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It was Tuesday. Just Tuesday. I awoke to none other than James Shimizu shaking my leg. “Dude, I’m really sorry,” he said. “Get up, it’s in. We’re going.” I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and glanced at my watch: 7:15am. I pulled myself wearily from the sheets and looked at my phone – 10 unread messages, mostly from Axel Hovorka, confirming what James had just told me, the North Umpqua River had just the right amount of water in it for a spectacular adventure.

Toketee Falls had been a source of inspiration for me since I’d started kayaking nearly a decade prior. The abounding Oregon rainforest and stunning basalt walls saturated my dreams from the moment I first caught a glimpse of the falls in Bomb Flow Episode 9, “Go to Church.” For years, Toketee lived in my mind as nothing more than a “maybe one-day” kind of thought. Never would I have anticipated my dreams coming to fruition on such an unsuspecting Tuesday.

I’d known for a couple of weeks that water levels were fluctuating in the North Umpqua, passing transiently through the acceptable range for this particular mission. Eventually, me and the crew came to an agreement: “on Tuesday, if it’s in, we go.” Tuesday arrived with surprisingly stable water levels, just at the top end of the extraordinarily narrow range we needed. And so, on Tuesday, with not quite enough coffee yet in my system, we went.

The drive for me was quiet, my mind incessantly contemplating what I knew would be the most difficult part of the day – the approach to the falls. The approach consisted of three moves: a five-foot ledge, a 15-foot ledge, and a ferry above the main drop. “Two boofs and a ferry,” I said into the silence of the car. James nodded, “you can make every one of those moves, it’s just a matter of making them in sequence” Each of these features was separated by no more than 15-feet, and while I wouldn’t think twice about any of them individually, the prospect of making a mistake immediately above a big waterfall was an unsavory one.

Big Moments from Toketee Falls

We arrived in Umpqua National Forest about two hours after we left Bend. As we got out of the car, James and I were greeted by a handful of other boaters. “Yeah, it looks, ya know…good” said one of them, shrugging his shoulders nervously. Hesitant to take his word for it, James and I started to scout for ourselves.

Above the falls lay a quarter mile-long gorge stacked with a series of ledges, caves, and wood. Just the act of getting to the falls, we agreed, would be the stoutest part of the day. Scrambling over loose rocks and soil, we eventually made it to our final scouting position: the edge of a cliff, maybe 30 feet above the lip of the legendary final drop. The lip of the falls was immaculate – a perfect, uniform horizon, more inviting than I’d ever dreamed. I felt my heart bounding within my chest, almost as if it were more ready than I to fall over the edge.

Big Moments from Toketee Falls

I took 15 minutes on my perch simply to breathe, James’ words echoing in my mind. In through the nose, “you can make every one of those moves,” hold, “now it’s just a matter of getting your heart right,” out through the nose, “and getting your mind right,” in, hold, out, repeat. I opened my eyes, surprised to find myself still solidly planted on the cliff’s edge. My heart had slowed to a steady throb, the butterflies in my stomach migrated elsewhere. Something felt… right. We walked back up the trail in near silence, focus growing so intense that I was sure the rest of the world had stopped to watch, listen, and breathe with me.

We returned to the cars to find that most of the paddlers we met earlier had left, leaving just a keen handful to ponder, gear up, and go. I stretched, ate half of a cliff bar, had a few sips of water, and tightened the straps on my PFD. Five of us put our boats in the water: James, Axel, Jonathan Bertagna, Devon Schunk, and myself. My bounding heart was back at it, and I struggled to maintain clear, positive thoughts as its rhythm filled my ears. About 50 yards downstream, Jonathan pulled into an eddy, took a deep breath, and made a hard call. “I’m just not feeling it guys,” he said, “I’ll set safety down at the bottom, see you all down there.” This was the hardest move of the day – recognizing and listening to one’s gut in the heat of the moment. I have the utmost respect for Jonathan, both as a kayaker and as a person. This humility and level headedness is a prime example of why he’s one of my favorite people to be around, on and off the water. Knowing that he’d be waiting for us below the falls made me feel at peace. And so, we continued on.

The remaining four of us paddled the first series without drama. Ducking under logs and charging over a 10-foot ledge, we found ourselves in one of the most ominously beautiful gorges I’d ever seen. Here, something interesting happened. I recognized a strange tranquility within myself, a strange reassurance that comes with the sense of inevitability above a big drop. Surrounded by 30-foot cliff walls, with no options for climbing out, I found a bizarre peace knowing that paddling downstream was my only option. My fear evaporated. Fear would do me no good. I knew where I needed to be and knew I was capable of doing what I needed to – a wild trust in oneself unique to whitewater kayaking. With this clarity, surrounded by immense PNW beauty, I turned my eyes downstream.

I followed James under the next series of logs and meandered through the deepest part of the canyon. Now we were above the largest of the entrance drops – a 20-footer with a snarling, jagged lip, the only aspect of the lead-in that made my stomach lurch during our scout earlier. I ducked under another log, paddled hard towards the horizon, allowed my bow to come around to the right, and cranked a boof stroke, hard. I landed about as well as I could’ve hoped, eyes up, weight forward, stoke high. Now came the moment of realization: it was time to make the biggest three moves of the day. “Two boofs and a ferry,” a voice whispered in my head (or maybe out loud). There were no more eddies in the gorge, no rocks to hold onto, no ropes to climb out with. It was time to go, so I went.

I put myself inches from the cliff wall on the right and paddled over the five-foot ledge, landing with a dry bow and pivoting immediately to begin my approach to the next feature. This next feature was the one that kept me awake the night before: the 15 footer with a jangly approach, the landing of which contained of a frothy (and surprisingly retentive) foam pile. I’d heard plenty of stories of people getting worked in this drop, and with no more than two boat lengths before the lip of the 65-foot main falls, this was an experience I felt no need to recreate for myself. Consequences in mind, I charged as far left as I could, falling (not so much boofing) over the drop, landing perfectly in the eddy just before the horizon.

James, as it turned out, nearly missed the eddy, owing his slightly exasperated look to a brief misadventure in the foam pile. Shortly after I landed in the eddy, Axel came careening over the ledge. He too spent a few seconds wrestling with the landing before scrambling back left to James and I. A minute later, Devon appeared. He had run the last ledge dead center, and found himself positioned too far right to make the eddy. We watched from our duck pond as Devon set his eyes on the horizon in front of him, took a couple hearty paddle strokes, and faded effortlessly over the falls. James, Axel, and I took a moment to share together. “Love you boys!” “Love y’all, good lines!” “Hey is my GoPro recording?”

James went next, leaving from the bottom of the eddy and paddling hard towards the boil protruding from the ledge above. His head turned downstream, followed by his boat, and he too drifted over the edge. Axel was next in line, following James’ approach. He found himself farther left than anticipated after battling the upstream boil, still managing to set his angle of approach and fall from my sight with grace. In the eddy, in solitude, I took note of this moment: the raw power of this place, surrounded by the magnificent wilderness that felt like home, with some of my best friends in the world waiting in anticipation 65 feet below. My heart full, my mind calm, I looked across the pool and left the eddy.

The current was strong. Way stronger than I had anticipated. I cranked out forward strokes, battling the flow and working my way towards river right until I felt a massive splash push me back left. I’d anticipated this splash from watching others go ahead of me, and planned to use it as my marker for when to turn downstream. It came earlier than I expected, and it felt as though I was being gifted a gentle nudge, almost as if someone were showing me the right way, the right time. I turned my head to the left and focused my eyes. The horizon faded beneath me as I felt my boat turn to meet the angle of my gaze. I pushed my shoulders to my knees and watched as the boil below came perfectly into view. Breathe… tuck… darkness…

The only impact I felt was my upper lip smacking the cockpit of my boat. Still upside down, I felt my chest swell with a sense of accomplishment, with pride and love for my people and my surroundings. I rolled up against the left wall of the pool and thrust my hand into the air. My eyes met Jonathan’s as he paddled towards me, grinning ear to ear. “Absolutely styled it bro!” I grabbed his PFD and wrapped him in the tightest hug I could muster, still shocked to be at the bottom. The rest of the group had executed stellar lines as well, no injuries, no broken gear, just joy.

After all the hugs and high fives, hoots and hollers, I paddled away from the group to have another moment in solitude. I paddled towards the base of the falls, felt the spray on my face, and wept. Overwhelmed by the love I had for these people and this place, the easing off of the most intense focus I’d ever felt, and feeling too the tragic loss that our community had suffered so recently. Tears rolling, I looked up at the falls and felt Gavin beside me, or above me, remembering the conversations we’d had just a month prior and wishing more than anything that he could be there to share in this momentous experience. Strangely, somehow, I can’t help feeling like maybe he was.

I pulled myself together for one more round of hugs with the boys, told them how much I loved each of them, and paddled across the pool to begin our egress from the canyon. We hopped out, carried and roped our boats back up to the trail, and walked the mere quarter mile back to the parking lot. The trail was crowded now in the afternoon sun, and the looks on people’s faces as we trudged past in full kayaking gear were priceless. “Did you guys…” “We did.” Back at the cars, I dropped my boat to the ground, lifted my face to the sky, and breathed as deep as I could. Sweet, dense air filled my lungs. Fulfilled, unscathed (relatively), surrounded by my people, I wanted to hold that breath forever. But the time came for me to exhale, to take off my gear, to load the boat back on the car, and for us to go. And so, we went.