I just finished reading The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko. Fedarko did a good job of describing the big whitewater of the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon and the navigation of it. The reading made me realize that all of my writing of canyon river trips focused on the beauty of the rocks and my love of river travel, but rarely did I go into detail about the rapids and the waves in them. So I thought I’d revisit the canyon with some photos of boats, oars, and waves, and a quick story.
After 6 years as an ocean lifeguard, and 3 years representing my home town in the big lifeguard surfboat rowing races as bow man in a doubles crew with my partner (who is still an excellent athlete), rough water rowing was easy for me. I became a guide after my first day on the river with Sierra Whitewater Expeditions in 1980. That summer I learned to read whitewater as I worked on the American River and rowed private trips on the Stanislaus and Tuolumne before they were dammed. The next summer I was hired as the sole whitewater guide for Alaskan Rivers Touring Company, based in Anchorage. Before the weather was warm enough and the glacial melt was high enough for whitewater trips, I worked as a salmon fishing guide on the remote Deshka River and as a freight runner on the Susitna River System. The Susitna drains the glaciers of the Alaska Range near Denali, and takes the water down to the north end of Cook Inlet. On the Susitna I ran a big pontoon boat similar to the ones used in the Grand Canyon, but this river had only small class I and II rapids. The challenge was that we ran under the power of outboard engines with propellers in a shallow river full of hidden gravel bars. If you hit a gravel bar your prop would be worn to nothing in a few seconds, so you had to read water well. And you had to read it constantly. Glacial rivers are not clear. They carry glacial silt and are typically the color of concrete. The beds of the river are silt, sand and gravel, so the river channel is constantly changing in a never-ending process of erosion and deposition. Even if you are on the river every day, you never run the same river twice. We had large plywood decks on the rafts on which we hauled building materials to remote wilderness cabin-building projects. We would launch from the single highway that crosses the river and run as much as 40 miles downstream before turning up some tributary and fighting the current to deliver the load. Then we would make the trip back up the Susitna in the empty, now over-powered rafts, gunning it open throttle right up the chutes of the rapids. Reading the water could get tricky, especially in the midnight twighlight, or when wind and rain made it hard to see the subtle ripples that indicated shallows. One time I tried to take a shortcut in a bend and hit a gravel bar, disintegrating my prop. We carried several spares.
Once the whitewater season got going, I ran the Matanuska River which charged out of the melting glacier of the same name. This river flowed through a rocky gorge above and eventually spilled out into a typical glacial flood of braided channels across an outwash plain of cobbles. In the gorge there was one big rapid that featured a giant hole with a big wave below it. All other guides of the other rafting companies avoided it, but I’d usually run right through it. I had a big Campways Havasu raft which featured 30” diameter tubes (an extra 6”) and for some reason this gave me confidence.
It was this summer that the rain began in late July and never stopped, which is when my book Moved By A Mountain begins, and it is exactly for that reason–that I moved myself to build a cabin by that Alaska mountain–that I never guided again. I was disillusioned with guiding because I was fascinated with the rivers, and their hydraulics, and how they acted as a geomorphological agent, and I had a good grasp of the ecology, and I wanted to share my knowledge with the customers, but the customers just wanted a roller-coaster ride and a party.
Coming from a wooden boat rowing tradition, I had an attraction to the dories of the Grand Canyon and had been considering applying for work there in 1981, which would have put me on the scene as the Emerald Mile raced down the Colorado during the flood of ’83. But I didn’t know who Martin Litton was, and at the time the company was billed as “Martin Litton’s Grand Canyon Dories,” which sounded kind of like a knife scraping a plate to me after my experience with rafting company owners and their egos that could eclipse the sun. I also declined to work for SOBEK International rafting company because they wanted me to work for free until I was approved to be a guide. I would have had to pay my own fair to fly to New Guinea to run tropical whitewater without pay and I declined. The decision to quit and enjoy the wilds of Alaska (I found work as a freelance instrument man with various surveying companies who had wilderness projects) was one that changed my life more than most decisions I have made. I might have remained a river guide for life, working the grand canyon in the summer and in the tropics during the winter.
This would have but me right in the years that the book describes. As a former world champion oarsman working for Grand Canyon Dories, who knows how that would have changed the crew on The Emerald Mile in 1983.
The Emerald Mile’s author had done some guiding in the Canyon, and though there are a few mistakes, he writes well about the river, the water, the rapids and how to run them. Reading the book made me miss the life of a river guide, or, more so, life on the river while rowing on a private trip.
What I have never written about is the excitement of the whitewater. The nervousness while scouting a big rapid, that stillness above the rapid when you are 100% committed but still sitting in calm water that is about to drop, the chaos when big water has its way with you as you struggle to make the boat go where you intend, and the alarm when something goes wrong–you bounce off a rock and spin, or miss a crucial eddy. This book covers it all.
In later years I was lucky to be invited to row many different rivers in The West, many of them desert canyon rivers, and I had the good fortune to row the Canyon 3 times. First in 1990 in my own little 13’ tub-floor boat, solo–the boat would fill to the brim on some big rapids and I’d have to row the ton of water into an eddy below and bail the boat out with a 5 gallon bucket.
Second time was in a rented 16’ self bailer, and third in another rental, this time an 18’ raft that was the kitchen boat of a 12 person trip. I hauled all the steel and cast iron and propane tanks and tables. The boat weighed about 1800 lbs. I’d launch from the beach in the morning after singing a line from the B-52s’ Love Shack to my passengers: “Hop in my Chrysler, it’s as big as a whale and she’s about to set sail!”.
It was hard to get it moving, but once it was moving it was hard to stop, and that helped me bust through a lot of big waves. It was on this trip that the damnedest thing happened in Lava Falls:
There’s a giant hole in Lava with two waves below it breaking in a V. I was hoping to get to the left edge of the thing, but the river sucks everything into that hole, nobody ever gets around it, and I hit it about a quarter of the way in from the left. A 10’ wall of water slammed us and knocked us into the center of the hole. The flow took us back into the wave and roared over the entire boat and blew one of my passengers right overboard. All I saw was his red life jacket flying by me as I myself almost went out from the same impact of water. While the entire boat disappeared below a curtain of white, the splash lifted me from my seat and was carrying me overboard when my elbow got pinned on my oarlock–the only part of my body touching the boat for a second–my elbow pressed on my ribs, and that resistance held me in. I got back in my seat. We were still in the hole! Again we surged forward, and with all my strength I pushed and we passed through the giant wall. The next move is to avoid “cheese-grater rock” (not mentioned in the book) and after that I was searching for my lost passenger. I saw him and rowed to the same line in the river so he would come to the boat, I bent over to grab the rescue throw-line and turned around to see where he was–gone. I stood on my seat (another thing never mentioned in the book). I love to stand on my seat to get a good view over waves and over the horizon at the top of a rapid. I stood high to see where he was–gone. I looked all around in all directions–gone. He disappeared, and his girlfriend was still in my boat, worrying. Imagine what was going on in my mind. For a few seconds that seemed like minutes I was trying to make sense of my reality. Meanwhile he was doing the same, but he was underwater. The turbulence of the river after Lava Falls is tremendous. Imagine a man floating in a lifejacket in green rolling waves when two masses of water collide and so the water just decides to go down. He got sucked straight down and held in the cold green depths for about 10 seconds. And then he popped up right before my eyes. What a relief! I threw him the line and got him on board quickly. Soon we were at Tequila Beach–at the eddy below the rapid, passing the traditional bottle around to celebrate the success and to end the nervousness and anxiety and tension and chaos of Lava Falls, the last major rapid of the river. The tension builds for days as you approach this gauntlet. It was about 11:30 in the morning on a hot sunny day, and the crew were not drinkers, but the bottle of tequila was emptied.