Friday, August 22, 2008

Just a man, whiskey and his kayak


None of them know my last name, and I don’t know theirs. It doesn’t matter here. Neither does the time or date. In the desert of southeastern Utah, Canyon Country, the only thing that really is of concern is how much water is in my bottle and the distance between here and there.
On this particular August day, as the sun sets fire to fleets of towering red rock cliffs, that distance is about 17 miles by the currents of the meandering Colorado River, between what I’ll loosely call the put-in, and take-out.

Sitting on the bank of the river, 20 miles from the nearest paved highway, rafters are busy outfitting their boats, weary kayakers grunt and turn in sleeping bags and rangers commence the morning ritual of lifejacket inspections.
As my Uncle John makes coffee on his small camp stove, I ready my gear for a two-day river trip. Our belongings, mainly sleeping bags, a pint of Wild Turkey and a couple of clean T-shirts, will be carried on rafts along with the rest of the group, while Uncle John and I kayak.
The trip we’re on has no name. It has no sponsor and it’s not commercial. It’s a private function organized each year by Brett, who owns a raft, large camp stove, Dutch ovens, several beer coolers and many other things necessary for such a trip. The group consists of four rafts piled with 13 people and six whitewater kayakers. Our goal, or at least mine, is to lose track of all goals, and simply and sublimely float down the river.
Of course, there will be obstacles. Mainly Westwater Canyon, a class IV rated section of whitewater that luckily, I’ve paddled before.
The trip itself is a thing of legend. Brett has organized it for a number of years, always in early August. Spots are coveted. I made the cut at the last minute after Uncle John, who’s a regular on the trip, managed to get me on the list. Without much thought, I quickly loaded my wife’s station wagon with kayak, paddle, lifejacket, helmet and a number of other things and headed for home, Utah, the river.
For the past three years, I’ve done little whitewater boating. Santa Barbara County isn’t exactly the wettest place on earth. However, last winter, when several inches of rain fell in the span of a day or so, I spent two satisfying mornings being tossed about on the Santa Ynez River. It’s just empty most of the year.
The ocean, too, presents problems. First off, the saltwater tastes and feels funny. And sitting off shore waiting for a wave or paddling upon the tame surface, practicing my whitewater roll, while fun, just doesn’t do it for me. But what do I know? I’m just a redneck from Utah.
So it feels good to be back at the river, in the desert, far, far upstream from Southern California, a long way away from responsibility, the time clock, the rent, the inbox.
I get acquainted with several members of the group while driving the shuttle. My car got picked as the shuttle. This responsibility includes about an hour of driving before the trip begins and again when it’s over. It includes transporting a number of group members lucky enough to be leaving their cars at the take-out, back to the put-in where my car is left.
We arrive at the put-in around noon, and after a skinny male ranger with a pencil mustache inspects our lifejackets and informs us we should always, under all circumstances, urinate in the water, we’re off. Uncle John, a young guy named Zack, an older guy named Augie and I squish into our kayaks.
Sweating beneath the noon sun, I flip upside down and stay there, under the cover of 9,000 cubic feet per second, listening to liquid fill my ears and bubble over the river bottom before I roll back up.
The first day, just less than half of the Westwater section, consists primarily of flat water. We’ll camp just above the rapid Little Dolores, named after a nearby creek.
As the rafts enter the current, we’re on our way. Within seconds of breaking from shore, cans of beer begin popping open. Moments later, a freezing Pabst Blue Ribbon plops into the water next to me. Luckily, the beer can is buoyant.
The peanut buttery Colorado winds slowly through the smooth canyon walls it has patiently, over the past several thousand? Million? Billion? years or so, carved. How long it’s taken doesn’t concern me as much as my being here, today.
As I crush an empty beer can, pop my spray skirt (the waterproof lid that keeps me trapped in the boat) and toss the can inside, I make out the sounds of a Bob Marley tune coming from the confines of a raft.
We glide into camp early. The sun sits high in the afternoon sky and the tamarisk-lined campground doesn’t offer much shade. A human assembly line is formed that stretches from the bank of the river, to a flat spot where we’ll set up the kitchen.
Brett and the other raft owners toss countless rubber dry bags from the boats, which are shuttled quickly and efficiently to camp. Then we offload the tables, which double as benches on the raft and stretchers if needed. Two years ago on this trip, one of the braver, drunker group members, broke his back jumping from a 100-foot high cliff. It wasn’t what he hit, but how he hit it. Apparently he smacked the water in a sitting position. The force of hitting the flat, placid water on his backside compressed and fractured one of his vertebrae, or so I hear.
Anyhow, he’s alive and well on the trip again. If there is a rule, which I doubt, it is only that this man cannot jump from any height while drinking tequila.

Camp is formed quickly. The sun sets fire to my back and wears on the energy and spirit of the group. The drastic rays are so direct and ferocious that an ice cold beer grows too warm to drink after the first swallow. Several people wander into the tamarisk forest, searching for shady places to sleep away the afternoon.
As the sun begins to hide beneath the sandstone cliff to the direct west, Brett begins dinner. He piles countless chicken breasts into a Dutch oven and pours a thick marinade of barbeque sauce over the birds. The Dutch ovens simmer in the sand on a bed of charcoal. Augie cuts and smashes a mess of potatoes in another Dutch oven, and someone else makes a green salad. When it’s finished, a bunch of scraggly, starving river rats race to the food.
Brett fills his plate, too, but he seems to eat slower, watching as the others enjoy what he’s done, taking satisfaction in everyone else’s.
When the sun disappears, Augie and I get into our kayaks and paddle up stream to a bubbling eddy line, which despite its subtleness, has the power to easily suck the bow or stern of a kayak beneath the water, something we enjoy. Augie and I busily flop around in the water, consuming the last remnants of energy to ensure an easy night’s sleep.
I wake early with ants crawling on my face. The sun is clouded over, threatening rain. Brett is busy at the stove chopping onions, potatoes, cooking bacon. He informs me there is no ground coffee, only whole beans. No sweat. He places the bag of beans on a flat rock and beats it with a shovel.
The rest of the group wakes slowly. Many are hung over and immediately start off on the coffee, but spirits are high. Camp is packed quickly and the clouds dissipate, cleaning the slate for another sheer, sunny, desert day.
While the rafts are loaded, the kayakers float down to Little Dolores to get some playtime in before the bigger rapids. “Little D,” as its known, sits near the middle of the river. Surfing waves on a river is similar to doing it on the ocean. In fact, when I was 16, during my first multi-day paddling trip on the Snake River in Wyoming, I witnessed for the first time in person, a surfer. We were more than a thousand miles from the nearest beach, but there he was, paddling to the middle of the “Lunch Counter” rapid on a surfboard. The surfer lacked a life jacket. He wore short shorts, almost like a Speedo, and a werewolf mask concealed his face. The werewolf effortlessly stood up on the board and rode the glassy wave for nearly a minute before floundering into the churning water.
Kayakers do the same thing, only instead of moving forward, toward the shore as in the ocean, we face upstream, caught between the pillow of the wave moving over a rock, and the harsh backwash which folds upward, creating a rapid that can easily hold kayak and kayaker in its grip.
I’m no great play boater, as they’re known, but I like to get kicked around a little when I get the chance.
I sit out the first round and watch the better boaters attempt to catch the wave on the way downstream. Zack, a 20-year-old paddling a blue boat not much bigger than four-feet long, catches “Little D” smoothly and turns several cartwheels before being spit out the other side.
While sitting in the gurgling eddy, the mighty Colorado races by over my right shoulder, making a violent, beautiful sound as it collides with rocks and sand.
Looking further across, the white, foamy mass of “Little D” doesn’t look kind. Oh well. I paddle hard to the top of the eddy, and then lean into the swift current. After several tough paddle strokes, I glance to the right to see if I’m in line to hit the wave. A second later, I drop into the clutches of “Little D,” my wide eyes looking straight into the face of the river, at its mercy. I ride the wild beast for several seconds before it tosses me out the other side.

After what seems like hours, the rafters begin to appear. Over the next several miles, the canyon becomes steep and narrow, creating several bursts of rapids. The largest and most notorious is named “Skull.” “Skull Rapid” consists primarily of a giant spiked rock in the middle of the river, which creates a massive, unforgiving hole. To complicate matters, the rapid is immediately followed by a wicked eddy line that separates the main current of the river from a pool of swirling water called the “Room of Doom.”
At certain water levels, some rafters have said the “Room of Doom” is often several feet lower in elevation than the rest of the river, a phenomenon that turns a normally innocent eddy line into a wall of water nearly impossible to break through. For kayakers, the “Room of Doom” is easier to navigate in and out of, but remains a force that few invite upon themselves.
I follow John through the first string of rapids. My boat feels comfortable and I can control it relatively well at this water level. However, I know well the Colorado is bigger, braver, prouder and ultimately more important than I will ever be. This knowledge is comforting. I have no reason to tame this river with another dam, divert its waters into a canal or pour pollutants into its belly. I’ll come and go and do as little harm as possible on the way.
The kayakers go first through “Skull.” There are two routes: directly through “Skull,” or to the left of it. I take the left, as does everyone else. But before I’m out of danger, I glance into the depths of the rapid. From river level, it appears as though a house would fit comfortably inside. I quickly move on without confrontation and join Uncle John in the eddy below to wait for the rafts.
The next rapid, I believe, is called “Last Chance.” As I enter the drop off, I paddle hard left, away from the violence, but get flipped inside the hole. I roll upright quickly and paddle away.

The final five or so miles of this trip are notoriously flat. Commercial rafts, eager to get another pack of tourists on the river before lunchtime, use motors.
Thankfully, we have no motor. I float for a while in my kayak as the four rafts are lashed together. Once the “party barge” is officially formed, I peel myself from the kayak and climb aboard.
Smiling faces welcome me like a soldier returning from battle. Beers are handed out. A pitcher full of Wild Turkey and Coke is passed around.
If a photo existed of the scene it would show a pack of sunburned heathens, thirsty for the final drops of river-running freedom.
I leave my helmet and lifejacket on. As an innocent pack of commercial rafts float by, filled with scowling faces, motors humming, an unseen, unnamed person pushes me into the water. Someone else does a cannon-ball off the stern. Others just lay on their backs beneath the shade of umbrellas, fighting the inevitable end of two days on the river. Not near enough.
I float on my back, peering into a wide-open sky, muffled around the edges by a lofty set of boiling thunderous clouds — a rare spectacle of freedom, which one can find anywhere, I suppose. I just find it on the river, where even I don’t need to know my last name.

1 comment:

DodgerScott said...

Good stuff Colby. Just got back from the Arkansas River. Funny how they name every rapid. Good times.