[Front matter: Today we've got yet another wonderful story from my father. This one is pure action.]
It was Vince who made me promise to follow through for once. “You’ve got to write it down before it fades to nothing,” he’d said. “Promise me that you’ll do it.” I promised. It was long ago already, and the central event took perhaps only five minutes to play out. Still, it was one of those occurrences around which the personal histories of the witness and participants are dated. This is particularly true in my own case, though I’d begun as a player of a very minor part. Vince thought I should call it “The Price of Friendship,” but I thought a better title might be “My Biggest Wreck”.
It all started when our trip leader, RD, was out reassuring himself of the location of the “goalpost” run in Unkar Rapid, all by himself. He slipped on a rock, fell down and busted his thumb. He couldn’t hold a fork, never mind an oar, and we had to pull Vince off the trainee raft to replace him. That left Lori in the raft, our one rubber boat, all by herself.
It was thought that Vince should probably row the only aluminum dory we had. In a metal boat you can be a little off course and tap a rock without sinking the thing. Vince had never been down the Grand Canyon before. It’s not rocket science, but a little practice helps.
The only drawback was that the aluminum boat was the Nechako, a vessel of unprecedented girth and a reputation for being unwieldy. Her lines had been sketched on the back of a cocktail napkin and built to full scale by dumpster fabricator that same evening – or so the story went. You sat in the rowing seat and couldn’t see anything but boat for 15 degrees either side of the bow and stern because she was shaped like a section of cantaloupe and your butt was down where the seeds and stringy stuff would be. The gunnels swept down from the lofty ends in an arc that came perilously close to the river. “Freeboard” is the distance between the lowest part of the hull and the surface of water when the boat is carrying the load it’s designed for. At midship, Nechako had the freeboard of a log raft. She was so beamy, that during a night of revelry we once got eleven people in the front cross hatch alone, a mass of drunks roughly equal to three times the theoretical payload.
With all her curves, Nechako looked almost graceful on the warehouse floor, but most of her bulk was rarely in the water. She made a square hole in river, one that was four inches deeper than any boat in the fleet. Every stroke was an effort to drag the boat out of the hole. The location of the laden waterline had been severely misjudged and the oarlocks had therefore needed to be raised six inches by means of a crude wooden frame, made from pieces of an oar shaft, bolted to the sides. The oars themselves had to be two feet longer than usual just to reach the water, which put them at an angle where the average- sized person was more hanging from the handles than pulling on them. An exaggerated flare to her sides and a continuous fore and aft curve of her bottom made “Nechako” sit deep and heavy on the water, like an aluminum cannonball, but still bob and pitch about wildly in the rapids.
Fully conscious of the irony, the company’s owner, Marin Litton, had named her Nechako River after a tributary of the Fraser in British Columbia, which was drowned by a hydropower dam built to supply an aluminum refinery. Her primary operator and chief maintenance man for a number of years, one O’Connor Dale, had shortened the name to a single word when he couldn’t find any ‘V’s’ to spell “River” in the skimpy stock of letter decals.
She was a tough boat to love and since O’Connor had gone back to driving motor rigs, nobody had. The deck seals were shot, latches were missing and the oarlocks knocked in their stanchions like a ‘53 Hudson with two bad rod bearings. Still, she was stable on the water, in the same sense that a coal barge is, and stout as a fireplug, both qualities we deemed useful in a rookie boat. While it was more likely that you were going to end up going somewhere besides where you’d hoped, the consequences were far less dire. It could take all day to put a wood boat back together. The Nechako could sustain a canyon-ringing hit and you wouldn’t be late for lunch. Her wobbly heft and bone-deep sluggishness would be like wearing ankle weights. Everything seems much easier once you take them off.
Vince put on a pair of rowing gloves, which none of us neighborhood types had ever seen, and took over the Nechako like a good soldier. The gloves seemed a little unboatman-like, I thought, but hey, different strokes… Tuck, the company manager, got in RD’s boat, the Makaha.
Tuck had come on the trip to prove to the skeptical staff that it was really no big deal to put five people, instead of the usual four, in a dory and row them down the Grand Canyon. An accountant had pointed out that the company would never make any money with a four to one client/staff ratio. A fifth paying passenger was the difference between profitability and extinction. The arithmetic had to be made to work. Boats the size of the Nechako were part of the answer. In this case, as it somehow came to happen, it meant the rookie was pulling an overloaded boxcar down a river he’d never seen before. He took it very well. Unkar is arguably the first of the Grand Canyon’s really large rapids, and Vince’s first strokes aboard his new commission were to set up for the entry. Events weren’t cutting him a lot of slack, but he made it to the bottom of that one, and all the rest of the big ones down to camp.
Over the course of the next few days, Vince proved equal to the task at hand. There are a few moments when extreme exertion is demanded. Below the bigger drops I would find him leaning on his oars, spent and shaking his head, staring into the bilge. Then he’d look up and grin. If you got within earshot he’d start the narrative right there. He paid attention as if his life depended on it, a point with some validity. He never complained and you had to give him credit for that. We quickly became friends.
Vince had rowed most of the big stuff and most of the doldrums too, where the current seems to simply spin in circles and the wind often blows like a bastard. Nechako’s square waterline made her particularly unruly in the swirlies and her towering stem and stern could send her skittering into the eddies like a water strider in the mildest gale. Vince’s hands were raw through the gloves. We’d gone two hundred miles and were heading for the top of Lake Mead that afternoon. On the last day of moving water, we decided he deserved a break. A couple of us offered to trade boats with him now and then, over the course of the day, so he could try out the other dories.
But there are still some significant rapids in the lower gorge.
I had already taken my turn in the Nechako, and when we got down to Travertine Grotto I was ready to trade back. The boat I had been rowing since I started with Grand Canyon Dories was a 1975 Briggs dory, the sweetest watercraft to ever displace her weight of Colorado River water. She was made of Doug Fir marine ply, Port Orford cedar and ring-shanked copper boat nails in a wizard’s workshop in Grants Pass, Oregon and I was one spoiled boatboy.
You can develop a relationship with a rowboat much more readily than you can with most inanimate objects. Sure, people love their cars, but it would certainly be a different matter if they had to pull them to work. You might start to appreciate how easily that old VW rolled or cuss the brand-new Ford Exhibition till the paint all blistered off. The “Roaring Springs” and I were a team. It had taken her about two years to teach me to row. I just wasn’t that adept. Persistence can often win out over ineptitude though, and I had developed a few good moves.
The “Springs” designer and builder, Jerry Briggs, had grown up building boats and put everything he knew about them into one design during a rare conjunction of the planets one winter solstice night. The dogs stopped barking and all the sheep lay down at once. Briggs boats have a straight section of waterline, about eight feet, which we all thought was responsible for their ability to hold a line like they were on some invisible track. The hull speed seemed to be about two miles an hour, a pretty good clip for one person pushing ¾ ton of stuff through still water. You could get them going that fast with a half dozen solid push strokes and keep it up all day without breaking a sweat.
If you stop rowing a raft for a moment, it is anchored in the surface tension like a lily pad. A Briggs boat will skate over the eddylines, bounce off the cross-currents and hold her momentum like my maiden Aunt Bertha. It’s uncanny and a person can get spoiled. There’s something about the way the bow rises out of the water that gives the stem a clean entry into the biggest waves and still shortens the waterline to where you can turn on a dime. You don't want to examine it too closely. Just row the damn boat and smile. You’re getting paid.
The Roaring Springs was equipped with a set of oars that I’d picked out of a fresh shipment of a hundred one Spring, before anyone else had gotten to the warehouse. They were ten feet of flawless, laser-straight American ash that would flex through the middle of the stroke and whip at the finish like a fish’s tail. The blades were long and narrow so they didn’t try to twist in your hand, though they had as much flat surface as you could pull through the water. They could be feathered in an instant and cocked for another stroke with the boat heeled over in a North Sea chop and the blade still under two feet of green water. Try that with your three-hundred-dollar, axially-wound, carbon fiber sinkers and your risible blade locators. These sticks were very nearly perfectly balanced at the oarlock when the blades were in the water, because wood floats. You could let go of them and grab another beer from the side hatch before they crabbed under the boat. Usually. I don’t care what you say, plastic will never come close.
The thing I liked about them most though, was the way you could slip the blades into the water, matching their entry angle to the speed of the boat and have the surface of the river heal up behind the oar with a gentle “pock” like a raindrop hitting the water. You could move fifteen hundred pounds around in absolute silence except for that sound. If you could get everyone to shut up for a minute.
But I digress. When we got down to Travertine nobody wanted to finish out the last few rapids in Nechako. So I re-enlisted. In an hour we’d be tying all the boats together and it wouldn’t matter which one you were on. We’d mount an outboard engine on the transom of a couple dories, fashion a floating carnival platform out of boats, oars, tarps and two miles of quarter-inch line and motor across Lake Mead for a couple of days.
The water was sort of low, around 10,000 cubic feet per second. At this level 231 Mile Rapid turns into a couple of short steep drops instead of the roller coaster it is at 18,000 cfs. It was heads-up boating.
The next rapid, 232, deserved its nasty reputation. The honeymooning Hyde party is thought to have drowned here in 1928, and wrecks are not infrequent. Debris fans from tributary canyons on either side constrict a river already narrowed by the vertical black walls of the inner gorge. The rapid scrapes down the right wall in a series of big standing waves with breaking crests. Towards the bottom are the Fangs, a group of bedrock granite pinnacles smack in the middle of the current and sharp as scimitars. They are either exposed or just below the surface depending on river level. Other towers of polished stone stand just off the right wall. We scouted 232 to see if the Fangs were out or not. The consensus was that the Fangs were covered.
All the boats gathered at the scant beach on the right. I left the sandy spot to the wood boats and tethered Nechako amongst the rocks. The hard metamorphic and igneous strata along this stretch of shore have been carved into a gallery of oddly sensuous forms. The passengers wandered around rubbing the rocks and taking pictures. We were running the rapid in two groups. Half the people could take pictures of the run from the top, the others from the bottom. The boatmen had stood in a knot and talked through the run. There’s a sharp hole on the top left that keeps you from getting into an optimal entry position. You have to stay out in the glassy water of the tongue, picking up speed as the river pours over the pile of rocky outwash from the two lateral canyons.
I had a strategy that had been working so well that I actually looked forward to doing it. I never considered anything else.
I’d start pushing on the oars well above the tongue, just enough to get some steerage, then lean on ‘em like a madman once I could see the right side of the top hole. Sliding down the glassy incline of the tongue and urged on by the accelerating water, I’d squeeze as close to the edge backbreaking hole as I’d dare, trying to blast the crest of the left lateral into shimmering mist with “Roaring Springs” bowpost. By adding all the hickory wind I could muster, I might get most of my Briggs boat airborne if the wave was big enough that day. Once I was surfing down its backside, still headed left, I could just straighten out and watch the deadly dentition of 232 sail by two boat-lengths to my right. It was a beautiful run.
We watched the first group grease it. Dimock, a pioneer of the new school, pushed bow first, as I favored. Others pulled, their backs to the rapid. It all worked. I gathered up all five of my passengers. The youngest was around 70. I piled them into the boat and took up all 24 feet of Nechako’s oars.
They were plastic-wrapped aluminum flagpoles with blades shaped like a speed limit sign. A metal tube stiffened the blade and when you dipped them in the water they sounded like someone had slung a poodle off the rim. Urging the ward to hold on in earnest, we splashed into 232 like a sternwheeler, pushing leftward to beat hell.
The top lateral stopped us dead. Nechako rocked back on her stern and rode the crest to the center with her nose in the air. The next one stopped us again and we came out with momentum towards the wall. I was still pushing left, but it obviously wasn’t working. I was going to have to crank her around and pull, which maneuver I initiated by taking a couple of prodigious strokes on the right oar.
I had gotten her all the way around broadside in the current and was just starting my first stroke to pull away from the wall when we hit the uppermost Fang a foot forward of the oarlock. There was a terrific deafening crash, like a car wreck. Everyone was thrown into a jumble on the left rail and I almost went overboard. My head was out over the side, which gave me a good look at the paramount Fang, inches away and undamaged. It had been lurking just under the surface but the eddy caused by our boat now left a hand span of its tip visible. I scrambled back to the seat and hauled on the right oar to spin us off because we weren’t moving at all, which is a little disconcerting in the middle of a large rapid. The boat peeled off easily but we were careening down the wall, totally out of control.
The current pushed the stern into a tight little eddy amongst the rocks and the boat whirled into the wall in an instant. The right oar blade clattered up the vertical rock and jammed in a crack, snapping in half. The jagged fragment of plastic flew across the boat at head level, but the oar handle had already hit me squarely in the sternum, flattening me to the deck and pinning me there like a bug. My feet were up in the air, flailing about wildly, which, observers later remarked, added greatly to the “bug” simile. Struggling to keep my head up, I was looking right down what remained of the oar, which was bent into a parabola by pressure against the canyon wall and my chest. I still had a hand on it but I could no longer breathe.
Somehow, I wedged my other hand under the handle and pushed up for all I was worth. I remember shaking with the effort as I slowly forced the shaft off me and let it crack down onto the deck. The handle broke off with the force of the impact and sailed into the front footwell: the only oar I’ve ever broken in three. “I’ll have to do something about that pretty quick,” I thought, but at that moment noticed a more immediate problem.
Free now of the oar snag, the boat was slowly drifting into a passage between a tower of stone and the wall. A quick visual comparison between the width of the passage and the beam of Nechako indicated a bad match. We’d stick like a driven nail. I had but one oar. The only water available to use it in was part of the rapid, flowing in the wrong direction at 25 miles per hour. Leaping to the starboard side, I grabbed two handfuls of fluted granite and willed the boat to stop. Then I began to claw my way back up the eddy dragging Nechako along the wall, leaving a trail of blood and fingernails, with the boat repeatedly surging into the cliff and ringing like a Chinese gong. At the upstream end of the eddy was another tower of rock. The water right behind it wasn’t going anywhere. There was a tiny eddy where I could park the boat without straining to hold it. Maybe I could regroup, get in a spare oar, save our lives and so on. But I had yet another problem.
The initial impact had been directly on a seam in the plate aluminum and had split the Nechako from gunnel to chine. It had also blown out an internal bulkhead, so the tremendous gash in her hull was leaking water into the cavernous front cross hatch and the left side. We were sinking. Nechako didn’t have much freeboard to begin with, but I noticed the water was already sloshing in with the surge. It was probably only the fact that the front cross hatch was jammed with lightweight gear in waterproof bags that was keeping us afloat. Then I noticed all the latches, save one, were missing on that particular hatch cover. Buoyant black neoprene sacks were bulging out from underneath it like loops of some monstrous entrails. If that single latch were to blow, we’d loose our flotation and go to the bottom like a marble. Two tiny # 6 screws and a $1.89 sash latch were keeping us afloat for now. I needed to get busy.
I loosed a spare oar from the keeper and made to insert it in the vacant right oarlock. Unaccountably, I was unable to do this. Every time I’d get the throat of the oar close to the lock it would seem to jump out of my hand. The damn thing was so long that I had to lean way over the opposite side to keep it balanced, attempting to drop it into a two-inch space 8 feet away, while wallowing in the swell. I was concentrating my hardest, but it wasn’t working. The oar seemed to be twitching around as if alive. After several tries I happened to look behind me where a lady named Martha was seated, eyes wide with terror, waiting for me to try to bludgeon her with the oar once again. She’d been fending it off with both hands whenever it got within reach. “Martha,” I cried, “Stop that.” These were the first word anyone had spoken since we entered the rapid. I slipped in the oar. We were only going to get one try at this.
We were dead in the water, sinking rapidly, with the right gunnel scraping against the wall and a sizable rapid immediately to our left. I was going to have to get enough of the Nechako’s bulk into the current to insure that she would continue downstream and not wrap on the rock pinnacle immediately below. This from a standing start. Never nimble, a Nechako burdened with a thousand of pounds of river water seemed a poor choice for this maneuver. Options were limited. Our predicament was rapidly worsening.
“Be ready to highside,” I suggested to the crew. When we hit the current it was going to suck the upstream gunnel down, raising the left side like the bow of the Titanic going under. By throwing themselves on the high side my passengers might keep the boat from being rolled right over by the force of the incoming water. Remaining upright would probably be best. We were going to hit some more rocks. That was certain, and I didn’t care. If we didn’t get out of the eddy, the molars of 232 were going to be flossed with elderly people. We just needed to get out of the rapid.
I stood up and hiked over to the right side where I put both hands on the polished stone. “Ready?” I told them. I shoved the boat away from the rock and leapt to the oars. There still wasn’t enough room to use the right oar, so – praying this one wouldn’t break too – I drew in the oar, jammed the blade into the rock to pushed us off a little more and levered the boat towards the current.
About 300 tons of Colorado River slammed into Nechako’s aft starboard quarter, whipping her stern downstream. “Highside!” I suggested earnestly. Everyone waded to the left rail. I only got one real stroke. The blade was still in the eddy, and all I had to do was keep the force of the current from folding the oar against the boat. I was looking right down the shaft of the miserable thing at the looming black obelisk. Both hands were on the handle of that one oar and it was bending like a soda straw, but Nechako was still coming around in a drunken spin. There wasn’t time to do anything else, so I grabbed another stroke and held on till we went broadside into the tower, dead amidship.
I remember the echo it made. Maybe it was the surge of adrenaline, but I’d missed the reverberation of the first crash, which must have been terrific. This one seemed to return from miles away. I’d been thrown out of my seat by the impact and was trying to get resituated when I heard the echo. “That must have been really loud,” I had time to think. Then the right oar was in my hand somehow and I was trying to get a stroke in the rocketing current, hoping to spin us off the rock. We were very near the point of a perfect “postage stamp” pin, which would wrap the Nechako’s aluminum hull around the rock protuberance like the foil on a baked potato. With the forces involved, I wasn’t likely to be doing much, but I did it with everything I had.
Like a glacier making up its mind, Nechako rolled off into the current and wallowed into the tail waves, gulping great slugs of river. My passengers sat uncomplaining in nipple-deep, frigid water. Bless their hearts. The slightest wavelet slopped onboard. “We’re sinking,” I explained. They didn’t seem to have any problem with that. Tuck rowed up and asked if we could make it to camp. “We might not make to shore,” I said.
We managed to get over to the right side where we beached her on a flat rock and bailed her out. Duct tape and contact cement would serve to get Nechako to the welders. The ten miles I rowed the Nechako that morning were the first and last time I would ever lay hand to her oars. And these days, I seldom volunteer for anything.
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