Feels like summer is over, doesn’t it? Labor Day is long gone. School is up and running. But in Central Washington there is one last chance for a summer adventure. It’s called the "Flip-Flop" on the Tieton River.
Throughout the year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation holds back the water of the Tieton River. The idea is to create spawning areas for salmon. And the backed-up water keeps their eggs safe during the winter.
But in early September, dam managers open the floodgates. The rushing water helps Yakima Valley farmers irrigate their crops. It's called the Flip-Flop because it turns the sleepy Tieton into a white water paradise.
“Oh yeah, the Tieton is super fun,” says Teague Keef, a guide for Alpine Adventures, one of the companies that takes people down the river.
“All the rivers throughout the whole state, it's all snowmelt here. So once the snow is gone, late season, there’s no water, no fun. Then we come out to the Tieton, they blow the dam and good times, man. Fast water.”
I get into a boat led by Teague’s fellow guide, Nelson Boone. Everyone calls him Admiral Nelson, but he doesn’t look like an admiral, with long hair and a tattoo of his home state of Kentucky on his back.
“I really like this river. It’s fun. It’s fast," Boone says. "And it’s cool because it’s such an increased pace that things happen so fast.”
As we go down the river, the Admiral yells out paddling instructions. And as we bump through the rapids, I pray my microphone won’t get soaked.
After hitting one big rapid Boone says, "That got me. If it gets the guide it was a good splash, folks.”
The water is fast and we are constantly rowing to stay in a safe position, but there are moments to take in the changing scenery. There is a shift as we move from west to east.
“As we get lower you’re going to notice the fir completely disappear," Boone points out. "The pine becomes more sparse and you get a lot more oak. It turns almost desertish, you know, we are in a transition, the sixteen miles we run here. I like it.”
At some points along the river, Admiral Nelson lays on the tough love.
“Lean in! Stop! When I say lean in, lean into my boat. I want to keep you with me today. There is a reason they call me Admiral Nelson because I am a prick when you don’t do it right. My philosophy with rafting is there is only one difference between failing and learning, and that’s trying again. So don’t give up on me because I’m sure as hell not going to give up on you.”
At this point, Admiral Nelson asks me to put down my microphone and pick up a paddle. He needs my help for the rapids ahead.
With my recorder away, Nelson tells me his job requires him to make quick judgements about customers and their abilities on the river. He can read people pretty well. But he is always surprised when they exceed his expectations or let him down.
White water rafting isn’t a spectator sport. The high water on the Tieton will be gone in just a few weeks, but running this river gives rafters a fleeting moment to prove who they are, not to Admiral Nelson, but to themselves.
On the Web:
Tieton River Rafting - Alpine Adventures
Tieton Dam overview - Bureau of Reclamation
2013 "Flip Flop" operation - Bureau of Reclamation