High Water

They thought it was probably going to start dropping soon. The river was already higher than any flood since the gauges went in back in the ’20s, so the safe bet for forecasters was to say it had just about peaked. “Highest water ever recorded” would be a fair statement. How much water that was in actual volume would be hard to say. It was off the chart.

Floods like this are supposed to be a spike in the pattern. Once the level started down, it was expected to fall off dramatically, which would be good. The Green River wasn’t anything I recognized at this level. The camps were gone, the side hikes under water. The river was painfully cold and going so fast it was hard to get all the boats landed in one place. I’d had a sketchy time of it just pulling in to the notch in the tamarisk trees where my boat was tied up and the hissing current still had hold of it, bending it downstream against the branches, everything trembling and creaking. I was tied up to a sprinkler head, and by that I mean my boat was tied up there, as I sometimes don’t make a distinction. There was no other solid feature on the manicured lawn along the river bank adjacent our hotel. It was only a few steps to our rooms at the River Terrace, Green River, Utah’s most luxurious accommodations.

The River Terrace had room decors in three colors, Too Red, Too Green and Too Gold, with fuzzy wallpaper, gilded fixtures and the feel of a fin de siecle brothel. The good thing was you could make it cool and dark as a cave inside, even while the sun was turning the parking lot into a shimmering pool of asphalt. Most of the floor space was taken up by coolers full of food for the second half of the trip. A ragtag group of boatmen (gender neutral) were draped over everything, pounding 3.2 beer with little effect and waiting for someone to decide what the hell to do.

We’d already had these passengers for six days through Desolation Canyon. It was a charter trip, and they were all related. There were a couple of young kids, maybe 9 and 12, their parents and their grandmother, somebody’s sister and her whole family. One lady had only been out of the hospital for three weeks after major cancer surgery. Not your ideal adventure team. There must have 19 or 20 of them in five boats, expecting a mellow family trip. Not so. It was running 55,000 cubic feet per second, twice the highest level I’d ever seen and screamingly fast. We only needed to spend an hour on the water to make a day’s miles, but it was an anxious hour. The rapids were fine, homogenized into lengthy sets of huge standing waves, but the eddies, boils and whirlpools tossed the dories around like little pieces of bark, and the drift was truly frightening.

You’d be watching a 200-year-old cottonwood tree float by, 60 feet long, root ball as big a Lincoln, in full leaf, with birds’ nests full of twittering squab, and the sucker would just disappear. Gone. You’re sitting there in your gaily-painted eggshell thinking, “Where’s it coming up, for God’s sake?” Then, 90 seconds and 100 feet from where it went down, the whole crown would suddenly explode out of the water like the skeleton of Moby Dick, execute an agonized pirouette, crash down into the river and vanish. Lordy. There were railroad ties, telephone poles, the entirety of a single-lane wooden bridge, a 5,000-gallon cylindrical steel tank that chased us for miles and 700 dead cattle, bloated like bagpipes, all on their way to Lake Powell with everything the river could wrench loose. There was some discussion as to whether it would be wise to continue.

The second half of this trip included Labyrinth and Stillwater canyons on the Green River and Cataract Canyon below the confluence with the Colorado. It’s kind of an odd trip, in that there are 120 miles of serene flat water winding through spectacular scenery, then all hell breaks loose for a few miles, after which you find yourself in the silted wasteland of the upper Powell Reservoir. You can do most if it in an open canoe, but better not take the Grumman through Cataract — known as the “Graveyard of the Colorado” — which is a much different story.

I’m not sure how the decision was made or who made it. The chain of command was a bit murky, but it might have been me. It was probably me. We already had a two-boat trip that left a couple days ahead of us on predictions of dropping water. The leader of that trip was one Bego Gerhart, our best Cataract hand and no fool. Other trips were proceeding as usual. Cataract Canyon was five days downstream, and the thinking was, it would be manageable by then. The passengers were clueless and game. We all were. We loaded up and left.

It was easy to make the miles. There’s not much in the way of gradient for the first couple days, but that didn’t matter. Because of the intense flow, we were hauling ass. The problem was stopping. There was four feet of fast water over the root crowns of the tamarisk and the banks were a continuous thicket of palsied branches, talus and cliff. The river was backed up for a mile into Barrier Canyon, but we rowed to the end of it anyway, looking for a camp. It finally cliffed out in the brush and most of us slept on the boats. The mosquitoes were the only happy ones. We camped the next day on a 30-degree pitch, scattered in the boulders like bighorn sheep. We camped where no man had camped before. Whenever we could get all the boats stopped in one place, for lunch or just to take a breather, we would jam a stick in the mud at the river’s waterline as a gauge and ponder it like an oracle, brimming with portent.  It didn’t look so good. It was still coming up.

We burned five days getting to the confluence, but the water was gaining on us the whole way. It was a colorful convergence. The Colorado River really is red. The Green is really green. It takes them half a mile to mix. It was like pulling on to an on-ramp with the Pacific Ocean in the next lane. Some of your boatmen-types will pride themselves on their finesse with the river, their ability to read water so well as to be able to make the river do most of the work for them. OK, maybe I even am one of those people, but it was not happening here. Every stroke I took was as hard as I could pull and it often didn’t seem to make any difference at all. Suddenly, you’d find yourself on some huge hurtling tectonic plate of water that appeared under the boat and have about as much control over where you were going as if you were rowing say, Greenland. And this was the flatwater, three miles of which there is between the Confluence and Spanish Bottom, a short distance above the first rapid in Cataract.

We got to Spanish Bottom at the same time as the helicopter from Channel 2 News, a Salt Lake City station. They set down right next to the semi-permanent camp Canyonlands National Park personnel had set up to advise (read: warn) boaters about the high flow. Big motor rigs had been tipping over. People had drowned. No one had been through Cataract in three days and it was still coming up. Somebody on the helicopter handed me a note from Bego, leader of our trip two days downstream. The chopper had touched down at his camp above the Big Drops to make sure he was OK. The note said, “Do not go below Spanish Bottom. We are evacuating our trip. I flipped somewhere in the North Seas. Paul tipped over somewhere below there and had people in the water right to the top of Big Drop One. Do not go below Spanish Bottom.” Bego had finally tipped a boat over, which was about the only bright spot. He’d been doing this for 18 years and was starting to get a big head about his skill level.

I’m still digesting the import of the note when we hear an outboard engine fire up. There were a lot of people standing around, and the noise got everyone’s attention. It was a Moki Mac motor trip whose departure marked the first descent of Cataract in the previous 72 hours. “Pete said he was going to go today,” one of the rangers chimed while everyone was hustling to the bank to watch them leave. Their people were all wearing two life jackets.

We boatmen types were anxious to see the first rapid anyway, so we take off at a lope trying to catch a glimpse of the Moki boat going through, but it’s a half mile and hopeless. He’s gone. The rapid is a quarter mile long and has but two waves. Two tumultuous heaving Himalayan waves with whirling vortices of confused turbulence erupting on their surface and crests of foam and backlit amber water that built and broke from all directions and rolled down the looming face in rushing fronts the height of a man. It took your breath away. Our tallest Scandinavian boatman, Eric, rounded the last corner, raised his eyes to the spectacle, missed a step and twisted his ankle, big time. We cut him a crutch and went back to camp.

Our first few minutes at Spanish Bottom hadn’t been all positive. Downstream prospects were nil. Eric was a functional monopod. Another boatman, Greg, had climbed in with the news chopper and flown off. We were down by 30 percent in 20 minutes, worse than the carnage at the battle of Bull Run. I suppose I should mention that Greg wasn’t just one of the boatmen. He also owned the permit under which we were running the trip. We had leased the use of his start-up river outfitting company, but brought our own boats and staff and clientele. That’s where the murky part comes in. He was technically just another boatman, but it was technically also his trip, and he wasn’t looking forward to writing a lot of refund checks.

Eric’s ankle swelled up like a football and misery was at large. It was hot and buggy and dusty and humid and the river was a voracious grasping thing nobody wanted to go near, which is a weird thing when you’re a professional river guide with paying customers in tow. One commercial trip had been on the beach for three days and was out of food. Another trip’s lead boatman had refused to proceed because of the quality of the gear he had been sent out with. He had rolled up his “trash” pontoons and was waiting for new tubes to be delivered by jet boat from Moab. “You can’t point that many directions at once even when your boat does hold air,” he said. Later, when he unrolled the replacements to find they were in worse shape than the originals, he would hike out Red Lake Canyon and never be heard from again.

Back at their “Bug Camp,” the rangers’ radio crackled. It was the Park Service’s rescue boat stationed down below the rapids. “Moki motorboat capsized in Big Drop Two and went through Satan’s Gut upside-down. May have been entangled in timber. Boat came apart. At least one injury. Broken leg. Assisting with rescue.” It had been about 15 minutes since they’d left.

Next morning comes early. We’re thinking of trying to set up a jet boat shuttle to take our people back to Moab. “Hey, it was a bad call, OK?” one might explain. “Who coulda known? Drinks are on the house and please don’t sue. Better than drowning any one of you, eh?  Except maybe you, Martha. Just kidding.” That sort of thing. Might work. Except, who then floats around the corner on a Gypsy wagon of a big rubber boat than Greg and five other susceptible late-night patrons of the Poplar Place bar, whom he has primed to row some dories through the biggest whitewater in North America flowing at historic high levels? They had launched after midnight and floated down in the dark. Such is the power of decision-making in bar environments.

The suggestion was obvious and didn’t sit well. “I have brought some non-pussies to row these boats out through the scary water.” The boatman who had recently become my wife was ready to tear his throat out. People had died. There was no room on the beach for macho. The last boat to try it tipped over. It was 33 feet long and weighed five tons. We’ve been “practice” flipping the dories on the way down here by having everyone stand on one side. They tip right over. We weren’t taking those people into the Big Drops. No way.

Greg retreats, but not far. There’s a way to complete the trip, within reason and not kill us all, he maintains. We’ll get a helicopter. We’ll run the boats to the top of Mile Long rapid and chopper them to the lake from there. It’s not that far. Greg knows the guys at Rocky Mountain Helicopters. He does heli-skiing with them in the La Sals in the winter. He’ll set it up on the Park Service radio.

We’re all at cross purposes. The rangers have been told from on high that if a rowing trip decides to leave, they must accompany it in their spanky-new 20-foot Zodiac with twin 50s for back-up. They don’t want to. The boatmen aren’t frightened exactly, but they’ve seen the situation now and recognize the gravity. Still, there is a once-in-a-lifetime experience available here. Nobody had ever made bold to try Cataract at this level or even half this level in a dory before. How cool would that be (if we lived)? The passengers are still game. Lacking any alternative, they still believe us.

We decide to try it first thing in the morning. We’ll go down the river as far as Range Creek, where the big shit starts. We’ll run a few drops, give the folks a helicopter ride over the biggest damned rapids anyone has ever seen and drop them off at the top of the reservoir. Somehow or another we’ll get them home from there. Terrific plan. Thus begins the longest day.

We arise early, shovel down some pancakes, load the boats, rig flip lines, check and recheck spare oars, life lines, latches, everyone’s life jacket and shove off. We run a rapid, totally helpless. There’s two feet of vertical relief in the water at the eddy lines and the towering waves won’t stay in one place long enough to point at them. They rear up suddenly off the beam and slap the boat a dozen yards sideways, spinning it like a top and tilting from rail to rail. It’s not boating, it’s rodeo. Just trying to hang on for eight seconds, then eight more. Range Creek seems a long way, but we make it, and that is quite enough. We pull the boats up the beach clear into rocks, where they will be dry till the next Ice Age begins to melt off. Just like we’d planned it, a helicopter soon comes clattering around the corner, and sets down on the beach.

We had dampened a patch of sand for him to land on and had a guy out on the beach indicating wind direction. As it just so happened, we’d been doing a lot of stuff with helicopters around that time. The previous fall, we had airlifted a whole trip out of the Grand Canyon as an experiment in avoiding the three-day misery and 500-mile road trip of a Lake Mead take-out. We had woken up in the morning below Lava Falls and had breakfast on the rim at Toroweap Point, a mere 80 miles from the warehouse. It turned out to be too expensive to do regularly and the helicopters had a hard time getting the boats off the ground. Too much flat surface catching the downwash. “It’s like trying to lift yourself by your bootstraps,” the pilot had said.

The captain of this craft shuts the thing off and climbs out. His name is Doug and he’s a little wiry guy in cowboy boots and ranch wear whose first step is to stop and roll a cigarette. Greg thinks all the boatmen should take the first ride and go scout the whole canyon by air. Sounds prudent to me and I climb in shotgun. The ship, an Alouette Llama, looks pretty well used. There are rips in the seat, a big ding in the windshield, the glass in a couple of the gauges is shattered and missing in others. When he gets the thing fired up, it rattles and shakes so badly it doesn’t matter if you can see the gauges or not. The needles are bouncing from peg to peg like pinball flippers. It comes right off the ground though in a deafening racket and we’re quickly at the dogleg in the canyon where there’s a long straight section of nearly continuous rapids that ends in the Big Drops. From five miles away, you can instantly see the legendary reversal at the top of Big Drop 2, drawing in the unimaginable mass of the river like a white black hole. They call it Niagara.

Doug laid the ship over on its side as we did an abrupt U-turn directly above the great hole and I could stare directly down into the foaming maw with nothing but air between me and it. Doug had taken off the doors for a better view. When we set back down on the beach, I was certain that the Llama was the only proper craft for Cataract that day.

We begin to shuttle the people down to the beach at Ten Cent Rapid, the last one above the reservoir. Doug flies the people on a short detour round the field of spires and pinnacles known as the Doll’s House by way of accumulating actual vacationing points. We’re still having fun, right? Then he’s ready to take the gear and kitchen down to camp, only he doesn’t have a sling and it would take a dozen trips to haul it all in the cockpit. “Throw it all on one of those boats,” he says, “I’ll just tie on to that.” “Are you sure?” I ask him right out, “We haven’t had the best luck trying to fly these things.” He fixes me with a cool eye. “Throw it on,” he says.

We use my boat, the Tuolumne, as the flying cargo container. There’s the kitchen full of cast-iron cookware, stoves, food, tables; the toilet set-up goes in a hatch by itself. I cram personal baggage into every hold till the lids will barely close and there is still a mountain of baggage on the beach. I look up at Doug. He’s leaning on the bubble of his chopper, rolling a cigarette. “Throw it on,” he says. We pile the whole mound on the decks and run a rope through it, then make a sling out a couple of stern lines, the stoutest available rope. Last time we did this, we had several days and a nearby hardware store to puzzle it out. Even then, the first boat wouldn’t come off the ground till we had taken everything out but the oarlocks. I’m a little skeptical about the prospects this time and figure I’ll take my camera up behind a big rock away from flying debris to watch the attempted lift-off, in case there’s a dramatic photograph to be made. As if to raise the stakes, Doug says he would like us to push the boat out into the river before he lifts it so he won’t have to worry about sand in the machinery. I have visions of Doug and his helicopter trolling my boat through the biggest whitewater on the continent like a 17-foot fishing lure. That’d serve him right, the cocky bastard.

Doug puts fire to the Llama. A dozen of us tug the Tuolumne into the water and shove it out. I hightail it to my perch. Doug waits until the boat is fully in the current and picking up speed downstream before the copter rocks a little on the sand and bolts into the air. From my perch among the boulders, I expect to see the aircraft hit the end of its tether and be jerked from the sky like a broken kite. Instead, in an explosion of spray, the Tuolumne leaps into the air like a big red salmon and is instantly headed downstream at a hundred miles an hour, trailing the helicopter at a 45-degree angle. Downwash is not a factor if the load is never below you. “Try to learn something every day,” I tell myself.

Doug sets the boat on the beach like I’d just pulled in with the bow post bobbing in surge, hits release and heads for home. He’s almost out of gas. The rest of us will have to find our own way to camp. We’ve still got the snout rig, a formidable craft, 22 feet long, 36-inch tubes with a 20-horse Merc. It’s quicker to turn than the big rigs, and that’s what matters. Then there is our 17-foot Avon Spirit rowboat. They will both have to go to get us all there. Greg’s rescue party has doubled the size of the crew.

So we ran Cataract that day, which turned out to be the absolute peak day, and were the only ones that did. Franklin, our trainee baggage boatman, rowed the whole thing by himself and was the only one on earth to do that, too. We stopped above Niagara and stared down the step incline into the depths of a hole that could have digested an uninterrupted stream of three bedroom houses moving by at 20 miles an hour. There was a narrow slot of continuous current directly off the right bank, but, though smooth, the water sloped down into the chasm of Niagara at an impossible angle. It seemed as if it would surely draw you in.

It didn’t though. We survived, and it was good. The people even enjoyed their trip across the reservoir the next morning and didn’t mention lawyers once. Mission accomplished, sort of. We still had seven dories abandoned in Cataract Canyon, but I wasn’t interested in recovering them any time soon. Let the water drop for a couple of months. Let’s watch TV, play hearts or something.

Well, that wasn’t in the cards. There was unfinished business. The company needed the boats for other trips. The Park Service wanted them out, too. Six days later, we were back on the beach at Range Creek and the water was still Oh-God-Help-Me high. Sixty eight thousand was the official tally of cubic feet of water hurtling by every second. We had always figured that thirty five was the top because we’d had a trip go down at thirty three and their eyes were wide as saucers. We put two boatmen in each boat, everybody wearing two life jackets, and did a little silent beseeching just in case. I was genuinely gripped.

I don’t remember much about the trip down to the Drops. Mike Tagett, my partner that day, did a lot jumping around to the high side and we were slapped repeatedly by breaking waves that made a crack like the bow had been stove in. I was rowing a beautiful little MacKenzie dory that was set up for my wife, who is 5’3”. I couldn’t get my feet under the braces and was rolling around the deck like a bottle in the bilge water. We got down to Number 1 and made it across the rocketing current sheer into the eddy on the left that was filled with logs and all manner of spinning drift. A rapid going upstream in the eddy had standing waves a couple of feet high.

The river was still gnawing at its banks and the trip to the scout rock was through large loose angular rubble. The river looked the Brooks Range had been liquefied and poured into the canyon. Mike was next to me shouting in my ear, but I couldn’t hear him. The ground was vibrating and spray from minor waves pelted our faces from 50 feet away. I was trying not to look at Niagara and concentrate on my run. Everybody else thought the right slot was still open, but it was narrower still and steeper yet and I thought the boats would surely fall off the sloping ledge of water and be vaporized. I was going left. I had made up my mind.

The left was a stupendous V wave. The left side of the wave was a huge crashing lateral that was flipping the motor rigs. The same thing had happened to all of them. They would come in powering right in hopes of blowing through the right side of the wave and tucking in below the Hole. It was going so fast and it was so hard to get the scale that they all ended up with the whole boat in the monstrous left lateral, which was curtains. Guaranteed. If you didn’t get right, whatever the reason, you were going through the quarter-mile of continuous gnarl known as Satan’s Gut. The other side of the wave was a piedmont of water that rose to a peak near vertical. It had dual nature. One was a stationary tsunami of beckoning glass and the other, when the top had built beyond the vertical, was a towering mass of tumbling foam and solid water that broke upstream and rolled down the face like a liquid storm front. It would swallow a dory like a pea. The cycle took about 15 seconds.

Getting out of the eddy was a chore by itself and, when we passed the first little marker wave, I was truly shaken. The marker was huge. I began to push the boat forward like I had never pushed before. Everything was gigantic. We were moles on a heaving continent of brown water. The wave rose up before us and over the bow I could see nothing but sky. We were flying.

The wave broke right under the oarlocks. I could hear it rolling down the face behind us. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever done in a boat and it was sheer dumb luck.

Tim Cooper wrote his first story for Mountain Gazette #76 (?) when he was 24.  He’s more than twice that age now and hasn’t learned a goddamned thing. He’s still in Dolores, CO.