Even on a dull day, Star Falls could chew you up and spit you out.
That’s why visitors at the historic waterfall upstream from the Murtaugh Bridge were shocked to see several groups of kayakers take on the turbulent Snake River.
Below Star Falls, the Murtaugh Stretch of the river is considered a world-class section of whitewater too dangerous to float most years. Some kayakers and rafters would consider it too dangerous to float any year, but with the Snake as high as it is now, many will give it a go.
“We’ll be here every weekend until the water stops,” said Twin Falls kayaker Mike Bond.
A large group of sightseers had traveled to Murtaugh, crossed the Snake River Canyon at the Murtaugh Bridge, then followed signs along graveled roads to “Cauldron Linn” — otherwise known as Star Falls — to see the rarely raging river at its best.
During a normal spring, irrigation water would be backing up behind the Milner Dam, leaving only a trickle of water flowing between bone-dry boulders eroded away over thousands of years in the deep canyon.
But a plentiful snowpack in the mountains has streamflows this week at more than 20,000 cubic feet per second below the dam. Bond and his group stood at the bank and watched the river flow over a high terrace that almost never sees water.
“Are they nuts?” bystanders whispered as the men wearing wet suits and GoPro cameras pointed and planned their route over the waterfall, named Cauldron Linn by early trailblazers after a waterfall on the River Devon in Scotland.
The Wilson Price Hunt Party, hired by real estate and fur tycoon John Jacob Astor, met disaster upstream from Star Falls in October 1811 when an experienced steersman drowned after his dugout canoe hit a rock near present-day Milner Dam. The river proved impassable and others on the expedition ended up walking through the winter to Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River.
“I don’t want to discourage people, but I don’t like to see people getting in over their heads,” said Dennis Pettygrove, owner of River and Adventure Toys in Twin Falls. “If you’re not an experienced oarsman, you should have second thoughts about running the Murtaugh.”
The Murtaugh Stretch is tough, Pettygrove said, but shooting Star Falls is nearly impossible.
But that’s what kayakers are doing now, and have done every time the Snake River bulges at its seams.
“Kayakers come in from literally all over the West to run the river,” Pettygrove said, who has rafted the Murtaugh Stretch at 10,000 cfs.
Does his kayak and rafting business pick up when the river is high?
“Not exactly,” he said. Experienced kayakers have their own stuff and come in only to replace a broken oar or to make a repair.
But others are headed to the falls for commercial and recreational opportunities.
Jared VanderKooi, chief drone pilot for Reeder Flying Service in Twin Falls, has flown a drone over four waterfalls on the Snake River for a commercial video he’s putting together.
“I didn’t even know Cauldron Linn existed,” said VanderKoi, who moved here four years ago from Utah. “My wife heard rumblings about it and went there a couple weeks ago.”
Reeder Flying Service owns a $30,000 drone, and focuses on real estate and videography.
Private drones are also catching rides on billows of mist rising from the river as it slams through Star Falls’ 40-foot-wide chasm. Drone hobbyist Brian Skroback captured footage of Saturday’s kayakers shooting the high terrace.
The Murtaugh Stretch, downstream from the Murtaugh Bridge, is rated 4.5—5, with a 6 being “impossible,” he said. The stretch runs 20 miles to the Twin Falls Power Plant several miles above Shoshone Falls and includes 16 major rapids in 14 miles.
Depending on the height of the river, the course can change rapidly.
“You need to know a very experienced oarsman to lead you through the Murtaugh for the first time,” Pettygrove said.
Drone footage on YouTube has greatly helped inexperienced thrill-seekers plan their adventures, he said, by revealing sights that wouldn’t be seen until they were sitting on top of it in a kayak.
“These kayakers make it look easy,” Pettygrove said. Parts of “the Snake will literally swallow you up and suck you down.”