It’s always a gamble when your first run of the season is a solid Class IV and V river, but there’s no better place to do it than the Black Canyon of the Bear River in Grace, Idaho. While the Wasatch were still getting hammered with snow, the floodgates to the Grace Dam opened up for the first whitewater release of the season on April 13. I dusted of my paddling gear, grabbed a few buddies, and made quick work of the 2-hour drive to Grace from Ogden.
The Black Canyon of the Bear is a beautiful and challenging stretch of whitewater. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s in the middle of a potato field. This thing is roaring, steep, and inaccessible. A hike out of here through the basalt boulder fields would be brutal. There are a handful of Class IV rapids including Grace Falls just outside of town (visible from the highway) as well as one solid Class V rapid called Boo Boo. All of these rapids can be scouted before running and portaged if necessary.
The journey starts at the Grace Dam at the north end of town (see a map of the 7-mile run here). The first mile or so is all flat water but the barbed wire and cattle on the shores will still keep you on your toes. Keep all those cattle in mind when you’re wondering why the river tastes kind of funky.
After about a mile, the river really starts to narrow down and speed up. This is the lead-in to Grace Falls, the second most difficult rapid you’ll see. The falls itself is a pretty straight-forward 8-10 foot waterfall, depending on where you hit it. There’s a conservative run down the middle that’s more of a water slide than a waterfall but if you go anywhere to the right of that be prepared to make a strong boof stroke (a stroke that enables your kayak to land flat rather than dive straight into the water). Where people usually get into trouble at Grace Falls is in the two recirculating holes above it on river right (i.e. the right side of the river if you’re looking downstream). These holes are easy to avoid if you just stick to the left side on your approach to the falls.
After Grace Falls the river drives deeper and deeper into the canyon. The next few miles are filled with several unnamed Class IV rapids, plenty of flat water, and lots of old rusty cars.
After about 4-5 miles things start to ramp up again and the rapids get more difficult. After another solid Class IV rapid with a strong horizon line, you’ll see the river in front of you make a sharp (nearly 90 degree) left turn a few hundred yards downstream. At that turn you’ll see a house up above on the rim of the canyon with a road coming down to the river. That’s how you’ll know you’re at Boo Boo, the only Class V rapid in the canyon. Eddy out on river left to scout the rapid and decide whether you’re going to lose your lunch or run the rapid.
Boo Boo is a beautiful rapid. It’s narrow, steep, and full of sticky holes and unforgiving rocks. But it’s a lot of fun. The river is only about 15 feet wide through the top part of the rapid and that’s where most people get into trouble. There are two nasty holes at the beginning on the right side that will most likely flip you or keep you if you go into them so you need to hug the left wall as you come into it. Immediately after the second hole the river makes a dramatic plunge through a chute caused by a few large boulders on either side. This is the most fun part of the day! I try to get as far right as possible as I’m going through the plunge to line myself up for the second half of the rapid which is strewn with barely-submerged, volkswagon-sized boulders. All told, this is a great rapid with a little bit of everything. There are even a few eddies throughout the rapid to catch your breath if needed. Be sure to set safety far enough downstream that you’re not pulling a swimmer into the rocks if he grabs your throw rope.
After Boo Boo the river has about 2 miles of super fun class III and IV boogie water all the way to the takeout. I’ve even seen a deer prancing through the middle of the whitewater here.
The Black Canyon is a great way to kick of the season and meet up with friends you haven’t seen all winter. Due to a hydro-electric dam the river rarely has enough water to run but thanks to the efforts of the American Whitewater Association and Pacificorp Power scheduled whitewater releases in the canyon will take place 9 days per year. The next release in the canyon will be April 26-28 for the annual Black Canyon of the Bear Whitewater Festival, which I help organize. The festival will include a downriver sprint race (from Boo Boo to the takeout), a BBQ, live music, gear swap, and raffle (where, among other things, we’re giving away a week-long kayaking expedition to Ecuador!) with all proceeds benefitting First Descents.