There’s a boulder in Staircase Rapid on the South Fork of Idaho’s Payette River that can kill you.
If you spill from a raft upstream on the left side of the river, you might get channeled to the boulder’s submerged undercut face, where the water could suck you into a dangerous sieve. River guide Dean Fairburn drowned here in 2007. Some 15 to 20 rafts wrap here every season, according to commercial outfitter Chad Long, who co-manages Cascade Raft and Kayak with his extended family.
But with the river low this fall because of work on an upstream dam, Chad’s father, Tom Long, saw an opportunity. Could the boulder be moved to make the rapid safer? It’s not exactly natural, anyway: The Army Corps of Engineers reconstructed the run after a mudslide here blocked the river in 2001. So Tom got a stream-alteration permit from the state — and kicked off a heated discussion within the whitewater community.
Meanwhile, this past July, 23-year-old river guide Kimberly Appelson became the fourth person since 2000 to drown in a more notorious, natural sieve in Frog Rock Rapids on Colorado’s Arkansas River. This fall, officials there also considered tweaking the rapid to make it safer — rousing yet more debate.