Seventeen years ago, as an idealistic teenager, a friend of mine rafted down the frothing mocha waters of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, that unearthly gorge once described by 19th-century explorer John Wesley Powell as "these grand, gloomy depths." My friend saw something, a place, she has never forgotten, but she no longer trusted her memory, and in the years since she had never talked to anyone else who had floated the Grand. Now I had done it.
"I remember a spot," she told me, "that was so beautiful that I think now it must have been a dream. We had hiked up a side canyon. There was a waterfall coming out of the rocks, and a series of turquoise pools below it that tumbled into one another, making smaller waterfalls, and you could swim from one pool to the next. And along the edge of the water there were delicate ferns."
"Maidenhair ferns," I guessed.
"Perhaps. And watercress that you could eat, growing right there in the desert. In one of the pools there was a frog that croaked like a sheep. We kept looking for him. He was tiny. I remember flowers growing on the canyon walls, little hanging gardens, and big leafy trees where you could sit in the shade. And hummingbirds. It all sounds so unreal. Did you see anything like that? Or was I dreaming?"
The frog, I knew, was a canyon tree frog, which baas like a lamb. As for the place, she may have been talking about Havasu Creek, which had changed dramatically since her trip. A flash flood ripped through Havasu Canyon last fall, uprooting cottonwood trees and rerouting the creek; many of those turquoise pools she swam through are now dry. When I thought about it, though, she also might have been describing Elves Chasm, or Deer Creek Falls, or Saddle Canyon, or Matkatamiba Canyon, where we dove from the rocks, or even the waterfall at Stone Creek. Having returned from the Grand Canyon only 14 days earlier, I hardly trusted my own memory of such places. But whichever desert paradise my friend had remembered, I was sure of one thing: She hadn't dreamed it.
That is the magic of the Grand Canyon. Even when you have been there, a part of you cannot believe it. Nor can you forget it. It is a canyon of grand contrasts: peaceful and terrifying; silent and deafening; timeless and everchanging; icy and scalding; parched, then flooded; calm, then howling. With each day you spend there, the canyon draws you deeper into its heart, as it does the river. The canyon: Nearly two billion years of the earth's past, visible in ever-descending, endlessly fascinating strata, an open book of fantastically sculpted pages written by long-departed oceans, by mountain ranges that have crumbled into pebbles, by volcanic eruptions, lava dams, inland seas, scorching heat, wind, chemical reactions and erosion.
"Barren desolation is stretched before me," Powell wrote of his first voyage down the Colorado River, through the Grand, "and yet there is a beauty in the scene.... Dark shadows are settling in the valleys and gulches, and the heights are made higher and the depths deeper by the glamour and witchery of light and shade."
So it was on April 30 at Lees Ferry, Ariz., as seven yellow rafts and 24 people, rain suits zippered against the chill, pushed off into the emerald waters of the Colorado, the spirit of Powell whispering above the rippling of the river: "Down in these grand gloomy depths we glide, ever listening...."
Emerald? The mighty Colorado, which in Spanish means "red colored," runs emerald? ¬¨¬®‚àö‚àèQuè pasa?
Blame it on Glen Canyon Dam, some 15½ miles upstream from Lees Ferry. Completed in 1964, the dam—more specifically, Lake Powell, the body of water created by the dam—forces the reddish silt of the Colorado River to settle, leaving only clear water to flush through the dam's eight hydroelectric turbines. For the next 76 miles the Colorado remains diaphanous, teeming with freshwater shrimp and rainbow trout, until it is joined by its muddy cousin, the Little Colorado River, at which point it reverts to grittiness and an opaque shade of coffee milkshake. Much has been written about the evils of the Glen Canyon Dam—the late Edward Abbey's novel The Monkey Wrench Gang involves the demolition of it—but you shall hear no railing from me. Without Glen Canyon Dam, the Colorado would be a raging, muddy flood in the spring and a trickle in the summer. Commercial and private river trips down the Grand, which some 20,000 people a year enjoy, would probably cease. And I might never have seen this ethereal place.
While the rapids of the Grand Canyon are nothing to be trifled with, they are hardly the death-defying terrors they had been when Powell navigated the river in 1869. As recently as 1950, fewer than 100 people had floated the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. But with the post-World War II adoption of army-surplus rubber rafts and their various and sundry descendants, which have supplanted the wooden dory as the white-water craft of choice, the Colorado has been pretty well tamed. Flipping a raft is uncommon, and drownings are almost unheard of. About the worst one can expect from the river is frequent bone-chilling soakings, which in the heat of summer should be considered a treat.
The engineless rafts used by our outfitter, O.A.R.S.—Outdoor Adventure River Specialists—were 17½ feet long by seven feet wide and were propelled by two heavy, eight-foot oars. Each raft could carry one boatman and up to five passengers. Fully loaded, the boats weighed more than a ton, giving them limited maneuverability but tremendous stability. They floated as quietly as driftwood.
The first day my boatman was Mike Boyle. Fair-skinned with angular features, Boyle, 41, has guided on the Colorado since 1978. Because he likes to move around, he works the Grand in the spring and the fall, the Tatshenshini in Alaska in June, July and August, and the Bio-Bio in southern Chile in December and January.
I asked him how he got started rafting. "Walked in one day and asked for a job," he said, grinning. Boyle grew up in Poland, Ohio, and went to Youngstown State University, where he studied marketing and industrial management. After graduating, he moved to San Francisco and took a job as a warehouse manager for a clothing store. He hated every minute of it and quit after four years. He had been living out of his car when he heard about river rafting from some friends. With no experience, Boyle showed up at Angels Camp, Calif., where O.A.R.S. and Sobek Expeditions, another river outfitter, are headquartered, and got a job rowing the baggage boat. Next thing he knew, he was asked to work a trip in New Guinea. "No problem," he said, scurrying to the library afterward to find out where New Guinea was.
Back in Ohio, his mother, who was a businesswoman, kept asking Mike when he was going to get a real job. "Can't you accept responsibility?" she wondered.
"I'm responsible for people's lives," he answered.
Not to mention his own. "Know the difference between a fairy tale and a river story?" Boyle asked. "One begins: 'Once upon a time.' The other begins: 'Oh——, there I was.' "
From which point Boyle proceeded with a tale of his most alarming moment while rafting. Oh——, there he was, on Alaska's Alsek River. Boyle's raft was last in a four-boat flotilla, and as he rowed into Alsek Bay for the first time, he saw it was studded by beautiful, swirling pieces of glacial ice. The three lead rafts chose a route between a stationary glacier and a drifting iceberg. The channel was, little by little, closing, so by the time Boyle got there, he barely had room to dip his oars. Halfway through, Boyle's raft got squeezed. He couldn't move forward. He couldn't move back. And the iceberg was still drifting toward the glacier like a vice. It was a scene right out of Indiana Jones. As the raft started to fold, Boyle and one of his three passengers leapt onto the ice and tried to slide the raft free. Just moments from eternal, mastodonlike preservation, Boyle budged the raft, which squirted out in the direction it had entered. Our hero had saved the day. "My heart was going 120 beats a minute for an hour afterwards," Boyle recalled.
The first two rapids we ran were Badger Creek, eight miles from Lees Ferry, and Soap Creek, at mile 11. In 1869, Powell, in his wooden dories, had portaged around these stretches—laborious work. Twenty years later, another expedition attempted to run the Colorado in the Grand Canyon, and one of its leaders, Frank Brown, drowned below Soap Creek. We plunged through the waves without ado. The raft bucked and bent with the river, crashing through the foaming crests, soaking us with spray. Boyle kept the nose of the raft pointed into the highest peak of the wave. But there was never any question of danger. You have to work at it to fall out of one of these.
That night I laid my sleeping bag on a sand dune. I didn't set up a tent. The sand was so fine it felt like talc, and it cooled quickly after the sun had disappeared behind the canyon walls. By 8:15 the sky was dark, and our camp was quiet.
I woke up at 1:45 a.m. and thought dawn was coming. It was the moon rising. The west side of the canyon was aglow in a ghostly, otherworldly light. I had never slept in a canyon before. This immense face was towering above me, hundreds of feet high, scarred by strange shadows created by the sandstone outcroppings. It gave the canyon a prehistoric air. I half expected to see a dinosaur peek over the rim. When the moon finally cleared the south wall of the canyon, it hit the ground so brightly that I took out my book and read a page just to see if I could do it. I woke again later and the west wall of the canyon was black, and the east wall was eerily lit in that bluish, shadowy glow. How different would the shadows on those cliffs have been 4,000 years ago? Forty thousand years ago? Four million years ago? I went to sleep with the realization that the canyon had begun carrying me back in time.
Lost two nice trout before breakfast, slow-stripping a girdle bug through a back eddy. A girdle bug is a black-and-orange fly with a heavy body and white rubber legs sticking out its side; it looks like nothing I have seen in nature. Highly charged from my restless night, I pulled the fly right out of the fishes' mouths when I struck, as if I had been trying to debone them.
We set off to raft through the Roaring 20s, a series of rapids that taken as a whole includes some of the most interesting white water of the trip. Photographer Mark Gamba and I climbed in with Boyle again, as did Hala Araj, a passenger who ran a travel business in Oakland. Gamba was hoping to take pictures of people floundering in the water, struggling for their lives, their duffel bags being swept downstream toward oblivion. In jest, I suspect, he was negotiating the price of arranging such a photo with Boyle. Araj was not a great swimmer, and she was not pleased with this conversation. She was already nervous about the rapids ahead. We tried to assure her that in the unlikely event that we flipped, her life jacket would keep her afloat, provided she was not so unlucky as to get tangled up in one of the boat lines and dragged beneath the water. She remained uneasy. Perhaps we shouldn't have mentioned getting tangled in the boat lines, although Boyle had already told us that one of his duties after a capsizing was to make a head count, and, if someone was missing, to dive beneath the raft with his knife in case he or she needed to be cut free.
Nearly all of the rapids of the Grand Canyon—there are more than 100 of them between Lees Ferry and our takeout point 225 miles downstream—were formed by flash floods from the side canyons and tributaries that had flung boulders and debris into the Colorado. The shape of the waves depended on the depth and conformation of the debris beneath the water. Sometimes the waves were evenly spaced and rounded, which gave you a roller-coaster ride as the raft surfed down the back of one and up the face of the next. Sometimes the waves scissored and looked like the jaws of watery shears, slashing at the raft from the left and then from the right. "Where there are sunken rocks," Powell wrote in his journal, "the water heaps up in mounds, or even in cones. At a point where the rocks come very near the surface, the water forms a chute above, strikes, and is shot up ten or fifteen feet, and piles back in gentle curves, as in a fountain; and on the river tumbles and rolls."
House Rock Rapid, 21 Mile Rapid, Indian Dick Rapid—one after another we ran them with ease. Farther down, we watched as other rafts and kayaks, some commercial and some noncommercial, ran rapids of similar difficulty, and it was a rodeo: One raft took this course, another took that one, the kayak a third. They caromed off rocks and spun around like leaves. It actually looked like a lot of fun. Boyle and the other O.A.R.S. boatmen were so skilled at handling the rafts, and knew the river so well, that only the wildest rapids seemed even to get their attention. The Colorado was their highway, and they observed bad driving with undisguised disdain.
The most difficult water we encountered that day was the 24 Mile Rapid, which rated 7 (on a scale of 10) at low water. It had a hole in its center that would have swallowed a van. As we approached the rapid, picking up speed where the water was slick and fast, Araj looked a little pale. I clapped her on the back. There is a deeper, throatier timbre to the roar of a heavy rapid, and we were hearing that now. Boyle was watching the route of the raft ahead of us. When it dipped into the rapid, just a few yards ahead of us, it disappeared from view, and we heard a happy, piercing squeal from one of the passengers. At least it sounded happy to me. Araj wasn't so sure. There was no turning back, of course, and in a moment we, too, had dropped into the midst of the turbulence, skirting that treacherous hole at such close range that I could look down into it, like peering into a well. It's funny, but once you are into the rapids, time seems to slow down. A liquid wall of water rose ahead of us, five feet over our heads, and I had time to admire its whiteness and shape before the water cascaded upon us. Down the back, down the front, in the face, it streamed, freezing. The water temperature was about 48°. When the raft finally stopped bucking and settled into an eddy, we started to bail.
"We're having big fun now, eh, Hala?" I shouted.
She was quiet as a mouse. She had been working herself up to a scream in the rapid when she swallowed a mouthful of water. But you could tell she was tickled to still be afloat, if not exactly on terra firma.
Next came 24½ Mile Rapid, also known as Bert Loper's Rapid. In 1949, shortly before his 80th birthday, Loper apparently suffered a heart attack there. He keeled over while working the oars and was swept downriver. His body—skeleton, rather—wasn't found until 1975, 46 miles downstream. Right below Loper's Rapid was 25 Mile Rapid, also known as Hansbrough-Richards Rapid for two surveyors who drowned there in 1889.
I found all this fascinating, but looking back, there was probably too much chitchat about death and skeletons in our boat during that stretch of the Roaring 20s. Araj, we later learned, had an anxiety attack that night. She couldn't sleep. The next morning she burst into tears before stepping into her raft, and she extracted a promise from trip leader Tony (T.A.) Anderson that he wouldn't make her ride with Boyle or Gamba or me the rest of the way.
She wasn't the only one who couldn't sleep that night. I was so pleased with my first evening under the stars that I tried to duplicate the experience and nearly got buried in a sandstorm. All night long the wind howled through the canyon, blasting my face with stinging grains of sand. I woke up expecting to find perfectly smooth ridges where my eyebrows had been. It was a painful but instructive glimpse into the workings of erosion.
I set up my rod and caught four 16- to 18-inch rainbow before breakfast. They were fat and healthy, but for some reason none of them fought particularly well. Nor were the trout selective: girdle bugs, woolly worms, hare's ear nymphs, and muddlers all solicited strikes.
Later in the morning we stopped at Vasey's Paradise, a spectacular waterfall that spouted out of the Redwall limestone 120 feet up from the river. It looked as if God had just uncorked a giant barrel. There was watercress growing in the pool at the bottom of the falls, and as the others tasted it and filled their canteens, Anderson suggested I might want to wet my line in the back eddy where the waterfall ran into the river. Eight casts and five fish later, he asked me if I was having fun yet.
Eleven months earlier, Anderson had had two disks removed from his lower back. Three levels of vertebrae were fused together with four steel rods and eight screws. The injury was work-related: Through lifting, rowing and sitting, boatmen put a lot of strain on their backs. His physical therapist had suggested that T.A. would be wise to find another line of work, or at the very least cut his schedule down. But he didn't want to give it up. He loves the river, the canyon, "being on the rubber"—as the guides call sleeping on the raft. It's a life-style that's hard to leave, and it's very much a family affair for the 36-year-old Anderson, whose wife, Annie, 37, was also one of our guides.
It was Annie who got T.A. interested in river rafting. They had been high school sweethearts in Neenah, Wis.—interestingly, all the boatmen on our trip were raised east of the Mississippi—and had moved out to San Diego, where T.A. was working as a salesman. Annie had a friend whose brother started Sobek in 1973, and in 1978 Annie went with her friend on a rafting trip in Northern California. In spite of her slight build and pencil-thin arms, her friend had no trouble handling a raft. If she can do this, Annie thought, I certainly can. So she called up T.A. and told him she was going to learn to be a boatman. Count me in, T.A. told her.
"A monkey can row this boat," he told me the third day on the river. "That's got very little to do with being a good boatman. It's a people business. You have to like people."
In addition to rowing, the boatmen set up the camp for us, cooked the food, cleaned the pots, toted the garbage, set up the portapotty, treated minor injuries, led hikes, told stories, and lectured on geology, history, flora and fauna. T.A., who was a high school jock, was a sports nut who also provided morning updates, for my benefit, on the Celtics-Pacers and Bruins-Penguins playoff series, events that shrank in significance for me in direct proportion to the time I spent on the river. He also carried half a dozen golf clubs for challenge matches at certain campsites in the canyon, and was the self-proclaimed horseshoe champion of the river.
Canyon golf was not for the faint of heart. T.A. believed in playing the ball where it lay—adjacent to a cactus, nestled in the rocks—which lent a whole new meaning to the word "hazard." A couple of years ago, one of the boatmen sculled a shot from a bad lie that, unfortunately, skulled his girlfriend, who was reading in the sun beside her tent. The ball then ricocheted about 60 yards into the river. When the golfers reached the hapless victim, she was dazed and confused, with a golf-ball-sized knot on her forehead, causing some debate as to whether the ball had indeed ricocheted or possibly had imbedded in her head. The woman recovered, thankfully, but had to be airlifted out of the canyon by helicopter.
That story took on added poignancy on our third evening on the river when, in the midst of a close match, boatman Stan Boor launched a nine-iron 130 yards off a tight, rocky lie and into the environs of the cook's area. Moments earlier, the call had gone out for dinner. We approached the tent with some trepidation, and I am happy to report no injuries were suffered. Nor was the ball lost. Frances Sabol, waiting in line for a serving of halibut, produced the ball from her pocket, apologizing to Boor for having touched it while it was still in play.
We spent that night at the foot of Saddle Canyon. When I woke up at 3 a.m. I was again surprised by the mammoth cliff opposite me, lit by the moon, that seemed to rise at an angle steeper than vertical and lean out over the river. A duck quacked, sleepless fellow. Upriver, more water was being released through Glen Canyon Dam, and the river was rising and burbling. In the wedge of sky above me, I noticed a constellation that looked like a dog. A spaniel, actually. I named it the Dog and went back to sleep.
The next morning I spent some time trying to put the Canyon wren song into English. It was a descending trill, and the best I could do was See-see-see! Peas, peas, sweet peas, sweet peas. The song sort of trails away sadly, as if someone got away with the peas.
This was not my customary behavior, putting birdsong into English and naming constellations. But the canyon had me in its haunting grip. Look what has gone before, it seemed to say. All these things, now you. Rowing along at four to five miles an hour, we were living at the river's pace. No music, no news besides the occasional sports score from T.A. Time to think, time to daydream, time to imagine. It was like being a child again. I didn't even mind when, at mile 64, three miles before we were to pass the geological mystery called the Great Unconformity—250 million years of missing history between the Tapeats sandstone and the 1.7-billion-year-old schist—the Little Colorado merged with the emerald Colorado and curtailed my fishing for the rest of the trip.
We were now floating on the river that prospectors used to call Old Red—"too thick to drink, too thin to plow." It could have been a foot deep, or a hundred.
The fourth night I awoke just before midnight and saw three shooting stars. The moon wasn't up yet. I couldn't find the Dog but was pleased to spot something that looked like a scorpion. So far that was the closest I had come to one that trip. I named it Scorpio and went to sleep dreaming of sweet peas.
Thus far things had gone pretty smoothly, but breakfast nearly set off an international incident. Bernard Rieger, a passenger from Vienna, was put off—nay, disgusted—by our morning meal of French toast, sausage and syrup. The French would never eat their toast this way, he assured us, and the combination of sausage and syrup was an affront to the pig from which the sausage was made. Last year he had gone to Nepal, and he compared this breakfast with a meal prepared by a Sherpa guide who bought a chicken from a farmer, plucked it, cooked it, then cut it into little squares, bones and all, before serving it, rendering the first meat they had had in a week inedible. "Sausage is spicy, syrup is sweet," Rieger told us. "This, too, is also inedible."
A retired industrialist, Rieger was on the trip with a friend from Vienna, Margarete Ahlfeld, who had agreed to come along only after Rieger assured her she wouldn't get cold or encounter any snakes. All of Ahlfeld's friends thought she was nuts. "Don't you know a better way to die?" one asked her when she learned Ahlfeld was going to float down the Grand Canyon.
Contrary to Rieger's assurances, Ahlfeld had been freezing ever since Lees Ferry, and, wouldn't you know it, she was the only person to have a rattlesnake encounter on our trip. I saw her sprinting out of the bushes, buckling her pants, and after she had recovered from her panic, I made her take me back to show me the spot. I had never seen a rattlesnake in the wild, but it, too, had fled, and I had to settle for Ahlfeld's description of the great meeting. She had been standing 18 inches from the rattler. "The head was like this"—she moved her head back and forth. "The rattle was like this"—she shook her finger vigorously. "And the tongue was like this"—she stuck her tongue out about a foot. "My heart went like this"—she beat her chest like it was an anvil. "It was the same color as the sand and rocks. I jumped back and we looked at each other. And then I am running and putting on my clothes." Then a thought occurred to Ahlfeld, for I had complained about the lack of adventure and tension on our trip. "For your story," she said, "better it had bit me."
At mile 88, we arrived at Phantom Ranch, a guest lodge that is in the only settlement along the river in the Grand Canyon. Five of our party hiked out on the Bright Angel Trail to the south rim of the canyon; from there they returned to worldly pursuits. All of them would have preferred to have stayed. Five other people, including my wife, Sally, made the nine-mile hike in. The trail, which descends from 7,000 to 2,000 feet in elevation, took 5½ hours to walk.
Onward we floated. The river was painfully low—painful at least for the guides, who had to row like madmen against the wind in the slack current—because of an environmental experiment up at the dam. For the next five days only 5,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) would be released from the dam, without fluctuation. Ordinarily the daily flow ranges between 5,000 cfs and 25,000 cfs, depending on the demand for electricity in places like L.A. and Phoenix. Electricity can be sold for about twice the price during periods of high demand—daylight hours, heat waves—than at nighttime, when electrical use tapers off. Thus does the Colorado River rise and fall, rise and fall, on an economic tide. Environmentalists believe this fluctuation is eroding the beaches of the Grand Canyon and would like to see the release of water stabilized to between 5,000 and 10,000 cfs. That's what this upstream experiment was about.
The consensus among the guides is that all the environmental data being collected will be punted back and forth like a football in a political game pitting the environmentalists, who want to blow up the dam, against the fishing interests, who are concerned about trout-spawning habitat, against the commercial rafting guides, who are concerned about eroding beaches, against the park service, which is concerned about park usage—all of whom are aligned against the for-profit power operation.
One of our guides, Terry Brian, offered his own novel perspective on the beach-erosion problem. He suggested that Air Force pilots practice their bombing runs in the Grand Canyon, deploying sandbags instead of smart bombs. Imagine the roar! A simple thunderstorm in the canyon can sound like the tempest of Thor. Old-timers speak of the noise in the canyon back in the 1950s when the federal government was testing nuclear bombs in Nevada—BAROOOOOOMMMM!!—a great, growing roar like an asteroid had crashed into the canyon. Brian also thought the dam folks, as a goodwill gesture, should flush 100,000 cfs of water down the canyon every five years or so, to try to duplicate a heavy spring runoff, restimulating vegetation on the upper banks of the river and providing river runners with a thrill.
In July 1983 they actually came close, sending 93,000 cfs of water through the spillways to ease the pressure on the dam after weeks of heavy rains.
A group of guides, including Annie, couldn't resist such a flood and took themselves on a boatman's holiday, rafting the 225 miles between Lees Ferry and Diamond Creek by oar in only three days. The house-sized rock at Boulder Narrows, ordinarily 20 to 30 feet above the surface of the water, was nearly covered by the torrent. At one point, Annie's raft got caught in a whirlpool that spun her about like a toy in a bathtub. The bottoms of the other rafts were going past her at eye level. There was nothing she could do but hang on and keep her oars out of the water. Finally, the whirlpool quietly died.
Brian, who was working for the Park Service during the 1983 flood, was assigned to paddle up and down the flood-waters in his kayak looking for people in distress. "Most fun I ever had and got paid for," he said.
One of the first people Brian ran across was the legendary Georgie Clark, the queen of the river, who had just dumped 30 passengers into Crystal Rapid. Crystal is one of the most difficult rapids on the river, with a drop of 17 feet. It was formed by a flash flood in 1966. That day Brian could literally hear the boulders rolling as they were repositioned by the floodwaters. It seems that Georgie's infamous "unsinkable" G-rig, made of three 30-foot pontoon rafts lashed side by side, hit Crystal's treacherous waters and folded like a sandwich. The deck was stripped clear of everything—passengers, equipment, luggage—except Georgie herself. The Park Service came to the rescue and hauled everyone out of the water safely. Then Brian and a friend paddled up to Georgie, who was calmly sitting on one of her pontoons, sipping her trademark beer. "What happened?" he asked her.
"Ah, I told 'em to hang on. They don't make passengers like they used to," she said in disgust.
I kept hoping we would run into Georgie, but in the spring and the fall there is far less traffic on the Colorado than in the summer months. Still, everyone had a story about this unique woman. She doesn't know exactly what year she was born—there was an 80th-birthday party for her last summer, close enough. She has been running the river since the mid-1940s, often in a leopard-skin suit and pith helmet. At breakfast, each of her passengers is given an egg to take with them. All of the eggs are hard-boiled except one, which is raw. Then she calls for an "egg break" around midmorning, and each person must break the egg over his or her head.
At dinnertime she hauls out a plastic wading pool and dumps assorted cans of food in it, offering her passengers an additional choice if they don't like the entrèe du jour. She calls this appetizing concoction Georgie stew, a mèlange of assorted cans from which the labels have fallen off—peaches, corn, ravioli—which she mixes together in a big pot and heats. For cocktails she makes a grog in a bailing bucket that consists of whatever liquors her passengers have brought along, mixed with a fruit punch. She drops in a few Glow Sticks to give the brew some color, and calls it Stupid.
Out of such stock was the West won, and I was sorry to miss her. But we did meet one interesting fellow from a private party on our ninth day out. He rowed over to us shortly after we had set up camp in a place called the Ledges, mile 151, and we offered him a beer. He accepted. He told us he had already had half a bottle of whiskey that morning to celebrate his divorce. His divorce? Sure thing. He had come to the decision last night and had told his wife, who would be coming along any minute, that she could either walk back home to Utah or ride the rest of the way downriver with his buddy. A few minutes later a raft appeared. "Here they come," the fellow said. "I'll bet you a six-pack she ain't smiling."
He would have won the bet. Those two miserable people rowed past without a hint of acknowledgment. A minute later the fellow pulled out into the current to follow them, shouting so that it echoed off the canyon wall, "Weee-hoooo! Is anyone having any fun!"
To be honest, I lost track of the days. They merged one into the other, as the side-canyon hikes merged one into the other, as the names of the geological strata—Kaibab limestone, Tapeats sandstone, Vishnu schist—merged into a great unconformity in my brain. Who cared? All I really wanted to do was enjoy the canyon and see a bighorn sheep, and I failed in the latter. Lots of tracks. Some scat. Plenty of lizards. No bighorn.
Gamba saw one. He was hiking up Havasu Canyon when he came upon a ram chewing a mouthful of grape leaves, no more than 30 feet away. He took pictures of it, then got bored and must have gotten hungry watching the ram eat, because he sat down to eat a sandwich. Now it was the ram's turn to watch Gamba. Suddenly it began shaking its head, making threatening gestures. Nervously, Gamba stood up to show the sheep that, even if he didn't have horns, he was a big fellow not to be trifled with. Impressed, the ram wandered away.
We were nearing Lava Falls Rapid. It's a tradition the night before Lava Falls for the guides to tell horror stories of their past adventures there. Lava is the big daddy of the Grand, a third larger than the next-biggest rapid in the canyon. It drops 37 feet in 60 yards and has a large lava outcropping at the bottom of the run that you must row—or swim if you have tipped—like fury to avoid. Annie told about the time she flipped Tom Cruise and the others in her boat into Lava, a dunking the actor reportedly enjoyed.
The same could not be said for the Disney executive and other Hollywood types who had invited Cruise to make the trip. Seeing box-office millions being swept downriver, one overwrought film exec had to be restrained from throwing himself into Lava's whirling waters in an effort to save Cruise's life. Cruise, by contrast, took the swim in stride. "He's way cool," Annie allowed. "Real people."
Annie immediately went up several notches in every woman's eyes, a status that she further enhanced by confiding that she hadn't washed the seat of the portapotty since Cruise had been there.
Boyle told a favorite story about watching the boatman of a private party get washed off his perch at the helm and into the white water at the very top of the run. Skipperless, the raft flushed through the rapids slick as you please, barely getting its passengers damp. The threesome in the front turned around to congratulate their captain, and when they discovered him missing, one of them hopped into his seat, took the oars and rowed into the back eddy to complete a perfect run.
Brian recalled the time a woman in his boat swooned as they approached Lava Falls, literally fainting dead away. "Better hang on to your wife," he told her oblivious husband. Another time—and wouldn't this have been special—a rogue wave at the head of Lava tossed a barrel cactus into the footwell of Brian's raft, so he spent the rest of that raging run with his feet up by his ears to keep from being skewered.
The next day we reached the Lava Falls Rapid by mid-morning, and though the water was coming down at only 8,000 cfs, it was a sight. We had climbed to an overlooking basalt outcropping to survey our route, and to my neophyte eyes one way down the rapid looked as bad as the next. T.A. told us that because of the low water, there was only one route, and that was to the right. "Don't try to get cute with it," he warned one of the new boatmen who was assigned to a baggage boat. "If you try to pull left away from that wall, that V-wave'll turn you sideways and flip you in a heartbeat into that bottom stuff."
That "bottom stuff," I saw, was a lava boulder that jutted into the foot of the channel, throwing water 20 feet into the air. For the first time, I could feel a shot of adrenaline in my blood. Not a lot, mind you. It was no great trick to hold on to the straps that were provided for us. The guides were the ones who ran the rapids. We sat them.
From that vantage point, we watched T.A. and Boyle go first. Those two were something. They entered the chute exactly where they had said they would, keeping their rafts straight as the front ends were buried in that first deep hole. The rafts plunged through, the waves rolling over the passengers' heads and striking T.A. and then Boyle in their laps. They kept their balance, held the rafts straight through three more scissoring waves, then spun around at the precise moment to pull into the center of the channel, avoiding the lava boulder at the foot of the run.
From above, we cheered. Then Annie gave me a tug. We were next.
It took us a while to check all the straps on the gear to make sure everything was secure. We tightened our life jackets. Annie urged, "Let's do it," and pushed out into the current. As we drifted toward the abyss, for that is how it felt, I could see the others on that basalt outcropping giving us the thumbs-up sign and waving. Sally was up there. She was wearing a grin.
There is a point of no return above a rapid, when you cannot turn back and you accept that you are in the hands of the river. It is a good feeling, if your equipment is good, and I could tell by the speed of the boat that we had passed the point. Annie was standing, straining to see her course. Ahead, the volume of the approaching rapids was building. In a few more seconds, when it reached a crescendo, I could have shouted at the top of my lungs and Annie would not have heard me.
The nose of the raft dipped, and we accelerated into that first, cavernous hole. "Perfect!" I shouted. Time had started to slow. The muddy, angry wave came toward us, swallowing our bow. It was a solid, ponderous mass until the instant that we hit it, then the wave shattered into a thousand heavy shards, white and brown, toppling over our shoulders and down our backs. We burst through. The raft, suddenly half full of water, was not so much riding on the river now as in it, settling the churning waves like cream settles boiling syrup. There! A huge crest, bigger than any we had tried to go through, angled toward us from the right—or so it seemed, for the movement was all in the water, and we were still. The wave was peaked like a cathedral spire and the color of the sandstone cliffs beyond. As we neared this giant curl, I was overcome by an urge to reach out with my hand and poke through it, like a man diving into the water off a cliff. As I did so, the wave parted for my fist, a small hole that was about as big around as a doughnut. Then a hundred smaller holes opened around my fist, finger-sized, so I could see ahead through that giant wave, poised eight feet over our bow, to the next wave. And the next wave. And the next. Clearly. Then I was blinded by a faceful of water.
Ride 'em, Annie!
I can picture it, but it all sounds so unreal. Years from now, not trusting my memory, I may have to go back to see if I was dreaming.
GLEN CANYON DAM
LAVA FALLS RAPID
LITTLE COLORADO RIVER
MILES FROM PUT-IN: