Something Ominous, Something Thrilling
Like every other family, mine has had some memorable experiences. One of them I have already described in an earlier post (see “Mountain and Cloud, Tree and Wind”). Here’s another classic adventure from several years ago.
In 1869, a man named John Wesley Powell led a small group of hardy men down the Green River in Utah, to its confluence with the Yampa, then the White, and then the Grand rivers, to keep an appointment with history. Powell had set out to explore the little-known canyon country of the Colorado River. Not quite a century later, one of our best authors of the American West, Wallace Stegner, retold the story of Powell’s expedition, and in his book I find these words: “There is something ominous about a swift river, and something thrilling about a river of any kind. The nearest upstream bend is a gate out of mystery, the nearest downstream bend a door to further mystery.”
A few days ago, I stood in the rain in the parking lot of a Best Western motel in Vernal, Utah, not thinking of Stegner’s words exactly, but certainly feeling exactly that mix of “something ominous” and “something thrilling.” I was hastily pulling four sets of long underwear out of the dry bags into which I had packed them the night before. My family sat in the restaurant motel, staring out at the gray morning, no doubt sharing my sense of dread. What had our trip leader said the night before, when our expedition group had gathered to get instructions for our whitewater trip on the Yampa and Green rivers? Something about “big, really big water,” and “not this high since the mid-80s” and “did everyone turn in a waiver of liability?”
Now here came more rain, more water to go rushing down into the deep canyons of the Yampa, more cold and wet rain to dampen spirits. We’ll need these sets of long underwear, I thought to myself. There were about 18 of us, ranging in age from 12 to 72, all of us putting our lives into the hands of a half dozen grumpy-looking river guides, most in their twenties, most looking like they’d just stumbled out of an all-night kegger at a college fraternity.
No wonder. Just two days before, these same guides had finished a four-day trip on those same rivers in a driving rain. Four days of weather so cold and wet that one family had insisted on being evacuated from the Yampa canyons. Nothing doing. Those poor souls had to finish their trip, waterlogged and shivering, and I knew that unless it stopped raining, my family and I would have to do the same. Grin and bear it.
So we climbed on the bus, pulled out of the Best Western parking lot, and headed out of Utah and into Colorado, mile after mile after mile. You could have heard a pin drop on that bus. What in the world, everyone was thinking, have we gotten ourselves into? Ninety minutes later, the bus pulled down to the boat launch where we would begin our journey. Stepping down from the bus, we all got our first look at the mighty Yampa.
I’ll quote Stegner again, to give you a sense of my state of mind at that moment: “Through most of its course the canyoned Green and Colorado, though impressive beyond description, awesome and colorful and bizarre, is scenically disturbing, a trouble to the mind. It works on the nerves, there is no repose in it, nothing that is soft. The water-roar emphasizes what the walls begin: a restlessness and excitement and irritability.”
That’s about right, though at that moment, we were still a mile or so above the spot where the Yampa entered the canyon lands. The river that morning was plumb full, full of snow melt – there was no whitewater at that spot, but it looked as though the river was sliding over some huge animal, its big muscular back writhing just under the surface of the water. I found it easier to look away, to concentrate on the matters at hand: make use of the last genuine toilet I’d see for five days, put on more clothing against the cold, listen to the safety instructions, and choose a raft to climb into.
There were six rafts, five of which were rowed by the guides, one of which could be paddled by any half dozen of us customers. The guides’ boats were rubber rafts like the paddle boat, only they were outfitted with metal platforms, on and to which the guides had lashed an amazing array of equipment and gear: grill, Dutch oven, and metal tables for the camp kitchen; coolers of cheese, eggs, steaks, chicken breasts, sausage, soft drinks, beer, and wine; U.S. Army surplus ammo cans full of fresh fruits and vegetables, packaged foods, and enough other food items to feed 25 people three meals a day for five days; barrels of fresh water; bags of tents and tarps and sleeping bags; a collapsible chair for every customer on the trip; helmets for those who wanted them; the “groover,” that is, the camp toilet; and so much other equipment that I wonder that the boats didn’t sink.
The young man who rowed our boat that day was Brett, a pleasant fellow who made conversation with our boys as we slipped away from the boat launch, turned 90 degrees, and headed down the river. Once we were well on our way, he went back over the basics of our safety instructions: “What’s the first thing you do if you take a Yampa swim? That’s right, don’t panic. Second thing? Yep, locate the boat and look to me for instructions. Remember, self-rescue is the best rescue. If you can swim back to the boat, do. If you can’t, assume the position: face downstream with your legs straight out in front of you. What’s that? Yes, the sign that you’re all right is to tap the top of your head with your fist.”
In no time at all, it seemed, we reached the beginning of the Yampa canyons. It would take us five days to float through and past those towering sandstone walls to our takeout below Split Mountain on the Green River. Over those several days, we would see rock that is more than a billion years old; strange pictographs and petroglyphs left on cave walls hundreds of years ago by the Fremont peoples; box elders and junipers and Douglas firs adding touches of green to the gray of the Weber sandstone and the red of the Madison formation; big white-capped compression waves in the river called haystacks, and lateral waves that tried hard to push us toward the most menacing rapids; tiny, acrobatic swallows that build their homes out of mud stuck to cliff walls; faults in the crust of the earth thrusting spires of rock up into the air; alluvial fields of huge boulders rolled down from the slopes of the canyons by terrific floods years ago; and yes, we also saw the sun, which finally shone down on us as we were setting up our tents for our first night on the river.
That was a special moment. The guides hadn’t seen the sun for maybe a week, and those beautiful rays of warmth boded well for our journey. Spirits were high as we all sat in a big circle watching the cooks for the night put the chicken on the grill, add spices to the rice cooking on the stove, and chop vegetables for a delicious green salad.
Gradually, in brief and sometimes longer conversations, we began to get to know each other. We met a father and his adult son from Idaho, who would gently squabble with each other on the trip, but in a way that revealed how much they loved each other. We met a mother and her thirteen year-old daughter from Los Angeles – eventually, the girl and our younger son would discover that they were soul mates. We met another mother-daughter team, except in this case the mother was in her 70s and her daughter was a longtime employee of the Forest Service – she would be our source for the names of flowers, shrubs, and trees that we saw during our voyage. An older couple, Russ and Jan, were on their fourth raft trip – they were our veterans, who could scoff at the tiny rapids on the Yampa, in comparison to the dangerous ones on the Colorado River.
There were others still, and what was so extraordinary for a group of people thrown together by chance, was how well we all got along. Most of us had never done anything quite like this before, so we all felt a certain camaraderie as we tested the limits of our patience for life on the river.
Speaking of life on the river: my mother and others have been curious about what we were supposed to do when we needed to, well, go to the bathroom, seeing as there WERE no bathrooms. I’ve already mentioned the “groover,” the camp toilet that we hauled down the river from put-in to take-out. That was set up each night when we camped, in some out-of-the-way spot that provided at least some privacy. (By the way, the word “groover,” as you might guess, is based on the word “groove.” In the early days of whitewater rafting, the camp toilet was just a rectangular ammo can, so when someone sat for any length of time on the “can,” he was left with “grooves” in his behind.) But what if during those long floats through the winding canyons a person needed to, well, pee? After all, because the air was so incredibly dry, we were drinking more water than we ever had in our lives. Did the entire flotilla have to pull to shore every time someone needed to pee?
In a word, no. I can tell you how I solved the problem. One afternoon, I was alone on the back of a boat that was fifth in a line of six rafts. I reached that point of endurance that we have all experienced at some point: either I would pee or I would die. So I said to Milton, our guide that day, “Milton, I’m going to pee off the back of this boat – hold her steady, because I don’t have much room to stand back here.” And then, gesticulating to the guide piloting the raft behind us, I succeeded in communicating to him that he should point out something VERY interesting on the nearby bank to distract the women in his boat. Somehow I managed not to fall into the river, and boy was I happier once we were underway again.
I haven’t said much yet about the whitewater. The Yampa is not the wildest river by far, so truth be told, there were long stretches of sedate floating, which was very calming and gave us plenty of time to appreciate the beauty of the river as it swept along between high sandstone walls. But there were some exciting moments, none more so than my close encounter with Maytag.
My family and I were in separate boats the day that we went through the rapid that our guides had dreaded the entire trip. The trip leader made sure we reached it before the afternoon winds started to pick up, and she and her guides spent what seemed like hours walking up and down the bank, scouting the water ahead. They explained that a serious rapid – this one was a Class IV — is never the same one day to the next. As the river rises and falls, new rocks get covered up or exposed, and the danger of whirlpools and holes where water rushes back on itself – these are called hydraulics – is greater or lesser. The path through the rapid might be straightforward one day and convoluted the next.
So we sat and waited as the guides stood and consulted. Finally, they returned to their boats, which they planned to send through the rapid in two groups of three. That way, there would be plenty of help below the rapid for the second group, if anyone went in for a swim. Yells from the first group let us know that they had made it through. Then it was time for the second group to try their luck. The pilot of my boat, an earnest young man named Nate, explained what he wanted me to do: “I want you and Chris here sitting in the back – I plan to go down backwards so that I can pull hard on my oars. Hold this strap here and that one there. Now, when we get to the first big lateral wave, I’m going to say “Punch it!” I want you to slam down on the end of the raft with your shoulder, so that we can lower the back of the raft and punch through the wave. We don’t want it to catch us and typewriter us into Maytag.”
I didn’t get a chance to ask what he meant by “typewriter us into Maytag.” We were out into the river and headed downstream. Nate got us lined up and then I heard “Punch it!” Wham, I flung my body against the inflated end of the raft. Here came another wave – wham. Another – wham. I though we were doing fine. We were soaked through and through, and the raft was rocking and rolling, but we were still headed downstream toward safer waters. What I didn’t know until later is that we were TOO close to the bank.
Nate had been so intent on staying away from Maytag that he’d left himself too little room to ply his left oar. Without a good strong pull on the oars, we were caught by one of the lateral waves and, yes, pushed like an old-fashioned typewriter carriage straight toward an immense hydraulic. Maytag, it turns out, was a big, raft-eating hole in the water, where a person could get caught and pulled down again and again into the endless loop of relentless wave. I felt and saw Nate turn the boat and puuuullllllllllllll on his oars – the straining in his shoulders and arms, the frantic backstroke to get the oars in the water again, the heave and heave of someone who knows he’s on the brink. There was a second, a split second maybe, when it all hung in the balance, and then – whoosh – we were free, to the sound of loud cheers and clapping from the other boats.
Camp that night was a festive affair. Our brush with death – or at least our brush with a cold, ignominious, and somewhat dangerous dunking in the Yampa River – left us all feeling in the mood for celebration. Out came the big cans of beer and bottles of wine, chips and guacamole, tall stories and silly jokes. For one night, at least, everyone was everyone else’s best friend. And where did that happen? Not in an airport, where every single person is and remains a complete stranger to you. Not at a football game, where the people wearing red shirts refuse to sit next to the ones wearing blue. Not in a hospital. No, it happened on a river.
Did I mention that I love rivers?
There’s so much else to tell, but where would I stop? I could describe the fun we had when Milton maneuvered his boat in such a way that my boys could lean out over the water and kiss Tiger Rock for luck. I could tell you about our long hike up a side canyon and back out onto a precipice hanging 2500 feet above the river. About Whispering Cave, where natural air conditioning pours chilled air out into a blazing hot day. About our hike to Butt Dam, a waterfall on a little stream where a few human butts, carefully placed, can dam the water long enough to pour a torrent of water onto a child’s head when the “human dam” is suddenly removed. About waking up in the morning, after a rainfall during the night, to discover that it had snowed on the ridges above us. About how wonderful a rare steak and hot potatoes taste after a long day on the river. About Echo Park, where a shout is returned to you from the canyon walls again and again and again and again. About the sudden gust of wind – that mischievous wind that followed me all the way from Georgia to Utah– that whistled up a canyon on the Green River one day and blew all our rafts to shore.