Friday, December 19, 2008

Day Eight: Big Water

Lee Hall In Hermit Rapids

Thursday, April 13, 2000 - It was dawning up to a beautiful day but my stomach was full of butterflies when I awoke with the realization that today we would hit our first seriously big rapids. I kept Heidi company while she cooked breakfast alternating between conversation and reading Edward Abbey's "The Hidden Canyon" that is about his trip down the Colorado in a wooden dory boat. Now that I was rereading it after having visited some of the very same places and camped on the same spot, it made it all the more special.

Breakfast was melon slices, eggs, bacon and English muffins. We packed up camp and shoved off into the unknown for Powell and for me many years later. Salt Creek Rapid had big waves and we all got wet and all too soon we were there at the head of Granite Rapid. We got out and scouted it but all I could see was a frothy white roar over a hundred yards that looked like it would just as soon split up our dory for toothpicks rather than allow us through. The crew pointed here and there, occasionally shaking their heads in disagreement and perhaps saying words like "surefire watery grave" etc. It seemed like forever before they agreed on a route and way too soon at the same time. Reluctantly because I still had not made a will, I stepped into the boat and we drifted down the tongue at the head of the rapid and right into the roaring mouth full of watery teeth.

I believe the brain is an incredibly complex piece of living tissue and capable of doing amazing things. I think one of these amazing things is to turn off the video and go into occasional snapshot mode to protect the mind of the individual from getting overloaded. I know this because now that I am writing this, I only remember snapshots of our run through Granite Rapid.

Snapshot One: A huge wall of water is coming in from our left. I sitting on the right immediately highsided (lurch towards the wave to shift our center of gravity) so far over the edge that I am actually looking over Jurgon's head and into the green water on the left side of the boat.

Snapshot Two: I am completely underwater and I am fully aware that we have capsized. I have the distinct feeling that this is what it would feel like in a washing machine in the heavy wash cycle.

Snapshot Three: Sweet Jesus, I am breathing air! I'm alive! Elaina says, "Nice". A bigger wall of water than the first obscures the light and almost makes me loose control of my bowels.

Snapshot Four: Lots of bubbles as the currents pound my submerged body this way and that.

Snapshot Five: More air! A third wall of water!

Snapshot Six: More bubbles. I counted until I was sure we were capsized and never coming back up. Not sure which way was up or even what to do so I hang onto the gunnels and await for death to take my memories away.

My brain's video mode suddenly comes back online. We lurch out into air gunnel full of water and screaming like raving lunatics. I'm not sure I was screaming for any reason other than as an outlet for all the adrenaline but if felt nice to be alive enough to scream and so we all did. The boat tipped sickenly one way and then another as we frantically began to bail while going over tiny ten foot waves in a train at the bottom of the rapid. Eventually we stabilize, our voices grow hoarse of screaming and grow quite and we eddy out to watch the other boats. We hadn't beaten the river because no one beats the river. The river just let us loose to live for one more day and another rapid. That rapid soon arrived in the form of Hermit Rapid.
Agave Bloom

Hermit Rapid was always a nerve-wracking run according to the crew but thanks to a flash flood in 1997, it was a genuine terror now. It is a series of five waves each bigger than the previous one with the fifth being a monster easily 20 feet high and capable of flipping the largest raft. Prior to 1997 there had been a "cheat route" on the left side of the waves but not anymore. Now the full force of the Colorado water load gets narrowed down and funneled through this rapid. These forces that form the rapid also cause stomachs to churn and spines to shrivel, especially at the sight of the fifth wave that is taller than most houses. It is not a smooth, glistening wave, although sometimes it rises cleanly only to unpredictably collapse at the top of its surge, falling back upstream with enough force to stop even a large raft. The crew say it is like driving up a hill and having the highway collapse beneath your car. So far according to word of mouth from the private groups ahead of us, Hermit had been flipping three of every four boats that had ran it so far this season.

We again got out and scouted for what seemed like forever and yet not long enough before the first half of our party was sent through. We hit the first three waves squarely but somehow on the fourth got spun around completely sideways to the fifth and granddaddy of all the waves. I felt as if I were swimming in glue as I reacted so slowly to get into my highsiding position. In my attempt to highside, I actually stood on my gunnel to lean over Jurgen's gunnel (why we always hit the waves with his side of the boat I'll never know) in an attempt to get as much weight towards the wave. The monster wave played nicely and didn't collapse upon us as we submerged into its upstream face and came back up miraculously still upright on its downstream side. All the crew, including Elaina our oarsperson, expressed surprise that we hadn't flipped. I think the river was just toying with us like a cat does with an injured mouse.

We came upon Boucher Rapid and made it through without any problems and then before I wanted, we were at the grand mother of all rapids, the most dangerous rapid, the one rapid where the crew told us all rules previously pounded into our heads were now to be disregarded. We were staring down the face of Crystal Rapid.
Hedgehog Cactus In Bloom


The Real Mother Hen said...

Wow! I've enjoyed all the previous posts and thought I should take the same trip as you have. But now after reading this post, I have 2nd thought. I sure can't live to see the daylight if the wave ever hits me/the boat like that.
I'm afraid of water actually.

Beau said...

Great one... and I was looking for the rest of the story when I saw the "Impending Doom" title. Not the same story, but sure sounds like it fits!

Ed Abbey said...

Mother Hen - As scary as some of this sounds, this company has a phenominal safety record. The only death was on one of their rafting trips and was a drunk person who fell off a raft at night and drowned. They have since changed their alcohol policy so that people have to buy and get alcohol distributed through them so that they can be cut off.

Ed Abbey said...

Beau - Judging how I felt at times along the trip, Impending Doom would have been a good title for this post.

sage said...

Sounds like a lot of water and a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing and I hope you're not iced in--we did get 10-12 inches of snow.

Ed Abbey said...

Sage - We ended up with only 1/4 of ice out of the storm but got another 1/4 inch of sleet the next day and now subzero temps. The high yesterday was 0 and today is is supposed to be 10. Needless to say, all the roads are skating rinks but we still have power.

TC said...

I see aloe vera in its natural form :)

(Aloe and I are good, personal friends as no matter how much sunscreen I lather on, I burn.)

I'm pretty excited about these canyon tails. I miss life there!

Ed Abbey said...

TC - Aloe and I are good friends as well. I burnt the tops of my feet early on in the trip and used quite a bit of agave juice as I found it to sooth the burn. It never blistered but my Teva straps marks on my foot were visible for over a year afterwards.

I'm relatively new to your blog. Have you been down the river or just hiking?