Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Day Eight: Alive Below Crystal

[I'm off this week on an adventure but my series on the Grand Canyon river trip will continue on.]

Ote & Bob just above THE HOLE in Crystal Rapids
Crystal Rapid is a fairly new one as far as the Grand Canyon goes. In Powell's days, it wasn't even noteworthy among inner gorge rapids. Then in 1969, a flood of Crystal Creek dislodged boulders out of the side canyon into the main channel and creating a demon of a rapid. Another flood in 1983 swept some huge boulders from the top of the rapid down stream which created a severe challenge to boats especially in lower water conditions that we found upon reaching Crystal in our dories. No one in their right mind would now purposely go through the top center of THE HOLE in the right middle of the rapid and you couldn't go left of THE HOLE if you wanted to avoid the massive rock garden below that would be guaranteed to smash you and your boat to pieces. The only option was to avoid THE HOLE on the right, which was easy in high water but extremely difficult in low water due to a rock shelf upstream of the hole that projected halfway out into the river. The only run that was doable was to just miss the rock shelf in the middle of the river at the top of the rapids and pull for all you were worth towards the shore on river right avoiding THE MANEATING HOLE and not slam into shore.

We got out and scouted the rapid but this time instead of searching for the most likely spot were my body would wash up if ever, I found myself looking down the gullet of THE MONSTER HOLE. As far as holes go, it wasn't as particularly deadly as it looked. It would definitely flip over most boats with ease but it would flush you out fairly quickly. What was deadly and where most people have been killed in this rapid was the rock garden down below where the river wanted to sweep you. The guides were pointing fingers and scowling again but this time I saw a look of worry on their faces. The called a group meeting and confirmed my suspicions. The water was too low to safely allow all the clients to ride the boats through. They needed at least half of the clients to walk around the rapids to decrease the weight and give them a fighting chance to get around the rock shelf to the right of THE HOLE. They asked for volunteers. Nobody raised his or her hands. They said that all rules were off on this rapid and if our boat were to turn over, it was every person for themselves and that we had to swim for the right shore for all we were worth. Nobody raised hands. If they didn't get any volunteers, we all would have to walk around. Nobody raised his or her hands.

About this time, I noticed that most of the clients were now looking at me. Surprised at the attention, I looked at our trip captain Bronco and immediately knew what had to be done. Bronco knew it and I could see it in his eyes. I raised my hand and said that I would volunteer because I wanted to get some action water shots anyway. Immediately about three quarters of the rest of the clients volunteered to walk around too. It was only later in camp that Bronco would pull me privately aside and thank me for volunteering. What he realized and what I realized when everyone was looking at me was that my youth compared to the other clients gave other clients courage. When I volunteered to walk around, they suddenly remembered their mortality and decided that if I was afraid to go through Crystal than perhaps they should be terrified.

My suspicions were proven correct when many people asked me later why I had elected to walk. I carried out my bravado with the picture story but in truth, I had been terrified. But I was also young and naive and would have ran it anyway had enough people volunteered before me. In the end, I sat on a rock directly across from THE HOLE and took pictures as the crew and a few clients successfully ran the rapid without any mishaps. Our group mantra became ABC or Alive Below Crystal.

After lunch, we oared through a series of rapids called the Gems of the Canyon. After all the adrenaline of the morning, it felt good to drift to Bass Camp at mile 108.5. It is a gorgeous camp nestled among the black schist and pink granite with thousands of brittlebush blooming throughout. After setting up camp, we did a short hike upstream to check out the ruins of an old cable car crossing. Jorge and I per usual, hiked on further and found some old Anasazi ruins. Back at camp when I told our expert crew person Lee Hall about the ruins, he hadn't known about them so I took him back up to where they were. We poked around a bit and found a park service identification tag and lots of pottery shards. It was a beautiful place to build a home with all the brittlebush, prickly pear and hedgehog cactus blooming around the hill.

Supper was ready when Lee and I got back and consisted of spikers, hamburgers, baked beans, mashed potatoes and all the fixings. Spikers are a foot long and similar to spicy Polish sausages but much tastier. After supper we sat around the campfire and listened to stories from the crew about previous Crystal encounters. I'm glad they told us these after we were alive and below the rapid. The assistant cook Mary and myself talked everyone off to sleep with a conversation on books and my journals until we too headed our separate ways. Clouds started moving in and the sand was blowing through the air but I slept outside under the stars anyway and was quickly oblivious to it all thanks to the adrenaline high I had been on most of the day.


Kelly said...

As my husband (who fought in Viet Nam) always tells me.... young men are stupid and invincible and that's why they fight wars. Maybe they run rapids that are impossible, too. Do you ever have regrets now that you walked around or are you old enough to know you did the sensible thing?

Glad you explained the spikers. I've never been a burger person, so those sound like a delicious alternative.

Ed said...

Kelly - I have no regrets, especially since I have precious few pictures of big rapids. We were always hanging on and though I had a waterproof camera with me, I felt as it it was still too dangerous to operate it and level out the boat. I'm pretty sure had I not volunteered when I did back then, I would have had to walk around along with everyone else. So this way, at least a few were able to ride the boat through. Married now and with kids, making the same decision would be much easier now!