By Steven Law
When things go wrong during a Grand Canyon rafting trip, the author’s friends are there to set things right.
About 260 million years ago, massive aeolian winds blew with enough ferocity to carry sand from the far-distant north and deposit it in large dunes, 500 feet deep, in what is now northern Arizona. These new sand dunes eventually petrified into Coconino Sandstone, which is found throughout Marble, and Grand Canyon.
That same powerful and ferocious Coconino wind is blowing again today; and we are rowing our oarboats against it.
The wind has whipped the clouds into swirly cowlicks, and the stretches of river that are normally flat today the wind is blowing into whitecaps and three foot-deep troughs. I am pulling oars with my back to the wind, but on occasions when I glance over my shoulder to check my position or progress I see sand crystals blowing past me like lightspeed stars blowing past the Millenium Falcon.
The wind is blowing hard against our rafts, and despite the assistance from the river current we have to pull hard against the oars to make any progress against the wind. I am able to pry my raft forward 18 inches with each stroke but as soon as I release the oars to take another stroke, despite the assistance of the river current, the wind pushes me back ten to fifteen inches.
It’s all my fault actually. You see just two days ago, after barely surviving a shitty run through Hance Rapid, in which I missed a stroke and ended up going straight down a section of it called the Land of the Giants. After much cursing and a few high-sides later we were once again on the downriver side of it, which is when I dropped my oars and told the Grand Canyon to “blow me.”
I am one of a crew of five boatmen rowing four 18 foot rafts down the Colorado River. Nate Jordan, our trip leader, rows the lead boat. Lorenzo MacGregor rows the second raft, I’m rowing the third raft. Taylor Lawrence, our swamper is rowing the fourth raft under the tutelage of our fourth boatman Amanda LaRiche.
The infernal wind started yesterday while we were setting up camp at Clear Creek, river mile 85. It continued through the night and was still blowing this morning when we woke up at four to begin our long change-over day. We completed our change-over in which six of our passengers hiked out at Phantom Ranch, and four new passengers hiked in to raft the mighty whitewater of the Grand Canyon’s lower half.
It’s now after 4 p.m. and the wind still shows no sign of stopping. After hours of continuous rowing the boatmen have entered a rowing rhythm, our bodies like metronomes set at 20 beats per minute; but the wound springs of our bodies is running down.
I’ve been alternating between pulling on the oars and pushing on the oars, and now fatigue is embedded in my shoulders like a throbbing, aching net of leeches, which have sucked the strength from my shoulders. And after having made some two thousand pushes against the oars today I now have whiskey-dick triceps. The tendons in the back of my neck are as tight as a tallship’s backstays and my back has more knots than a Witch’s Ladder. My hands, which are slowly blistering, are hotter than a rapeller’s figure eight. The wind has deposited nests of sand in the corners of my eyes until it now feels like a helgamite has built its cocoon there. I desperately want to remove the irritating sand deposits from my eyes but I can’t stop rowing long enough to do it. In the time it would take me to scratch the sand nests from my eyes the wind would blow me twenty feet back up the river.
My desire and my will are still strong but after seven hours rowing against the wind my energy is as empty as John Wesley Powell’s right sleeve. I just want to get to camp and stop rowing, and there are several campsites dispersed along this section of river through which we’re rowing: Granite, Trinity, Schist, Hermit. But all of them are either occupied or spoken for. I eye each camp enviously, jealously as I row past it.
The next camp along this stretch of river is Crystal, but it too has been spoken for by another oar trip, a private trip that’s a short ways behind us, that’s even more tired, battered and beleaguered than we are. Our trip leader Nate, who has a very kind heart, agreed to let them have it when he saw their pitiable state. So, Nate informs us, we’ll be camping at Eagle Beach which is located halfway through Crystal Rapid.
This leaves one last obstacle between me and camp. Between me and a much-deserved rest. Between me and my dinner. Between me and three fingers of Jameson. Between me and a massive sigh of relief.
After another 100 or so pulls on the oars we pull our rafts into Crystal’s lower beach at where we can walk down to scout the rapid. As soon as I get out of the boat I pause to remove the irritating sand cocoons from the corners of my eyes. We tie up our rafts and walk along a sandy trail, then across several large round boulders until we reach a spot where we can view the river and the formidable Crystal rapid.
From the rock I’m standing on I can look upriver and see our rafts tied in the eddy. I look downriver and I can see the beach where we want to camp for the night. The idea, the plan, is simple. We just want to hop from one eddy to the next eddy. But between this eddy and the next eddy is the top of Crystal Rapid. I know it sounds easy enough but the doing of the thing will be akin to storming a castle.
There are many “Ifs” encompassed in the whitewater between the eddy where our rafts are tied and place where we want to make camp. There are the usual “ifs” we’ll be contending with as we navigate our rafts through the upper section of Crystal. What if I miss a pull, or what if I lose an oar? We’ll be trying to skirt around the right side of Crystal’s haystacks and holes but, on April water, there is little slackwater over there, and all the current pushes into the hole, so if we do miss a pull, or lose an oar our raft will get pulled into Crystal Hole.
And today the incessant wind adds an additional challenge. It’s already blowing steady and strong out of Crystal Creek and the direction from which it blows will ally with the river current trying to push our tiny rafts into Crystal Hole. And if anyone’s raft does get pulled or pushed into Crystal Hole it will have big consequences. Any raft that gets pulled into Crystal Hole will likely flip, and if that happens the raft will continue on its course through the bottom half of Crystal rapid without steering or guidance and will get swept onto the Rock Island where it will get pinned on the rocks.
I’ve been on raft trips where our rafts got stuck on the Rock Garden and extracting it off the rocks was a five hour process. We only have about 90 minutes of light left today, so if anyone gets stuck on the rock island they’ll probably have to spend a long, uncomfortable, sleepless night there until we can rescue them, and the raft, in morning.
That’s the main scenario we want to avoid, but there’s also a secondary situation we want to avoid too. If someone misses the pull-in to camp and gets swept past it – and with the strength of the wind that’s blowing in the direction opposite camp it’s very possible – then we’ll have to continue on to the next camp, which is five miles farther downriver. This wouldn’t be terrible, but, as tired as we all are, it would be a major pain in the ass, rowing another five miles against this wind.
As we’re standing there scouting, the exact worst-case scenario that I’ve been imagining happens: a massive and powerful gust of wind streams out of Crystal Creek Canyon, a gust of perhaps 60 miles per hour, strong enough that it nearly knocks me off the rock on which I’m standing. This gust of wind hits the crests and peaks of the waves of Crystal Rapid and blows the whitecaps right off them and throws the mist against the far cliff wall. The mist being carried by the wind makes the wind visible and now we watch the wind and mist hit the barrier of the left cliff wall where it flattens and spreads, some of it being pushed to the right, some to the left and some straight up, higher and higher, perhaps a hundred feet up the wall.
Surely, we are now all thinking the same thing. There’s no way we can row against a gust as strong as that. If a gust of wind that strong catches our meager rafts as we’re entering the rapid it will push us straight into Crystal Hole where we’ll flip and be swallowed up and ground against the rocks like a kernel of wheat in a chicken’s gizzard.
But no one says anything. No one protests.
The only thing more powerful than the gusts of wind blowing out of Crystal Canyon will be the strength of my sigh of relief, once I’ve safely pulled my raft into camp. It too will blow the mist and spray off the caps and crests of the waves and roll them up the side to the canyon where they will wet the faces of the tourists taking photos at Hermit’s Rest.
There is only one way through this rapid: A combination of sheer physical strength, dexterity of oar, finesse of angle. And right now, after an exhausting day of rowing, I am seriously doubting my strength, and with the wind blowing against us, our finesse of angle will be compromised too.
“Alright,” Nate says. “Everybody know the run?”
We pick our way across the rocks and back to our rafts.
I pull my passengers aside. “Larry. Roger,” I say.
They turn to me. They can see that I’m serious, which I’m usually not. “Do you guys remember the highside drill.” They nod their heads.
“Good,” I say. “Just to keep it simple, if you hear me yell ‘Highside’ in this rapid we’re going to jump to the boat’s right side, okay.”
They nod. “Okay.”
“And make sure the straps on your lifejackets are good and tight. Really tight.”
They put on their lifejackets and then pull their straps tight. I do the same to my lifejacket.
Our boats are parked in a little pocket of the beach, growing thick with cattails and tamarisk trees. The cattails and tammies are thrashing about in the vigorous wind.
Nate goes first. He pushes his raft off the beach, jumps into the pilot’s seat and starts maneuvering downstream. Lor and Amanda go second. Zo goes third. After Zo pulls out I let him get a safe distance ahead of me and then I push my boat off the beach, climb into the boat, into the oarseat and row us out of the eddy.
When the current takes me, I pivot my raft counter-clockwise, let the current carry me a little farther and as I approach the marker rock I pull toward it to start my momentum. Yes, the wind is still blowing as I enter the rapid but I am not met by any 60 mph gusts. The only thing louder than the roaring of Crystal rapid and the blowing wind is the pounding of my heart.
I drop in behind the marker rock, but through the small hump wave . . .
. . . and then things get weird.
I’d like to blame it on the wind, but there was no gust of wind. The current gathers my raft and typewriters it a boat length deeper into the current, but I stay cool, I keep pulling away from it trying to skirt around the right side of the hole. But then the current grabs my upstream oar and wrenches it from my grip and sweeps it underneath the raft and pops it from its oarlock. We are now barreling straight into the hole. Sideways!
I should have forgot about the left oar and just pulled on the right oar until we were squared up to hit the hole. But no. I leave my seat, reach over the larboard side of the raft and retrieve the lost oar, which is attached with a leash, slide it back into the oarlock and then look downstream to see where we are in relation to the hole I know must be fast approaching. I look up and see a wall of water standing over us. I have time to yell “Highside!” We drop into the hole dead-nuts-sideways. I jump to the right side of the boat, highsiding as best as I can. Even if I would have had the entire Fox News staff on my raft we still wouldn’t have leaned far enough to the right to keep from flipping.
The hole swallows us like the whale swallowed Jonah. And for about four seconds everything is as dark as the inside of a whale’s belly. I expect the raft to come down on top of me hard. I expect to be hit in the head with ammo cans, or a tomahawked with a flailing oar, or impaled by an oarlock. I expect to crunch upon Crystal’s submerged rocks. But none of this happens.
The other three rafts, which had successfully pulled in to Eagle Beach, now push off to rescue my dumb ass.
I hear someone yell, “Rope!” and I see Lorenzo throw his bag in my direction, but it falls a little short of me.
My best option now is to swim for Amanda’s boat, which is nearest. I swim as hard as can. Amanda is in the bow, Taylor is rowing. I grab the raft’s chicken line and kick and heave myself out of the water, while Amanda grabs my lifejacket and hauls me in. I flop into the bow.
And drop a Dresden of F-bombs.
It’s such a helpless position. I don’t like being the person who’s in need of rescuing. All I can do from my position in the bow of Amanda’s raft is watch the rescue efforts. I watch Nate rescue my passengers, Larry and Roger, and pull them into my raft.
With everyone rescued we watch the river carry my upside down raft toward the Rock Island. And it’s carried directly onto it. It bounces off some rocks, gets hung up for a few seconds then, gets washed free, only to be carried a little deeper into the rock garden where it hangs up again. It looks like tomorrow’s project will be extricating my raft from the Rock Garden.
But wait! What’s this?! Miracle of miracles—a surge of water lifts it free and my raft washes off the rocks and through the rest of the Rock Garden and into the main channel. I hear a few shouts of surprise and cheers of victory from the other boats. I release a large sigh of relief.
Lor rows us over to my upside-down raft, and when we reach it I jump from the bow of his raft to the underside of my raft. Amanda tosses me a throw bag and with a carabiner that I carry on my lifejacket, clip the end of the throw rope to my raft’s chicken line.
This is exactly what we didn’t want to happen. Dealing with an overturned raft, with darkness soon upon us and no beach worthy of a camp to pull into. And I’m still helpless. I sit on my overturned raft as Lor tows me behind him. It’s a terrible feeling.
Nate, pulls his raft into shore at the first available beach that’s big enough to flip over a boat. Lor noses his raft into the beach, and then, with some pushing and prodding, we maneuver my raft against the beach. Zo, who has been picking up detritus from my raft, pulls in a couple minutes later.
We first take an inventory of our health. Nate and Zo inspect Larry, Roger and me to make sure we’re okay. Larry is shaken up and cold, but without injury. Roger too is shaken up and he has a cut on the top of his head, probably from getting whacked by an ammo can. I too am without injury. No cuts, gashes, bruises, bumps, broken bones, no head injuries. But my ego is as battered as a Legionaire’s shield.
And then we set up camp; business as usual.
Amanda and Lor are already unloading the rafts, setting the camp gear out on the tiny spit of beach that is now our camp. It’s a very tiny spit of beach. The three tables of our kitchen, and our wash table occupies all of it. A steep sand dune rises behind the narrow beach, and because there is no better place to set up camp our passengers climb it and scratch out a place among the rocks and cactus to place their beds. It’s certainly not ideal, but I think most of them, like me, are just happy to be in camp, even if the whole thing is on an incline. Nothing a cocktail can’t fix.
After we’ve passed the gear from the boats and organized it, somewhat, in camp Zo opens the rescue kit and retrieves a 300 foot static rope from inside it. He fastens the rope to my upside down raft and uncoils the rest of the rope along the short, narrow beach.
I attach gas lines to the stove, hang drying nets to the tables, and continuously relive my flip in Crystal, chastising myself for what I should have done differently. I should have let the loose oar go and straightened up for Crystal Hole! I relive the rescue. And I can’t stop imagining how much worse it could have been. My boat could be stuck on Crystal Island right now. I or my passengers could be injured, or even dead.
We finish setting up the kitchen, and start organizing the gear that washed from beneath my cargo net into the river, most of which was gathered back up by Zo’s raft.
We are amazed to discover that very little has been lost. As far as we can tell we are missing only a salad pan, a bucket, a hand pump and a throw bag.
But we are also missing Roger’s camera. The camera itself is an expensive pro model, but more distressing than that it holds a memory card with six months of photos on it. Roger is six months into a year-long, once-in-a-lifetime journey around the world and the memory card that was in the camera has all the pictures from the last six months on it. He is devastated by this loss.
And so am I.
Due to my incompetence Roger has lost the pictures from the best six months of his life. I am the cause of this failure. And it galls my pride, like sand trapped in sandals rubbing a blister. It has been a long day full of discomfort and suffering. After eight hours rowing against a bitter wind we just wanted to get into camp and relax. But now, we’re camped on a rocky hillside, and the discomfort and suffering will continue through the night.
River guides want to be the heroes. We want to be the rescuers. We want to be the ones who save people from crappy situations, and misery; we don’t want to be the source of the crappy situation, the origin of the misery. Yet here I am, the man who screwed up and had to rescued; here I am, the man who piled on the day’s suffering.
Yes, river guides flip rafts, and get stuck on rocks. It’s a profession saturated in risk, there’s no escaping it. But still . . .
The crew can see that I’m pretty upset. I’m not blubbering or whining or pouting but they can see that my chambers have deflated. They can see that I’m still agitated and anxious about the things that could have gone bad, which I can’t help playing out in my imagination. Mostly, they can see that I’m withdrawn. Usually, I’m talkative. I like to stand in the center of camp and tell a story, or just converse with one of our clients while I’m grilling the steaks. I quite like it when the spotlight is shining on me. But not tonight; and the spotlight is shining on me very strongly, but not in the way I’d prefer. Tonight I want to shrink away and be left alone.
Amanda walks up to me and gives me a big hug. “I can’t wait to drink a big slug of whiskey with you,” she says. A few minutes later Taylor gives me a hug. “It’s cool dude,” he says. “I’ve flipped too. It happens.” Lorenzo doesn’t say anything, he just gives me the kind of big, solid hug that only a man of 350 pounds can give.
“Alright!” Nate calls out. “Let’s flip this boat back over.”
While Amanda, Lor, and myself are setting up the kitchen, Nate and Zo ready my raft to be re-flipped, attaching a static line that extends from the boat along the length of our narrow beach.
Under Nate’s command, every crew member and passenger takes hold of the rope and we begin pulling in a method known as the Georgia Pull. Zo explains to the peeps how this is going to work. “We’ll all take hold of the rope, and heave as a group, inching the boat over pull by pull. Hopefully it will work. If not (shrug) we’ll get out the Z drag.”
We all take hold of the rope and when Nate calls out “Pull!” we pull.
Our first pull snugs the raft against the bank.
“Hold,” Nate calls in his loud, steady voice. We hold, readjust our grips, and when Nate calls “Pull” we pull again. We watch the starboard side of my sad little raft rise a bit. Out of the mud.
“Hold!” Nate calls.
Pull, pause. Pull, pause. It’s working!
Twelve of these and the raft nears its apex. C’mon, Baby! I think. And then, Oh! So this is what repentance must feel like!
Two more pulls and the raft’s over the apex – teeter! – and the final victorious pull. To fall onto the beach.
Right side up again.
We shout triumphantly!
And Amanda hands me her bottle of Jameson, which has been waiting on the rivercamp table – for this moment – like sacristy wine, and I take three strong pulls that burn my throat like a rope through oar-blistered hands.
“Thanks. I really needed that.”
And that sigh I’ve been wanting to take for the last three hours is finally released.
We give my boat a quick inspection before I return to cooking dinner. One oar is snapped at its collar. “There’s my new can smasher,” Nate says, eyeing the handle end of the broken oar.
“Wrong!” I say. “That’s my new motor handle.
Nate smiles and nods.
Moss hangs from my oar towers. But everything is still strapped down and in place. Even the lids of my twenty mils and fifty cals are closed and intact. I’ll tidy it up later. Right now I return to the kitchen to finish dinner.
Nate returns a few minutes later. He stands before me holding his necklace open like he means to put it on me. It’s his Numi Numi necklace, the one he got on his rafting trip to Africa last winter. And he puts the necklace around my neck and ties it behind my neck. Then he hugs me and gives me some encouraging words. After that gesture the rest of the crew all give me a big group hug. I’m still withdrawn. By now everything is back to normal.
Except that our passengers are forced to make their beds on an uncomfortable hillside. And I’m still feeling the stings of responsibility for having lost Roger’s camera and six month’s worth of memories. I was still mulling over the consequences of what could have been. There is nothing I need more than a group hug from my best friends.
“Thanks you guys,” I say. “You are good friends. My best friends.” And this is absolutely true. There are few people in this world that I love more than Nate, Lor, Zo and Amanda (or any Wilderness guide for that matter).
I continue. “I read a quote this winter that said, ’Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future’. I see you guys and I see a future filled with exploration and adventure. And a shit-ton of tomfoolery. If a guy intends to make adventuring and exploration his business he’s gonna need some friends like you guys.”
Best toast I’ve ever given.
Throughout a man’s life he will make many friends and he will form many different kinds of friendships. Some rare friendships are bulletproof and rip-resistant, made from a fabric stronger than Kevlar. Some are like boat rubber. They flex and they give. They rip and they puncture. And they can be patched.
But the best friends – the kind you want with you on an deep –country expedition – are like boots. They’re sturdy. They‘re supportive. They make the rough trail more comfortable. They make the load easier to bear.
And, most importantly . . .
Most importantly, when the door of your adventure starts closing – and all kinds of mishaps will try to close that door – they thrust their ugly boot forward into the gap and keep the door from closing.
Few things determine the success of an expedition more than the members of the expedition. When choosing, choose men and women who possess the skills and knowledge that you do not possess.
Jason, of Jason and the Argonauts fame, had the privilege of choosing the men he wanted to join him on his journey aboard the Argo. He chose them for their courage, their strength, their wit, their honor and their valor. I did not get to choose my fellow river guides, but I have been greatly pleased to discover, as I got to know them, that they too possess characters of honor, valor and bravery. They’re strong, witty and intuitive. In the future, when I launch a daring adventure that promises to be full of risk, hardship, danger, and moments of despair (like every worthy expedition) I will choose my crew from among the men and women I work with at Wilderness River Adventures.
It’s then that Amanda notices that we have one too many drybags on the back table. She picks up it up, and feels it. It feels like a camera. She calls out to Roger, who is still setting up his tent on the hillside. “Hey Roger! Was your camera in a drybag like this?” she says, holding up the bag.
“Yes!” he says.
“I think this might be it!”
Roger takes long, hopeful strides down the sandy hill, as Amanda unrolls the drybag. And she pulls out a camera!
“That’s it!” Roger yells, with the kind of level of elation when the proof of the best six months of your life has been lost, then found again.
Amanda hands him the camera and he inspects it. Everyone is watching. The camera is dry. He turns it on.
“It works!” he shouts, and we all shout our hoorays with him. And with that a great cutbank of my stress and guilt drops, and washes away.
About ten minutes later dinner is finally ready and after a long, difficult day everyone in camp is starving. We gather into a circle with our plates of hot food and eat. In the beginning we eat in silence, the silence of people who are too hungry, and too engrossed in their food to talk. But as the first plate is finished and people go back for seconds and return to the circle, the conversation returns. Naturally, we discuss the two main events of the day. The flip, and the wind.
“Hey!” says Roger. “Anybody notice: the wind has stopped!”
In the post-flip aftermath we hadn’t noticed, but upon noticing we all cheer!
“Tomorrow’s going to be a lot better,” someone says.
I reach down and knock wood on the log I’m sitting on.
When I‘ve eaten, and the dishes are done I have time to return to my raft and organize it. Moss hangs from the oar towers. I clean it off. My twenty mils and fifty cals are still attached and snapped shut, but they’re crooked and askew. I loosen the straps that hold them in place, wriggle them back into place and cinch them down again.
Amanda, retrieves my lifejacket off the tree branch where I’d hung it earlier and brings it to me to hang over my oar. Like a boatman.
“Looks like another leaf came off your four-leaf clover,” she comments.
“Yeah. I think it symbolic of the luck I just used up today. I mean, flipping in Crystal and still coming through it as well as I did . . .”
She nods. “Yup. You used up a big dose of it today.”
When you embark on a grand expedition you’re going to need some luck, no doubt about that. But what you’ll need even more than luck is some competent, brave, smart, intuitive friends, who, when due to some mishap the door to your expedition starts closing, thrust their muddy boot into the gap and hold it open.
Like these bastards here.
Steven Law works as a journalist for the Lake Powell Chronicle. He also writes a travel column called “Gone: Utah Adventure Stories,” for The Daily Herald in Provo, UT, and he’s the author of a book of poetry called Polished published by Westbow Press in 2015. “Swimming for Sure” won Gold in the Adventure Travel Category of the Tenth Annual Solas Awards.