A Park Ranger dropped a package from a chopper hovering above our tiny little boats–Ziploc baggie weighted with river sand, tied with a red ribbon. Note reads “Glen Canyon dam released 65,000 cfs this a.m. Should reach you in about 7 hours. Camp high, stay safe. Love, The Park Service.”
It was 25 years ago this summer that western river runners witnessed one of the biggest paddling a spectacles of the century, one that still adorns rafting posters on barroom walls and stirs memories of those along for the ride: the 1983 peaking of the Grand Canyon at 100,000 cfs.
Perhaps best memorialized by a poster showing a Tour West boat above the hole in Crystal with the simple words “The Power and the Glory,” the event still raises the hairs on the backs of boaters who happened to be there (Click here to watch footage1;
Click here to watch footage2.
Paddling Life caught up with none other than veteran Utah river runner Drifter Smith, who was on hand for the white-knuckle event, to reveal his memories of the event all these 25 years later, as well as a first-hand account of the mayhem that followed by Jeffe Aronson:
I find it interesting that now that the 25th anniversary year has arrived everybody seems bent on trying to remember…I’m still trying to forget.
Among the things I’m trying to forget: the view from the Crystal Throne, the driver’s seat of an otherwise unoccupied 18-foot rowing raft entering Crystal.
I didn’t wear a crown while I sat on my Crystal Throne, but I did wear a crash helmet. Earlier in the season a guide friend had gotten recycled in a large breaking wave while running Crystal, then was knocked semi-conscious and was sent downstream for an adventurous swim. When I heard the tale, I checked out the local thrift stores and found a decent motorcycle helmet (a Bell, the kind I used to wear skydiving back in the early ’60s) for $2. I packed it with my river gear and wore it faithfully when I climbed onto that Crystal Throne for the rest of the summer.
High water, 1983: the only time I’ve ever flipped an oar rig, or (for that matter) helped carry one around Crystal or Lava. Once, having carried someone else’ s boat around Crystal (after running it myself,) I realized they were smarter than I was….
I always ran Crystal alone, and still managed to catch the eddy at the bottom. Once, when everyone else carried someone to help them bail, I was really glad I’d chosen to run alone. When I began boating, if I had ever been told that one day I would find myself rowing a major rapids alone – having told my passengers to walk around (for fear of what might happen to them) – I doubt I’d have ever been tempted to become a river guide.
Maybe I took this stuff too seriously…but it was only five years after I watched the first death at Lava, when I hitched my first ride on a motor rig. Nobody did anything wrong, except the lady who didn’t have her life jacket fastened tight enough. But we watched her die, anyway. Things were trickier in ’83, I thought. When it was all over with, I thought we’d been lucky – on my trips. Others weren’t as lucky.
GRAND CANYON 1983: HIGH WATER
A river runner’s account
By Jeffe Aronson
Late winter, early 1983. The snow pack in the Rockies, headwaters for the once-mighty–still beloved Colorado, is about seventy percent. Lake Foul, or is it Powell?, filled to the brim at last, a lusty goal of the dam operators.
March enters capricious, feisty. Snow starts to fall. Lots of it. A thousand river miles upstream of the aquarium we used to call Glen Canyon, flakes drift from muddled storm clouds, meld themselves with others of like mind, adding to that vast white frozen blanket, crumpled by mountains. Inch by inch, foot by foot. In the Snow Report for March, sensibly distributed by the Bureau of Meteorology in April, the pack goes from historically low to pretty damn deep. Engineers operating the dam way down there in the Arizona desert, reading reports from meteorologists in Colorado one month after the fact, drink coffee from their thermos, go home to wives and kids in Page, crack a beer. April passes similarly, getting the engineer’s notice at long last. Beads of sweat form on their brows. Perhaps they should have had a peek out the window. Oh, sorry. Dams don’t have windows.
We drive the 128 miles from Flagstaff to Lees Ferry for our first river trip of the season, early May, rig the rafts in record time, dash to the dam 12 miles upstream, 40 miles by road, through the gap-toothed road-cut cleaving the Echo Cliffs. Beers in hand, we stand at the dam overlook, observe the spectacle. Our tribe is all shorts, flowered skirts, t-shirts, floppy hats and flip-flops. The tourists walk around us, keeping a safe distance. 600 feet below, turbines running full steam ahead, plus 4 outlet tubes shooting water like colossal fire hoses from the foot of the dam. Wasted power to the engineers, for us…
We look at our feet, feel the earth vibrate, chuckle nervously.
The spillways have been tried in order to lower the lake and make some room for all that snowmelt. They’re in sandstone. Oops. Are being held in “reserve” after chunks of rock the size of apartment buildings were observed flying out. No good choices left. The water is flooding into the reservoir from Cataract Canyon at around 200,000 cfs, and they’re releasing it at 45,000…the upper limit without the spillways. The water, already at the dam’s brim, continues to rise, inches daily in a lake nearly two hundred miles long.
On our boats at last. Home. Badger, Soap Creek, House Rock rapids. Senses alert, minds focused, spirits high. Ship the oars on the flat stretches–still get to camp early.
Four by eight sheets of plywood are erected along the top of the spillways. Incredibly, it holds. So far. Still the water rises.
The dips. Diplomats from the United Nations and business big-wigs from far flung countries. AZRA does an annual 6-day June “Outward Bound” style trip for them, paddling 89 miles to Phantom Ranch, then hiking out to the rim. They pilot the paddle rafts, after some training, a guide sitting apprehensively at their side. Shared adventure, then out the Bright Angel Trail to hobnob and make deals over cocktails. Assessing the extraordinary situation, our guide’s councils agonize, debate, procrastinate, ultimately cancel. Best not to kill a dip. They somehow don’t appreciate the options. Best not to deny a dip.
The river is now at 55,000 cfs. AZRA hikes the folks already on the river out early at Phantom. No guide has seen such water. What’s downstream in the Gorge? What about Crystal?
Created by a flash flood in ’67, post dam construction, Crystal has never been seen, or run, like this.
A complicated strategy is assembled. Suzanne, the dips trip leader, will hike down to Phantom, join the guides left with their rigs from the cancelled trip. They’ll float down, sans clientele, for a look-see. Any unrunnable rapids, deadly eddies, un–campable camps? Can we still run a safe trip if it goes higher? Recon, lubricated by snowmelt, adrenaline and Scotch.
Meanwhile, the rest of us dips guides will scout the upper half, reporting back from Phantom. Thus, the entire river scouted. Expecting carnage, we pad the rum and tequila with duct tape and foam. Priorities. If everything seems copasetic, Suzy hikes in, we continue downstream with our original lower-half folks.
Dave, Moley, Don, Martha and I step into our rafts at Lees Ferry. Always an occasion, this time, extraordinarily so. We float through House Rock, usually the first big spine-tingler, standing on our seats, hands on hips, gawking. Gone. A riffle. We float into Redwall Cavern, touch the ceiling from our boats, floating twenty feet above where we normally play Frisbee and cavort on the dune. Anxious each time we hear the thunder of the next rapid, we find each runnable, many gone. Confused, unpredictable, thumping waves in those that remain, wide cheat-routes where necessary. So far, so good.
The others will hike out at Phantom for a break. I prefer to stay. Kim Crumbo, Vietnam vet and Park Ranger, dropped a package from a chopper hovering above our tiny little boats upstream. Choppers in the Canyon are never good news. Ziploc baggie weighted with river sand, tied with a red ribbon. Note reads “Glen Canyon dam released 65,000 cfs this am. Should reach you in about 7 hours. Camp high, stay safe. Love, The Park Service.” Three days off before the new clients hike in. We pow-wow over rum and cokes, agree that it should be runnable at least to 75,000, maybe more. A hike is in order, but not … Out There. Upper Clear Creek sounds good. Haven’t seen that yet. A multitude of springs rumored to bubble, pour and dribble out of the earth. Tallest waterfall in the Canyon, seen by few. I can hitch a ride back to my boat on one of the multitude of rafts floating the river this time of year. Twenty-two thousand boaters a year. That’s a lot of boats.
Packed light for the desert, no tent, up Bright Angel creek, right at the fork and up a thousand feet to the Tonto Plateau, east to the appointed drainage. Two days of paradise. I return to the river. Almost.
The last half mile of side canyon, typically a jaunt along cobbles, has become a deep lake of exquisitely cold water, backed-up Colorado River water, bounded by unclimbable cliffs. No lifejacket. No wetsuit. Too lazy to hike all the way back to Phantom 12 miles away. I bundle my possessions into plastic bags, then back into my backpack. I muse, newly aware of my intestines. Water must have risen. Again. I imagine the dam overflowing, cracking, disintegrating, and smile.
Using my pack as an air–mattress, paddling my hands and feet crazily, I barely make the main river corridor, exiting the freezing water naked, gasping and near hypothermic. Bask in the welcome desert heat. A land of extremes. Like me. It is no wonder people can no longer pretend when down here. Things they’ve been hiding, and hiding from, for a lifetime explode in the brilliant sun, embracing cliffs, roiling foam. Masks slip away or are torn asunder, exposing raw souls. Absolute truths. Hidden secrets. Relationships begin–they end. Prey to–The Canyon.
I clamber upstream over sharp ribs of black, greasy schist and glassy white quartzite to a familiar eddy with a clear view far upstream. No beach left, but on this ancient mortar I will wait for the next raft and hitch a ride to my awaiting vessel five miles downstream. Nobody comes by all afternoon.
June is one of the driest months of the desert year. The Gods, roll in, laughing, bucketing rain. Annoyed, still pondering the abnormally empty river corridor, I grab my pack and ascend to the nearest overhangs in the Tapeats Sandstone a thousand feet above. There I lay down on my overworn pad, enter my greasy down bag, dream mightily.
Next morning, back at river level, I wait, and I worry. Hours pass. The clients arrive first thing tomorrow. After lunch, a motor rig, all 38 beautiful blue–rubber feet of it, whines into view, 35 horses plowing its travelers and their duffel downstream. I wave, they pull into the eddy at my feet. Dave Clark, boatman extraordinaire, offers a spare lifejacket. I bound on board, seating myself in the center of the rig, aiming to be inconspicuous.
Ahh. Afloat once again. Heading towards where my life is settled, where I’m content, the center of my universe; my boat. As we descend the riffles above Zoroaster rapid, something niggles. The boat full of passengers is unnaturally quiet. I look around, they are staring at me, not amused. An unmistakable European look about them; Speedos most American adult males wouldn’t be caught dead in, exotic facial features, decidedly not overly smiley. Someone speaks, a pretty blond with a German accent.
“You are Jeff? No?”
“Um. Actually, yes.” Brow furrows. Mouth twists. “How did you know?”
“Ve are ze diplomats.”
One simply does not disappoint a diplomat, silly. Life and death do not trump privilege. They simply contracted a different company.
“You ver right, it seems.”
“Huh?” I can be eloquent when pressed.
“Ve are all very frightened.”
Shell-shock. Shit scared. Anal clench. Saved.
The water has indeed risen. 75,000. Scuttlebutt has it going higher. I make a mental note to scout an uphill escape route as we float. Who knows? The dam just might blow. (I cross my fingers, preferring this option, keep my mouth shut.) Six-hundred vertical foot tsunami. Should take a few hours to make it a hundred miles downstream, plenty of time to scramble to the perfect viewpoint. Crack a beer.
Suzanne joins me at boat beach and we observe the nervous clients pack. She watched a Western Expeditions motor rig flip end over end against the wall in Crystal last week. Crystal is 10 miles downstream. That’s a bit over an hour at current speeds.
“Wait’ll you see Crystal, Jeffy! It’s amayzin’.” Over and over in her beloved Alabama accent, till my guts wrench. The beach, like all the others, is underwater, sand shifting below dark, cold currents. Strategize. Boat order. Hand Signals. Joel, Moley, Kevin. Can’t imagine a better crew. A ranger approaches.
“Georgie just flipped in Crystal!” Too loud. Inscrutable sunglasses offer the only reply. A nearby client’s head rises, faces us. Our ranger is oblivious. “There were injuries!” The client gently places his half-filled river bag on the sand, strolls over.
“Is this a good idea?”
“Y’all will walk around Crystal rapids. We’ll run the boats through empty and pick y’all up below” says my lovely trip leader.
This simple logic seems somehow to satisfy him and he walks back to inform his wife, who has the thousand-yard stare going but good. Perhaps this was supposed to improve my own mood as well. It doesn’t, much. We head downstream.
Horn Creek rapids, first big one past Phantom. There is usually one rapid that gets to me, I can’t seem to wire, each season. It changes, spontaneously, from one to another, every few trips. Without notice, the nemesis will let me go, allow me to grok it, sense it’s ways. Another that I’ve done flawlessly a dozen times will morph, become elusive. Granite had been my adversary most recently, before that Lava, Crystal, Hance. Always, one at a time. At present, it’s Horn. Hard to be chatty with the new folks as we come around the corner.
Gone. Buried. We look back, shake our heads, not sure where we are for a moment. Granite’s thunder and spray is at least familiar. We cheat it, hurtling along the left shore, avoiding the colossal curling breakers along the right wall. The scout rock at Hermit, normally a high and dry vantage point from which to scout, is the top of a diagonal wave barreling into the infamous “fifth wave”. This usually perfect, straight-forward feature has transformed into a monstrous curler paralleling the current, the perfect surfer’s tube. I plan to miss it, but end up being torn wildly into the tube, yelling “Hold On!”, battling to keep the snout straight. We slot the curl, no fault of mine, the wave erupting into the heavens from the boat’s starboard side, reaching over us, and crashing over our port side. Never even get wet. Each rapid has a finality about it. One step closer to Crystal. The clients do not notice our silence, our significant glances to one another. This is deliberate.
Crystal is a dance. Difficult to read the entry, so confidently worked out from shore, once in the tongue. Holes and rocks to either side of a narrow isle, moving like a freight train. Black cliff of schist on the left, broken by great pink and white criss-crossing dikes echoing thunder, insidiously drawing the attention of the frail. Dip an oar here, adjust there, ready to move hard right to miss the dumping maw, a sure flip. Go there by mishap or misfortune, and swim through unending waves, despairing of energy and air, or, for the really unlucky, over a calamity of boulders of every size and shape. Nail your run (so far) exultant but focused, and prepare to move hard left or right, sensing where the current is drawing, different every time. Fight that current with a predisposed bias, and Big Red, the largest and most conspicuous of the boulders, draws you towards her, insistent lover. Laconic, veteran boatmen get awfully quiet in the eddy upstream. Consequences. First among equals. Okay, okay. I’m in the present already.
Stepping ashore, tremors through flip-flops again, up our spines and into our numbed skulls. We are silent, the passengers now keenly aware. They can’t read rapids, but they can read us. I imagine hundred ton Boulders the size of houses, placed there by an incomprehensibly massive flood of mud and rock twenty years past, tumbling, colliding downstream. The air thumps, muffled bass drums throb the atmosphere. Oooh. My belly.
Camp–gone. We tie to the crag usually behind it, fasten our insignificant craft to it’s top. Tamarisk trees wave like palms in a tempest far from shore, only the tips visible above the chocolate current. We sweat, not from heat. Swing the rafts into the eddy behind the cliff, preparing to camp on the mountain from which we usually enjoy a panoramic scout. It is strangely comforting to leave the shuddering earth, climb back aboard our boats to start unloading. Suzanne has other ideas.
“Leave yoah boats alone.” We look up from the rigging, baffled.
“Y’all have to go see the size of this hole befo’ it gets too dahk. You just won’t bleeeeve it!”
That’s it. Poor Suzy’s mind has finally snapped.
I am silently elected. She is, after all, though clearly deranged, my best friend. “Suzy. It’s okay. We’ll just de¬–rig and start camp going, and then we’ll go see the hole.”
She stamps her flop, hands on hips. I know this look.
“I ayem yoah trip leader.” She’s seductive, smiling like a best friend, stance of a killer. “Now you get down offa yoah boats right this very minute.”
Obedient, beaten curs, we crawl off our boats and follow her to the overlook.
The roar slams us in the face as we top the rise. The beast is at hand. Jaws drop. Jaws that have seen some really big water all over the world over years of extreme, pioneering rafting and kayaking. I urinate on a spindly desert trumpet at my feet. Each of us is silent, looking deep into our souls, seeking courage for the morrow. Suzy smiles, in ownership, exultant. You have to admire her.
We turn our backs on our fate, eager to dull our senses, make camp. I mutter under my breath that we have to think of a way to describe the scale of things for later, when memories fade and stories get smirked at by guides who weren’t there but know better. We agree, after fruitless attempts utilizing hyperbolic adjectives, that you could chopper a locomotive over the hole, perpendicular to the current, lower it until it’s top was below and within the crest of the breaking wave–and no part of it, not the ends, not the bottom, not the sides–would touch water. No Shit, as we boaters like to say.
After dinner, clients safely tucked in, we stray over to the firelog and, one by one, absent-mindedly pick up our instruments. I pluck my mandolin from it’s rock perch, pulling the strap over my shoulder in the flickering glow, mind drifting, tuning up. Joel meanders over, opens up his banjo case, joins in. Moley wanders in with tequila, an offering, leans over his fiddle . I’m not much of a drinker, easily getting smashed on just three beers. This night, however, we indulge as loggers and whores might. Not a word is spoken–no words needed. We play, at first softly, introspectively, then, as the hours roll on, imperceptively faster, louder. Unconsciously building to a crescendo of pent-up thrill and tension… youth and destiny, compelling us, song following song, into harmonic frenzy. Rhythms are flawless, backups and solos tight, crisp. There is a drummer here, not human, hammering the beat. Long after the ringtails have retired, we face each other in a compact circle, stars exuberant, combined repertoires driving us onwards, into the moon, the cliffs, the water. In one, single, spontaneous moment, our desert jam having feverishly built–note for note, decibel by decibel–a bridge between our souls, and from there to something unnamable, we all stop–unbidden and un-cued–on precisely same chord. Brown-Eyed Girl, redux. The spectacle will echo amongst these cliffs, mingling with Crystal’s thunder, long after civilization has ceased to exist. Eyes glazed, instruments laid to rest, utterly exhausted, alone and separate once more, we retire to our separate floating roosts.
Dawn, Crystal morning, clear and hot. I step off my craft and my feet recall the vibrating earth. Final scout. Joel and I are both rowing Snouts. Heavy, lots of keel, awkward to turn, impossible to correct once they do. The others are in the usual 18 foot “bucket” boats. They wish they were bigger, we wish we were lighter and more maneuverable, all wish we were downstream. As we are about to cast off, I sneak an illicit beer to settle my stomach, calm nerves. WiWo, another rowing trip, pulls in. Suzanne, ever safety conscious, decides we’ll watch their run, asks them to wait in the eddies below and “spot” us, just in case.
They agree, like us desiring to get downstream of the fiend as fast as possible. They run it with clients aboard, yanking hard to the right, “Major Powelling” backwards, looking over their shoulders past the Tammie tops. It can be done. We walk upstream to man the boats, again. Get it over with already. A motor trip appears, ties up. I see what’s coming, pull Suzanne aside.
“Please, Suzy. I’m gonna be sick. Let’s just run it, okay? We’re all set. WiWo’s downstream …” The stance, the eyes behind mirrored sunglasses. “Please?”
We glumly drag ourselves back to the viewpoint. Their guides come up to scout, an extraordinary thing for Grand Canyon motor boatmen. Can’t flip a baloney boat. Not since Shorty in ‘67. Cataract Canyon boaters know better. Same river, no dams, bigger water, harder rapids. Its not “The Grand”, thus, is disregarded. Suzanne recognizes the old-timer leading the trip. She’d seen him nearly capsize here last week, lower water. They hadn’t scouted, just ran the hole as usual. When they hit, a wooden storage box weighing a few hundred pounds sheared away, nearly taking his head off. Newly humbled, bigger water, he’ll cheat it. “Our passengers probably couldn’t walk the rocky shore anyway” says he.
They file back towards their waiting boats. An older gentleman with two female companions stops at Suzanne and I.
“Excuse me, dear” says one of the elderly ladies. “May I ask you a question?”
Suzy smiles, glances at me. “Well sure.”
“Is this safe?”
The Pause. We think no, probably not. A delicate moment. Seeing little choice, Suzy says “Trust your boatman.” Diplomatic. Professional. Destiny. I half smile in support behind my sunglasses.
He has ten minutes to soak up the grandeur, feel fear, hold his wife’s hand. We, angels of a different sort, will observe.
Got a feeling in my bones. I take one of our clients, a keen photographer, downstream, wade across the ponded mouth of Crystal Creek to an excellent vantage point directly across from The Hole. Talking is useless. Standing shoulder to shoulder, we converse by shouting. And we wait, unable to see the boats upstream. The v-shape of a buzzard floats and glides aimlessly, almost too far away to see, gathering the sky far above the edge of things.
A lone boat appears over the horizon of the tongue, past our crowd gathered on the viewpoint a hundred yards upstream. The rig is just off the left wall. They will turn to the right momentarily, use the momentum to cross the river, towards safety on the right. They continue steadily, still along the wall. I squint into my dread–their innocence. The old boatman sits off to one side of the motor well, his trainee at the helm. I wipe the sweat off the back of my neck with my bandana, turn to Dick.
Too loud, even for the roar, I shout “Do you have a fresh roll of film?”
“See that pink dike in the wall? They don’t turn before they pass that, it’s over.”
Fifteen living souls aboard.
Is this safe?
They pass the granite marker, Dick & I begin to scream. Can’t help it, too much inside. My arms in the air, palms out, like a benediction.
On the far shore, hands in the air, mouths wide. Soundlessly they scream. The boat slides faster and faster into the throat. Old-timer starts to wave his arms at his pilot-trainee. Too late. The boat swerves wildly to the right, lines up once more, to hit it straight. Shit. They know. No-one, neither the audience nor the actors, utters a sound. Sublime. They slam into the hole straight on, 35 horses adding its momentum to a twenty-mile-per-hour current, all souls willing it over the crest. The hole stops them dead.
Dinosaur on a relentless treadmill, they surf. One full minute ticks by, still they surf. Dick hand-cranks the camera. Click. Click. Click… hearts beat. The boat slides off into a familiar, deadly angle. The clients begin shouting again, willing it up and over. But we guides remain silent. Been there.
I hadn’t expected two-inch webbing to sound like that when it snapped. Artillery explosions. The boat disappears, tubes flailing wildly. Entirely gone. Thousands of pounds of buoyancy–sunk. Lifejackets appear a hundred yards downstream, thankfully containing heads. WiWo’s rafts careen out of their eddies in hot pursuit, in an instant are out of sight around the next bend. My gaze returns to the belly of the whale. Nothing. Then, like Moby Dick, it rises, 30 yards to the left of where it disappeared, still trapped in the hole. It is tearing itself to bits there–furious, frustrated. Once again, it sinks. For a moment, it seems as if it were just a bad dream. It gracefully resurfaces fifty yards downstream, floats out of sight in pursuit of its brood. We are left alone with ourselves and the river.
Radios transmit the news to the rescue choppers via the commercial airliners in another universe. People are in the water. The water is in flood. Tons of boat have just landed on their heads. We are helpless, the rapid still to be run.
The second boat of the pair, tied upstream in a stand of shrubs, is ignorant of this. Languidly preparing to cast off. Suzy, in control if a tad forceful, says to the boatman, “Excuse me.” He looks up, annoyed. “I think you oughtta go raht now!” He smiles, clearly not about to be told what to do with his boat. Not by a woman.
“I said I think you’d better go, raht away!” She’s trying not to scare the clients.
She stamps her foot. The sand fluffs and falls.
“Yoah other boat has flipped in the hole. Now you git that boat off shore and go down theah and get them out of that water raht this minute!”
They shove off, too late to do much good, miss the hole by a mile and disappear. Fifteen minutes later, choppers appear, Kim Crumbo leaning out of the door, radio in hand, clad in a wetsuit. Later, we get the news. Some broken bones. One dead. Older gentleman. Swam ten miles. Suzy’s eyes search for mine.
(We pass the hulk the next day, pathetic and bereft of life, like a wreck on a reef, murmuring.)
Once again we turn towards our own boats, still chafing in the eddy, check our rigging one final time. Once again, boats appear upstream. The private trip, in small oar boats, scouts hastily, scared. We are left to observe. Two out of three miss the hole. The third misreads, ends up riding the steep but glassy right edge of the hole, a forty-five degree slope. They stall, the 16 foot boat a tiny toy taking up less than a third of the wave, and surf. The two passengers, leaning over the bow tubes like sailors trimming in a stiff wind, urge themselves over the crest. Still they surf. Water curls off oar blades in a graceful arc. As one they turn their heads over their shoulders, stare into the maw. Slip down the face of the wave. Gone. Utterly. Again, life jackets appear far downstream. Again, no sign of a boat. It reappears at the crest, 20 yards to the left of where it entered, leaps clear of the water, a pirouette with a backwards double summersault, reenters the hole. Disappears. Utterly. We have time to ponder this. It surfaces far downstream, pouring water like a submarine, upright. We cheer. The lonely vessel disappears downstream.
Lined up shoulder to shoulder, facing Suzanne, she senses mutiny. The eighteen footers have perfect runs. Suzy ends up at “Ego Beach”, a shoreline immediately downstream from the hole, so named because it’s the first catch-able eddy after a perfect run. And that’s in normal water. The beach well buried, she ties up against steep cliffs to wait for Joel and I in our snouts.
Joel smiles and offers to let me go first. I enter my boat bowels groaning. Same as climbing, really. It’s the change from one world to the other. Once cast off, I become tranquil, serene. The music will play itself. I float by Joel, catch his eye, standing on the brink, not five feet away. He raises his hand. Fare-well. I pass over the tops of my marker trees, concentrating on one solitary thing; the angle. I do not turn to look over my shoulder at the approaching beast. I see it from within, rouse myself, begin rowing. I pass the hole, offer a war whoop, counting coup.
Suzanne’s voice, insistent, commanding, brings me back.
“Jeffy! Row! Row! Come heah! Row!”
Ego beach. 75,000 cfs. In a snout. Not a fuckin’ chance. Still, it’s a job. My friend. My leader. Have to try. Keeping her voice to the back of my head, not daring to turn around or lose strokes, I row. If she needs me, I will be there. She screams, I row.
An instant of no screaming. Then;
Yeah. Right. I lean on the oars, try and slow the momentum. Now able to turn around, I notice colorful figures moving fast. I careen into her fully loaded boat, knock it clean out of the water, tearing a neat 2 foot hole amidships.
Georgie’s upside-down motor rig at 110-mile. Been there a week, ghost-ship. Floating into the mouth of Olo canyon, usually a forty foot climb with a fixed rope. I blow by Havasu eddy, unable to cross the eddy line, a first. My comrades find me downstream in a very bad humor. Rumor has it someone’s missed Diamond, the take-out eddy sixty-five miles downstream. Wiwo’s Jimmy Hendrick claims the take-out eddy is a piece of cake, though how he could know that is beyond me. Anyone who knows Jimmy knows we are in deep shit.
Lava Falls, last of the big rapids. Legendary. You approach days after the last heart-thumper, miles of flat-water lulling the senses. Just get through this one, and you’ve made it. Usually just enter in the right spot, then hold on and keep her straight. The water is now at one-hundred-thousand, including the usual leakage around the dam. No one still able to lift an oar has ever seen it like this.
We tie up far upstream, left side. Unusual, as we’ve never run left. But this day is not usual. We guess the left will be open, based on our new knowledge, keeping our fingers crossed. Suzanne looks at me from her next-door raft.
“Jeffy. Put on your outfit.”
She’s joking, surely.
“Everybody’s nervous. It’ll help release the tension.”
“Suzie. I’m shitting my pants. I’m not about to dig around in my black bag and put on my “outfit”.”
“I ayem yoah TRIP¬¬—leedah … !”
I arrive at the scout in my black teddy, accessorized with a green garter, pink bathing cap, red¬¬¬-rhinestone sunglasses. We smoke the run.
Suzy wants me in the lead. The eddy lines have been consistently swallowing our 18-foot rafts, tipping them on edge, sucking them down to the gunwales, often filling the rafts with water in a split-second. We’ve settled into this chaos by dropping the oars, all occupants sliding towards the center, leaning this way and that, praying for the Gods for release. Worked so far. I’ve missed my first eddy, and I will absolutely not ever do that again goddammit. Diamond Creek is today. Take-out. Every rope on board is tied end-to-end, coiled neatly onto my rear quarter-deck, within quick reach. Beyond take-out is twelve more river miles, then thirty-three lake miles. I love my job. Nobody misses take-out.
My three old ladies from Havasu, used to my unconscious frothing and cussing, insist on coming with me. Cheerleaders. Everyone else hangs way back to see what happens.
I am going to scrape the paint off my stern, entering the huge take-out eddy at it’s upstream boundary, where the eddy line is the narrowest, just like we learned as trainees way back when. Perfect angle, oars ready.
Flawless. My ladies lean into the center of gravity, all encouragement and love, facing me over the duffel. Way upstream in another world, a disembodied voice echoing off the black cliffs. With a southern accent.
“Puulllllll Jeffy pullllll!”
I am in and I am perfect. For one, glorious instant.
A whirlpool yawns beneath me, sucking my enormous craft down so deep that, though still on my rowing seat in the center of my boat, normally 4 feet above the river, I am sitting in the river, bow pointing towards the sky, oars ripped from my hands like a kite in a gale. I grab the duffel lines in front of me, emitting a guttural scream. My ladies, leaning in from the other side, faces not two feet away, eyes like fish; silent, smiles gone.
In the background, the voice; “Pullll Jeffy pullll goddammit! You miss that eddy and yoah fiaaddd. Fi-adddddd, you heah??”
Inspirational. My best buddy.
We twirl like driftwood, three times ‘round. Nothing for it but to wait until it lets us go. And swear. I try to calm myself by reassuring my ladies.
“Fuck shit piss goddammit sonofabitch aaaarrrggghhhh hey you guys okay don’t worry we’ll be fine goddam sonofabitch nnnoooooo how you doin’ you okay?…
“Pull, pull Jeffy… yoah fiaaaaaaaad!”
“Fuckfuckfuck you guys allright shit goddamit…”
We slam against the right shore. Yes. The RIGHT shore. Are freed. A new voice chimes in as I reach for my oars. Might as well have a look over my shoulder, since I have no idea what to do with them.
It’s Paul, the warehouse man and truck driver. Big guy. The 4-ton truck is backed up to the water’s edge up the side canyon, the take out beach utterly gone. He has an unbuckled life jacket draped over one shoulder, a throw bag in his right hand, one end tied to the trailer hitch.
“Come-on Rainy! I gotya!”
The current is going about ten miles an hour. We’re on the far side of a 100 yard wide river, rushing headlong into Diamond Creek rapid, sideways.
A sense of humor is critical at times like this.
Lumbering the behemoth with wild and ineffectual pivot strokes, we end up aiming at Paul. Clearly we’ll never make it. I aim us for the bend of the cliffs forming the head of the rapid, hoping for a lucky bounce.
“Hold on, ladies!”
Un-lucky bounce. Attention returns to the river, where it belongs, as we plunge into Diamond Creek rapid. I’ve run Diamond a few times, am aware of an eddy on the left below. More frantic rowing and pivoting with the lead-counterweighted oars. We careen into the eddy, I drop the oars, grab the coils. Fortune smiles at last as we edge close enough to the rocky shore for me to step off. All I have to do is tie up.
Unfortunately, my arms no longer operate. Past their limit, full of lactic acid, disobedient. Waddling like a monkey, trying to keep from dropping the coils by using my knees to hold up my arms, the coils whip, one by one, away from the ever-diminishing bundle. Just before the last few disappear, along with my boat and my clients, I pitch what’s left onto the earth, collapse on top, praying to the desert Gods.
Thankfully, they’re listening this time. The line goes taught under my weight.
From behind a boulder, a feeble “Rain? Jeff?…are you okay??”
“Yeah.” Gasp gasp… “Hang on a minute…” Gasp gasp… “While I catch my breath…”
McDonalds couldn’t be so bad.
Over the roar of the whitewater, I hear a faint sound… “squeak …squeak …squeak.” Rhythmic. Determined. Familiar.
I manage to sit up, still sitting on the coils. Kevin’s long blonde hair whips by, head bending forward, backward, forward again.
“Wow! Kevin! You came after me!!!”
He turns ever so slightly, not missing a stroke. Spittle flying from his lips, bug-eyes hidden by mirrored sunglasses, he spits “Hey, man…I like ya, buddy…but not THAT much!”
I lay back down, relieved. Another series of squeaks. Suzanne.
We walk the folks and their gear back upstream to Diamond. They gladly leap ten feet into an empty raft attached with a line to shore. Time for this trip to end. The whirlpool swallowed Joel and Moley as well, shot them left instead of right. Joel will drive and meet us at Pierce’s Ferry, thirty miles into Lake Mead, on the morrow.
We raft the boats together on the lake, rummage for food and drink. As we drift off to dreamland, someone asks; “Hey…what if there’s current all the way to Pierce’s Ferry? What if we miss that eddy, too!?”
I hate these reservoirs. Buried my Colorado River. Full of silt and diesel and garbage and water skiers who don’t understand what is missing–more than a river. They will remain, and so will I. Someday, my ashes will join the garbage and silt. Still later, will again flow into the Sea of Cortez. Together.