BANKS, Idaho — We have shown you the best kayakers in the world taking on Jacob’s Ladder on the North Fork of the Payette, but you rarely see a hard charging paddle raft team on this section of whitewater.
“It was definitely something that took four years of training to do, we did it last summer,” said John Metz who works as a firefighter in Nampa. “We put on, and I’ll never forget that moment I took a mental snap shot.”
Jon Metz grew up in Lowman, he started kayaking at the age of 12 and has more than 30 years of whitewater experience, he’s the skipper, but a raft guide is only as good as the crew he paddles with.
“Jon and I met four years ago,” said Brian Olson who works as a firefighter in Eagle. “We had a goal of rafting the entire North Fork and so we took a very streamlined approach.”
Brian and Jon started with the lower five, but as they moved up the river to some of the more difficult sections they needed to recruit strong paddlers with a strong mentality to brave the North Fork.
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“You don’t see many four or five person paddle teams out here because it is tough to convince that many people to do it,” said Olson.
Brian and Jon found their paddlers through their firefighting brotherhood as Ben Mors, Bjorn Skovlin and Evan Phillips joined the team representing Eagle, Boise and Nampa Fire.
“I trust them, they trust me, it is very similar to our job,” said Metz. “It sounds cliche, but no one person is more important than the other even myself as the guide, I’m relying on them to paddle and they rely on me to steer, these guys would do anything for me and vice versa.”
The North Fork of the Payette drops 1,700 vertical feet over a 15-mile stretch of continuous class five whitewater with violent rapids, waves crashing in every direction and intense hydraulics that seem to go on forever.
Commercial rafters will not take customers down the North Fork, it is too dangerous.
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“Things don’t always go right, I mean you don’t run clean lines every time, when you do have somebody swim or you do run a bad line and get beat up, we deal with that all the time as firemen,” said Olson. “That’s the reason why we exist, when people have a problem they call us so when we have problems on the river it seems like we are able to overcome those pretty fluidly because we all share the same mentality.”
We caught up with this team as they tried finish off their final rapid on the North Fork, it’s called Nutcracker and most people would consider it the second hardest rapid on the river with a crux move that doesn’t leave much room for error in a raft.
“Nutcracker holds a special place in my heart, I kayaked Jacob’s Ladder in 1994 with a guy named Conrad Fourney, unfortunately Conrad was killed in Nutcracker in a kayak in 2008,” said Metz. “He’s got a special place in my heart and he’s someone I always looked up to.”
Nutcracker is the second rapid in the upper five so in past trips the team of firefighters would either walk it or put in below it at the entrance to Disneyland.
“I look at this rapid a lot differently since that accident happened, that’s why we haven’t done this one,” said Metz. “I’ve always wanted to walk it even though we’ve technically ran stuff that is bigger, but knowing these guys and knowing what we’ve done in the past I think today is the day we give Nutcracker a shot, and we do it for Conrad.”
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The team cleaned the upper section of the rapid, which I didn’t get to see Jon’s brother got video of that section while also running safety ready with a throw bag on the side of the river.
I was down below the crux as ready with a throw bag, but I wouldn’t need it and the safety kayaker down below helped escort the team to the finish of this short, but intense run.
“I was up front a lot of what I saw was just white,” laughed Olson. “I’m not going to lie I feel a little bit of relief, we all made it through this project together nobody had any serious injuries and then you just soak it up and enjoy the moment.”
Jon believes Sean Glaccum, the owner of Payette River Company, has the only other complete descent of the North Fork in a paddle raft, there are videos online of rafters running these stout sections in two man teams, there are videos of cat boaters and also creature crafts.
“Man, I’m proud of these guys, they are like brothers to me, they paddled their butts off and we were able to get through it,” said Metz. “It’s something that I’ll never forget and it’s super special to myself and these guys.”
The team is sponsored by Aire, a rafting manufacturing company based here in the Treasure Valley, two summers ago we profiled Aire for our Made in Idaho franchise.