Luke Hopkins River SUP at Howard’s Plunge on the Payette River

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We’re at nearly 6000 feet above sea level. Foggy tendrils reach up from the river into the colder morning air. The fog bank nests in the crux of a small group of mountains. I can make out an occasional cow, signs reading “In beloved memory of” with names of pets. I pass signs for river-front property and massive tracts of land. But mostly, I track Luke Hopkins and the Imagine crew in their rental mini van with 3 inflatable boards strapped to the top of their car.

The fog is thinning in the valley as we enter a crack in the range and descend into a series of roller coaster S-turns. Route 55 goes from 65mph to 45, to 25. As we descend, pine trees reach high up to the blue. White knuckle bends, parallel to railroad tracks. Robotic semi trucks at high speeds, as if on rails.We cross the North Fork Bridge, or the “Rainbow Bridge,” a concrete bridge built in the 1930s with emergency relief funds during the great depression, over the Payette River and the railroad. I realize after watching a days of river competition, I no longer see the river in the same way. I don’t see whitewater or rapids. I see features. I see eddies. The river isn’t the same. It’s a connected series of challenges for Luke to attack.

We cross the road and park off the bend, above the river. Everyone’s excited to see Luke hit the water, so in minutes, we’re out with our gear and headed up the road, a concrete barrier separating us from the traffic. Luke’s tight-roping it atop the barrier, geared up, paddle and board in hand. We look down the loose gravel hill at the North Fork of the Payette River and the stretch of rapids known as Howard’s Plunge.

We’re sitting on a barrier along the bend in the road as we wait for Luke to climb down the gravely hill to the river. Over our shoulder, dirty windshields are struck by direct, blinding morning sun just as drivers emerge from the mountain shade and hit the turn. We comment that it’s amazing more cars don’t hit the barrier. That’s when we look down at our barrier and notice that the divider that we are sitting on is brand new. The rest of the barriers look a decade or more old. We think, “This probably isn’t the best pace to sit” and move.

The rapids on this part of the Payette River are known for being pinched by the road and railroad construction. They each have a long green tongue with craziness on either side of it. Howard’s Plunge is no different. It’s a fast green water tongue that goes into a diagonal with an unpredictable shallow water area before hitting the pool at the end. There is a thin rock in the center which is about 3 feet below the surface. The plan: Stay on that tongue as long as possible, then deal with the rapids below, stay left, and don’t fall. If you do, fall flat. Every rock in there is blasted rock. Be careful.

Luke is prepared for the cold water of Idaho. It comes out of the Cascade Lake and hovers in the 50s. It’s not ice-cream cold, but cold enough. He has a 3:2 wetsuit, BodyGlove Prime Wetsuit, glued and blind stitched, super warm so a 3:2 feels as warm as a 4:3. Super warm booties to have as much grip and warmth as possible but still have dexterity. Armor vest provides floatation and protection from impact in case he falls and hits a rock or other structure. Helmet, paddle and wits to be in the right place. Imagine Rapid Fire is nice and wide, has a lot of kick pads going down the sides of the board giving you better foot control over your board. A huge traction pad and a lot of floatation and a really durable paddle. A paddle I can feel like I can smash against a rock and keep going without it breaking. Sometimes you just have to keep paddling your line, even when it’s shallow. Having the right gear is important to help you get down the river safely and confidently.

Scouting from above is different. You have to accept that when you get on the river it’s going to look different and you’ll have to be open to the fact that you will have to adapt, improvise. As I came into the rapid, I tried to remember what I saw, then change my plan when I saw the ramped-up roller on river left that didn’t look big from up here, but was something from on the river.

The drop is significant. Someone told us it was a 15 foot drop, but it’s not quite that. It’s a 4+ rapid mostly because of the road rock and blasted rock that forms the river bed. It does end in a nice pool which makes it a favorable, high-fun factor section—especially if you keep river left. The pool at the end gives you relief from the rapid. Once you get to the eddy, it’s safer. Although there is a dead deer in the eddy who may have taken a similar line.

The first run is clean. Second and third: Issues and the forth, clean again. It’s fast and violent and exciting, but it’s over in a few seconds and after a hundred photos and video, the challenge is behind us. Off to breakfast.