By Jeff Martin
It is tradition among staff at Catt Rafting Adventures to look for eagles at the onset of every trip down Cattaraugus Creek.
Craning her neck upwards, Christine Baer searched the gorge ledges for any sign of eagle as we began our trip down the creek. It was Saturday, April 13, and the persistent rains of the past few days had swollen the creek to near river-ferocity. One of the licensed guides determined earlier that morning that the rapids, about five along our course, were approaching Class 4.5.
ìAny stronger and we would have postponed the trip,î he said. His name was Dave and he was to be our navigator, our steer-man, perched higher than the remaining six of us in the raft. I was in the front, right side, and was beginning to question why I had agreed to take the trip.
Iíd never been whitewater rafting. I moved here last August from the western plains of Missouri, and the closest I got to such an experience was a 15-mile canoe trip down the Jack Forks River in southeast Missouri, a lovely course located in the northern half of the Ozark Mountains.
When I moved here, I hiked most of the Zoar Valley area, specifically the popular spots reached via Forty Road and Valentine Flats. Our rafts, six in number, would traverse those areas, but they would not resemble the summer calm as I remember them. Instead, the rain and steady spring melt had transformed the creek into a twisting, convulsing torrent.
Looking for eagles, Baer looked worried. She told everyone in the raft that seeing eagles at the beginning of a trip is a good sign, but most of the occupants, students at the University of Buffalo, didnít seem to pay attention. They were watching the waterfalls, some of which fell 200 ft. flush against the shale slopes. One waterfall, close to the confluence of the two creeks, was so strong it fell free of the shale, falling perhaps 300 ft. before striking the stones.
ìIím not seeing any eagles,î Baer said.
Iím not a suspicious person, and signs and symbols depicting good (or bad) luck are best left in the realm of conjecture, of relativism. Ancient thinking. My thought was if we keep our oars in the water consistently enough, dig hard when we needed to and send a small prayer up to the Gorge itself we would be fine.
The first rapid, the name of which Iíve forgotten, was a pleasant introduction. How the water lifted the raft with such ease was humbling; several times during the trip, the water lifted our raft into the air as effortlessly as a bird lifting its wing in a strong wind gust. Rocks I had stepped slowly across last summer had now become launch pads, ramps upon which our vessel approached at about 15 mph and skimmed over, pulling forth gasps and hoots from all aboard.
ìYeah!î one of the students said. ìThatís great!î
ìThatís a warm up,î Baer said, resting her paddle on the raft and letting the fast current carry us closer and closer to the confluence.
Judging by the amount of water flowing down the creek, I knew the confluence, rough and deep last summer in spite of the drought, would be a sight to behold. I imagined the two creeks coming together, doubling in strength and speed and noise, and I started getting a bit nervous. I wish I had seen an eagle.
Upon reflection, passing through the confluence was a blur. I remember rounding the bend and hearing the roar and glimpsing the whitecaps. In some spots, the water was higher than my head, and Dave commanded a hard ìdig,î or oars in deep. We had to center the raft through the rapid, which had become massive where the two creeks joined forces.
We were headed sideways. To the left I glimpsed a hydraulic, or hole, where the water falls steep and strikes another rock, creating a kind of whirlpool. To get caught in one is to invite trouble: the raft can flip or get caught, bouncing the occupants into the water.
We passed through quickly and without trouble, the nose of the raft lifting as high as a 40-degree angle and slamming down hard, digging a wall of water from the creek and into the boat. And into my face.
When we stopped, we were shocked to hear that one of the rafts had gotten caught in a hydraulic, sending two occupants into the water. One of them, Russ Crispell, a professor for outdoor pursuits for the University of Buffalo, got trapped in the water. He banged his knee pretty good, he later told me.
ìMy wife told me not to go today,î he said. ìSheís gonna be mad.î
After some creek-side chicken soup, where everyone proceeded to warm their soaked feet as the wind began to pick up, we ventured on. We would pass through rapids called ìpinball,î ìred line,î and ìwashboard.î No problems. When we landed behind the rafting facility, housed in the U-Haul building on Palmer Street, we wobbled up the stone steps like penguins and inside.
I made it. I completed a whitewater rafting journey down a torrent, and anyone who asks me, I will recommend the experience ó with or without eagles.