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Westwater: a Story

I suppose it was good manners, or my lack thereof, that made Byron punch me in the face. I don’t mean to say he was justified in striking me—far from it—that’s just what must have been going through his mind. I imagine like most males he had harbored a secret desire to hit someone square in the face, just to see what it was like. And who better to practice on that someone whom he outweighed by a solid eighty pounds. I was thirteen at the time, and Byron, though he was only eighteen months older than me, overmatched my paltry five foot eight by a good seven inches.

We were on the Colorado river, on a trip through Ruby-Horsethief Canyon, then down through Westwater Canyon, which was the most dangerous and exciting part of the trip. The Phelpsclan, Byron’s family of eight, was the author of this experience, and I joined them as Byron’s friend.

The first inkling of the disaster I would later experience happened at the outset of the trip, before we had floated anywhere, at the put-in. The adults were doing the shuttle, which is to say driving the two cars down to the first takeout near the end of the voyage, where we would drop off Mother Phelps and the two babies before continuing down through Westwater. They would leave one car there and come back up to the put-in, and at the end we would come back and pick up this car—a tedious enterprise, but a necessary one.

There happened to be at this particular put-in a delicious eddy for swimming—a place where the river doubles back on itself next to the bank. At the frontier between these two flows—the eddy line—swirling and chaotic currents are universally present. This eddy was small and weak enough that it could be easily overpowered by a good swimmer, but we wore our buoyant life preservers just in case. At the top of this eddy, the furthest upstream portion where the two currents most stridently opposed each other and depth luckily permitted, one could jump in and feel a delightful sensation of being pulled in several directions by the chaotic water. As the two or three most able Phelpsclansmen and I enjoyed the currents; jumping in, allowing the river to carry us a ways downstream, and swimming back to repeat, I noticed Byron had taken up the boatman’s seat on the largest boat, a large, red inflatable catamaran. This done, he pulled a large handgun from somewhere in the pack—a .45 automatic, if memory serves. He held in gingerly in one hand, no doubt imagining the gun bucking in his hand as he pumped round after round into some nameless villain. As is customary in such situations, I pretended it was perfectly normal and continued swimming. As to what paranoid delusions convinced Father Phelps that he needed to bring such a cannon on a private recreational river trip, I care not to speculate.

As we got underway in our trip, the dogs made themselves known. The Phelpsclan, as is common in these times, had brought their family pet, a chubby and trembling black Labrador named Bonnie, along on the trip. The only other non-Phelpsclan member on the trip was a close relative: Father Phelps’ sister Sally, and she brought her blondish Labrador, named Molly, as well. Molly was relatively sane so far as that is possible for a dog, but the other not as much. Bonnie was something of the fretting type—she would sit on one of the midstream boats, whining and straining desperately against whatever restraints might be conceived, looking at the other boat as though six generations of her lost puppies were on board. Should she manage to break loose, she would immediately jump ship and strike out for the other boat. Once this perch was gained, she would scan the horizon for the previous boat which she had just quit, and finding it unaccountably doggie-furlongs away, set up the mirror image of the procedure she had just performed. My muttered suggestions that the dog be jettisoned went thankfully unheard.

The crowning moment of realization for me, the instant when the whole godforsaken truth of it came crashing down, was during a stop for lunch early in the trip, far before the darkly lurking Westwater. We had two boats, both severely overloaded, and were pulling off to the left to make some food. The river, sixty or so feet across, was placid at this point, but it must be said that even in calm spots experienced professional guides have been known to miss pull-ins like this one. However, if thundering rapids don’t lie directly beneath, such an error usually only requires a short hike for the passengers to rejoin the main group or a tedious haul of the boat upstream, using the stern line as a towing chain, or in the worst case missing whatever it was the party was stopping for. As most boatmen usually carry a hefty supply of beer, especially early in the trip, a missed lunch is not generally life-threatening.

Byron, who was rowing the Puma, which was smaller than the red catamaran, missed the pull-in. He demonstrated such marvelous un-dexterity at the oars, as though he had been instructed since birth by a team of trained psychologists who sole purpose was to remove any lingering shreds of watercraft-related talent that I suspected momentarily he was making a practical joke.

This suspicion was laid to rest when Byron seized up the throw line, and ignoring the semblance of an instruction manual present in the very name of the thing, jumped off the boat and swam jerkily to shore, leaving his mother and two baby sisters in the boat, bewildered. Mother Phelps gamely took up the oars and slapped feebly at the water like a penguin in São Paulo grasping for a cool, delicious cocktail.

The reaction of the remainder of the Phelpsclan—their reaction, as I later learned, to practically every unforeseen development—was blind panic. Each began shouting at the other, and all at Byron. When he finally beached himself, gasping, on the shore, there commenced a shouting match between him and his father that would last the remainder of the day and into the evening.

I watched the situation with a kind of stunned horror, like someone watching a train plow into a bus full of crippled—yet pugnacious and lovable—children. I sat on the beach next to another party of boaters who were trying to make sense of their place in the universe in relation to this group. “Well, at least they’re not flying airplanes,” I said, and went off to have a sandwich. It was soon after this that it was decided that Byron would not be rowing any boat through Westwater.

It was downhill from there, though I did enjoy myself—it was the river, after all. It quickly became apparent, though I tried not to believe it at the time, that the lot of us were in far over our head. I had been spoiled in river trips, as I always had both my highly skilled parents to fall back on. These redoubtable campaigners, who for many years had been professional boatmen of the highest caliber in the legendary Grand Canyon, possessed river skills eclipsing mine—and practically all humankind—by many orders of magnitude. On my family trips, if things got hairy, I could turn the controls over to one of these titans and watch leisurely as they threaded the boat and its cargo down immense rapids, wielding nothing but a pair of stout ash oars. I had also not realized the capriciousness of rivers, how regardless of skill or noble birth sometimes the river decided you were going upside down, and conversely how sometimes the most blistering ignoramuses ever to defile a set of oar-handles could unaccountably make it down roaring falls unscathed.

At this point I should include a word about Aunt Sally. She was Father Phelps’ sister, and wholly confident discoursing on any subject that happened to leap to her mind. I would often hear her, for example, exhorting one of the young Phelpsclansmen to not pee in the river, for God’s sake. Remember, friends, that dilution is the solution, as a large talking bear in blue jeans once told me.

So, after a number of grinding, endless days, we stopped at the first takeout and dropped off mother, Bonnie, and babies. Below us lay two days of rapids, and then freedom.

So all trip resentment was building in me, anger at the Phelpsclan for being such unthinkable doofuses, and also anger at them for putting me in a situation where I could not if I so desired slink cowardly back into the bilge and let someone else handle the heavy lifting. It all came out that night over the dishes. I was unrelentingly mean and petty to Byron, needling him over all manner of sensitive topics, of which, I can assure you, there were uncountable many. So he got pissed and punched me in the face, and I dropped.

Not too long after falling to the sand the reality of the situation came pouring over me. The son of a bitch hit me! The son of a bitch hit me!! Rage such as I have felt only a half-dozen times in my life came boiling up, and I launched myself at him, all 120 pounds of flailing terror. My punch missed, and we fell to grappling. Neither of us was particularly athletic, and we flopped clumsily around. I, being smaller and weaker, ended up on the bottom, and having no other damage to inflict, seized a handful of stomach fat a wrenched it as hard as I could, quashing odd notions about “fighting fair” that came bubbling up in my mind.

Soon we were pulled apart, and I staggered around, trying to mask—or at least soften—my obvious defeat by claiming ludicrously that I had been temporarily blinded. I stomped off into the brush while the Phelps began their customary screaming match. It was when I was alone that the true rage was loosed, and I stalked around the rocks next to the river, picking up the heaviest ones I could carry and smashing them down again, hurling great driftwood logs far into the river, and shrieking until my voice gave out—generally making such a calamitous racket that I could have nearly drowned out the entire Phelpsclan at the height of one of their pitched battles.

How ridiculous, you might say, indicating that my reaction was not justified by the circumstances. I would have to agree, and offer in my defense only that such anger does not respond to rational entreaties, and must simply be poured out on the earth until it has run dry.

Run dry it did soon afterward, though I stomped around in the bush for another hour or so muttering oaths and curses. By this time, it was dark, and I wandered stealthily back into camp and observed a conversation between Byron and his father.

“Where’s that gun?” asked Byron, and I felt the first pangs of real fear. Though I doubted he possessed the courage to shoot someone in cold blood, I could not honestly tell myself that Byron wouldn’t under any circumstances shoot me somewhere, probably poorly enough so that I would die slowly and painfully. He made allusion to some occasion when Father Phillips used the handgun to teach an impudent Bonnie some kind of lesson. Maybe that’s why the damn thing is so crazy, I thought, but quickly returned to eavesdropping. Father Phillips, to his eternal credit, explained in his slow and halting way that shooting at the dog was in fact a bad idea, and that brandishing firearms was not the preferred method of conflict mediation between friends.

I listened closely to their conversation for the next couple of hours as it ranged over all manner of subjects. It truly was a significant talk, and I kept my ears open in case I should have needed to escape quickly. I surreptitiously enlisted my few allies amongst the Phelpsclan to procure my possessions—in waterproof rubber bags—and formulated a plan to hike upstream, swim across the river to the Ruby-Horsethief takeout, find a phone to call my parents for an evacuation, obtain a restraining order against anyone pumping at least a half-pint of Phelpsclan blood, and submit my life savings to the purchase of a formidable armory.

It slowly became clear that I was not going to have to high-tail it. Byron tried to find me after awhile to apologize, but I wasn’t ready to give that to him. I remained hidden in the shadows, and he with his lantern was unable to find me in the dark. I slept burritoed into a tarp that night, as I had been sharing a tent with Byron.

In the morning we continued downstream. Westwater was hard on us now. Its rapids, though not in the same league as the legendary torrents downstream in the Grand Canyon, are still capable of homogenizing even the experienced boater. The worst of the rapids is the whimsically named Skull rapid, no doubt named from the piles of dried human craniums made from sacrifices to the river gods. Right in the middle of the rapid the river makes a hard left turn, and the accumulated inertia of the water has bored a sharp scoop at the right-hand bank. This area is the site of a vicious eddy—more of a whirlpool really—called the Room of Doom, in which a vast assortment of debris will spin, it is said, until the end of time. Westwater is in a gorge of hard, black Vishnu Schist mixed with sharp veins of Zoroaster Granite, which makes the river narrow and drop quickly so the rapids come hard and fast. Of these, Skull is the worst.

The events of the previous few days had sapped my already weak confidence, and upon consultation with Aunt Sally, I decided to let her row the Puma down, and I would accompany her to help scout.

We suited up on that fateful day, and I convinced Father Phelps to attach a flip line to the Puma. A flip line allows the passengers of a capsized boat, using their collective bodies as a lever, to right the boat in midstream, provided they have enough mass. Father Phelps did not deem it necessary for such equipment to be rigged on his boat—though in his defense Hercules himself would have been hard-pressed to right such a heavy and awkwardly-loaded craft.

Four people were set on the Puma including Sally and myself, and the remainder on the catamaran. Bonnie the Anxious had been sent off with the mother, but to my secret dismay Sally’s dog Molly remained with us on the Puma, strapped into a doggie-lifejacket.

The first few rapids were relatively uneventful. I and one of the abler Phelpsclansmen were wielding short paddles in the front, assisting with the forward horsepower, while Sally rowed. The catamaran was ahead, and we flailed our way downstream, eating a sizeable portion of nearly every wave we saw. Luckily, the Puma had an inflatable floor which allowed self-bailing. Sally, to her credit, managed to keep the boat pointed downstream and right-side-up. I rallied the troops with irregular bouts of violent cursing.

Then came Skull. One of the main problems with Skull—the worst problem, actually—is that it is almost impossible to pull over and scout the sucker beforehand. We watched Father Phillips slip lazily over the lip of the rapid, and figured foolishly that it must be straightforward enough. I advised Sally to get as far left as possible—I wanted to avoid that Room of Doom. This turned out to be poor advice. Rivers tend to pool before a rapid, and as we finally nudged over the edge, I realized my mistake. To the right there was a clear path, and several half-forgotten instructions from my father came leaping into razorous clarity in my mind. Right was where one was supposed to start, and passing the worst waves on the left, one pulled back to the left, successfully skirting the Charybdis on the right. Oops.

Now, though, we plunged headlong into the biggest wave we had yet seen on the river, breaking back on itself violently. Summoning up the vilest curses yet into a blasphemous battlecry, the Phelps and I roared stupid defiance into the face of the unreasoning water and were smothered to our very marrow. The wave, building and breaking, smashed bodily over the tiny boat, and plastered our hair straight backwards like the styling of some species of wind-tunnel dwellers. To my amazement, the boat survived this calamitous test upright, only knocked ninety degrees to the left. Time remained only for one mighty stroke on the oars to straighten us up before the next wave, much smaller than the previous but still formidable. And yet, we remained sideways. I leaned heavily on my paddle, but I had not the leverage. We capsized.

Later it would come out that Aunt Sally’s dog, which hitherto had remained relatively calm, had finally lost control at the umpteenth pressure-washer soaking the big wave had provided, and attempted to escape to more favorable climes. Sally, displaying the quality so often evinced by the noble stock of the Phelps line, dropped the oars and reached down to restrain the dog, and thus missed the critical stroke. I did not notice this detail at the time, which was probably all for the best.

In the bracing water, I found myself possessed of a vicious strength. I hauled myself atop the rubbery bottom of the Puma. I grasped the flip line tied to one side, planted my feet on the opposite side, and pulled with all the might of savage young manhood. In my adrenaline-soaked delirium, it didn’t occur to me at the time that the way the boat was loaded, with tremendous bags stacked up and tied fast in the stern of the boat nearly up to the chest of a grown man, made it nigh impossible for any mortal man to right the boat in this way. In fact, the Phelps bags, being of poor (but expensive) make, quickly took on such water that they became, for the purposes of righting the boat, as good as a keel set with lead ingots. In all likelihood it would have taken the better part of the Oakland Raiders’ defensive line to right the boat in this way.

After a moment of brutal straining my grip gave way and I plunged back into the water. I clawed back up on the boat and brought one the sturdier Phelpsclansmen up with me to try again. At this moment Sally surfaced, still clutching her precious dog, which was straining powerfully to swim after the manner of its kind, and in the process clubbing Sally about the face and head with its broad forepaws. I trust the dog meant no harm in this. She commanded us to paddle to shore, as the sturdy Phelps and I had both hung on to our paddles. We paddled strongly, and even with the stack of soggy baggage dragging under us like the sea anchor of the Queen Mary II, we made it to the solid rock of the shore. Father Phelps had also neglected to secure the oars to the frame with a line, and I watched one of the expensive rented graphite oars go floating on downstream, no doubt making someone’s afternoon.

We clung for purchase on the slippery Schist. Mustering our collective strength, we attempted to push the boat over standing on shore, but failed. We sat and waited, helpless. Several minutes later an ominous portent came floating past our sorry beachhead: an upside-down kayak, floating slowly and purposefully downstream, stopping for no eddy. I wondered if the kayaker was still in the boat, hanging lifeless and peaceful in the dark water. Other kayakers soon followed hunting for the boat, and explained that their comrade had been thrashed in Skull and separated from his boat. He was thankfully alive.

The remainder of the trip went as could be expected. Immense rugby players from Boulder came down and helped us turn the boat over. The catamaran had been pulverized even more severely than the Puma, losing an even pricier oar in the Room of Doom. It took those same rugby men and an improvised block and tackle to get it upright. I took control of the Puma and pulled like a Frenchman after an ’82 Lafite for the takeout. There we learned the fate of the baggage, and Byron found that his copy of the collected works of Jules Verne was reduced to a mashed-potato consistency. All bags, that is, save mine, reliable old war-surplus affairs loaned from my parents.

That marked the end of my river career with the Phelpsclan.

Copyright 2008, all rights reserved. No part of this writing can be reproduced, rewritten, published, or broadcast without the written permission of the author.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. That was a hell of a trip. Young master cooper was also much more of a hothead it seems. Good story.



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