole, worked in another, surfed my way out, and was able to
catch the eddy Ben was in, completely out of breath, but laughing if that is possible.
Every once in a while we would regroup, eat a snack, drink some water, breath, and check in.
“this next section is over 300 feet per mile,” and “we have 900 feet of gradient left” are not
phrases that I ever thought I would hear on any river, let alone a potentially un-run creek. This is
what Stookesberry does, so it felt somehow normal. At one point, I eddied out on the right, Ben
eddied out on river left. He had an elevated log to scout from, while I had an thorny shoreline to
walk down. The move first looked amazing- small lead into a perfect 8-10 foot boof off a boulder
in the center of the river. But when I scouted downstream I needed to take a minute. I checked
Gaia on my phone, and it confirmed my fear- this was the start of the last mile, which plunges
almost 400 feet to the Lochsa. I saw one eddy, and the rest was hectic. I saw no way that I
would maintain control if I was paddling.

I sat down and ate a snickers and drank some water. Then I drank some more water. I didn’t
even want to run the boof, because I all of sudden doubted my ability to catch the eddy. The
boof and the eddy were not hard, so I talked myself into running the drop, and Ben and I were
able to scout the next section together. We walked the right bend, which looked doable but
hard, and put in below. I didn’t see a place to slow down below that, but Ben had, and I followed
him. We picked our way down, running some big rapids partly on faith. He would get out, give a
quick look, give me beta, and then follow me down. At that point I would have spotted an eddy
or gotten a quick peak to give him any needed info.
It seemed normal that Ben eddied out, got out of his boat, and was looking downstream when I
caught the eddy. He gave me some beta along the lines of “it all looks good,” as we had told
each other many times throughout the day. I trusted him to let me know when he thought I could
handle reading and running, and he trusted me. He grabbed his camera and gave me the ready
signal. I thought to myself, “this seems really steep for me to lead without getting eyes on or
having any real beta, but it all seems to work out.” So I dropped in and held on. I knew that there
was a bunch of steep fast moves and then an eddy on the left. As I plugged into seam after
deep seam, I thought it felt big and pushy. Much more so than the flow on the upper portions
higher up. I blasted out of the last feature without much control and paddled for all I was worth
to catch the left eddy. After a brief second of catching my breath, I hopped out and looked
downstream- a complex rapid with a log in the main channel. We would at least have to scout
this one.
I turned to watch Ben, saw him disappear in a seam and then saw the bottom of his boat. His
roll looked good given the nature of the chaos he was in, and he was surged up on the granite
slab on river left. It was a funky spot, and he was able to make eye contact despite facing
upriver while I was 20 yards downstream. I tapped my head to say “all good,” to which I heard
him yell “help!” He was holding onto the rock with his right hand, and as I hustled up the
shoreline I remember thinking he seemed to be in a fairly stable place. When I got closer he
said he needed me to get him out of the river because his shoulder was dislocated. I pulled his
boat on shore, he popped his skirt and with very few words we went into rescue mode.

As we dragged our boats the final stretch of Old Man Creek in the remaining daylight, I didn’t
spend a lot of time looking at rapids or checking for wood. Ben was moving fast, especially for
someone with one usable arm. “He is unstoppable,” I kept thinking. I have never been so happy
to see a log jam as when we saw the log jam that everyone has seen from the Lochsa. It meant
we were near the end of the portage, and all Ben would have to do was ferry across the Lochsa
without the use of one arm. I helped him put his skirt on, and away he paddled. I took a deep
breath, drank some water, and knew that I could relax. All we had to do was hitch-hike the
shuttle, and drive over Lolo Pass and we would both be sleeping in our respective beds
Tuesday night, as we had originally planned.