Day Three–Countdown to the Colorado River/Grand Canyon Raft Trip

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Kayak, Part II

 In 1993 I made my third kayaking trip west, where Mark had a surprise for me. He had gotten us on a trip with four other people, two kayakers and a raft, down the Colorado River through Westwater Canyon in southern Utah. The Colorado is the epitome of big water, of any white water in North America. What it may lack in technical difficulty and sheer power, when compared to any other river, it makes up in beauty, wildness, and history. Not to mention the harsh desert climate and the inaccessibility. The Grand Canyon sparks the imagination, and In high school, Mark and I dreamed about the day we would kayak the Colorado River together.

Westwater Canyon funnels the river from a quarter mile wide, about eighteen-hundred feet, down to thirty five feet, for six miles. The walls are vertical and shiny black, leaving only a patch of sky overhead. (Again, this is the definition of “Big Water,” where the river can’t spread out to dissipate its energy, so it stacks the water up, with the narrow opening playing the same role as the nozzle at the end of a water hose: water pressure increases under compression, and shoots out the end of the nozzle. We called the Forest Service and learned that the river was flowing at nine thousand cubic feet per second that week, about seven times as much water as I cared to be on. At that flow the waves average ten feet high and something called “funny water” occurs. Random whirlpools are generated, sometimes in front of your boat, sometimes underneath it. The whirlpools seem to have minds of their own, laying ambushes for innocent kayakers.

highwater3

At Skull Rapid the current slams into a wall. Half the current splits off and runs down canyon. The other half has hollowed out a cylindrical hole in the canyon wall fifty feet in diameter, called the Room of Doom. If you are washed into the room when the river is high, it is impossible to get out. River runners once reported a herd of fifty or so drowned sheep, spinning around the Room of Doom like a washing machine. That’s where I saw myself, circulating with god knows what, waiting for late summer when the water level would fall.

Mark and I warmed up on Salt River Canyon in Arizona, a river I had run half a dozen times without any problem, and my Eskimo roll went to hell. For three days before the trip I read about Westwater and practiced my roll in the swimming pool, but it still wouldn’t come.  I tried to unlearn everything I knew about rolling and start over. It got worse. I talked myself out of kayaking, found a spot in the raft that would be making the trip. I knew that Westwater was no place to swim.

The night before we left for the river, Mark and I went to buy hip braces for his kayak from Bill Carter, an Arizona kayaker famous for his first descents of isolated mountain rivers and who made extra money selling equipment and giving lessons. Mark told Bill I had driven two thousand miles and planned to raft Westwater rather than kayak. He meant well, but it sounded mean to me.

Bill asked what rivers I had run, how I had made out. I told him about my Eskimo roll.  Bill said people lose their rolls all the time, and that it wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be. He told me there was a trail around Skull, and how to recognize it. I decided to try Westwater and walk Skull, but I didn’t sleep well that night, or the following night.

 

 

room of doom

Westwater was everything I thought it would be, and worse. The water was squirrelly, frantic–for me–strictly survival paddling. I was determined to stay upright. Even thinking about a roll, or a swim, was out of the question. The first big wave was a wall in the middle of the river. I watched the two kayaks in front of me climb up and up the face of the wave, and then vanish over the edge as if they had been swallowed. The rest was roller coaster, until Skull, where I paddled so hard for the bank that I completely beached my kayak on the rocks. Whole trees were being thrashed around the Room of Doom.

I carried my boat around the rapid and waited below to help Mark or the others if they got into trouble. I set my Dancer down in an eddy, normally the smoothest part of the river, but this one had three foot waves. Everyone made it. Mark flipped in Skull and rolled up so quick, he made it look effortless, like it should look.

The rest of Westwater went by too fast, because I didn’t start having fun until Skull was over. I began to enjoy the boat, the way the water moved, those imposing whirlpools, and when the canyon walls opened up and the river became placid, I paddled to the raft and hung an arm over the tube and floated along, enjoying the companionship that follows a river descent.

 

Twenty-three years later and much nearer to 60 than 30, as I prepare to be the person in that raft rather than the kayaker beside it, I think about my life’s journey on water. I’m reminded of the poem by the English Romantic poet William Wordworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” Like the speaker in that poem, it is easy for me to reflect, through the pain of arthritic knees and diminished energy, of how my interaction with the wildness of nature has changed as I’ve grown older. Wordsworth, looking back over the country of his youth, writes:

. . . . And so I dare to hope,

Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first

I came among these hills; when like a roe

I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides

Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,

Wherever nature led: . . . .

. . . For Nature then

(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days

And their glad animal movements all gone by)

To me was all in all.—I cannot paint

What then I was. The sounding cataract

Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,

The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,

Their colours and their forms, were then to me

An appetite; a feeling and a love . . .

Like Wordsworth, as a young many I consumed Nature with a physical, athletic, passionate  relationship. But now, like the poet, I realize that my body can’t do some of the things I did in my twenties, thirties, and even forties. He observes:

.                           . . . That time is past,

And all its aching joys are now no more,

And all its dizzy raptures. . . .

What the poet realizes, though, and what I am coming to appreciate, is that though we lose something physical as we age, we gain something much more valuable, something we can’t always appreciate when young. Wordsworth goes on to talk about what is gained as we age:

. . . Not for this

Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts

Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,

Abundant recompense. For I have learned

To look on nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes

The still sad music of humanity,

Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power

To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,

And what perceive; well pleased to recognise

In nature and the language of the sense

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.

For me, what I have gained at I’ve grown older is the reward of sharing my love of Nature and wild places with my daughters. Last year, I was able to climb the mountains of Colorado with my daughter, and this summer I will enjoy with her the sunlight playing off the water of the Colorado River and walls of the Grand Canyon; we will share the pleasure of difficult white water and see the desert under a full moon; and we will hike the South Rim trail and watch the expanse of the sky open above us. “Abundant recompense” for growing older, as Wordsworth would say.

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