A Kayaking Blog By Dan Simenc

The Devil’s Washbowl

The Devil’s Washbowl

Aug 3, 2011

Being only an hour and a half’s drive East of Boise, and directly under I-84, it’s amazing that Devil’s Washbowl in the Malad Gorge has seen so few kayaking descents. The steep canyon walls, difficult entry rapids, and the drop’s checkered history are all likely reasons for why many previous kayakers have merely pulled over, looked at the waterfall, then driven to another river.

The classic VHS paddling film “Buck Fever” featured Charlie Beavers making the first descent of the falls. Midway down the 50-foot waterfall Charlie pitons a rock shelf, jarring him forwards and onto his head in the pool below. This footage was certainly less-than-inspiring to future would-be descentionists, and it would take over a decade for another kayaker to “follow in his paddlestrokes.”

Seth Stoenner bravely made the second descent in 2010 with slightly more water. He styled the entry gorge and waterfall. His sprayskirt imploded from the impact, but he was still able to paddle to shore. Here is Seth’s helmet-cam footage from that day:

I had seen the drop in person at low water, and seen pictures of it at floodstage, and believed the drop would be great at a medium-high flow. Seth’s successful line further inspired my confidence that the “piton shellf” would disappear at high flows. In early June of 2011 my brother, Tom, returned from a climbing trip with pictures of the drop at a perfect water-level, and I was ready to go have a look myself.

Later that month Tyler Allyn and I made plans to go scope the drop, and run it if the flows were right. Brian Ward was nursing an injury, but agreed to come along to set safety for us, and Mike Leeds accompanied to shoot photos. An hour and a half after leaving our homes in Boise, we were staring down at the lip of the cascade. It looked juicy and intimidating, but runnable.

Four different bridges span the gorge at the falls: one for the old highway, two for the new freeway, and a pedestrian footbridge overlooking the waterfall. From the shore and the many bridges we were be able to get a great look at the falls and decided to run it. I had brought along a rope and climbing gear, and used it to build an anchor at the edge of the gorge below the falls from Brian to rappel from. Mike and Tyler set up cameras as Brian lowered into the gorge to set safety for our run. I lowered down Brian’s boat, then took the anchor apart and met Tyler at the car to get geared up.

Tyler Allyn ponders the potential of the stout.

Brian Ward about to lower his boat the rest of the way into the Malad Gorge after his short rappel.

It was the time of year when I would normally begin phasing out my drysuit for a drytop, but Tyler and I both erred on the side of caution and we sweated our way up along the short hike to the put-in wearing drysuits. After chugging some water and briefly cooling off in the shade, we got into our boats and slid into the river.

The first rapid got our hearts pumping right away, and we were both happy to boof past a backed up reversal on river-left. Two drops later in the most significant rapid of the upper gorge we encountered an unexpected problem. While scouting this rapid we saw a sieved-out feature on river-right that we planned to avoid by staying on the rive-left side of the drop.

After I moved far left and avoided the sieve, I was startled to see that the water was falling into an undercut wall on the left. I slammed into the wall with my left forearm and managed to get just passed it without getting stuck (see 2:59 in the video). After running the last part of the drop I looked back upstream to see Tyler pinned upside down against the wall! I caught the first eddy I could, and was happy to find that it was possible to get out of my boat and onto the narrow shore. I had just stepped out of my kayak and was reaching for my throw-rope when Tyler came paddling down with an “oh shit” smile on his face!

I hopped back into my boat and met Tyler just downstream in the eddy right above the falls. We were stoked to have gotten through the gorge okay, and happy to realize that it was possible to set some safety in the narrow canyon. After a short chat, I peeled out and entered the falls.

The main falls consists of a short rapid, which drops into a reversal then leads straight over the lip of the waterfall. Boils below the reversal push most of the surface water to the left, and on the right a curling jet of water rebounds back left off the right wall. Tyler and I both opted to enter the rapid far left, and then boof back into the center off the final hole above the lip of the curling waterfall.

I entered left then angled right as I drove into the hole. The hole briefly halted my momentum, and my stern was pushed under water slightly by the current behind me, which raised the bow of my kayak to about 30 degrees into the air. I quickly threw my weight forward to drop bow back down, then took a couple of paddle strokes to angle my kayak back to the right. I rolled over the falls and was enveloped by the current of water curling off of the right wall. The freefall lasted only a brief moment, and I was soon thrust deep under water in what was actually a very soft landing. When my boat finally resurfaced I was happy to see that my sprayskirt was still intact around the cockpit of my boat. Cheers echoed down into the canyon from Mike and a small crowd of shocked sightseers on the footbridge.

The author at the lip of Devil's Washbowl about to take the final plunge.

Tyler followed shortly after and nailed a perfect line over the falls. Unfortunately his sprayskirt imploded from the impact and his boat was full of water when he resurfaced. He paddled towards the shore, but was forced to abandon his kayak to avoid being swept into the class V rapid below the falls. We all celebrated our successful runs as we walked down to see where Tyler’s boat had ended up. I was sure that it would’ve gotten pinned somewhere in the long jumbled boulder garden below the falls, but it had surprisingly made its way down past the mess.

Tyler Allyn about to fall 50 feet into the Devil's Washbowl on the Malad River.

Dan, Brian, and Tyler safely in the eddy below the falls. You can see Tyler's boat drifting down into the next rapid.

Brian and I pulled the boat free from its resting place on a rock downstream while Tyler hiked down to meet us. From there we paddled the short distance to the dirt road where Mike was awaited us with the car. We exchanged “high-fives,” then, as is tradition, Tyler appeased the “river gods” for his swim by chugging a beer from his river bootie. We loaded up our gear and drove the short distance back to Boise, still buzzing from the day’s events.

Check out more great kayaking photos by Mike Leeds, and enjoy my video-edit from the day:

In light of the recent successes I expect the future of this waterfall will see several more kayaking descents. The flow reported by the Malad River gauge was just under 700 cfs when we ran the falls, and around 300 cfs when Seth ran it. At higher flows the lead-in and entry rapids become more challenging, but the “piton shelf” midway down the waterfall becomes fully covered up. I would estimated the optimal flow for the falls to be about 500 cfs.

The view looking downstream of Devil's Washbowl into the Malad Gorge.

Comments Closed

  1. That is totally epic. This blog is epic. I’m new to paddling but have become completely obsessed and am trying to figure out how to make enough money to be a full-time river bum :) Thanks for the incredible posts!