High Water, Grand Canyon 1983 (an excerpt)

          The water has indeed risen. 75,000 cfs. Scuttlebutt has it going higher. I make a mental note to scout an uphill escape route as we float. Who knows? The dam just might blow. (I cross my fingers, actually preferring this option, but keep my mouth shut.) Six hundred vertical-foot tsunami. Should take a few hours to make it a hundred miles downstream, plenty of time to scramble to the perfect viewpoint and crack a beer.

            Suzanne joins me at Phantom’s boat beach and we observe as the nervous clients pack. She watched a thirty-seven foot Western Expeditions motor rig flip end-over-end against the wall in Crystal last week. Crystal is ten miles downstream. That’s a bit over an hour at current speeds.

            “Wait’ll you see Crystal, Jeffy! It’s amayzin’.” Over and over in her beloved Alabama accent, till my guts wrench. The beach, like all the others, is underwater, sand shifting below dark, cold currents. Strategize. Boat order. Hand signals. Joel, Moley, Kevin—can’t imagine a better crew. A ranger approaches.

            “Georgie just flipped a big rig in Crystal!” he exclaims, too loud. Our inscrutable sunglasses offer the only reply. Nearby, a client’s head rises, faces us. Our ranger is oblivious. “There were injuries!” The client gently places his half-filled river bag on the sand, strolls over.

            “Is this a good idea?”

            “Y’all will walk around Crystal Rapids. We’ll run the boats through empty and pick y’all up below,” says my lovely trip leader.

            This simple logic seems somehow to satisfy him, and he walks back to inform his wife, who has the thousand-yard stare going but good. Perhaps this was supposed to improve my own mood as well. It doesn’t, much. We head downstream.


            Horn Creek Rapids is the first big one past Phantom. Each season there is at least one rapid that gets to me, one I can’t seem to wire. Sometimes it changes spontaneously from one to another, every few trips. Without notice, the nemesis will let me go, allow me to grok it, sense its ways. Another that I’ve done flawlessly a dozen times will morph, become elusive. Granite had been my adversary most recently, before that Lava, Crystal, Hance—always one at a time. At present, it’s Horn. I find it hard to be chatty with the new folks as we come around the corner.

            Like House Rock—gone. Buried. An inconsequential riffle. We look back, shake our heads, not sure where we are for a moment. Granite’s thunder and spray is at least familiar. We cheat it, hurtling along the left shore, avoiding the colossal curling breakers along the right wall. The scout rock at Hermit, normally a high and dry vantage point from which to reconnoiter the choice run, is submerged below a diagonal wave barreling into the infamous “fifth wave.” This usually perfect, straightforward feature has transformed into a monstrous curler paralleling the current, the perfect surfer’s tube. I plan to miss it, but end up being torn wildly into the tube, yelling “Hold on!” and battling to keep the snout straight. We slot the curl, no fault of mine, the wave erupting into the heavens from the boat’s starboard side, reaching over us, and crashing over our port side. We never even get wet. Each rapid has a finality about it—one step closer to Crystal. The clients do not notice the silence of the boatmen, our significant glances to one another. This is deliberate.


            Crystal is a dance. Difficult to read the entry, so confidently worked out from shore, once in the tongue. Holes and rocks to either side of a narrow aisle, and you’re moving like a freight train. Black cliff of schist on the left, broken by great pink and white criss-crossing dikes echoing thunder, insidiously drawing the attention of the frail. Dip an oar here, adjust there, ready to move hard right to miss the dumping maw, a sure flip. Go there by mishap or misfortune and swim through unending waves, despairing of energy and air—or, for the really unlucky, over a calamity of boulders of every size and shape. Nail your run (so far), exultant but focused, and prepare to move hard left or right, sensing where the current is drawing, different every time. Fight that current with a predisposed bias, and Big Red, the largest and most conspicuous of the boulders, draws you towards her, an insistent lover. Laconic, veteran boatmen get awfully quiet in the eddy upstream. Consequences. First among equals. Okay, okay. I’m in the present already.

            Stepping ashore, the ground sends tremors through our flip-flops again, running up our spines and into our numbed skulls. We are silent, and the passengers are now keenly aware. They can’t read rapids, but they can read us. I imagine hundred-ton boulders the size of houses, placed there by an incomprehensibly massive flood of mud and rock twenty years past­, once again animate, now tumbling, colliding downstream. The air thumps, muffled bass drums throb the atmosphere. Oooh. My belly.

            Camp—gone. Buried. We tie to the crag usually behind it, fasten our insignificant craft to its top. Tammies—tamarisk trees, foreign invaders from the Middle East but providers of shade and nesting nonetheless—wave like palms in a tempest far from shore, only their tips visible above the chocolate current. We sweat, but not from heat. We swing the rafts into the eddy behind the cliff, preparing to camp on the delta-top from which we usually enjoy a panoramic scout.  We climb back aboard our boats to start unloading (finding it is strangely comforting to leave the shuddering earth), but Suzanne has other ideas.

            “Leave yoah boats alone.” We look up from the rigging, baffled.

            “Y’all have to go see the size of this hole befo’ it gets too dahk. You just won’t b’leeeeve it!”

            That’s it. Poor Suzy’s mind has finally snapped.

            I am silently elected. She is, after all—though clearly deranged—my best friend. “Suzy. It’s okay. We’ll just de­-rig and start camp going, and then we’ll go see the hole.”

            She stamps her flop, hands on hips. I know this look.

            “I ayem yoah trip leadah.” She’s seductive, smiling like a best friend, but with the stance of a killer. “Now you get down offa yoah boats right this very minute.”

            Obedient, beaten curs, we crawl off our boats and follow her to the overlook.

            In boater’s parlance, a “hole” is just that—negative space, a void in the water where water should rightfully be. Bounded on the upstream side by smoothly flowing, deceptively graceful water, deflected elegantly upwards by some hidden obstacle below the surface, then sliding downwards too fast to adequately refill the space. On its downstream end, however, it slams into a chaos of froth, catching up to and punching its way into this liquid brick wall trying to recover its original height. Some of these “foam piles” we hit on purpose, spraying our clients with water on a hot day and giving them a bit of a ride. Some we purposefully play in, surfing them in our kayaks like acrobats on an ocean wave and whooping in delight. Then, there are those that we avoid at all costs, that threaten—like a black hole—never to release anyone or anything that enters, tossing boat and boater like rag dolls, or, worse yet, capsizing, submerging, then torpedoing everything towards eardrum-popping depths and rocks below. These are the “muncher” holes, too often further complicated by difficult entries and jungles of boulders.

            The roar slams us in the face as we top the rise. The beast is at hand. Jaws drop—jaws that have seen some really big water all over the world over years of extreme, pioneering rafting and kayaking. I urinate on a spindly desert trumpet at my feet, a gesture of coolness—fooling no one. Each of us is silent, looking deep into our souls, seeking courage for the morrow. Suzy smiles, in ownership of the moment, exultant. You have to admire her.

            We turn our backs on our fate, eager to dull our senses, make camp. I mutter under my breath that we have to think of a way to describe the scale of things for later, when memories fade and stories get smirked at by guides who weren’t there but know better. We agree, after fruitless attempts at hyperbolic adjectives, that you could chopper a locomotive over the hole, perpendicular to the current, lower it until its top was below and within the crest of the breaking wave, and no part of it—not the ends, not the bottom, not the sides—would touch water. No Shit, as we boaters like to say.

            After dinner, pooped clients safely tucked in after their long hike, we stray over to the fire log and, one by one, absentmindedly pick up our instruments. I pluck my mandolin from its rock perch, pulling the strap over my shoulder in the flickering glow, mind drifting, tuning up. Joel meanders over, opens up his banjo case, joins in. Moley wanders in with tequila, an offering, leans over his fiddle. I’m not much of a drinker, easily getting smashed on just three beers. This night, however, we indulge as loggers and whores might. Not a word is spoken—no words needed. We play, at first softly, introspectively, then, as the hours roll on, imperceptibly faster, louder, unconsciously building to a crescendo of pent-up thrill and tension, youth and destiny compelling us, song following song, into harmonic frenzy. Rhythms are flawless, backups and solos tight, crisp. There is a drummer here, not human, hammering the beat. Long after the ringtails have retired, we face each other in a compact circle, combined repertoires driving us onwards, into the moon, the cliffs, the water. In one, single, spontaneous moment, our desert jam having feverishly built—note for note, decibel by decibel—a bridge between our souls, and from there to something unnamable, we all stop, unbidden and un-cued, on precisely the same chord. Brown-Eyed Girl, redux. The spectacle will echo amongst these cliffs, mingling with Crystal’s thunder, long after civilization has ceased to exist.

            Eyes glazed, instruments laid to rest, utterly exhausted, alone and separate once more, we retire to our respective floating roosts.