May 12, 2012

The Graveyard of the Colorado, Part II

Dead Horse Point, via Wikimedia
[This is part II of my dad's story about Cataract Canyon. Part I is here.]

We boatmen types were anxious to see the first rapid anyway, so we take off at a lope trying to catch a glimpse of the Moki boat going through, but it’s a half mile and hopeless. He’s gone. The rapid is a quarter mile long and has but two waves. Two tumultuous heaving Himalayan waves with whirling vortices of confused turbulence erupting on their surface and crests of foam and backlit amber water that built and broke from all directions and rolled down the looming face in rushing fronts the height of a man. It took your breath away. Our tallest Scandinavian boatman, Eric, rounded the last corner, raised his eyes to the spectacle, missed a step and twisted his ankle, big time. We cut him a crutch and went back to camp.

Our first few minutes at Spanish Bottom hadn’t been all positive. Downstream prospects were nil. Eric was a functional monopod. Another boatman, Greg, had climbed in with the news chopper and flown off. We were down by 30% in twenty minutes, worse than the battle of Bull Run. I suppose I should mention that Greg wasn’t just one of the boatmen. He also owned the permit under which we were running the trip. We had leased the use of his start-up river outfitting company but brought our own boats and staff and clientele. That’s where the murky part comes in. He was really just another boatman, but it was technically also his trip and he wasn’t looking forward to writing a lot of refund checks.

Eric’s ankle swelled up like a football and misery was at large. It was hot and buggy and dusty and humid and the river was a voracious grasping thing nobody wanted to go near. One commercial trip had been on the beach for three days and was out of food. Another trip’s lead boatman had refused to proceed because of the quality of the gear he had been sent out with. He had rolled up his “trash” pontoons and was waiting for new tubes to be delivered by jet boat from Moab. “You can’t point that many directions at once even when your boat does hold air,” he said. Later, when he unrolled the replacements to find they were in worse shape than the originals, he would hike out Red Lake Canyon and never be heard from again.

Back at their “Bug Camp” the Ranger’s radio crackled. It was the Park’s rescue boat stationed down below the rapids. “Moki motorboat capsized in Big Drop Two and went through Satan’s Gut upside-down. May have been entangled in timber. Boat came apart. At least one injury. Broken leg. Assisting with rescue.” It had been about 15 minutes since they’d left.

Next morning comes early. We’re thinking of trying to set up a jet boat shuttle to take our people back to Moab. “Hey it was a bad call, OK?” one might explain. “Who coulda known? Drinks are on the house and please don’t sue. Better than drowning any one of you, eh? Except maybe you, Martha. Just kidding.” That sort of thing. Might work. Except, who then floats around the corner on a Gypsy wagon of a big rubber boat than Greg and five other susceptible late night patrons of the Poplar Place bar, whom he has primed to row some dories through the biggest white water in North America. They had launched after midnight and floated down in the dark.

The suggestion was obvious and didn’t sit well. “I have brought some non-pussies to row these boats out through the scary water.” The boatman who had recently become my wife was ready to tear his throat out. People had died. There was no room on the beach for macho. The last boat to try it tipped over. It was 33 feet long and weighed 5 tons. We’ve been “practice” flipping the dories on the way down here by having everyone stand on one side. They tip right over. We weren’t taking those people into the Big Drops. No way.

Greg retreats, but not far. There’s a way to complete the trip, within reason and not kill us all, he maintains. We’ll get a helicopter. We’ll run the boats to the top of Mile Long rapid and chopper them to the lake from there. It’s not that far. Greg knows the guys at Rocky Mountain Helicopters. He does heli-skiing with them in the La Sals in the winter. He’ll set it up on the park radio.

We’re all at cross purposes. The Rangers have been told from on high that if a rowing trip decides to leave they must accompany it in their spanky new 20 foot Zodiac with twin 50’s for back up. They don’t want to. The boatmen aren’t frightened exactly, but they’ve seen it now and recognize the gravity. Still, there is a once in a lifetime experience available here. Nobody had ever made bold to try Cataract at this level or even half this level in a dory before. How cool would that be, if we lived? The passengers are still game. Lacking any alternative, they still believe us.

We decide to try it first thing in the morning. We’ll go down the river as far as Range Creek, where the big shit starts. We’ll run a few drops, give the folks a helicopter ride over the biggest damn rapids anyone has ever seen and drop them off at the top of the lake. Somehow or another we’ll get them home from there. Terrific plan. Thus begins the longest day.

We arise early, shovel down some pancakes, load the boats, rig flip lines, check and recheck spare oars, life lines, latches, everyone’s life jacket and shove off. We run a rapid, totally helpless. There’s two feet of vertical relief in the water at the eddylines and the towering waves won’t stay in one place long enough to point at them. They rear up suddenly off the beam and slap the boat a dozen yard sideways, spinning it like a top and tilting from rail to rail. It’s not boating, it’s rodeo. Just trying to hang on for eight seconds, then eight more. Range Creek seems a long way but we make it and that is quite enough. We pull the boats up the beach clear into rocks, where they will be dry till the next ice age begins to melt off. Just like we’d planned it, a helicopter soon comes clattering around the corner, and sets down on the beach.

We had dampened a patch of sand for him to land in and had a guy out on the beach indicating wind direction. As it just so happened we’d been doing a lot of stuff with helicopters around that time. The previous fall we had airlifted a whole trip out of the Grand Canyon as an experiment in avoiding the three day misery and 500 mile road trip of a Lake Mead take-out. We had woken up in the morning below Lava Falls and had breakfast on the rim at Toroweap Point, a mere 80 miles from the warehouse. It turned out to be too expensive to do regularly and the helicopters had a hard time getting the boats off the ground. Too much flat surface catching the downwash. “It’s like trying to lift yourself by your bootstraps,” the pilot had said.

Big Drop 2, taken by the Kolb brothers at low water
The captain of this craft shuts the thing off and climbs out. His name is Doug and he’s a little wiry guy in cowboy boots and ranch wear whose first step is to stop and roll a cigarette. Greg thinks all the boatmen should take the first ride and go scout the whole canyon by air. Sounds prudent to me and I climb in shotgun. The ship, an Alouette Llama, looks pretty well used. There are rips in the seat, a big ding in the windshield, the glass in a couple of the gauges is shattered and missing in others. When he gets the thing fired up it rattles and shakes so badly it doesn’t matter if you can see the gauges or not. The needles are bouncing from peg to peg like pinball flippers. It comes right off the ground though in a deafening racket and we’re quickly at the dogleg in the canyon where there’s a long straight section of nearly continuous rapids that ends in the Big Drops. From five miles away you can instantly see the legendary reversal at the top of Big Drop 2, drawing in the unimaginable mass of the river like a white black hole. They call it Niagara.

Doug laid the ship over on its side as we did an abrupt U-turn directly above the great hole and I could stare directly down into the foaming maw with nothing but air between me and it. Doug had taken off the doors for a better view. When we set back down on the beach I was certain that the Llama was the only proper craft for Cataract that day.

[That's it for today. Stay tuned next week for the final installment!]

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