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Guest post: Black Box Revisited

[Front matter: this is my Dad's best story. If I ever write anything this good, I'll be extremely proud of myself. It was published in Mountain Gazette in 2004.]

The call took me by surprise. I remember I was cooking something, maybe pancakes, in a smoking hot skillet, trying to talk while juggling a pan, spatula and the receiver. I hadn’t even talked to him in over a year. With the phone clamped to my ear by my shoulder I couldn’t hear all that well. Did he say Dugald? Breakfast was two degrees from emoliation. Yeah, Dugald Bremner. No kidding. He was planning a trip. Could I come along?

It wasn’t so common anymore, to be included in the travel plans of my nefarious partners. I had married, having decided that happiness might best be pursued by living with one good woman in a hamlet in Utah. It was as far away from everything as you could get. If you went any further, you’d be coming back. It was sort of working out. I hadn’t been a full-time guide for a couple of years. The fixer-upper was, well.... better; and I was managing to scrape by on income from various enterprises. Trips such as he was proposing were on the docket less frequently.

Trips such as he was proposing would often involve unplanned auxiliary adventures. Like running out of food and water. Maybe thirty miles of compass-heading trail breaking through deep crud. Three days of bushwhacking up the wrong drainage. Unrunnable waterfalls. That sort of thing. The stuff that really makes you feel glad to be alive. I hadn’t purposefully sworn off or anything, just got to be busy with other things.

I didn’t intend to quit cold turkey, however. Somehow I was confident I still had my edge. The mountain of evidence to the contrary was all circumstantial. Kayaking was like riding a bicycle. Still; when he told me where he wanted to go, I had a fleeting voltage surge. Not something to be taken lightly.

I’d known Dugald a long time. We had gone to the same college, lived in two different small towns together, but it was Grand Canyon that was our deepest connection. We were contemporaneous addicts. There was a whole community of people whose lives and livelihood revolved around the Canyon. We couldn’t get enough. Three seasons a year we’d run river trips as paid guides, then loaf or ski all winter. We had ten thousand stories in common and recognized one another, like the early worshippers of Ra. It was possible to do six 18 day trips a season down there, and I did; freezing in the spring, with ice on the boats in the morning, then baking the brains through four months of reflector-oven summer. Come fall, there was snow below the rim on those blessed October trips with the magical light. The work was hard. Daily encounters with the Canyons legendary rapids seemed to leave a residue of adrenaline in the bloodstream at all times. There were frequent realignments of the cosmos and the extraordinary was commonplace.

Some of us had taken up kayaking as a way to see the country and scare the daylights out of ourselves. I had personally been down some rivers that made the Grand Canyon seem well... benign. (A quick genuflection here to the Gods in charge of punishing the smug.) Dugald was one of those pushing that envelope. Still, the Canyon’s rapids were largely where our history was made. The waves of the Colorado are mountains. The skin-prickling beauty of gorge has already taken your breath away and the risks are real.

The luckiest of us got to do it in wooden boats, a risk multiplier that was well worth the added enjoyment. Dories are more fun to row than anything that floats, but they’re not the most forgiving of boats and you just can’t hit rocks. Indeed, one of my economic mainstays, back then, was repairing the misfortunes suffered by the boats in the shop I had out back. It kept me busy most of the winter.

Dugald’s trip would be short reversal of the trend toward complacency. That he had called me probably had less to do with my long-undeserved reputation as a competent kayaker and more to do with the location my adopted burg. Torrey, Utah is the scenic navel of Utah’s Red Rock wilderness; half way from Canyonlands to Bryce. Five miles from the border of Capitol Reef National Park: less than a six-pack from the Black Box of the San Raphael River. That’s where Dugald wanted to go. “The Black Box.” Even now, I get a little shiver up my spine.

I’d been to the edge of the gorge once before. There was an incision through the tortured rock stratum of the San Raphael Swell. The river’s course paradoxically wanders south along the very crest of the upwarp, picking the highest possible terrain to carve through. Coiling back on itself around Mexican Mountain, the canyon traces an Omega on the map. The deepest, narrowest part of the Omega is the “Black Box”. On that previous trip I recalled that couldn’t see the bottom from the rim excepting here and there. It was filled at midday with a Stygian darkness and the white noise of numerous falls. The gradient was an ungodly 180 ft/mile and so narrow you could spit across it with the wind against you. I had gazed into the abyss. It had gazed into me. It made my palms ache. That lunatic ache of one whose limbs just might propel them forward toward purposeful doom.

“Of course,” I’d told Dugald. I thought I was managing the tachycardia pretty well. “That’s a terrific idea.” My palms were aching something fierce. He’d be there in a couple of days.

He pulled in at dusk in the mandatory Japanese pickup. He still had those movie-star good looks and a leprechaun gleam in his eye. There was three quarters of a bottle of some unfamiliar solvent rolling around loose in the back. It was labeled Glenlivet and he offered me a pull on the bottle as soon as he got out. It tasted like liquid smoke from a smouldering peat bog. I had filtered an ocean of various distillates through my liver, but this was a different genre of booze. “My God,” I said when I had regained my breath.

He wanted to get some pictures of the Black Box for a Utah Geographic coffee table book that was coming out. A professional photographer is just somebody who sells pictures. If you wanted to turn pro, you took pictures that would sell. It ain’t rocket science. He had bought me a new spray deck, as requested. My old one had turned to dust. He wanted his money back before he’d give it to me. The Scottish heritage wasn’t just evident in his name, he lived up to it, was proud of it. That’s what the single-malt was all about. He had a newfangled garment called a “drytop,” versions of which he was testing for some paddling magazine. He loaned me one.

The last time I had seen him was below Crystal Rapid after the flood had changed it. People were getting the living daylights kicked out of them on a regular basis. That day we’d had some excitement but, as Martin Litton used to say, “Any run of Crystal where you don’t break anything and nobody gets hurt is a good run.” Dugald was crewing for Expeditons then. Our two parties had lunched on the same beach above Tuna Creek and the most of the boatmen snuck off around the corner to scout Hundred Mile. You can’t actually see Hundred Mile from there but the visualization opportunities are unmatched. We were walking on air, high on adrenaline and relief. Dugald soon had us laughing so hard we could barely stand. His humor was deadpanned, exquisitely timed and seriously twisted. He was a heartless, dead-on mimic and if it was you he was doing, you were going to be squirming through the tears.

After lunch I’d traded boats with him for a section of steep, short rapids called the Jewels. I was having a pretty good time considering I’d swapped my ’56 T-bird of a classic Briggs dory for one of those awkward, pinned-oar dirigibles that Expeditions was running then. The boats were a strikingly discordant burnt-orange color, but their fanciful hue belied a true sluggishness. It was like rowing Pier 9.

The rig that I couldn’t herd through the Upper Granite Gorge had yet to be built, though. Enjoying myself beyond the parameters necessary for the fulfillment of the job, I was rowing the unrowable and charming the dudes. I held forth on the merits of ridged hulls, pointed out a short section of igneous granodiorite rock in the primarily metamorphic walls of the gorge. I was probably starting to tell the one about McGregor and his goat when Dugald caught up with me below Ruby. “You’ve got a boat upside down back there,” he said. Being as I was the trip leader, he thought I should know.

Instant accession to dolthood, again. From Godhead to brain dead in a nanosecond. It seemed to me like I made those trips with uncommon frequency when Dugald was around. It had always been that way.

Ten years earlier, a partner and I had been trying to climb a difficult pitch in Prescott’s Granite Dells for weeks, when Dugald arrived on the scene. It had taken us days to wire the first few moves. We were still peeling off somewhere around midway, but were certain it would go. Contrary to protocol, we’d already named it “Madre de Dios.” He had topped out on his first attempt without seeming to struggle. Or that’s how I remember it. Worse, witnessing this triumph and everything else he did, was an unearthly beauty named Jane he had brought with him from Texas. They kept constant company. Though not a large man, he had the body of a gymnast. He was quick-witted and funny. I didn’t like him right off. Way back then, I might have had some adequacy issues, but still—making everything look easy is a damnably galling trait. On the rock Dugald had a “presence” that I’d only experienced momentarily, during a brief period of peak fitness. I suppose you could call it ‘fearlessness’ but that would only be one manifestation of the intensity of focus and confidence that makes someone good. Of course, he had the strength and balance, but the art of climbing rocks is a mental discipline at its core. The ability to relax is paramount. Four hundred feet of exposure seemed to have no effect on his internal calm. Baillie, the Rhodesian, called it “poise,” but what the hell did he know? I was thinking about taking up figure skating.

Dugald’s plan that day in May was to leave early in the morning in separate trucks and drive straight to the take-out, where we would leave one rig. With the gear consolidated in one vehicle we would search out a place to begin the trip which would avoid several miles of abject flat water below the bridge at Blue Bottle Peak. The place we actually started was at the end of a dirt spur of a faint track of a back road in the middle of seemingly waterless slickrock wilderness. We put on our ludicrous boating apparel and jammed the gear into the boats. We each grabbed one end of the kayaks, now better that 60 lbs. apiece, and fairly trotted into desert. In a few minutes, we could discern a slice through the slickrock between us and Cedar Mountain. In half an hour, we were at the river. A short time later we were floating down the lazy San Raphael toward the Black Box.

It was a bright, cool day. There were a couple of small rapids and some odd debris along the bank; the wreckage of a homemade boat; a complete fiberglass canoe. Presently we came to the first real obstacle, a pile of driftwood, which covered the entire canyon floor for some distance. The river disappeared beneath it and bubbled up 50 feet downstream. At higher water, it could have been a nightmare, but on our flow it was cake. We dragged the boats over the pile and slid back into the water. Shortly thereafter, the canyon closed down.

I don’t claim to remember exactly what happened after that. There were several distinct short drops among house-size boulders. There was a long chute where both sides of the boat were scraping the wall at once. There were logs jammed in the canyon walls thirty feet over your head. I was injected at one point into a little room where one had a choice of exiting via three different waterfalls. The proper choice was made more difficult by the fact I was upside down. I didn’t feel like I was paddling all that well, but I was there.

We came to one drop that was longer than the others. There was some rock dodging, then a squeeze between the wall and a gigantic boulder that was leaning against it, forming an actual tunnel. The channel then divided equally around a knife edge of stone before it careened into the wall and turned sharply into another dark corridor. We couldn’t scout any farther than that, but it didn’t matter. One thing at a time. Dugald asked me to run first, so he could take pictures, then he’d follow and I could take pictures of him. Somewhere, in some coffee table book about Utah’s geography, there is a picture of me in that rapid taken from directly overhead. Dugald had straddled the canyon and was shooting straight down from above. It’s a cool picture.

I don’t remember that it was a particularly difficult spot. None of it was really that hard in retrospect. It was intimidating. No banks, no sun; just vertical walls, gloom and noise. You had to shout to be heard. The falls seemed to generate their own chill wind. That particular time I was going first, which I hadn’t been doing much, and I was on the water alone. It wasn’t really a significant addition to the risks already involved, but being alone makes it different somehow. I remember the run better than the rest.

Back when I was rock climbing a lot I would get this diffuse ache in my hands and feet when I looked at a wall, long before I got serious about climbing it. When I started boating, I had the feeling when I scouted a difficult rapid and ceased noticing it when I got in the boat to put the spray deck on. That was the moment when I had to wrestle control away from the conflicted demon that was compelling me to do what ever I was doing, and deliver it to the machine that I hoped could pull it off. A complete transfer was crucial to success. The elastic of the spray skirt was like a living malevolent thing; black, slick, unyielding and doubly so if ones hands were the slightest bit cold. The focus required to best it left no room for purpose-tremor or self doubt.

After that, you would push off, clamp down on the paddle and react to conditions imposed. The world changes around you, much more so than when you’re climbing. When climbing you must change the world for yourself, and the moment of commitment is not when you move up, but when you let go. Every move up requires a new assumption of risk. Climbing is the easy part. Letting go is hard. If you’re kayaking, you let go once, then deal with what comes. A different variety of complete adsorption is required. There’s the same stoppage of the cosmos, the same elation at the finish that keeps us coming back, but that crystalline moment of intention, between commitment and action, equally important, only inhabited me until I got the dadgummed spray deck on. Let’s call it “dread.”

I did the run. It was fast, tight and dark. There was only one way through that I could see. I slid my boat into a crack between two rocks, got out and hustled back up to man the camera.

He showed me the shot he wanted and went back up to his boat. I waited with Olympus at ready. I waited and waited. I waited till my arms got tired holding the thing. I began to become concerned and thought of abandoning my post. Finally he popped into view and I clicked the shutter.

I thought it bad form to ask what had taken so long but he volunteered. “I had a little trouble up there,” he said. What? I’d been bent over trying to find a place for the camera in my boat, but that stood me up. Trouble? “Yeah, I was trying to look down the left side there where it split. My stern got away from me and I went upside down against that knife-edge thing. Kinda got pinned.” My God, I thought, my personal recurrent nightmare. Why on earth would you screw around in a death trap like that place obviously was? “I couldn’t roll, but I managed to push off the rock enough to wash off..... Only I went left.” Jesus. The left looked impossible. Where it rejoined the right channel it was scarcely a hole in the wall. It didn’t look like you could pull a string through it. He’s relating this like he missed the 15% off sale at Penney’s. So I think to say, “It didn’t look like it would go.” “I didn’t,” he said, “I got jammed in there. That’s what took so long.” The nerves in charge of my claustrophobia were urging me claw my way up the wall. No kayak we were paddling would fit through what I saw. “It was wider below the surface,” he says, by way of explanation. “How did it look through the camera?”

At the next corner I have to launch Dugald off the top of a boulder pile into the pool below. Since there’s no one to push me, I throw my boat in and jump after it. There were some other places, but it seemed the worst was behind us. We passed under the old bridge someone had made by throwing cottonwood logs across the canyon. We passed the place pioneer cattleman Joseph Swazey had leapt his horse across the chasm.

I bet his palms were aching when he said “Giddiyup.”

We ran another narrow gorge and paddled for a couple hours on easy water through spectacular slickrock country. There were some miles of meandering slow water and tamarisk choked banks. We took out at dusk and ended up having dinner at a truck stop in Green River. It was two in the morning when we finally got back to Torrey where we finished the Glenlivet and passed out.

Dugald took off in the morning and I didn’t see him for a couple of years. I wasn’t so far out of the loop that I didn’t hear the stories though. There was Dugald skiing across the north rim, then hiking across the mile deep Canyon, maybe in one day. Yeah, probably in one day. Dugald and company running the incomprehensible Flying V Canyon on the Salt. Tapeats Creek Narrows in the bottom of Grand Canyon. Courthouse Wash, a normally dry canyon that drains Arches Park into the river across the bridge from Moab. On a gigantic flash flood, of course. Dugald having to take off his life jacket and dive for the bottom to escape Quartzite Falls.

One day I opened my copy of the National Geographic magazine and here’s this article about some obviously mad Russians running some improbably steep river in upper Slobovia or somewhere and I notice that the pictures featured in this notably picky, high paying publication are by one Dugald Bremner. Well, I’ll be.

I remember one New Years Eve in Flagstaff when Dugald and friends had shown up on our doorstep near midnight carrying musical instruments, of all things. My roomate Brad and I owned the tenement where we lived and had a continual party going any time we could get the air temperature above freezing in our dank apartment. This could be best accomplished by throwing anything that burned into the maw of the fireplace as fast as you could, while hoping that the snow, which fell straight down the chimney, didn’t put it out. Linoleum was the preferred fuel. Apparently, it’s made of gasoline. The apartment had six or seven layers of linoleum on the floor. Enough for quite a few parties. When it would really get rolling, flames would shoot a dozen feet above the roof like some hellish Bunsen burner.

Dugald and his buddies unpacked their instrument and sat down in front of the fire. They started playing some kind of Celtic bluegrass fandango really fast and well. The largely drunken audience was rapt. I had a guitar that I plunked on now and again but I felt like I should have stood up and tossed it in with the linoleum. I hadn’t even known he played guitar at all. Maybe he didn’t till that afternoon. It wouldn’t have surprised me.

Nothing would have surprised me. I could have read a headline in the paper that said D. Bremner Revises Laws of Quantum Mechanics, or Boatman Awarded Nobel Prize. There just didn’t seem to be any limit. I was just glad I wasn’t trying to keep up. I had two kids and a contractor’s license. I might as well have been fat. Any of my kayaks could have been melted down to render a fleet of “creek” boats. The need to dare and excel and push the limits was so muted as to be strangled altogether, the victim of a creeping contentment.

Funny thing was, that the twinge of envy I’d always felt had somehow morphed into a simple satisfaction that there was someone still out there. Someone still doing it well; someone not that much younger than myself and schooled in the old forms of abuse. I became proud of our acquaintance. On my way to the refrigerator, I’d wish him well, pop another brew in his honor. “Way to go, Doog.” I showed the magazine to everyone. “Hey, I know this guy,” I’d say.

His good friend Scott Thybony wrote an account of how it happened. This was good because I’d have always wondered and imagined. They were on the Silver Fork of the American River in the Sierra. Two other guys had already decided to walk around one drop and were carrying their boats to the bottom. Dugald saw a line though, and was going solo. Alone. Somewhere on the approach, in some shoals before the hard part of the rapid, he nudged a rock and got stuck. There was still one man at the top and Dugald hollered at him that he might need a hand getting off. He was that close.

The other boater, like the other two guys on the trip, was a fit gonzo fireman from Flagstaff. He waded out to him and tried to wiggle the boat free. Instead it sank deeper into the river. Before either of them could do anything, the boat submerged altogether. Just sucked right down into the bottom of the river. The current was hitting him fully in the back. It bent Dugald forward and pinned him to the front deck of his boat. His friend tried to shield him from the force of the water, deflect it and make a bubble for him to breathe in, but it was too strong. One of the other guys came back and they both tried to pull him out of the boat by main force. They only succeeded in pulling off his helmet and lifejacket. The fellow on the downstream end of the boat got sucked into the same invisible cavern in the bottom of the river that had swallowed Dugald’s boat. It very nearly swallowed him too. All this happened in a spot that appeared to be easy enough wading. It would have to have been something like that. Something inconceivable. Something impossible.

The water had to go down before they could get him out. They took the boat back to Flagstaff, all cut open, and hung it on the front of his studio. The town went into mourning. Brad had to call to tell me, as a matter of fact. I felt the blood drain out of my limbs. Not Dugald. He was too good, too lucky. Not Dugald. He was too alive.

But it was.

That was years ago now, but I can still oppress myself with the thought. Our brightest stars will fall. Their endings will be undeserved, unexpected, catastrophic. There will be neither repentance nor justice; only the arbitrary and inevitable. That shining promise may wink out in a one car roll-over or be driven like a piton into the cold white granite cleavage of Mother Mountain, at any moment and without reason. You may hopefully discern some evolving purpose through the sorrow; detect some overarching plan at work that will ultimately give meaning to the tragic. I’ve got my own certainties in that regard. There ain’t no stinking plan. What might be “fair” is a concept the world won’t even touch the brakes for.

This days I sit back as I can, having been spared another day, and watch the sun come up behind Mesa Verde. In a few minutes it will wash the sky with light, clear across the shaded Montezuma Valley and illuminate Sleeping Ute Mountain on the western horizon like a goddam beacon. It’s so beautiful it will send another round of shivers up my still-functional spine. I can have a cup of coffee while watching this spectacle; deep in the warmth of my living room, in a house I built to please myself. I’ve got a terrific family. I have been granted every available comfort excepting the illusion that this might be made someway, somehow, to last forever. Well-being is one of those many possible states of being, all temporary. That part, I’m sure about. When you’re through being, that’s Bingo.

I’ll wonder every once in a while if Dugald managed that preternatural calm when he figured out that his last breath had been taken. Near-drowning victims have said it was very peaceful before the blackness. The thought can bring my own demise sweeping sharply from that vague corner where it waits and put it utterly into focus, tangible as an apple. Those moments in the rumbling subterranean corridor of the Black Box return with a shocking clarity. I was sprinting to the bottom of every drop like a scalded dog, bent only on survival. Dugald took a minute to peek around the corner at an optional doom. What did he see down there? Was it that same impulse that put him back in his boat on the Silver Fork, where the others would chose to walk? Was absolute fearlessness his undoing, or the need define the limits of the possible? Or something else? What was it like?

Whatever it is in my case, the cells gone haywire, the drunk in my lane, it doesn’t matter. I’d like to be outside, on a day you can see into Monument Valley, but generally, you don’t get to choose. Let it wait. Like some cosmic door prize, I’ve got another breath coming, and maybe another sunrise. That’s plenty.

Here’s to you, old buddy. Wish you were here.


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