Interview by Tyler Williams // Portraits by Jed Conklin
Mark Cramer is the only person to have rafted North America’s big-water Triple Crown: Turnback Canyon of the Alsek, Devils Canyon of the Susitna, and Grand Canyon of the Stikine. The three descents are each big-water milestones in and of themselves, coursing through committing canyons in grizzly-inhabited wilderness. On top of that, favorable water levels are a must, which is why only a select group of kayakers have ever completed the Triple. No rafters had even attempted it, until Cramer. But taking rafts into new territory is a natural progression for him. Learning with the cumbersome equipment of the 1970s, Cramer helped take boating from its humble beginnings to the high performance of today, step by careful step. With precise and aggressive high-siding, and honed rowing technique, he doesn’t flip often. And even when he does turn over, it’s only a hiccup in his run. With innovative modifications to the catarafts he rows, Cramer can right his flipped boats in a matter of seconds, and stop in the most improbable eddys. This new approach has gotten Cramer down Class V stretches once thought of as kayaks-only territory: California’s South Merced, Middle Feather and Rubicon, Idaho’s Lolo Creek, Secesh and Golden Canyon and North Fork Payette, and of course the Triple Crown.
I grew up in six states and three countries, as an Air Force kid. I enlisted myself, but the service just wasn’t my future.
I heard Idaho had a big primitive area, and that sounded good to me. When I first saw the Sawtooth Mountains, I knew this was home. Soon I was sleeping in a garage with my two dogs in return for helping the caretakers, and also helping people put chains on their tires below Galena Summit.
One person I helped chain-up was Bob Blackadar, Walt’s son. Several weeks later, we randomly met on the streets of Salmon, Idaho, and he invited me to dinner, which led to meeting some river guides.
The next season, 1976, I was guiding on the Main and Middle Forks of the Salmon. For 12 years, I ran trips there, and in Hells Canyon. We saw some pretty high water. And pretty low also.
When I got married and had two kids, boating was sort of forgotten. Then I ran into an old friend with this new kind of boat called a cataraft. Man, that thing really moved. I started in an Argonaut, but then AIRE loaned me an Ocelot to test. That became my boat for many years.
The bottom seven miles of the North Fork Payette was my first Class V run, but I wasn’t ready for it. So I practiced on the Lochsa, and worked up to Golden Canyon, South Fork of the Clearwater before going back to the North Fork. Now, 24 years later, I’ve done 101 top-to-bottom runs there, and the three runs in one-day vertical mile.
The trick to all this was that I had the time and money to go rafting all summer. Working on a commercial crab boat in Alaska during the winter allowed for that.
Alaska’s Susitna was the first big northern river to pique my interest. Bob Blackadar was the first to try and raft it, and there had been two other attempts, but none were successful. I learned about the Stikine next, and once I started preparing for those two runs, it occurred to me to include the Alsek, and raft the Triple Crown.
Training for the Triple Crown became an obsession in 2005. I lifted weights, dragged my boat for exercise, and practiced flipping and righting multiple times in a row so I could do it while out of breath.
Of course I ran a lot of hard rivers that year too: Idaho’s Secesh, Tumwater Canyon on the Wenatchee, Icicle Creek, Robe Canyon, the North Fork at 3,300 cfs.
Turnback Canyon was about 12,000 cfs when I got there. After a day of scouting on foot, and a helicopter flyover, it just felt right. I knew I’d flip in one of the last rapids, Percolator, so I was ready for it when it happened. I also flipped in Hair.
The Susitna came a week later. I’d flown the canyon a couple times before, once at high water and once at low water. Both levels looked horrible. Sixteen-thousand cfs is what I wanted, and after a few days of waiting, that’s exactly what I got. It was a great run. No flips.
The Stikine was toughest. It was starting to ice-over when I got there the first year, so I went home. But it stayed on my mind. Training runs the following season included Selway Falls and Big Falls on the Payette.
I’d have preferred a group for the Stikine, but there I was again, solo. At Three Goats, I flipped and got pushed into a violent forever eddy. After 23 cycles of clinging to my inverted raft, I made a lunge for a handhold, scrambled up a 10 foot cliff, and tied off the boat. The next day, I stopped at the first possible helicopter landing spot and made a sat phone call for a ride out.
In 2012, I returned to the Stikine with the Creature Craft gang, and had clean lines, except for Pass Fail, which I definitely failed. I did have a good run at the biggest rapid, Site Zed.
It’s been a great challenge, all these learning curves. The reward is all the great friends, and the memories.
Read more profiles in C&K x AIRE’s Legends of Rafting series:
-- The “Gauley Lama,” Glenn Goodrich
-- California outfitting pioneer Bill McGinnis