Wednesday, October 1, 2014

2 – DON’T LET GO! -- “Grand Canyon Rafting – A Dozen Little Stories”

I thought by our last full day on the river that we were done with the really big white-water rapids. Maybe a few splashes, but no soakers. We had been thrilled and drenched by the big-name, notorious ones – Unkar and Hance and Sockdolager and Crystal and more. Fierce rapids that drop you 20 or 30 feet through a short, cascading maze of car-sized boulders and gargantuan waves. Now, I heard Boatman Art yell out the upcoming rapid’s name like a bus driver reciting the next stop: “232 Mile Rapid.”

It didn’t even have a real name, just a number corresponding to the river miles we had covered since embarking from Lee’s Ferry seven days earlier. How bad could it be?
As you approach the really serious rapids in the Grand Canyon, it often looks as if you’re heading for the edge of an infinity pool; the river simply vanishes. Nearer, however, and white flecks appear beyond – the crests of garage-sized waves that await. As the raft falls over the cliff of water and you’re looking ahead, mostly down, into a churning abyss, you may wonder, “How is this possible? How on earth will we survive this?”

I hadn’t heard whether Art had warned us that 232 Mile Rapid was a “one-hander,” “two-hander,” or “three-hander if you got ‘em.” I was straddling the right front of the raft’s sausage-like tube. My left hand was locked tight to the raft by  a strap, my right one waving the air like a bronco rider.

Although 232 Mile Rapid drops “only” seven feet, my point of the raft slammed into the base of the biggest standing wave. A wall of frigid water engulfed me, sweeping me from my perch. I went air-borne – or water-borne, it was hard to tell the difference. I heard Art’s first rule echo in my head:
“Don’t let go. You might feel like you’re swimming, but as long as you’re holding on, you’re on the boat. Don’t let go.”

As we tumbled through the rest of the rapid, I realized that the strap I clenched hadn’t been my only lifeline. A fellow-rafter, aghast at my aerial acrobatics, had grabbed my jacket under my neck, holding my throat for (what she must have thought  was) dear-life.
“He survived the rapid fine but suffered a broken trachea,” I laughed, coughing out river water as we recovered. I blamed the well-intended intervention on my nearby wife, who constantly chided me about being more cautious. But Eva informed me later that it had been another woman who had “saved” me. I never got a chance to thank her.

* * *
There is no doubt, however, that the rapids’ dangers are real. It’s no Disney ride.

As we had drifted downstream just before reaching Lava Falls Rapid, the last really dangerous one of the trip, Boatman Art shared a story clearly intended to give our ride an extra edge. It seems that Art’s father, Paul, also had run rafts through the Canyon, although “he wasn’t known as the best boatman on the river,” Art admitted.
Paul was among the pioneers who learned the quirks of the Canyon’s rapids, as well as the business and challenges of bringing tourists on rafts down the river. What those early boatmen had figured out, Art explained as we neared our own rendezvous with Lava Falls Rapid, was how on low water you need to run along the right-hand shore, and so on. He rattled off the options for different water conditions like an L.A. commuter talking about rush-hour traffic choices. One thing for sure, Art emphasized, is that you have to miss the big Ledge Hole right in the middle of the river. It’s a cauldron of churning water immediately downstream of a submerged rock.

One time back in the ‘80s, Art’s father and his 17 passengers had “slammed down in the middle of that Ledge Hole. You never, never want to be there. It’s a bad spot,” Art told us.
“His swamper comes flying off the box and lands in the bottom of the motor well. He leans down and he grabs him and he picks him up and he puts him on the box, and he looks forward to count everybody and make sure everyone is still on the boat. All there was on the whole front of the boat was just rubber. There was nothing left. Even the frame was gone. It busted every strap, every D-ring. Seventeen people went off the boat with the frame, still holding on.”

Throughout his tale, Art demonstrated each move with great animation.

He paused as everyone laughed, a bit nervously, I thought, and then delivered his punch line:

“They only helicoptered one lady out, and that was really for psychological trauma, I think.”

Imagine our relief.
As for our ride through Lava Falls Rapid, it was a bit anticlimactic. I can’t, however, speak for our two swampers, Den and Duffy, who drove our rafts through the infamous rapid for their first times ever.

Den drives Lava Falls Rapid.

Duffy told me later, “It is so much fun driving the boat through big water!”

Although Duffy was no novice, having gone down the Canyon 120 times, it always was rowing in dories – never driving the big motorized rafts.

Art confessed that evening, “I was scared all day long, but they ran really good.”
A rafter butted in: “To say nothing of all our lives at stake.”

Art: “That’s not really a consideration.”
We didn’t quite know how to take that.

* * *
People die in the Canyon’s rapids – even in the not-so-big-or-special Mile 232 Rapid. That’s where the 1928 Hyde River Tragedy took place, named for the “Honeymoon Couple,” Glen and Bessie Hyde. <Story from ASU website> These newlywed adventurers loaded their homemade wooden scow with supplies (but no life jackets) and a bedspring – after all, it was their honeymoon – and pushed off in late October from Green River, Utah.

Although today thousands of people ride the Canyon’s rapids every year, in 1928 only a  total of 45 people had ever boated down the Canyon. Bessie would become the first woman down the Colorado River – a certain path to fame and fortune for the Hydes.
When the couple didn’t show up below the Canyon in early December, as planned, Glen’s father rushed from Idaho and initiated a massive search. On Christmas morning the search party found the Hydes’ scow floating calmly a few miles below 232 Mile Rapid. Everything was in place, but there was no trace of the honeymooners. Their bodies were never found. Historians believe the couple crashed and perished in 232 Mile Rapid, but no one really knows. You have to figure, though, that at some point they must have let go.

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