Posts Tagged ‘Boating’

As you may know, the Gauley River in the mountains of West Virginia is home to some of the most challenging whitewater rafting and kayaking in the country.

During “Gauley Season” in early fall, when the Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Summerville Dam, the river attracts thrill-seekers by the thousands.

And the thrills are memorable. On the 10-mile Upper Gauley are dozens of rapids, including five rapids rated Class V — the top of the scale.

In southern West Virginia, notable whitewater is found on the Upper Gauley, the Lower Gauley, and the New River. Over the years, I’ve rafted those three a dozen times.

I’ve written twice about the experience on this blog. One story was about my first day on the Gauley. The other story recounted an incident on the bus ride after a day of rafting.

For years, in addition to the aforementioned hair-raising rapids, the Upper Gauley was famous for something else: the put-in at the base of Summersville Dam was itself legendary.

In the old days, the put-in was within a stone’s throw of three massive overflow tubes spewing 21,000 gallons of water per second into the river.

The Upper Gauley put-in, September 1997.

The Upper Gauley put-in, September 1997.

After carrying their rafts down a long gravel path from the parking lot, the rafters would lower their boats into a narrow eddie, climb aboard, and brace themselves.

Their senses would be under constant assault — from the deafening roar of the water tunnels, the random blasts of artificial wind, and river water blowing in all directions at once.

Straining to hear as their guide shouted instructions, the rafters would paddle forward furiously, slamming into solid waves of whitewater three and four feet high, trying to break through the eddie wall* and catch the main current.

If they were lucky, they generated enough momentum to penetrate the wall and enter the mainstream.

If not, the raft would be rejected and spun to the right, back into the eddie. The fatigued crew would have to start all over again.

Rafters waiting to challenge the eddie wall, September 1997.

Rafters waiting to challenge the eddie wall, September 1997.

Naturally, there’s a video on YouTube that documents it all.  

That scenario — a put-in almost as impressive as a major rapid — ended in 1999, when a new hydroelectric plant was constructed on the site. One of the overflow tunnels was re-routed to power the plant. The other tubes are still functional, but are rarely used.

A new put-in was created for the boaters 300 yards downstream, around the first bend, on a peaceful shelf. The roar and the challenge are gone.

One morning in the fall of 1998, before heading home to Georgia, I walked out onto the top of Summersville Dam and stood gazing at the put-in below. I was there to take photos for posterity.

In previous years, I had taken plenty of shots of the put-in. But all my photos were taken at long distance with compact and single-use cameras. I wanted serious, close-up, action shots. That day in 1998, I was ready with a real camera: a big Nikon with a zoom lens.

That was the era of film cameras, and my Nikon was loaded with 35mm slide film. For half an hour, I wandered around the top of the dam taking pictures of the rafting action below. In all, I shot three rolls of film, 36 exposures each. I just knew some of those shots would be terrific.

Satisfied, I dropped the three rolls of exposed film into my daypack and put a fresh roll in the camera. I wanted to make one last stop before starting the drive home.

That stop was the scenic overlook at the north end of the New River Gorge Bridge. The overlook is near the visitor center, halfway down the gorge, at the bottom of a steep wooden staircase. 


From that spot, you get a spectacular view of the massive bridge.

New River Gorge Bridge

I took a series of photos, packed up, and started driving south on U.S. 19 in the direction of home.

But soon, I realized that my daypack wasn’t next to me on the passenger seat.

I knew immediately what happened: I had left the pack at the scenic overlook. I remembered taking it off and placing it on a bench while I took photos. Maybe, with luck, it was still there.

I turned around, drove the 15 minutes back to the bridge, and scampered down the staircase.

When I arrived at the overlook, no one was there. Neither was my backpack.

I checked at the visitor center. The pack had not been turned in. I left my contact information there, but never heard anything. My precious film simply was gone forever.

Fifteen years later, and I’m still smarting from it.

Many times, I’ve kicked myself for not driving back to the dam that day to take new photos. At most, it would have added a few hours to the trip. I didn’t do it, and that was a bad decision.

As for the black-hearted villain who stole my daypack, I’ve often wondered if he (or she, or they) had been curious enough to develop my film.

If so, I hope they got as much enjoyment from the photos as I surely would have.

Actually, no — I don’t wish that at all.

The hydroelectric plant that screwed up the put-in.

The hydroelectric plant that screwed up the put-in.


The present put-in for the Upper Gauley, located well downstream. Yawn.

The present put-in for the Upper Gauley, located well downstream. Yawn.

* On my first Gauley trip in 1994, when the videographer interviewed the rafters, my friend Chris grinned into the camera and said, “Hi! I’m Eddie Wall!”


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Money Shot

In September 2011, on a lake near the small town of Inlet, New York, the Central Adirondack Paddlers Society sponsored an attempt to break the Guinness record for the “World’s Largest Floating Raft.”

“Largest Floating Raft” in this case was a gathering of canoes and kayaks, held together only by hands, floating freely for at least 30 seconds.

At the time, the world record was 1,619 boats, set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2010. The New York team easily set a new record with 1,902 boats.

The Inlet event was known as One Square Mile of Hope, and it raised $80,000 for the Komen foundation for breast cancer research.

So — 2,000 paddlers had a memorable day, and a chunk of money was raised for medical research.

Also notable about the event was the awesome photography.

At ground level, the largest floating raft looked like this:

The most eye-popping photos were taken by Lake Placid photographer Nancie Battaglia. Her amazing aerial shots earned two-page spreads in Sports Illustrated, Canoe & Kayak, and National Geographic.

Here is a bird’s-eye view.

And here is the money shot, a beautiful mosaic.

The population of Inlet, New York, is about 400. They like to point out that they bested mighty Pittsburgh, population 350,000.

It was, in addition, a revenge thing. Inlet had won the championship in 2008 (1,104 boats), only to lose to Pittsburgh in 2010. I assume Pittsburgh has plans to retaliate.

Meanwhile, to celebrate Inlet’s victory, you can go to OneSquareMileofHope.com and choose your memento:

— A 16″ x 20″, 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of Nancie Battaglia’s money shot, $25.00

— A 22″ x 28″ poster of the same photo, $15.00

— A nifty pink One Square Mile of Hope commemorative cap, $15.00

All profits will be donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

All in all, it’s a pleasant, uplifting story that has no bad guys.

Not counting Pittsburgh, of course.


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In my last post, I wrote about my trip to Crystal River, a little town on the Gulf coast of Florida where large herds of manatees spend the winter.

Crystal River is on King’s Bay, which is fed by a series of freshwater springs bubbling up at a constant 72 degrees. In winter, the manatees gather there because the spring water is warmer than the Gulf.

In Part 1, I described a day of snorkeling at Three Sisters Springs. This post is about Day Two, when I went back to the springs in a kayak.

I went back to the same spot to compare the below-water and above-water experiences. I also wanted to take more photos. The day before, I had used a small underwater film camera, and I didn’t have high hopes for the quality of the pictures.

Kayaks rentals are everywhere in Crystal River. I found an outfitter on the south side of town that has a dock in its back yard. From there, it was a short, easy paddle through the residential canals to Three Sisters Springs.

The weather was perfect: sunny, calm, 75 degrees. I arrived to the same scene as the day before: a cluster of tour boats, a swarm of swimmers and kayakers, and a small herd of manatees, the latter staying just out of reach in the roped-off safe zone.

When I planned a day of kayaking, I intended to bring along a swim mask and fins, so I could stop and get in the water when the spirit moved me.

But it wasn’t to be. Local regulations don’t allow kayakers to tie off to a tree or the shoreline. In other words, most of your swimming would be in pursuit of your own kayak.

That was the bad news. The good news: sitting atop a kayak is an excellent vantage point from which to watch the manatees. For the next several hours, that’s what I did.

Initially, I stayed close to the safe zone, watching manatees come and go. I also had a good view as the swimmers and kayakers interacted with them. Seeing the animals from a kayak isn’t as dramatic as seeing them underwater, but the view still is surprisingly good.

Eventually, it was time to paddle into the spectacular lagoon that is the source of the Three Sisters Springs.

The mouth to the lagoon is protected by iron pilings that prevent boats larger than kayaks from entering. That seems unnecessary, considering that the entrance is already plenty narrow and restrictive.

On the other hand, it would only take one person with an outboard motor, fueled by too many beers, to wreak havoc in the lagoon and demonstrate that the pilings are needed. Maybe it already happened.

By any measure, the lagoon is a stunning place — beautiful and pristine. I could have floated there all day, grooving on the peace and serenity.

FYI, the lagoon at Three Sisters Springs is spectacular not only because of the water, but also because of the land around it: a vacant 58-acre tract in the heart of Crystal River.

For years, that tract was in private hands, always at risk of development. It escaped the bulldozers because its owners, who wanted to sell the property, preferred that it be preserved in its natural state, not developed as homes or apartments.

In 2010, Citrus County and the City of Crystal River reached an agreement with the owners and purchased the property. It is now protected as a national wildlife refuge managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The tract will open to the public soon. A boardwalk already has been built around the lagoon.

In the end, I drifted around the lagoon and listened to the silence for about half an hour. Only occasionally was I interrupted by other kayakers or swimmers.

Later, when I emerged from the lagoon, I decided to paddle west toward the open bay, to see what I could see. The day was still sunny and calm, the temp still under 80 degrees.

Several times, I paused to watch groups of snorkelers or kayakers clustered around a manatee, or a mother and baby, or a small group en route to somewhere else.

You have to sympathize with the poor beasts. Under ordinary conditions, they are minding their own business, either eating, sleeping, or migrating.

Then, for reasons they can’t fathom, their space is invaded by humans in wetsuits, legs flailing, or by oblong pieces of colored plastic, floating on the surface and following them as if by magnetic attraction.

The local outfitters preach to the tourists diligently about the rules of manatee encounters. They counsel us to keep our distance, move slowly, and avoid hassling the creatures in any way.

But in practice, some people get excited and over-eager. They pursue the manatees too closely or block their passage. I’m sure the manatees find these people as irritating as the rest of us do.

But fortunately, most of the tourists are restrained and respectful. Consider the tour boat full of young teen boys that I came across.

The group consisted of about a dozen boys and two tour guides, a man on the boat and a woman in the water. The boat had paused at the mouth of a residential canal that, at the time, was a manatee safe zone.

(The authorities usually don’t create a safe zone and wait for the manatees to find it. They identify places where the manatees congregate and rope them off.)

The canal being a safe zone, manatees were steadily arriving and departing, and the boat had dropped anchor where the action was.

I paddled up to the boat slowly. Several of the boys were in the water. The rest were leaning over the side, stroking the back of a lone manatee.

“Easy does it,” the male tour guide told the boys in a calm voice. “This one is young and curious. Don’t spook him.”

The boys on the boat jockeyed for position, but stayed quiet. The boys in the water peered at the circling manatee through their swim masks.

“Let him come to you,” said the female guide in the same calm voice.

The manatee swam in a tight circle next to the boat. He didn’t seem to mind being touched. Sometimes, his nostrils broke the surface, and he breathed deeply and went under again. The boys on the boat whispered excitedly among themselves.

For several more minutes, the manatee swam slowly around the boys, appearing, as the guide said, quite curious.

But then the manatee turned and began to swim away in the direction of the safe zone. The boys let out a collective yelp of disappointment.

“Don’t follow him,” said the male guide. “He’s playing with you. If you swim after him, he’ll keep going. Stay put. He’ll come back.”

He was right. Hardly a minute later, the manatee reappeared. He swam through the group in the water, rolling on his back as he passed.

Several times, the manatee passed next to the boys, circled around, and passed them again. Each time, the boys patted and scratched his back and sides.

Then, very slowly, and for the first time, the manatee propelled himself directly toward one of the boys. Instead of swimming in lazy circles, he approached the boy head first.

The boy never moved an inch. He floated motionless, head down, watching through his mask as the manatee drifted up to him.

Ultimately, the two of them were less than six inches apart, nose to nose. For several seconds, neither of them moved. The only sound was the clicking of cameras.

I watched, fascinated, as the young boy and the young manatee looked at each other at close range. Long seconds passed. Then the manatee veered away and swam off into the safe zone, this time for good.

What the two of them shared at that moment, I can only guess. But there’s no doubt that the boy will remember the encounter vividly for the rest of his life.

I saw plenty of manatees at Crystal River, and I got plenty of photos. Most of the shots are interesting, but forgettable.

The photo I really wanted, which the boy in the water saw so memorably in person, was a shot of a manatee head-on and close up.

Although that photo eluded me at Crystal River, I got it the following week at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on the other side of Florida.

It happened at Mosquito Lagoon, a remote spot on the Intracoastal Waterway where manatees stop to feed while migrating. From a viewing deck overlooking the site, armed with my big Nikon and my best zoom lens, I patiently took photo after photo.

This is my favorite.

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The manatee, sometimes called the sea cow, is a large, aquatic, herbivorous mammal that has the overstuffed look of a walrus.

Mama and baby manatee.

Manatees are air-breathers, yet they live entirely under water. While awake, they come up for a gulp of air every few minutes. During sleep periods, they surface as infrequently as every 20 minutes.

They are friendly, peaceful, intelligent creatures that live in warm, shallow water, feeding on algae and aquatic plants. Adults can be 12 feet long and weigh 1,200-pounds. Babies are about 40 pounds at birth.

Sea cow may describe their docile nature, but they very much resemble, and in fact are related to, the elephant.

In February, a friend of mine mentioned that her family was going to Florida to swim with the manatees.

Huh? What? Swimming with manatees?

Every year, she said, they drive down to the little town of Crystal River on the Gulf coast of Florida, where hundreds of manatees congregate for the winter.

The town is on King’s Bay, which is fed by freshwater springs — leaks from the Floridan aquifer. The spring water is a constant 72 degrees year-round, which in the winter months is warmer than the Gulf. Manatees can’t tolerate water colder than 65 degrees. Hence, great numbers of them go to King’s Bay for the winter.

So do tourists like my friend, who descend on Crystal River between November and March to interact with the portly beasties via tour boats, dive trips, snorkeling, swimming, and kayaking.

To me, the concept was completely new and totally out of left field. I was so intrigued and fascinated that a week later, I put Paco in the kennel, packed my swim gear, and drove south.

The town of Crystal River is north of Tampa and west of Ocala, on a small bay a few miles inland from the Gulf. Manatee tourism is the local economy’s bread and butter.

Google Earth view of Crystal River.

In Crystal River, the lodging, eateries, and tourist operations are pleasant mom-and-pop outfits. The only corporate behemoths in town are Walmart, Walgreen’s, Family Dollar, and Publix.

The town seems to have all the amenities you need, but with the casual vibe of 30 years ago.

On Day One, I signed up for a half-day guided dive trip. Most of the tour outfitters in town seemed interchangeable, but I went with Manatee Tour & Dive, the company my friend in Jefferson uses. That morning, I found myself part of a group of 10 swimmers.

After we watched a video about the rules of manatee encounters, we were fitted with wetsuits, given swim fins, masks, and snorkels, and herded onto a tour boat.

Next was a five-minute boat ride to the centerpiece of King’s Bay, Three Sisters Springs. The water there is chest-deep, crystal clear, and a beautiful aqua.

Beautiful, but not secluded by any means. The springs are located on one of the town’s numerous residential canals. Overlooking the spot — and lining the web of canals in all directions — are the waterfront homes of the locals.

An amazing place to live, if you can put up with the constant presence of waterborne tourists in your back yard.

At the mouth of spring, we and four or five other tour boats anchored next to a manatee safe zone, which is off limits to people.

The manatees know that, and they congregate behind the ropes, just out of reach of the hovering boats and kayaks and the hoards of swimmers.

When I was there, a dozen or so manatees were resting and grazing on vegetation inside the safe zone. Sometimes, however, the zone will be overflowing.

For the next two hours, we were free to swim and explore as far as stamina permitted.

Once in the water — decked out in my wetsuit and swim gear and clutching a cheap underwater camera — I swam over to the safe zone. Naturally, I wanted to photograph a manatee, preferably head-on from two feet away.

It didn’t happen. Adult manatees prefer to keep their distance. Babies stay close to their mothers. Adolescents sometimes can be curious enough to approach you — but the best I got was a few shots of manatees just out of arm’s reach, ignoring me.

The manatees seem to understand that we mean no harm, but still consider us an unwelcome nuisance.

Now and then, a manatee would arrive or depart the safe zone. This would cause a furor as the tourists, including me, jockeyed to get close.

It was during one of these arrivals that I got my first chance to touch a manatee.

Someone yelled, “Incoming!” and 30 yards up the canal, kayakers and swimmers marked the location by parting to make way for the new arrival. A few seconds later, two nostrils and a massive back appeared at the surface of the water and then disappeared.

It was a big adult, moving slowly along, one yard below the surface, headed toward the safe zone.

When he got to within 10 yards of me, I dove down. (My underwater camera wasn’t ready; I hadn’t gone through the laborious process of winding the film forward and cocking the shutter. By then, it was too late to do it.)

I bobbed quietly in the water and watched through my swim mask as the manatee drifted past. It was huge. Graceful. Serene. I placed one hand on its back, and it passed lightly beneath my fingers.

It feels like an elephant, I thought. A wet elephant.

I’ve never touched an elephant in my life, but that’s what I thought.

For the first half hour, my attention was on the manatees. But soon, I wanted to explore the lagoon where three large springs, the namesake three sisters, emerge from the aquifer.

The three springs are inside a secluded pond connected to King’s Bay by a long, narrow channel. The outflow of water through the channel has a surprisingly strong current.

The swim fins made all the difference. I flippered my way through the channel and emerged inside the lagoon.

The channel leading from King’s Bay to Three Sisters Springs.

The lagoon is completely isolated and natural. On average, the pool is about chest deep. At the point of each spring, the depth is about 15 feet.

I spent most of the next 30 minutes with my head down, breathing through the snorkel, criss-crossing the lagoon and taking in the experience. My most unexpected discovery: hundreds of tiny “sand boils” created by spring water percolating up in random spots through the sandy floor of the lagoon.

Part of the time, I had the lagoon to myself; sometimes, other swimmers and kayakers were there with me.

But everyone felt compelled to remain silent. It’s that kind of place.

Eventually, I swam back out to King’s Bay and climbed aboard the tour boat to rest. The scene was the same: boats and swimmers lined up around the safe zone, watching the manatees, hoping for an encounter.

After a drink and a snack, I got back in the water and explored the canal a short distance in both directions. I didn’t go far. After being at it for three hours, I was exhausted.

Swimming with the manatees had been an amazing experience. Being at and below water level is a unique perspective.

But in some ways, it’s a limited perspective. I already knew I would be back the next day in a kayak, to see it all again from a fresh vantage point.

More about that in my next post.

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In September 1995, I shelled out the sobering sum of $2,061.00 for a 12-day raft trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.

One year earlier, on a crazy impulse, I had taken my first Grand Canyon raft trip, and it had been a life-changer. I was smitten by the experience. Infatuated. Hooked forever.

Accordingly, as soon as the trip was over, I got busy planning to do it again.

That second trip began in Las Vegas. Per the outfitter’s instructions, our group was to meet “No later than 3:00 PM at McCarran Airport, main terminal, level 1, in the seating area behind the information counter between the baggage claim areas.”

I recall the place and the moment vividly. As I descended the escalator to the aforesaid seating area, lugging my rafting gear, three or four people already were present. They sat quietly, waiting for someone in authority to arrive and tell them what to do. I joined them, quietly.

Minute by minute, more gear-laden people arrived. Taking their cue from the rest of us, they dumped their bags on the floor and sat down to wait, quietly.

Then Candi came down the escalator.

Candi Butler from Toledo, Ohio, was a 40-ish woman with short brown hair and thick, rimless glasses. A spectacular, high-wattage grin illuminated her path.

She stepped off the escalator, beaming, and surveyed our group, which by then numbered about 12 or 15.

After a few seconds, she walked over to me, dropped her bags, held out her hand, and gushed, “Hi! I’m Candi! What’s your name?”

I leapt to my feet and introduced myself. We chatted for a few seconds, and then she moved to the next guy.

“Hi! I’m Candi! What’s your name?”

Soon, the entire group was engaged in a flurry of introductions. It was still underway when the authority figures from the rafting company walked up.

Candi’s arrival had been memorable, but in all honesty, she didn’t make a very positive impression on me. She was cheerful and pleasant, but she came across as a bit of an airhead. Naive. Possibly not very bright.

All I can say is, first impressions can be deceiving.

During that trip, I became especially close to four of my fellow passengers, all of us traveling alone. Candi was one of them.

We soon learned that she was a veteran river-runner. She rafted somewhere every three or four months.

She explained that it was a pressure-relief mechanism. She said she needed regular time away from work to decompress, relax, recharge.

That’s because Candi was a surgeon.

Her specialty was breast cancer.

Meeting with, talking to, and operating on woman with breast cancer was what she did — all she did — every day.

It was work that weighed heavily on her and took its toll.

Fortunately, she discovered that a week of rafting, when she was isolated in the wilderness and far removed from thoughts about patients and hospitals, was wonderfully healing and restorative. It allowed her to keep doing her work.

Without the safety valve of the river trips, she told us, she couldn’t possibly continue in that specialty.

Galdalf the wizard said about the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, “There is a lot more in him than you guess.”

A lesson, I submit, not to judge people until you get to know them.

Our merry band of voyagers, September 1995. That's me to the left of the cowboy. Candy is in the center, yellow shirt and blue hat.

Candi Butler, M.D.

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I haven’t posted anything about Grand Canyon lately, and I need to remedy that.

What follows is a story told by Cameron “Cam” Stavely, a veteran river guide who first ran the Colorado River through Grand Canyon in 1969 at age 13.

Stavely was interviewed as part of an oral history project being conducted by Grand Canyon River Guides and Northern Arizona University. This is an excerpt from the interview.

Cam Stavely is the grandson of Grand Canyon pioneer Norm Nevills, who ran the first commercial trip there in 1938. Stavely is recalling an oar trip in 1978.

None of my river trips have been quite this exciting.


Things were going pretty well until we got to Bedrock.

Bedrock Rapid. Right side good, left side bad.

At that point in time, I think we all had probably one oar trip under our belts. So we were bursting with experience down there.

We got down, and I was gonna be first boat through. Water was a pretty decent level. It was actually pretty user-friendly, maybe 12,000 [cfs], somethin’ like that. And there was a lot more room then than there is now. So it wasn’t a big deal. We just stopped and scouted it.

So I’ve got two folks, a father and son, in the front, and then I’ve got my swamper or trainee and another passenger in the back.

We pull out and start goin’ down. I’m making the ferry over there to the right, and just kinda gettin’ ready to take that last stroke, ’cause there was a lot of room — and my right oar snapped.

So I’m tryin’ to pull the stub out and get the spare in. And of course, soon as I didn’t have that last stroke, I started kinda movin’ back to the left and center.

So finally, I get the spare stabbed in there, into the lock, and about that time realized that there’s no way to avoid the Bedrock. We hit that sucker smack dab on the point.

So I had time to straighten it up, pretty much. That’s all I had time to do. We just climbed right up the face of that thing.

Jim was the father, and Glenn was his son, 15- or 16-year-old son. And they were literally just dangling right over my head.

The boat was sitting absolutely vertical, and it was kind of shaking, but I was leaning forward and trying to hold on.

The boat actually slid off the left side, just hugging the Bedrock the entire time. And I figure I know what’s gonna happen now: You know, that current coming from the left, into the downstream side of the Bedrock, we’re gonna flip.

That was the first thing that I thought. The second thing was, “You know, I used to have two people in the back of my boat, and they’re not there anymore.”

So I’m looking around for them, and the frame is just scraping along the Bedrock.

Marilyn was the gal’s name — she was the passenger. She pops up, right in front of the boat, and I can see her.

I yelled to Jim to grab her, but Jim was terrified. He was absolutely stonelike.

So the boat is doin’ this kind of thing [makes a wobble motion]. So I jump over my kitchen box, into the front, and I’m gonna try to swing her around, away from the wall, because the boat is just playin’ cat and mouse with her.

But I realize there’s no time. We’re just comin’ — it’s just gonna be impending impact.

So she reaches up, and I shove her head down under water, because I didn’t want her to get squished.

I push her down like that. Almost as soon as I get my arm out of the way, boom! We hit the rock and bounce off.

So she’s back under water again. She pops up a few seconds later, and I’m yelling at her, “Marilyn! Marilyn! Grab my hand.”

Well, she didn’t want to have anything to do with me at that point.

So finally, the river kinda pushes us together, the boat and her, and I grab her and pull her in, and she’s definitely in shock. I still don’t see Billy, the swamper.

Time? I don’t know. Maybe it’s 15 seconds or whatever it is, but I still don’t see him.

We’re goin’ down the left channel. We get even with the downstream end of the Bedrock, and Billy pops up about 15 feet off to the left.

He’s just — his eyes are kinda rolling and he’s just ashen, not even voice responsive. I mean, he’s conscious, I’m yellin’ at him, and he’s just kinda dazed.

So a couple of things happen right then.

The front of the boat is starting to sink, because when we went up the face of the Bedrock, the granite sliced the front two chambers, just like a cat or somethin’.

So I tell Jim and Glenn and Marilyn, “Get in the back of the boat.” We’re sinkin’, so they’re pretty motivated to get back there where it’s a little higher.

So they get back there. Billy just kinda drifts over. We’re able to get him, too.

I tell Jim, “You gotta help me pull this bow over the frame, because I can’t row the boat like this.”

So we get up there and both get a side, and we just pull the front of the tube over the frame.

And then I row downstream and get to the right bank, and then get everybody out of the boat, and just, you know, do an assessment — how is everybody?

There’s a few little cuts and scratches. Nobody’s seriously injured.

Then I look back upstream, and there’s this frenzy goin’ on. I’m thinkin’ “Oh [expletive], they’re gonna come save me.”

I’m tryin’ to get their attention, to say, “Hey, I’m okay, I’m fine.” But nobody’s lookin’ at me. Granted, it’s over a hundred yards for sure, but they’re just not even lookin’ in my direction.

So here comes Bruce [Steinhouse], and Bruce almost looked like he lined up for the left run. I mean, it wasn’t even close. He goes over and down the left channel and gets stuck in Forever Eddy.

And he’s just goin’ round and round and round. And I’m still trying to get his attention and say, “Hey, everything’s fine over here, everything’s good.” But nobody’s lookin’.

So he pulls and pulls and pulls and pulls, finally tucks one oar, gets both hands on the other oar, and just yanks as hard as he can.

And his boat comes flyin’ outa that eddy, goes sideways into the downstream side of the Bedrock, and — it’s a 22-footer — boomp! Tips over, upside down.

So we’re got five passengers and Bruce in the water, boat upside down.

I have half a boat. And we still have [Jim] Norton up at the top, who doesn’t row hardly ever, and I’m thinkin’ “This is just gettin’ worse.”

Norton comes down and makes this great run. He gets lined up, goes right down the right channel — no big deal.

Bruce is floating by me, and I’m yellin’. He wore glasses that were really, really thick, so he comes up without his glasses on, and he can’t see anything — absolutely nothing. He’s just lookin’ around.

A couple of his folks have grabbed onto their boat, and I’m tellin’ ’em, “Get up on the bottom of the boat!”

Of course, they’re goin’ down past me, and Bruce gets over there, and Jim comes through, and they’re floatin’ down to that little riffle above Dubie [Deubendorf Rapid].

And I look back upstream, and here comes a motor rig. And Bill Trevithic — by the time he gets down there, I can see who it is — he looks at me, and I say, “I’m fine” and point downstream.

So he takes off, and he catches them down there just above Galloway [Canyon]. He pushes them in to shore, and then I get everybody in my boat, and we row down there.

By the time I get there, Kim [Crumbo] and Brad [Dimock], they’re camped down at Stone Creek — they’ve seen all this flotsam going down. By the time I get down there, they’re there.

So I get in there, and we turn Bruce’s boat right side up. And whether the latches failed, or whatever happened, the freezer lids came open.

So we lost almost all of our frozen perishable groceries, which is kinda critical, because we’ve still got four more days.

So Bill Trevithic gives us — he always carried an extra canned ham. He gives us this big canned ham and some other stuff, some bread and stuff.

Brad says, “Maybe I should come down and help you guys.”

I said, “Nah, I think we’re okay.”

He says, “Well you could probably use an extra hand. You’ve gotta patch your boat, and a couple of your folks are pretty wigged out. Let’s go talk to Crumbo.”

So he and I go over and talk to Crumbo. Crumbo says, “Yeah, that’d be fine.”

So Brad takes off, goin’ down to their camp and gettin’ his boat together, and gettin’ anything off that Crumbo might need.

And everybody jumps in the two boats. Jim and his son walk around Deubendorf. They don’t trust me — plus, I only have half a boat anyway.

So I just go down the right run, the right side, which I’ve never run since. I don’t know if I could find it, but it’s over there someplace. It was a pretty easy run in higher water.

Anyway, we go down to Racetrack [camping beach]. We’re derigging my boat, gotta patch that thing. The front is just mauled. Just all kinds of patches we gotta throw on that thing.

And we’re cooking, of course, some of the canned ham, and we had a few things.

Brad’s helpin’ me patch, and he and I are both running’ back and forth, workin’ in the kitchen, and he says he’s gonna cook potatoes O’Brien.

And he’s up there, and the rest  of the dinner’s been ready for a little while, and he’s takin’ a long time. So I walk over there.

“Brad, are those potatoes almost done? Doesn’t look like they’re brownin’ up very well.”

“God,” he said, I don’t know what’s goin’ on. They just won’t brown.”

I said, “Well, you got plenty of heat. What did you put in there?”

He said, “I just put some cookin’ oil in there — the oil over there in that bottle.”

So I go over there and pick up the bottle, and it’s our hand soap.

That was kinda the climax of our afternoon.

Potatoes O'Brien when properly prepared.

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So far, I have been on four rafting trips on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. The first trip, in 1994, was a one-weeker. The other trips were two weeks.

I know it’s crazy, but even today, that first trip lives in my memory as the longest of them all. It was as if time slowed down and allowed me to savor every moment of the experience.

Oddly enough, the only time I was in any danger was on dry land, not in the rapids. It happened during the 1994 trip.

On either the first or second afternoon (I can’t remember everything), our group made camp.

Either at Georgie‘s Camp, river mile 19 (the 1st night) or at Buck Farm Canyon, river mile 41 (the 2nd night), we passengers dispersed to stake out our sleeping spots on the sand, and the guides proceeded to set up the kitchen and start supper.

We had about an hour of free time, so I decided to stroll off into the surrounding wilds to see what I could see. Per the trip rules, I informed Andrew, the trip leader, and departed.

In an ideal world, I would have had my camera with me, but the accursed thing had died that morning. Stopped working. Croaked.

Andrew said it was my own fault; I had somehow offended the River Gods. He said they won’t put up with crap from anybody, least of all a tourist.

The trail was good, and the walk was fairly easy. But soon, the trail being rather monotonous, I decided to venture off-trail. I headed up a slight incline to the right that appeared to lead to an overlook.

The route I followed was a faint sheep trail that climbed the hill in a mostly straight line, angling from lower left to upper right.

The overlook gave me a great  view, but I couldn’t see the river. I wanted to see the river. So I continued upward.

Before long, I was 20 minutes into the ascent and beginning to gain altitude. I was too far from camp to see or hear the activity below.

Not only that, the nature of the slope was beginning to change.

In Grand Canyon, the rock layers change as you go higher or lower. I don’t know what layer I reached that afternoon — my understanding of Grand Canyon geology is only superficial — but whatever it was, the terrain consisted of a layer of thin, fractured, flat grey rocks that were exceedingly unstable.

As I proceeded up the slope, I was forced to ascend on all fours because the loose chunks of slate or shale covering the slope would not be still. They were very slippery, constantly sliding and shifting underfoot as I walked.

Situation: I was on a steep, slippery hillside that was getting steeper and slipperier with every step.

At that moment, the voice of common sense and self-preservation that dwells in one’s brain, the survival instinct that one should heed in such situations, spoketh.

I looked around. The sheep trail seemed to have faded out. If I continued, I might become ledged out and in real trouble. The voice said it was time to turn back, and I concurred.

Carefully, I turned around on the path and positioned myself sideways, using my right arm to form a tripod and gain stability.

It was a good thought, but it didn’t work. I took one step, and my feet slid out from under me. I landed on my backside with a thud.

I tried again, this time descending backwards, looking over my shoulder, both hands on the trail for stability.

After one or two steps, I ended up flat on my belly. By golly, that slope was a lot easier to ascend than descend.

I turned around, sat up, and studied the slope. It appeared that the dicey part was a stretch of only 10 or 20 yards. If I could cover that distance without losing it in a spectacular way — and by that I mean cartwheeling head-over-teakettle several hundred vertical feet back into camp — I would be back on more firma terra.

I probably took a sip of water, adjusted my daypack, and wiped my brow with a bandana. Then, very gingerly, standing sideways, I took a step downhill.

Immediately, there came a deep rumble, as if of thunder.

The ground around me shook. Dust began to rise. I was being shaken violently, but somehow remained standing.

My first thought was earthquake! My fate was in other hands, and I probably was doomed.

But something wasn’t right. In spite of the sudden wild activity and movement, the ground beneath me looked perfectly normal. The earth should be splitting asunder, shouldn‘t it?

Then I realized it was no earthquake. It was a landslide.

A giant slab of the shale/slate material, probably a dozen feet square, had broken loose and was sliding down the slope in one chunk, with me on top of it.

Our slow, rumbling, downhill slide probably lasted 10 seconds. The slab stopped and started three times.

Each time the slab stopped, I thought, Thank God! Thank God!

Each time it started again, I thought, Oh, God! Oh, God!

And believe me, I wasn’t addressing the River Gods.

Eventually, the slab came to rest. For a few seconds, rumbling and booming echoed through the canyon.

The dust was awful, but I didn’t care. I had ridden the beast, kept my balance, and survived completely unscathed. It was good to be alive. It was SO GOOD to be alive.

The slab of rock had moved about 15 yards downhill and stopped at the base of the slope — the very spot I needed to reach. I stepped onto more solid ground and joyfully made my way back down the hill.

On the way back to camp, I decided not to mention the event to my traveling companions. The guides might bar me from leaving camp alone. Or at all. Besides, no harm was done. It would be my little secret.

When I arrived back at the beach, Andrew was waiting.

“I was about to go looking for you,” he said. “There was a rockfall somewhere back up there. We heard it in camp.”

“Really?” I said. “Too bad I missed the excitement.”


Technical depiction of your average rockslide.

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