The Family That Flips Together …

Right before my son Jake flipped for the first time in his rowing life (Chittam Rapid/Mile 78/Main Salmon) on our annual dory reunion trip in July, I gave him the usual bit of fatherly, finger-pointing, hand-waving, ex-river-guide advice on how to make the run. Never are the traditional roles of father and son so clearly defined as when the latter is suffering a case of poisonous butterflies that threaten to erupt into projectile Technicolor vomiting. I know the feeling. He listened with unusual attention to my spiel there on the rocky shoreline. Chittam looked big and gnarly, but manageable. In hindsight, I underestimated its ferociousness. The crux move was a tight, stern-first left-to-right cut across the tongue of a fast-moving river through a sizable lateral wave and hopefully into the purgatory of slower, eddy-like water. (Anyone who has rowed Crystal Rapids in Grand Canyon is familiar with the difficulty of this maneuver). At high water, Chittam has been known to cause problems. Indeed, the Salmon was running so fast and high (18,000 cfs) that the Forest Service had issued a cautionary warning to private boaters on its webpage. Normally eight trips (four commercial, four private) launch from Corn Creek each day. When we put-in on Sunday July 10, the ramp was empty. Throughout the trip, we saw only one small private (briefly) and no commercial outfitters. We were amused, then elated. We had been waiting a decade for a permit. At the start of the high season, the Main Salmon was ours alone.

There were three things, however, I neglected to tell Jake before and after his flip: Firstly, 34 years earlier, I flipped for the first time in 5-Mile Rapid (Mile 34) on the same river. My post-flip response was uncannily similar to his. I remember the event the way a teenager remembers his or her first driving collision or near miss. As I plunged into the second hole at the bottom of the rapid (I did not even know was there), I was as divinely confident as I was thoroughly clueless. In fact, I had rowed right into the cavernous dent in the river like a happy Christian about to be baptized or fed martyr-like to the lions. The lumbering raft carrying mountains of gear and shit cans overturned so quickly and smoothly I thought I was in a dream. My second omission was that I nearly flipped in Chittam with my wife and daughter aboard the same afternoon Jake went for a swim, an annoying case of history nearly repeating itself. And lastly, and most importantly, I was both thrilled and relieved to not be in Jake’s boat (or rowing his boat) when he turned over. As I mentioned before, I have a history of flips.

Family Flip #1

One sunny afternoon in June 1985, I missed the celebrated dory “slot run” in Lava Falls in Grand Canyon by a boat width. (It was only the second and last time in more than 40 trips). Somehow, I located the equally famous, decidedly more mystical, “bubble line” above the rapid (to the right of the Famous Ledge) that was to feed me through the tumult past the dreaded Pour-Over, the dory-eating V-wave, the Black Rock and the Corner Pocket Eddy (that had recently caught and kept one dory, mangling it to pieces) to the Promised Land of A Lower Lava Beach Party. Roughly six feet of beam, however, made all the difference. We were doomed. Of the four passengers riding in the Ticaboo that afternoon, the most important person (to me) by far was Helen, my wife. We had married two months earlier and were on our honeymoon trip. It should be noted that my new bride, though she liked lakes, rivers and oceans, was not a born swimmer and didn’t particularly enjoy closed-in spaces or involuntarily putting her head underwater. Her notion of a wild river once included the mighty Thames. Being English, however, Helen was game, and trusting. Her husband, after all, was a Professional Guide. Missing the slot at an iffy water level, however, meant that a flip was a done deal, ordained by the gods. Forget hubris, confession, a sacrificial lamb. We were it. It was only a matter of how things will play out, for better or worse. Call it pilot error. So began my history of temporarily losing the women I love most overboard.

The consequences of my error are immediate, breathtaking, and from a boatman’s point of view, beautiful in the way all slow-motion transportation wrecks are. Time, of course, expands or contracts. I’m not sure which. The Ticaboo, my wooden boat, slides down the face of a large (OK, gigantic), steep wave bound for the center of the earth. I swear the 17-foot dory shrinks as it races like a downhill skier toward the dark storm trough where sound and fury rule. The bow of the boat digs into the green-black darkness. The sunlight disappears. The roar of the rapid enters, not through your ears, but through every pour of your epidermis. It is sensory overload of major league proportions.

Often dories (and rafts) flip by sliding sideways into a hole or wave in a rapid, one gunnel descending into the forbidden, point-of-no return current-dominated zone while the other gunnel reaches for blue sky. The boat then rolls and twists over. “Flip,” the river nomenclature for a boat that overturns, hardly conveys the dramatic motion of the boat or the sensation experienced by those about to go for a swim.

The Ticaboo on the Salmon.That afternoon, the Ticaboo seems to take forever to begin the long climb out of the gaping liquid hole and up the ridiculously large crashing wave. During the ascent, the dory stutters, slips back toward the trough, tries to climb out three or four or 20 times, and finally, without choice, begins surfing the wave, wallowing back and forth. Helen, who is riding in the stern and acting English, calmly asks if I know the back foot well is filling up with water. I turn to my English Rose to thank her for the valuable information. Indeed, the stern is full to the gunnels, hopelessly under water, buried by mad river water that no boatman should gaze at for too long. I don’t have the heart or time to tell my bride we are all going for a swim in the Colorado. In the next instant, she is gone, swept overboard (along with what’s-his-name, the other passenger). My tongue-tied panic enters another time zone, where the clock is set by eternity. I think I began climbing for the high side (where the two temporarily nameless passengers in front are holding on,), but I have not left my rower’s seat. It is the penultimate, Sisyphean gesture. The Ticaboo is vertical (see photo), the bow pointing to high noon when the boat comes crashing over. Hello Cold Darkness, my old friend. The unnerving, cart-wheeling motion is what deepwater sailors call pitch poling. Think of one of those Olympic high divers who perform back flips with somersaults. Makes you sick to your stomach to watch.

Fortunately, I act like a Professional River Guide. As we wash through the rapid, I pop up beside the overturned boat and climb atop the overturned dory. Immediately, I search for the future mother of children I have yet to imagine. She is hanging on to the lifeline on the upstream side of the boat. I grab her lifejacket and propel her upwards to safety, hero that I am. Then, and only then, do I hoist my three other passengers aboard. We right the boat and make the beach at Lower Lava.

All ended well. One passenger suffers a minor flesh wound on his cheek, a weekend warrior’s badge of courage he delighted in. Another has a bump on his head. In terms of the Lower Lava Celebration, a flip in Lava Falls is far better then no flip. It is re-creation, the festival of survivors who lived to tell the tale. They tell their story again and again to a giddy audience. Laughter fills the night air. The river narrative peaks. Helen doesn’t leave me and may have even thought better of me, though her grandmother can not fathom living in a tent and out of the back of a road-weary, 1965 Ford station wagon. She fashions me one of those WW2 G.I.’s — over-paid, over-sexed and over-here. And, although I know there was little real danger, even in a flip in Lava Falls, it is an episode I hope to never repeat again. I have learned my lesson.

Family Flip #2

Seventeen years later, in the summer of 2002, I am floating down the Lower Salmon in a borrowed wooden dory on another reunion trip with my six-year-old daughter, Gwen, perched on the bow and Jane, former manager of Martin Litton’s Grand Canyon Dories, in the stern seat. Jane has a cup of coffee in one hand and a day pack on her lap with the trip participants’ car keys, wallets, etc. She is fiddling with her Sacred Lists, without which the trip will disintegrate into chaos. Gwen is thrilled to be riding point, where the motion of the dory is more pronounced, the sky bluer, the water greener. She had asked me if it is safe and I have assured her that I will tell her when it is not, when she must sit down. She is pleased with herself, her flirtation with danger. (At 18 months, Gwen started running rivers in a portable crib in the foot well of my dory for a trip on the Green River). It is a warm, sunny, blue-sky morning with a slight breeze. The river is friendly, sparkling green, story-book-like. I have my hatches open for unknown reasons. I am in the middle of the merry procession — rafts, kayaks and dories dancing downriver ahead of me. We are bound for Whitehouse Bar, a large sandy beach camp. And being near noon, I have cracked a beer. As we were traveling to New Zealand in the fall, Helen had been unable to make the reunion trip. The children have fallen under my charge.

Downriver, plain as day, a string of toy boats bob up and down through Lorna’s Lulu, a longish, but inconsequential rapid. No one is making the slightest effort to maneuver or avoid the whitewater, which I vaguely recall as Class II, and so I drift, drift, drift without so much as an oar stroke. Gwen giggles when I tell her the name of the rapid. Lorna’s Lulu, Lorna’s Lulu! To call the stretch of river whitewater, however, seems a misnomer. And so three-quarters of the way through the rapid, I glide carefree and bow first into a un-Lava-like hole (I never saw from upriver) with nary a stroke of the oar, hatches open, mewling spawn on the bow, beer in hand. The dory stops, shudders and slides back into the trough. Our fate is sealed.

It is important to remember that wooden dories run 17-foot in length with roughly a six-foot beam. They weigh 400-450 pounds without passengers and gear. Minimum rocker, high bow, plenty of freeboard and a flat bottom make for a very stable craft. It is, then, simply amazing to sit helpless in a boat that size while it surfs a wave it cannot escape. Gwen is about to become an unwitting participant in a river story she still tells to this day, how her daddy flipped her in Lorna’s Lulu. She is, of course, a master of embellishment, a drama queen storyteller.

The last thing I remember before the dory twisted and turned over was the look on Gwen’s face, eyes wide and mouth agape, as she clung to the bow with one hand and reached for her dad with the other. “No worries, right Dad” coupled with “How can you do this to me?” The image frozen in my memory kills me to this day. It is locked in my hard drive, a nightmare reminder of what it is like to feel helpless as a father. (Gwen says the last thing she remembers was a look of panic on my face.)

Post flip mourning.When I surface on the downstream side of the dory, I shout for Gwen. No answer. I search around the boat as we drift downstream, then work my way toward the front of the boat and reach into the footwell. Nada. A thousand blurred images pile up on one another. It feels like minutes go by. In fact, it is seconds. By now, the fleet is circling the overturned dory. I hear a voice on the other side of the boat, but cannot identify it for certain. Though I know fatalities from flips are extremely rare, I am terrified. I reach under the gunnel into the stern footwell and feel an arm. I want the arm attached to my baby girl. I yank and out comes a sputtering, bewildered six-year-old. She looks at me for an eternity, then locks her arms under my neck and starts crying. How can I feel so happy and miserable at the same instant? For the second time, I have put one of the vital females in my family into the river.

With a crew of ex-river guides, the rescue and retrieval is effortlessly efficient. Gwen is handed off to Kenly, Lori and Terri for some mommy-like TLC and sugar pills. Stray gear is picked up by the kayakers, while the over-turned dory is herded toward shore by two rafts and turned over. The flip, of course, becomes dinner-time fodder, setting off a chronic retelling of other dory flips over the last three decades. Someone forces a shot of Black Bushmills on me. I relent. Gwen walks around Snow Hole Rapid, but gradually regains her bruised confidence. Once she susses out the fact that she has a hell of a story to tell (of which she is a main character), she regales her young cohorts with nightly retellings and lengthy explanations of what it like to be tossed out of the boat like a rocket and held under water for hours. Weren’t you scared? Oh, maybe a little. Near the confluence of the Salmon and Snake rivers, we hold a ceremony to commemorate The Flip. Rudi, the knot-guy, weaves an artful piece of twine work around a smooth river stone that will become a pendant and badge of honor and courage. Gwen keeps the talisman in her treasure box in her room to this day.

By the time we get back to the hotel in Lewiston, Idaho, I have schooled Gwen on how we will handle the delicate issue of telling her mother about the flip. I will tell Helen in my own way in my own time. Sure. Once on the phone, Gwen is brimming with the excitement of a secret untold. She cannot resist telling her mother that “Daddy flipped me in Lorna’s Lulu!” So begins a lengthy, detail-littered account of her near-death experience with her Daddy at the oars.

“Let me talk to your father … now,” replies Helen.

Family Flip #3

Needless to say, I was relieved to not be anywhere near Jake’s raft that afternoon. He has been rowing his own rig for five years, and like most novice rowers, suffers the occasional moment of hubris. I could safely retreat under the shade tarp of outside observer, omniscient narrator of another family flip. It is of tangential importance that I did not know Jake turned over until his mother coolly informed me from our downriver eddy, “Your son just flipped!” The latest generation of guides has an economical acronym for what it takes to successfully complete a difficult maneuver in a rapid: ATM (Angle, Timing and Momentum).

To shoreline observers, Jake had lost his PIN from the get-go. There is no slow water above Chittam Rapid at the water level we were running. Once you pull out from shore, you are on your way. There is no time to mentally prepare, to gather yourself, to maybe even correct position. In short, no forgiveness. Jake later voiced a sentiment that most first-time flippers would appreciate: Whatever the reason (or non-reason), he didn’t feel right above the rapid. A little voice whispered he was going to flip and the longer he listened, the louder the voice grew. Perhaps his desire to run in the first group rather than watch a run had something to do with his lapse of confidence. Perhaps following behind the Old Man had given him a sense of false confidence. Perhaps it was simply Jake’s time.

Resurrecting Jake's boat below Chittam.Jake misses the left-to-right cut, hits the diagonal, gets pushed back out into the wall-hugging churlish wave set sideways, and before he can straighten up his raft or know exactly what is happening, he is over. He surfaces under the raft, works his way out, but can’t just yet figure out where he is. In hindsight, like most first-timers, he admitted to being stunned, disoriented and yes, scared. Soon enough, he crawls atop the raft. Now what? I happened to be in the eddy below and am able to toss him a line and with the help of Eric, a 30-year Grand Canyon veteran guide, corral him to shore. Jake is grateful, but mostly humbled. Some ancient father-son drama has been played out on the river this afternoon. Jake has joined the club of those who have flipped and those who will flip. He has gone from apprentice to journeyman oarsman. I, fortunately, have avoided flipping another boat and sending another member of my family for a swim.

All is well until Helen later reminds me that our son had been following his Dad through Chittam Rapid.

Damn it.