Jun 3, 2012

Graveyard of the Colorado, Part III

Upheaval Dome, via
[This is Part III of my dad's story about Cataract Canyon. Part I is here, and Part II is here.]

We begin to shuttle the people down to the beach at Ten Cent Rapid, the last one above the lake. Doug flies the people on a short detour round the field of spires and pinnacles known as the Doll’s House by way of accumulating actual vacationing points. We’re still having fun, right? Then he’s ready to take the gear and kitchen down to camp, only he doesn’t have a sling and it would take dozen trips to haul it all in the cockpit. “Throw it all on one of those boats,” he says, “I’ll just tie on to that.” 

“Are you sure?” I ask him right out, “We haven’t had the best luck trying to fly these things.” 

He fixes me with a cool eye. “Throw it on,” he says.

We use my boat, the “Tuolumne,” as the flying cargo container. There’s the kitchen full of cast iron cookware, stoves, food, tables; the toilet set-up goes in a hatch by itself.  I cram personal baggage into every hold till the lids will barely close and there is still a mountain of baggage on the beach. I look up at Doug. He’s leaning on the bubble of his chopper rolling a cigarette.

“Throw it on,” he says.

We pile the whole mound on the decks, personal gear, clothes, sleeping bags, tents, and more, run a rope through it, then make a sling out a couple of sternlines, the stoutest available rope. Last time we did this we had several days and a nearby hardware store to puzzle it out. Even then the first boat wouldn’t come off the ground till we had taken everything out but the oarlocks. I’m a little skeptical about the prospects this time and figure I’ll take my camera up behind a big rock away from flying debris to watch the attempted lift-off, in case there’s a dramatic photograph to be made. As if to raise the stakes, Doug says he would like us to push the boat out into the river before he takes off so he won’t have to worry about sand in the machinery. I have visions of Doug and his helicopter trolling my boat through the biggest white water on the continent like a seventeen-foot fishing lure, or perhaps hitting the end of its tether and being jerked from the sky like a broken kite. That’d serve him right, the cocky bastard.

Doug puts fire to the Llama, still smoking his handmade cigarette. A dozen of us tug the “Tuolumne” into the water and shove it out. I hightail it to my perch. Doug waits until the boat is fully in the current and picking up speed downstream before the copter rocks a little on the sand and bolts into the air. He doesn’t bother trying to gain altitude, instead just starts heading downstream at full throttle, and when he hits the end of the rope, the “Tuolumne” leaps into the air like a big red salmon in an explosion of spray and is instantly headed downstream at a hundred miles an hour, trailing the helicopter at a 45 degree angle.

Downwash is not a factor if the load is never below you.

Below the rapids, Doug sets the boat on the beach like I’d just pulled in with the bowpost bobbing in surge, hits release and heads for home. He’s almost out of gas. The rest of us will have to find our own way to camp. We’ve still got the snout rig, a formidable craft, 22 feet long, 36 inch tubes with a 20 horse Merc. It’s quicker to turn than the big rigs, and that’s what matters. To drive it, we’ve got a guy named Steve Bathemous, who was one of the last ones down before the Park Service cut everyone off. He is wearing a wetsuit and two lifejackets, and his hand shakes visibly on the throttle. Then there is our 17 foot Avon Spirit rowboat. They will both have to go to get us all there. Greg’s rescue party has doubled the size of the crew.

So we ran Cataract that day, which turned out to be the absolute peak day and were the only ones that did. Franklin, our trainee baggage boatman, rowed the whole thing by himself and was the only one on earth to do that too. We stopped above Niagara and stared down the steep incline into the depths of a hole that could have digested an uninterrupted stream of three bedroom houses moving by at 20 miles an hour. There was a narrow slot of continuous current directly off the right bank, but, though smooth, the water sloped down into the chasm of Niagara at an impossible angle. It seemed as if it would surely draw you in. 

It didn’t though. We survived and it was good. The people even enjoyed their trip across the lake the next morning and didn’t mention lawyers once. Mission accomplished, sort of. We still had seven dories abandoned in Cataract Canyon but I wasn’t interested in recovering them any time soon. Let the water drop for a couple of months. Let’s watch TV, play hearts or something.

Well, that wasn’t in the cards. There was unfinished business. The company needed the boats for other trips. The Park wanted them out too. Six days later we were back on the beach at Range Creek and the water was still Oh God Help Me high. Sixty eight thousand was the official tally of cubic feet of water hurtling by every second. We had always figured that thirty five was the top for dories because we’d had a trip go down at thirty three and their eyes were wide as saucers. We put two boatmen in each boat, everybody wearing two life jackets and did a little silent beseeching just in case. I was genuinely gripped. 

I don’t remember much about the trip down to the Drops. Mike Taggett, my partner that day, did a lot jumping around to the high side and we were slapped repeatedly by breaking waves that made a crack like the bow had been stove in. I was rowing a beautiful little Mackenzie dory that was set up for my wife who is 5’ 3”.  I couldn’t get my feet under the braces and was rolling around the deck like a bottle in the bilge water.  We got down to Big Drop I and made it across the rocketing current sheer into the eddy on the left that was filled with logs and all manner of spinning drift, where we stopped to scout Big Drop II, home of Niagara. A rapid going upstream in the eddy had standing waves a couple of feet high.

The river was still gnawing at its banks and the trip to the scout rock was through large loose angular rubble. The river looked the Brooks Range had been liquefied and poured into the canyon. Mike was next to me shouting in my ear, but I couldn’t hear him. The ground was vibrating and spray from minor waves pelted our faces from 50 feet away. I was trying to concentrate on my run and not to look at Niagara, which was still a sucking chasm. Everybody else thought the right slot was still open but it was narrower still and steeper yet and I thought the boats would surely fall off the sloping ledge of water and be vaporized. I was going left. I had made up my mind.

The left was a stupendous V wave. The left side of the wave was a huge crashing lateral that was flipping the motor rigs. The same thing had happened to all of them. They would come in powering right in hopes of blowing through the right side of the wave and tucking in below Niagara. It was going so fast and it was so hard to get the scale that they didn’t make it, and all ended up with the whole boat in the monstrous left lateral which was curtains. Guaranteed. Not only would you be flipped, if you didn’t get right after Niagara, whatever the reason, you were going straight into Big Drop III, through the quarter mile of continuous gnarl known as Satan’s Gut. The other side of the wave was a piedmont of water that rose to a peak near vertical. It had dual nature. One was a stationary tsunami of beckoning glass and the other, when the top had built beyond the vertical, was a towering mass of tumbling foam and solid water that broke upstream and rolled down the face like a liquid storm front. It would swallow a dory like a pea. The cycle took about 15 seconds.

Getting out of the eddy was a chore by itself and when we passed the first little marker wave I was truly shaken. The marker was huge. I began to push the boat forward like I had never pushed before. Everything was gigantic. We were moles on a heaving continent of brown water. The wave rose up before us and over the bow I could see nothing but sky. We were flying.

The wave broke right under the oarlocks. I could hear it rolling down the face behind us. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever done in a boat and it was sheer dumb luck.

[That's it for now! Hope you enjoyed the story.]

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