A COLORADO RIVER RUN
By Tom Pamperin
Tuesday April 10
Day 21: A Rough Introduction to River Running
Today's run takes us on a fifteen-mile run from our camp at Upper Two Hundred Twenty Mile Camp to Bridge Canyon, at river mile 235. Along the way we're stopping at Diamond Creek to pick up five new river rats who are traveling on their own river permit: John, Helen, Elmira, Rich, and Kristin. The river mindset has sunk too far for me to have learned their last names yet. Last names, clocks, calendars–these past few weeks have stripped these things of all relevance. So, John, Helen, Elmira, Rich, and Kristin.
Hazel Clark and I are on the river early, by 8:00. Our plan is to get down to Diamond and have the new passengers loaded by the time the rest of the fleet arrives. They're bringing in fresh vegetables and an entire boat cooler loaded with ice and perishable goods, which will go on Fat George, replacing my long-empty cooler. We arrive at Diamond a little early–the Hualapai use this take-out as a staging area for motor trips, and non-Hualapai aren't allowed to land before 10:00. We watch a couple of motor rigs growl and whine their way into the river, hauling well-behaved tourists parked in rows on the deck. Not quite the same experience as an oar boat like Fat George, where the only sound is the splash of the waves and a perennially squeaky oarlock, punctuated by the intermittent whisper of WD-40 spray.
The exchange works as scheduled, amazingly enough, and with much shuffling of bags and hauling of boxes and carrying of coolers–carrying a fully loaded raft cooler is like being a pall-bearer for a fat man–and more strapping of straps and battening of hatches and packing of bread boxes, we're off into the river's flow again.
Rich Turner is the first of the new river rats to end up in the water. He was rowing the Gem through Two Hundred Thirty-One Mile Rapid, with Tom Martin as a passenger.
"I wasn't used to the boat as I thought I was," Rich says, "and I thought I could run that hole and I couldn't." "It was one of those thousand-dollar flips," Tom Martin says. "Cha-ching–oarlock, two hundred dollars; cha-ching–camera, seven hundred dollars."
He laughs, clearly unperturbed by the loss of gear; Leif Mortenson, resident computer-electronic genius, has managed to save all the data from the camera's memory cards, at least. "And the whole point," Tom goes on, "is to get these boats on the river, get people rowing them."
And besides, Rich Turner and Tom Martin aren't the only ones who ended up in the river, earning their Colorado Swim Club T-shirts (a second one for Tom); Elmira, riding with Greg Hatten in the Portola, ended up swimming part of the same rapid.
"So here's the question," David Perez says at our later discussion. "If a man pushes you in the river, and then pulls you out, is he a hero, or a criminal?"
That, it turns out, is exactly what Greg Hatten did–from a certain point of view.
"Here's what my mind says happened," Greg says. "We got hit by a lateral in the front quarter panel of the boat. It kind of stopped us, tilted us on edge, and a wave came right over the bow and hit Elmira in the face. I think it surprised us both more than anything. Elmira lost her hold and it knocked her to the low side of the boat, and the force of the wave knocked her out of the boat and she was swimming."
The next fifteen seconds of the rapid were busy ones for Greg. "It seemed like it took thirty minutes," he says. He left the oars, grabbed Elmira from the front of the boat (she was still clinging to the gunwale), pulled her back in, and returned to the oars to find one of them knocked out of its socket.
"It was flopping around way outside my reach," Greg says. So he pulled out a spare oar–all of this in the middle of the rapid, in the same fifteen-second stretch of time–and got it into the oarlock. But now there were some big waves coming up, and he didn't have time to turn the boat bow-first into them. Instead, he turned stern-first and rowed hard.
"And now we were in the middle part of the rapid and there were some big waves and we were going backward," Greg says. "The rocks at the bottom of this thing really worried me."
With good reason; they were headed toward a couple of rocks big enough to make matchsticks of a wooden hull like the Portola. But they came through fine–the Portola is not a double-ender for nothing. And Elmira enjoyed her first big adventure, and her welcome to the Colorado River Swim Club.
"I was more shaken than she was," Greg says later. "I was like shaking, and she was calming me down. She was a great sport."
"It made her day," Hazel Clark says.
"Even if cameras would have been operational," Greg says, "who would have been filming Norm?"
Norm, who rows our sweep boat, is the river rat's river rat. He's been through guide school, he knows the Canyon, he rows rocky technical whitewater like Southern California's Kern River. He positions his boat in the fastest part of the current without thinking about it, passing people while barely rowing. Norm is utterly reliable. When we're filming big rapids, Norm runs them last, with the camera man and all the water-sensitive camera gear aboard. His runs tend to be boring on film: flat and stable and dry and uneventful.
The next rapid–Killer Fang Falls–is a tricky one, though. As soon as I see it, I'm glad that I've handed the oars of Fat George off to our cameraman, Ian McCluskey, for the day. It's a big rapid, the kind where the horizon line at river level comes to a sharp edge as the water drops out of sight beyond. Not only does that kind of thing mean a big rapid, it also makes judging your entry point difficult, with every landmark invisible below the drop. Ian will have to deal with all of that.
"All that stuff about the trip being over after Lava Falls," Craig Wolfson says, "is garbage." Lava may be the biggest rapid, with the biggest number attached, but it's not the only rapid in the Canyon, or the last.
At the top of Killer Fang Falls, the left side (except for a knife-edge run that obviously takes more skill, or luck, or both, than I can muster) is blocked by what looks like a huge ball of water rolling over and over in the current. Think of a giant Easter egg, one big enough to hold a couple of full-grown elephants, buried halfway in the river and spinning away, the top of the egg rolling back upriver, and the downstream side of the egg a huge hole that could bury a cottage to its eaves. Row a raft through there and you'd FEEL like you were being trampled by a couple of elephants.
That leaves the right side open for a run. The trick is to brush past the rolling ball of water on its far right side, almost in the center of the rapid, which puts you directly into a couple of big waves. Big as in the kind of waves where water will be pouring down INTO your boat as you go through them.
But that's the easy part. The real trick to Killer Fang Falls–the feature that gives the rapid its name–is a trio or Harley-Davidson-sized granite fangs at the bottom right side of the rapid, poised there like huge shark teeth protruding four or five feet from the boiling water. And all the water in the entire rapid is being pushed directly, strongly, relentlessly, unceasingly and unabashedly toward the Fangs. And where the water goes, boats go with it.
So the real difficulty at Killer Fang Falls is to spin your boat around after the two big waves so you can get a good ferry angle to pull hard past the jagged rocks–pulling "like a Norseman with his ass on fire," Ian McCluskey explains it. If you manage not to get spun around and lose your angle, AND you pull hard enough, AND you get lucky–if all that happens, you might zip by the Fangs without hitting them.
The wooden boats make the run first, and all of them pass the Fangs without incident, although several of them surf past the jagged rocks on the pillow of rebounding water at the base of the rocks.
"To get that surf you have to pass within six inches," Greg Hatten explains. But at Killer Fang Falls, six inches counts as a successful run.
Richard Carrier put it more succinctly as he coasted past the Fangs: "Holy sheet!"
Hazel Clark is the first raft down, with Pam Mortenson as her passenger.
"I've decided she's not the best influence on my boat," Hazel says. Pam was the passenger during Hazel's Hance Rapid swim, and maybe that has something to do with their run through Killer Fang Falls, because Hazel and Pam manage to hit one of the Fangs with the side of their boat.
"It was an 'Oh, shit' moment," Hazel says later. her English accent managing to make even scatological references sound elegant and refined.
Greg Hatten was watching their run, and saw Hazel and Pam coming own on the Fangs.
"She had about enough time for one last dig, and it was perfectly executed so the boat was spinning and kind of glanced off instead of flipping," he explains.
Which justifies Hazel's perennial advice to Canyon boatmen: Never give up. Keep rowing, keep trying. Pull hard. You might get lucky.
We slide down the V. I'm riding in the bow, nervous about being a passenger instead of an oarsman, but at the same time glad to be reprieve of all responsibility; it's a mean-looking rapid. But Ian puts me perfectly at ease as we drop down toward the teeth of the rapid:
"Here comes the big fucking hole," he says, taking a half stroke to straighten the raft, and then we're in it, both of us laughing.
We pound through the two big waves, water crashing down on us from above, and then Ian has the boat turned and he's pulling hard to get away from the Fangs. We pass by with plenty of room to spare, and Ian parks us in an eddy. The other boats come down, generally without problems, and we're about to slide off into the current and continue. Norm, our sweep boat, is the only one left. Norm never has problems.
Afterwards, Pam Wolfson, who is Norm's passenger at Killer Fang Falls, has a suggestion. "Next time he should read the guidebook," she says. "Where it says 'Go left, not right.'"
But Norm has seen a possible far right run, and apparently has decided to give it a try. Which is, apparently, a bad idea, because when I look up I see Norm's boat sideways to the current, just about to smash into the biggest of the Fangs. And all hell breaks loose.
"Row!" I tell Ian, and start blowing my whistle as Norm and Pam flip rather dramatically onto the sharp-toothed rocks. As Ian rows toward the now upside-down raft, I unbuckle the toss line from my raft frame and get ready. Pam is just ahead of us in the water, safely below the Fangs, and with a couple of shouts I get her attention. My toss is downstream and ten feet away–far from perfect–but Pam is able to swim to the line and I pull her aboard. Meanwhile our other boats converge on Norm and the overturned raft and pull it to safety.
"Can you believe that?" Pam Wolfson says later. "Two weeks wearing a drysuit, and then the weather warms up. Take all the gear off, and splash!" It's her first time swimming any rapids in the Canyon in all her trips. Murphy's Law in action.
We're well-rehearsed in raft-flipping by now. Cece Mortenson scrambles up some nearby cliffs to set an anchor, and Craig Wofson helps her set up a static line and an eight-to-one pulley system. Then a few people stand on the raft's near-side tube while the rest of us haul like hell on the pulley ropes. The raft comes up and over, thumping Norm on the head for good measure as it comes right-side up, and the rescue is over.
Later I ask Norm what he expected as he slid down toward the Fangs, which have been known to rip rubber boats to shreds.
"What did I expect?" Norm says. "I expected to be upright."
I persist in my questioning. "That could have been really bad," I say. "What were you thinking as you came down on those rocks?"
"What am I doing here?" Norm says, laughing. "I told Pam to hang on, that's all."
Still, I want to know how Norm ended up in trouble in the first place. Was the current too strong? Did he get spun around and lose his ferry angle? Pop an oar out of its socket?
"I got surfed big time to the right," Norm explains.
"Wrong entry," says his longtime friend Craigh Wolfson, shaking his head.
"No, I went right," Norm says.
"I know," Craig says, laughing quietly and shaking his head again. "That was a mistake."
I have to wonder what our five new companions think of their introduction to the trip. We've broken our previous disaster record, putting five people in the water and flipping two boats in a single day. It's two more days of flat water until the end of the trip, but we're camped above a rapid tonight, at Bridge Canyon. Makes me wonder what will happen first thing in the morning when we shove off.
Just how big is this Colorado River Swim Club going to get? When I joined it was kind of an exclusive thing. Not so anymore.
I celebrate my successful and mostly dry day riding with Captain Ian by joining Cece, Natalie, and Elmira for a hike up Bridge Canyon before supper. About a mile above camp is a natural bridge, a flat-topped arch maybe forty feet above the canyon floor. But Cece being Cece, and Natalie being Natalie, we end up scrambling up forty feet of loose rock so we can actually CROSS the bridge. We run across one by one, each of us acting out the solution to my "Three Golden Walruses of the Anasazi" riddle as we go.
And from the far side of the bridge, Cece and Natalie point out, it's not that much farther to the summit of the ridge, a rocky sharktoothed peak high up at the head of Bridge Canyon, above a dramatic waterfall in the canyon's right branch.
Again, we get back to camp just at dark. Another perfect day.