Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Boating’

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.”

Rockslide

Technical depiction of your average rockslide.

Read Full Post »

The Fridge in the Hooch

The Chattahoochee River in North Georgia begins, appropriately, at Chattahoochee Spring, located in Chattahoochee Gap, on the southern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

At the spring, the water bubbles weakly from the ground and cascades through a series of small pools. Not very impressive.

But as it flows downhill, other springs and streams add to its volume. Soon, it becomes a rocky, lively mountain river, tumbling south toward Atlanta.

Time was, the Hooch flowed southward unimpeded. That isn’t the case anymore. It still flows onward to the Gulf, but by the time it reaches the northern edge of Metro Atlanta, the river has been tamed.

The culprit is Lake Sidney Lanier, formed by Buford Dam. Lake Lanier is 93 square miles big, with 700 miles of shoreline. The lake intrudes upstream on the Chattahoochee for many miles.

The truth is, the Chattahoochee stops being a river and becomes a lake about 10 miles before it reaches Gainesville, near the little town of Lula.

From that point south, the Hooch has a few interesting pockets, but mostly isn’t worth your time.

From that point north, it’s terrific.

I own a recreational kayak, which is a hybrid with a keel to help you go in a straight line. It’s perfect for that section of the Hooch below the mountains and above the lake. I’ve paddled there many times.

It’s pretty amazing up there — clean, green, and beautiful. A few bridges span the river, but the stretches between them are long and pristine.

There are no houses, billboards, or other man-made structures along the banks. All you’ll see are herons, egrets, the occasional group of cows in a riverside pasture, and a few small fishing boats.

The fishermen have it easy. They motor upstream and stake out a likely spot. Kayakers have to work a little harder.

Actually, it isn’t that difficult to paddle a kayak upstream against the current, but you can’t stop. If you do, you go backward.

My usual practice is to head north and keep stroking, with a rest-pause every few minutes. It’s surprising how much progress you can make. Every hour or so, I will tie up to a tree, have a drink and a snack, and recover.

Several years ago, I decided to go for distance. I wanted to see how far upstream I could advance — no gawking and sightseeing.

I started early in the morning at Belton Bridge Park in Hall County are headed upstream.

A few hours later, I began to encounter a few ripples and shoals. To get upstream of them required tricky maneuvering and hard paddling.

As the obstacles got more numerous and more difficult, I got more exhausted. At length, I came to a pour-over that ran from bank to bank. After several attempts to find a way past it, I gave up.

It was about 2:00 PM. I turned around and began the long drift back to the car. Far from being disappointed, I was relieved, and also proud of a good day’s work.

The float back downstream on trips like that is always a pleasure. It’s the reward you earned for your efforts. No paddling is required. Just a bit of steering. It’s all very indolent.

For most of that day, I had been a long way from any roads that provided access to the river. But by 4:00 PM, as I was getting close to the put-in, civilization wasn’t far away.

So when I came around a bend in the river and saw a man on the left bank in the distance, it wasn’t a surprise.

He was a thin Caucasian fellow, about 40, wearing long pants and standing in the water up to his knees. On the bank beside him was a refrigerator.

As I drifted silently toward him, still 100 yards away, the man began wrestling the refrigerator into the river.

He tilted it on its side and let it drop into the water. The door was secured with a strap, so the fridge didn’t sink. It bobbed there as he maneuvered it further from shore.

Standing waist deep in the river, the man loosened the strap. Water flowed in. As he pushed and guided, the refrigerator started sinking at an angle.

In a few seconds, only a six-inch white pyramid, the corner of the appliance, was showing. By then, the man was up to his neck in the water. He pushed and pulled energetically, and the pyramid finally disappeared.

By the time the man waded ashore and turned to look back at his handiwork, I was floating past him 10 yards from shore.

He went rigid. His eyes widened, and he stared at me. Looking quickly left and right, and without a word, he turned and disappeared into the woods.

I paddled over to the sunken refrigerator, which was mere inches below the surface. The door was ajar, but I couldn’t quite see inside.

That’s when the questions began to bubble up.

Was the appliance empty? Had he jettisoned a piece of junk or dumped a body?

Had he run away because dumping is illegal, or had he gone to get his pistol out of the glove compartment?

Feeling way too vulnerable, I slipped back into the current and vacated the area.

The boat ramp was only a minute or two downstream, and I was soon back on dry land. I hurriedly secured the kayak to the roof of my car and drove away.

By the time I got home, I had decided to notify the Hall County Sheriff’s office.

The dispatcher listened to my story without the slightest hint of interest. She said she would pass along the information to the proper people, but I doubt if she did. I can’t feature a uniformed deputy wading into the river to investigate a refrigerator.

Which, when you think about it, means that the fridge is probably still there.

Personally, I have no intention of going back to find out. But if you’d care to do so, the refrigerator is located on the east bank of the Chattahoochee River, a few yards downstream from the confluence with Mud Creek, about 10 feet from shore.

If you want the GPS coordinates, let me know.

The Hooch near Belton Bridge Park.

The Hooch near Belton Bridge Park.

The upper Hooch.

The upper Hooch.

Read Full Post »

Face it. Some people are insufferable jerks.

When solid citizens like you and me see someone behave publicly in a mean or rude manner, we are rightly offended.

We say to ourselves indignantly, Wow, what a jerk. Decent people don’t act that way.

Or, more commonly, Wow, that guy is a complete asshole.

I minored in psychology, which instilled in me an interest in human behavior, but — go figure — provided few definitive answers. I would love to know what goes on in the heads of the many ass–   jerks among us.

My guess: their behavior stems from pent-up anger, coupled with a sense of denial, leading to the belief that if you finally blow your cork, you’re somehow entitled.

They’re not entitled, of course. Being petulant, or spoiled, or even slightly unhinged, doesn’t justify bad behavior.

From my experience, such people seldom get the comeuppance they deserve. But when they do, watching it happen is so, so satisfying.

Please join me as I revisit one of those occasions of justice being served…

One of the universal rituals of whitewater rafting is the bus ride. A bus delivers you to the put-in, and a bus picks you up at the take-out.

Buswise, the Gauley River in West Virginia presents serious tactical problems for the local outfitters because of the mountainous terrain. Every day, they have to get their buses down primitive roads to remote locations. Then, after the buses are burdened with a full load of passengers and gear, they have to be driven out again. Uphill. It makes for some memorable rides.

The trip from the take-out back to the outfitter is in three stages.

Stage one is the initial climb, steep and laborious, out of the river valley on single-lane gravel roads. This is where rocks fly and engines groan. On some curves and in some weather conditions, the passengers must actually de-bus once or twice.

Stage two is the slightly more civilized roads you reach after the bus is out of the valley. These are unpaved, one-lane roads that are narrow and rough, but relatively well-maintained.

Stage three is the final stretch, the paved roads and highways, where people can relax their grip on the seat rail, have a conversation, or doze off.

In the world of whitewater rafting, the bus drivers are a unique and interesting lot. While the guides are professional boat people and may be from Maine, Utah, or Oregon, most of the West Virginia bus drivers are local boys. The trip leader usually introduces them as ” Lefty” or “Claude” or “T-Bone.”

As if stamped from a mold, the drivers are lean, stoic, and focused. They wear work boots, denim, and a baseball cap featuring either a NASCAR logo or the Stars and Bars.

They are confident, blue-collar fellows, manly and proud. Clearly, they would make formidable adversaries.

These are men of true Southern stock. Being around them makes me wonder how the South lost the War.

One fall weekend several years ago, after a whitewater trip down the Upper Gauley, an incident occurred that led to a confrontation between our bus driver and one of those insufferable jerks I mentioned earlier.

I don’t recollect our driver’s name, so I will call him Red.

On that occasion, Red had coaxed our bus out of the river valley, the most harrowing leg of the trip, and was progressing along a flat, straight stretch of gravel road that was not quite two lanes wide.

It would have been wider, but on each side of the road was a drainage ditch several feet wide and several feet deep.

In those mountains, the ditches are necessary because of the ample rainfall. No doubt the local folks have learned to coexist with them, as a Savannian coexists with mosquitoes, or an Augustan coexists with gnats.

As Red drove slowly onward, two vehicles came into view ahead: a pickup truck, followed by a passenger car.

Our three vehicles came to a halt 20 yards apart. Two cars could have passed each other at that spot, but a car and a bus: not a chance.

Red raised both hands, palms out, and made a pushing motion — a signal for the approaching vehicles to back up. Red felt that the smaller vehicles should yield.

The driver of the pickup truck waved back in agreement and turned around in his seat, preparing to back up.

But the driver of the passenger car behind him declined to cooperate. Instead, he leaned on his horn.

The driver of the pickup looked up at Red helplessly. Red sat motionless, waiting.

The driver of the passenger car leaned on his horn again, more aggressively this time.

“Okay, buddy,” Red muttered to no one in particular. “I got all afternoon.”

The bus was packed with people and protruding paddles, and all of us were focused on the drama in front of us. The prevailing chatter was that the driver of the passenger car was a “jerk.” No one doubted that eventually, Red would humble him.

Instead, the fellow humbled himself. Suddenly, in an apparent fit of rage, the driver backed up a few yards, revved his engine, and lurched forward to pass the pickup truck on the outside, perilously close to the ditch.

On the bus, we all leaned forward to see if he would make it. He did, but just barely.

For a few seconds, the passenger car paused. It sat mere feet in front of the bus. Red and the driver could have seen each other easily, and I’m sure they communicated, silently and with feeling.

I was too far back in the bus to see the other driver, but I clearly saw his vehicle as he finally decided to go for it. He began to pass the bus on the left shoulder.

Everyone on the bus fell silent. We watched as the car inched forward… past the driver’s window… past the halfway point…

And we watched as the edge of the ditch crumbled under the weight, and the car slid sideways in slow motion, coming to rest on its side in the ditch, the two left tires pointing up at us.

The bus erupted with a tremendous din of cheering, hooting, and the pounding of paddles on metal.

To the driver of the passenger car, lying on his side in his vehicle a few yards below, it must have been supremely humiliating.

While the vanquished driver struggled to get out of his car, the pickup truck dutifully backed up 30 yards to a wider spot in the road. Red glanced down at the passenger car one last time, put the bus in gear, and started forward.

Someone on the bus asked Red if we should stop to help the man. After all, we were at least five miles from civilization. It was a well-intentioned, but useless plea.

“He’s probably got a cell phone,” Red replied. He accelerated, and we were gone.

Your typical busload of eager rafters.

Your typical busload of eager rafters.

Your typical no-passing zone.

Your typical no-passing zone.

Your typical price of hubris.

Read Full Post »

February 4, 2000.

Roger Henderson from Flagstaff Arizona, died a few months ago. I didn’t know him, but I know some of his friends, and he seems to have been an interesting and honorable guy.

I read about Roger’s death in the Boatman’s Quarterly Review, the journal of Grand Canyon River Guides. GCRG is a non-profit association of river guides and other fans of Grand Canyon. Membership in GCRG is a good way to stay current on happenings in and around the Big Ditch.

In this electronic age, when glitzy graphics rule, and words often are seen as mere visual building blocks, the Boatman’s Quarterly Review is a genuine and highly successful literary effort.

The BQR is a simple, two-color publication featuring 20-odd pages of type, interspersed with occasional drawings and black and white photos. It works beautifully.

Something else the BQR does well is to lovingly and respectfully mourns the passing of friends.

Roger was a river guide, photographer, pilot, handyman, world traveler and free-thinker. He was interested in books, rivers, Alaska, story-telling, and Navajo culture. He had an eye for the ladies.

When he wasn’t guiding city people like me through Grand Canyon, he was hauling and selling firewood around Flagstaff, or helping the Navajo bury their dead. More about that later.

Roger was from Chicago. Back in the 1970s, he enrolled at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and never left town again, except to travel. Periodically, he escaped to Patagonia or Alaska to unwind.

Navajo medicine men called Roger “the ghostbuster.”

Navajos are mortally and unashamedly terrified of the dead. They fear death and ghosts to a spectacular degree. Navajos will not to venture out after dark, else they may fall victim to a skinwalker – the ghost of someone who died violently, or who was not laid to rest via a proper and timely ceremony.

Because Roger wasn’t an Indian, he had less to fear from malevolent spirits. He helped his Navajo friends by reburying the bones when heavy rains churned up an old Anasazi burial site.

The Navajo taught him how to protect himself from the dead by eating bitter herbs, and how to brush out his tracks as he walked backward from a burial. He had great respect for the Navajo people. He was honored to be a non-Navajo who understood the traditions.

Fifteen years ago, Roger learned that he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The cancer was treated, and it went into remission.

He lived his life, survived three plane crashes, and was engaged to marry a lady from Tucson. But the cancer returned. He died late in 1999.

Roger once wrote home from Denali, “Alaska pulls me like nothing else does. The last of what is left that is wild, clean, open. A place of beauty without a drop of mercy.

“Our time is limited on this earth. We need to live in its magnificence.”

Read Full Post »

During a river trip in 1997, a group of passengers compiled this list of the “Best Ways to Prepare for a Grand Canyon Raft Trip.”

—————

One week before your trip, have a yard of sand delivered to your home. Sprinkle it liberally in your bed, in dresser drawers, and on kitchen and bathroom counters.

Top off salt shakers and sugar bowls with sand and use them as usual.

Place a garbage can lid of sand in front of a fan and run it at maximum speed.

Sit on the hood of your car while riding through a car wash.

Practice beating beer cans down to the size of a hockey puck.

Have your friends form a line. Systematically pass the entire contents of your home out the front door and in the back door.

Line your sandals with sandpaper and spend two hours a day on a Stairmaster.

Drape all your clothing on the bushes and rocks in your back yard.

Twice a day, change clothes as your neighbors watch.

With 27 friends standing in the shallow end of a swimming pool, practice looking nonchalant as you carry on a conversation and pee simultaneously.

Always answer “yes” to the question, “Do you see any rocks?”

Always answer “no” to the question, “Does anyone want to go on a power hike?”

feet

Read Full Post »

It isn’t my style to get thrown out of business establishments for unruly behavior, but sometimes, life takes an odd turn.

My first visit to Grand Canyon, a raft trip on the Colorado River, was in May 1994. One of my trip mates, Chris, lived in Atlanta, too — coincidentally about five miles from my apartment.

Chris grew up in Cleveland, and with him on the raft trip were three buddies from his old neighborhood. More about them is featured in my post, Trip Log, May 1994 under the Trip Reports category.

Chris and the guys were a rowdy, good-natured bunch. In addition to being lively companions, they introduced me later that year to a world I didn’t know existed: whitewater rafting in West Virginia.

The boys from Cleveland rafted the Gauley River in central West Virginia every fall. They invited me to join them later that year to get my introduction to Eastern whitewater.

The Gauley River is one of the premier whitewater rafting destinations in the world. In the fall, when water is released from Summersville Lake to make room for snowmelt the following spring, the Gauley is awe-inspiring.

Whitewater enthusiasts come from everywhere for the experience. Over the course of 28 miles are more than 100 rapids, five of them rated Class V.

Class V means the rapid is exceedingly difficult and violent. Class VI means unrunnable — a death trap not to be attempted.

I’ve paddled the Gauley River and the nearby New River a dozen times since then, but that first trip in October 1994 stands out for many reasons.

For one thing, it was my maiden voyage on the mighty Gauley. During the fall drawdown, the Upper Gauley in particular is non-stop action — nine miles of whitewater with scarcely a let-up.

Second, it was the only time I tent-camped there for the weekend. The campground was a raucous place that never got quiet, ever. Sleeping wasn’t a real option. But as it turned out, most of the outfitters are located in Fayetteville, a city with about 30 motels. On future rafting trips, I booked a room.

Third, it was the only time I rafted with Ace Whitewater. They were perfectly competent, but they seemed less committed to safety than to showing the customers a macho good time. Subsequently, I found another outfitter.

The fourth reason was our guide on the Upper Gauley, Bo Jeffries. Bo was a Fayetteville fella who grew up on the river and knew it well. In the fall, he was a paddleboat guide. In other seasons, he was a fishing guide.

Bo was an unforgettable character. He’s the only guide I ever knew who declined to wear a safety helmet. He strapped on a helmet at the put-in because Park Rangers were around, but after we were underway, he replaced it with a baseball cap.

The fifth reason was Christie, a fellow passenger on our run of the Lower Gauley. The day before, Christie’s raft had flipped on the Upper Gauley. For a harrowing few seconds, her foot was wedged in rocks, and the river held her underwater.

But the river spit her out, unharmed. She was back on the water even though still terrified. She had to do it, she said. Otherwise, she feared she would never paddle in whitewater again.

Our trip that weekend was a “Reverse Gauley.” On Saturday, the guys and I rafted the less intense Lower Gauley. On Sunday, we tackled the real deal, the Upper Gauley.

The Lower Gauley was plenty exciting. Our group of rafts had several swimmers, and two of the other rafts flipped. Our guide was a tough, tiny girl who was very skilled and had paddled numerous rivers. But she had never guided on the Upper Gauley, and she never planned to.

By the end of the day, the Cleveland boys and I we were pumped and full of stories. Back at the campground, we soon were full of beer and whiskey, too. Eventually, someone suggested the local Pizza Hut for supper.

Which brings me to reason number six, the unique experience of being thrown out of a business establishment for unruly behavior.

At about 10:00 PM, our party of six burst into the Pizza Hut in Oak Hill, West Virginia, like a car crash. Several of us were noticeably inebriated; the rest were knee-walking drunk.

Only a handful of customers were in the restaurant. Immediately, the manager began trying to quiet us down. He appealed to one or two of us, but we couldn’t control our friends any more than the manager could.

Finally, he made us an offer: we could leave, in which case we could have two deluxe pizzas, free; or we could stay, in which case he would call the police.

Ten minutes later, we were back at our campsite dining on pizza. For the record, we paid for them.

At some point during the night, I crawled off to my tent and got an hour or two of fitful sleep. Most of the rest stayed up all night drinking. A short time later, the icy water of the Upper Gauley snapped them out of it.

As promised, the Upper Gauley gave us quite a ride. Bo got us to the takeout flawlessly — no incidents, no accidents, all thrills.

That day, the river was a blur of sights, sounds, and rapids with names I immediately forgot. But over the next 10 years, I got to know the Gauley much better. And I’m pleased to note that every trip was as exciting as the one before.

After the bus ride back to Ace Whitewater, as the Cleveland guys and I were walking down the gravel road leading to the campground, a car came up behind us. The driver tapped a cheerful refrain on his horn.

It was Bo in a red Cadillac convertible, smoking a cigar. “Hop on, boys,” he said. “I’ll give you a lift the rest of the way.”

The six of us climbed onto the Cadillac. I got the driver side front fender. Bo drove us, slowly and carefully, to the campground entrance.

As we said our goodbyes, Bo gave each of us this business card:

bo

The Cleveland Mafia plus me at Pillow Rock, a Class V rapid. Note that our guide lacks protective headgear. Also note the flagrant t-grip violation on the right.

If you’re interested, you can watch videos of virtually every significant rapid on the Gauley River here. Ironically, this website is from my old friends at Ace Whitewater.

Read Full Post »

I’ve been to Grand Canyon 19 times. Four of those times were for raft trips down the Colorado River. On three of the four, I had the incomparable experience of running Lava Falls Rapid.

Lava Falls is the biggest rapid on a river of many big rapids. It is the climax, the exclamation point. After Lava, your trip is on the wane.

In truth, my Lava Falls experience totals only about 60 seconds. But those moments are seared into my consciousness. I can replay my three Lava Falls runs in my head at any time, in real time. They were that memorable.

People run Lava Falls in all sorts of watercraft, motorized and otherwise. I ran it twice in an oar boat — hanging on for dear life while an oarsman was at the controls — and once in a paddle raft.

In a paddle raft, you‘re not just a passenger. You’re involved. You are closer to the river, more intimate with it.

Paddle boats are 12 to 14 feet long. Typically, they are powered by a team of six paddlers, three on each side, plus a paddle captain in the rear who steers and directs the paddlers.

Two weeks of paddling on the Colorado is hard work, but the experience, especially in Lava Falls, is a rush not easily matched. That’s why, on my 1998 trip, I paid a little extra for a seat in the paddle raft.

When it comes to Grand Canyon and the river, I’m a lightweight. Real river people understand Lava Falls Rapid in minute detail. They know every ledge, whirlpool, obstacle, and hydraulic in the rapid. They know how each changes at different water levels. Me, I just know the fundamentals.

First, I know that your entry is everything.

Lava Falls is one of those distressing rapids that is all but invisible as you approach at river level. The clues and signs are few. You can pick out your route when scouting from shore, but once underway, you can’t be sure if you are lined up correctly until you’re mere yards from committing, and time has run out.

Second, I know that nothing much matters after your entry. The rapid will suck you in, transport you through the maelstrom, and deposit you below in its own good time. If you nailed the entry, you probably will arrive right side up. If not, the rapid is likely to keep you and thrash you before sending you downstream.

Third, I know that depending on numerous factors — water level, instinct, past experience, and more — the guide will choose to run right of center or left of center. Dead center is not an option because of the infamous Ledge Hole.

The Ledge Hole actually extends almost the entire width of the river. But to the left and right of the main abyss are narrow slots that are passable.

If you choose the slot on the right, you are rocketed downstream into a giant V-Wave, which sends you further downstream into a whirlpool that is frighteningly close to the Cheese Grater, a large chunk of black lava rock jutting from the right bank.

Ideally, the force of the water will wash your raft around the rock and into calmer water below the rapid.

If you choose the slot on the left, you task is to slip between the Ledge Hole on the right and a series of hydraulics on the left, created by boulders along the shore.

The left entry is said to be especially tricky because the flow of the rapid is relentlessly to the right. If you are not veering left at full speed as you hurtle downstream, you are finished.

On both of my oar boat trips through Lava Falls, the raft went right. My paddle boat in 1998 went left.

The paddle boat run that day was flawless, and it was memorable for many reasons. Some are noted in The Replacements, a recollection I posted on February 5.

It also was memorable for the sheer pandemonium that engulfed us for the next 20 seconds.

But most memorable of all was the powerful sucking sound made by the massive hole in the center of the rapid.

I was seated on the right side of the raft in center position. I stroked away manfully as directed by the paddle captain. I never shirked.

But when our tiny raft drew alongside the center hole, I glanced to my right and looked down into the gaping maw of hell — a fearsome pit large enough to swallow a Hummer.

The monster was sucking air so loudly I couldn’t hear the guide‘s commands. It was not a roar. A roar is expelled, ejected. This was the opposite. It was otherworldly.

I last ran the Colorado River through Grand Canyon in 2007. On that trip, I left the paddle boat to the testosterone crowd, and I opted for an oar boat.

It wasn’t out of fear. I ain’t skeered of Lava Falls. It’s just that I already have a great memory of paddling through Lava. Let someone else build theirs.

Besides, oar boats are a fine way to see Grand Canyon. In an oar boat, you can use your camera. You can hold onto something.

Some of the rapids on the Upper Gauley River in West Virginia are more demanding than Lava Falls. Iron Ring gives me a chill every time. You’re a lot more likely to die in Lost Paddle than in Lava.

But somehow, Lava Falls is transcendent. Lava is peerless. The king of the beasts.

And, if you’ll forgive me, it sucks.

Looking across Lava Falls from river right. Note the yellow kayak at center left.

Looking across Lava Falls from river right. Note the yellow kayak at center left.

The view downstream from river right.

The view downstream from river right.

Lava Falls videos are all over the internet. This one gives you a good look at the V-Wave and beyond.

This video shows the consequences of a poor entry.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »