Water on the Brain

We drink them, play in them, and solve the world’s problems on their banks. We also tourniquet them with dams, foul them beyond recognition and then engage in legal wars over their contents and how we can return to a time when we drank them just a little bit, played in them gently and had far fewer problems to solve, sitting on the banks.

1) Coming up short
For some years, Oregon had proudly proclaimed its 440-foot D River in Lincoln City as the shortest river in the world, earning a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. Not to be outdone, the 200-foot Roe River in Montana took over the record in 1989, largely due to finesse in measuring by some elementary school students — one of whom appeared on The Tonight Show with NFL player and Great Falls native Dallas Neil. The D River supporters claimed that the kids had capitalized on Neil and a drainage ditch, and, understandably pissed off, the people of Lincoln City took another measurement, and somehow whittled the D down to a compact 120 feet, marked at “extreme high tide.” Perhaps due to the fact that this was more of a Complete Bullshit competition than of river length, Guinness first offered a dual title to the towns, then abandoned the Shortest River category in 2006.

2) Victory, one dam at a time
It’s not easy to dredge up great news out of economic downturn or the state of the West’s rivers, but it appears that cash-strapped bureaucrats are to thank, at least somewhat, for the disappearance of a few outmoded dams. The Powerdale hydroelectric dam on Oregon’s Hood River was taken out last fall after the powers-that-be decided it was the cheapest option in dealing with the 1923 facility. The tear-down improved several miles of salmon passage and 465 acres associated with the project have been transferred to the Columbia Land Trust. The Gold Ray Dam on the Rogue River disappeared last fall as well, improving access to 333 miles of spawning habitat, including 1.5 miles that had been inundated by the dam’s reservoir. In 2010, the American Rivers group and 25 other parties signed an agreement with utility company PacifiCorp to take down four dams on California’s Klamath River in 2020. All told, 450 American dams have been removed since 1999.

3) Oh crap! It’s La Llorona
If you’ve grown up in the Southwest, chances are you’ve had a seriously twisted babysitter or desperate parent who has threatened to hand you over to La Llorona if you didn’t change things up (and I will attest that this has worked well with my own son). The legend varies from place to place and follows Hispanic culture, but this suffices: Woman sees husband with another woman and gets pissed off, so naturally she throws her own children in the river, only to regret this mightily and carry on her mournful wailing well past her own death. These days she is said to be in the business of dragging children into rivers if they stay out too late, smoke their parents’ marijuana or otherwise fall into bad graces. In Santa Fe, people have encountered La Llorona’s spirit repeatedly in the PERA (Public Employees Retirement Association) Building, which is built on an old graveyard (as always) not far from the Santa Fe River. There are creepy reports of cries in the hallways and unseen hands pushing people on the stairs.

4) Violated
Between its history of uranium mining and the oft-maligned prairie dog shoot that is no more, at least officially, the little town of Nucla, Colo., has had more than its share of PR standoffs. The Nucla Station coal-fired power plant doesn’t help that image much, nor does it bode well for the nearby Dolores River, scoring 45 Clean Water Act violations as of 2009 — more than any other plant in the West (well, many plants had a convenient “no information available” on their reports). So said the New York Times in its “Toxic Waters” series, which pegged Reliant Energy’s facility in New Florence, Penn., as the worst offender, with 523 violations and apparently zero fines — the norm for water offenses.

5) A list to avoid
The Upper Colorado River came in at No. 6 for the 2010 American Rivers Most Endangered list, largely due to a) the river being tapped out from too many diversions over the years and b) new threats from two proposed diversion projects — the Windy Gap Firming project and Moffat Tunnel Collection System. The list isn’t so much a rundown of the most-polluted or otherwise messed-up rivers, but rather those that are facing major socio-political obstacles in the coming year. River watchers say that if the diversions go as proposed, the Upper Colorado is screwed. If the projects use appropriate river protections, they could herald an era of water supply planning that incorporates water development with, oddly enough, the needs of the river. Elsewhere in the West, Oregon’s Chetco River came in at No. 7 because of a strip-mining proposal; the Teton River in Idaho scored at No. 8 due to threats of the Teton Dam being rebuilt; and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California came in at a whopping second place because of lousy water and flood management. No. 1? That would be the Upper Delaware in Pennsylvania, which is battling chemical-intensive natural gas extraction plans.

6) Pig effluent and fish kills
The largest North American river fish kill took place on the Neuse River in New Bern, N.C., where roughly a billion fish — many of them sporting open sores — washed up in fewer than five days in 1991. Some fishermen suffered memory loss from the toxin found in the river, which was later attributed to the enormous hog industry in the area. “When you store 20 million gallons of raw animal waste in a holding ground and let it cook in the hot summer sun of North Carolina and you don’t expect there to be consequences,” an observer offered, “you’d have to be crazy to believe that.” Back in the West, which doesn’t offer so much in the way of hog-farming-effluent one-upsmanship, the Klamath River suffered a hellish salmon kill in 2002, where more than 65,000 salmon died. Experts blame the event on irrigation and low river levels, and described a lost generation of fish because of the salmon that died before they spawned.

Tara Flanagan splits her time between Breckenridge and Boulder, where she works as an equine massage therapist.

Way of the Mountain #178

Besides the dazzling performance of Sandra Cisneros, the highlight for me at San Miguel de Allende’s Sixth Annual International Writers Conferenced this past February was the Carnitas Fest at Simple Choice Farm on the road to Jalpa and the Talking Gourds Fire Circle, co-led with poet/teacher Judyth Hill of “Wage Peace” fame — shadows of cacti and bougainvillea tinkling like wind chimes in the full moonlight.

I was surprised and deeply honored to be named Poet Laureate for Colorado’s Western Slope at the first (very successful) Karen Chamberlain Poetry Festival in Carbondale this past March. Karen was the former editor of MG’s poetry page and a fine writer and poet with many posthumous works still to surface. The Norwood Post published the best account of that event in their March 30 issue.
Art Goodtimes

Delivery to Lakota (an excerpt)

…There’s a right way
to put fire
and water together.

The lava rocks …
They bring the men back
to their senses
back to the table.

I was a delivery boy from Colorado.
We’ve got volcanoes
we don’t even know how to use.
— Stewart Warren, Albuquerque

Winter Cracked Open

Winter cracked open;
there lay spring,
soft colored thing.
Take me, she said,
swallow me whole.

And summer did.

Summer burst open,
there was autumn,
audacious thing.
Watch me, she said.
Just watch me fall.

And winter did.
— Wendy Videlock, Poetry mag regular, Grand Junction, CO

Walking Like Water

At the high end of the arroyo
you abandon your feet to gravity
you avoid straight lines
you are drawn to the outside of the curve
you inspect all cutbank holes
you waltz below boulders humming softly
your feet etch lines in the sand but
you never look back

in town others will talk as
you follow the grade into traffic
your curves confuse other pedestrians
you look for burrows where there are none
you walk in circles below trash cans
and even when you drag your feet
the ground will not receive
your passing
— Peter Anderson, MG Poetry Editor Emeritus, Crestone, CO

Lone Swimmer, Lake Powell

And what should I make
of you, your light

cast on the world just outside
of the world, the island

just around the corner.
Your breaths pull tides, your eyes

half open. White cap, black suit,
body pushing through night,

I would give over completely
to understand

the flooded world
settling below your wake.
— Cameron Scott, Poetry Editor of “Rise Forms”, Basalt, CO

According to the Yuma

It is the deer
who draw the light
into their bodies
each day.

What is left
men call
— Steve Sanfield, “The Rain Begins Below” (Larkspur Press, Kentucky, 2005)

The Conflicted Angler

I could stand here and fish until dark, I think. Or load a backpack and walk upstream, and keep fishing until I am an old man.

Thoughts like these come to mind easily in late June up on the Idaho panhandle, when swallows are feeding on mayflies and you are standing on the north bank of the Lochsa River, where it pours out of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. You watch the sparkling water heading for the Pacific Ocean and imagine what swims behind the boulders, in the shade of those 500-year-old cedars.

You stand and stare at the wide river splashing over rocks and consider, for the first time in a decade, buying a fishing license. You remember catching fish.

The trout of my Eastern childhood, small native brookies and even smaller hatchery browns, wouldn’t look like much on a stringer today. But back then they were huge — potent gifts from the universe, the nearest things I knew to divinity.

I fished every day of my tenth summer. Dragging baited hooks through water was all that mattered. I fished the little trout streams of my home town with the stoned concentration of a slot gambler. Every cast was a fresh bet.

I wanted one fish, then another. I wanted the biggest fish. It was in there somewhere, under the water’s blank sheen. Never once did I question this insatiable desire. It was just what I did. Looking back though, a few motives stand out.

There was the boyish romance associated with “living off the land” (a good impulse, by the way). Carrying home three or four pan-sized trout on a forked willow branch, I became Jim Bridger for an afternoon, and what ten-year-old doesn’t like that?

Another good reason to fish was to immerse myself in the semi-wild world beyond the edge of my little town. If the fish weren’t biting, there was always something — prickly thickets full of blackberries, chrome green dragonflies mating, a box turtle laying eggs — to capture my attention.

And there was freedom — total, delicious freedom. Walking up a river, any river, I escaped the grid of expectations that was family life. No one knew exactly where I was or what I was doing (a condition I still enjoy).

My fishing was also driven, I suspect, by the troubling hungers every pubescent boy knows and suffers and celebrates; I probably killed trout for emotional release. The act of killing can be pleasurable (think of the house cat with its mouse), relaxing and even cathartic.

Of course fishing also expressed my species’ evolutionary heritage. Just like the dogs and cats and bears of the world, we humans have evolved as efficient, sometimes gleeful predators.

But our talents for abstract reasoning and conceptual thought complicate this arrangement, and make us unique in the animal kingdom. The suffering of other critters bothers us. We have invented ethics.

This problematic empathy wasn’t so pressing in 1966 as it is today. But even then I knew, dimly, that to capture and kill a fish is to deprive it of an essential right. The act tears at the fabric of something delicate and priceless, and should not be taken lightly.

The trout of my boyhood, darting for cover under the banks of Mad River and Fish Creek could not be improved upon. Their mottled olive skin and cobalt-ringed dots were treasure, coins of delight. I could haul in a writhing fish and briefly feel a magical connection to its nearby but utterly foreign world.

In that same shining moment, however, I also felt something break. The fish was burning alive in the summer air, and I knew it. The colors faded quickly. The body stiffened. A thin slime of guilt clung to my hands. Still I dragged the creek with my treble hook, wanting more. More.

Today I cannot ignore the knowledge that the hooked fish burns alive because of human desire, and for human pleasure.

I have no quarrel with the killing and eating of animals, if it’s done with respect, compassion and skill. I’m an enthusiastic carnivore. But I don’t have much heart for the killing myself. Not these days.

Still, the predator gene lives on. Watching the river slide by as evening falls, I find myself wanting to fish. But don’t suggest catch-and-release. The traumatizing and sometimes killing of fish merely for amusement seems like pure, cruel self-indulgence.

Catch-kill-and-eat seems far worthier. But neither sort of fishing feels right for me these days. For now, standing on the banks of the Lochsa, I know I’ve had enough.

Michael Wolcott once spent a week electro-shocking trout in the upper drainages of the Snake River, a job that posed difficult ethical questions but offered excellent menu options. He writes from the Colorado Plateau and the northern Rockies.

Mountain Scrapbook – #178

MG accepts submissions for our monthly Mountain Scrapbook department. All mountain-related photos are welcome, the funnier, the better. Send submissions to keith@mountaingazette.com.

Each month, we pick a winning photo, and the winner receives a year subscription to the Mountain Gazette, along with a Gazette bumpersticker.

Craft in Cans Float the Boat

Steve ‘Duder’ Kammerer, general manager at Steamworks Brewing Co., performs a difficult balancing act with cans of the Third Eye Pale Ale, Colorado Kolsch and Steam Engine Lager. Photo by Erich Hennig

Float-trip season is on, and for those of us lucky enough to have won a permit lottery, the arduous planning process has already begun. If, like me, you find that floating down some remote canyon on a 100-plus-degree day in Utah necessitates the life-saving presence of copious cans of ice-cold beverages, then you understand the complex nature of determining the correct quantity to pack. Failure to crack this nut results in the number of beers available on the raft being equal to the amount that you want to drink, minus one. This is completely unacceptable, and avoidance of this tragedy is a sound gauge of the relative experience level of the trip planner or river guide. Likewise, should you have the misfortune to witness glass bottles being loaded onto watercraft en masse, run like hell, as this is a sure sign that whomever is in charge has no fucking clue what they are doing. Glass on the river is about as cool as the presence of Cesium 137 in coastal Japanese waters.

My first experience of craft beer in a canned package happened in 2003 at a backyard BBQ in Boulder. Fishing through an icy cooler in the dark, I grabbed one of the remaining cans from the water, cracked it, and took a gulp. Expecting the piss-thin flavor of Milwaukee’s finest, I was completely shocked as a floral explosion of hop aroma and bitterness consumed my senses. Swallowing hard, I tipped the can and chugged the rest of the magic elixir, convinced I had found some rare and holy artifact. Clutching the empty, I staggered towards the lights from the house to ascertain the brand, in hopes that it was locally produced and that I would be able to find more in the morning. About that time, the hostess, known to some as “Evil Annie,” appeared with a huge funnel and hose contraption and a gallon of some railroad gin, which I believe consisted of cheap tequila mixed with Rufinol and turpentine. Regardless, waking up the next day, red-eyed and blurry, four words stood on the barren plain of my blasted brain like distant monuments on the desert horizon — Oskar Blues, Lyons, Colorado.

Since 2002, Oskar Blues has been packaging their brews in cans for the portability cans offer in outdoor recreation, and for the protection that the fully sealed and light-blocking package affords the beer inside. They currently offer five styles year-round in their 26-state distribution footprint, led by their flagship Dale’s Pale Ale. Oskar’s would like to invite all kayakers to the Lyons Outdoor Games to be held June 10-11, 2011, on the mighty St. Vrain River in downtown Lyons.

A long-time supporter of wild and scenic rivers, New Belgium Brewing Co. in Ft. Collins, CO, proudly supports conservation and preservation efforts on four western rivers through their Skinny Dip campaign, and recently via a $300,000 grant to SaveTheColorado.org, an effort to preserve the Colorado River flow. 2011 will be the third year that the brewery has released its flagship Fat Tire Amber Ale in 12-packs of cans, an effort that was pioneered with the help of Oskar’s in Lyons. Additionally, canned versions of Mothership Wit and Ranger IPA are available in Colorado and select Pacific Northwest markets.

Up in the Summit, Pug Ryan’s brewpub has entered the canning revolution, offering up their Pali Pilsner (named after a run at A-Basin), and the needs-no-explanation-for-the-name Morning Wood Wheat. Pug Ryan’s and the Dillon Business Association would like to invite you to the first-ever “Summit of Bluegrass and Brews” to be held at the beautiful Dillon Amphitheater on the June 24-25. Twenty-four breweries from across the Colorado will convene for two days of bluegrass music and craft beer on the shores of Dillon Reservoir.

For those of you lucky enough to be running the Smith in Montana or one of the arms of the Salmon through Idaho this summer, keep your eyes out for the multitude of canned craft brews proudly brewed under the Big Sky. Kettle House Brewing Co., of Missoula, MT, has recently expanded to 10,000bbl of annual production capacity, supporting their distribution in western Montana. Look for their Eddy Out Pale Ale, Double Haul IPA, and Cold Smoke Scotch Ale in the 16-ounce ”pounder” package. Missoula is also home to Big Sky Brewing Co., whose Trout Slayer Ale, and oft-imitated but never-equaled Moose Drool Brown Ale, are widely available in cans throughout the West.

If a lighter brew is your preference to beat the summer heat, Great Northern Brewing Co. of Whitefish, MT, markets canned sixers of its flagship Black Star Golden Lager in six states (MT, WA, OR, CA, AZ, NV), with Colorado to be added later this summer.

Got beer related-event news that should be included in the MG? Drop me a line: beer@mountaingazette.com


Erich Hennig, an avid home brewer, is the Four Corners columnist for the Rocky Mountain Brewing News. He lives in Durango, Colo.

River Family

June 25, 2005
Cache Bar, Middle Fork of the Salmon River take-out, Idaho

Her eyes follow me as I row toward the boat ramp, and a ghost-like feeling from years ago creeps up my spine, icy and tentacle-like. It’s like when Billy died. No, it’s not that bad. Can’t be. I couldn’t take it if it were.

The girl sits atop a granite boulder onshore. She’s small, blonde and pretty, maybe nine or ten. She’s wearing a floppy sun hat that would make her unbearably cute except for that scary, children-of-the-corn look on her face. Must be with the private rafters de-rigging on the ramp. I meet her gaze and force a grin, and she snaps back with a start, as if waking from a bad dream. Her mouth turns upward at the corners in a mechanical smile, but the sadness never really leaves her big, blue eyes.

All the privates and the other commercial guides are looking at us like that, watching as we slowly break down the trip. A trip that was great until the final minutes. You know they all care, they mean well, but you just wish they’d stop staring at you like you’re the fucking Elephant Man.

The ramp is the usual cluster, minus the normal sense of happy, organizational bustle. Instead, the place is like a losing football team’s locker room. The ambulance is gone and the bus took most of the guests back into town for showers, a change of clothes and phone calls to loved ones, during which they’ll process their grief, saying you wouldn’t believe what just happened, we watched it all go down, it was horrible. But we, the boatmen, have to de-rig the rafts and load the trailer, dump the groovers and trash, and get back to Salmon ourselves. The work keeps us busy, which is good, but all we really want to do is sit down under a tree, hang our heads, and sob. Management sent two off-duty guides to help us, and thank goodness for that. Without their help, we’d be here until dark doing what should be a one-hour job.

By the time we finish loading, the seven of us are among the last people on the ramp. Frank, a grey-haired, old-school Grand Canyon and Middle Fork guide, greasy cowboy hat and all, reaches into a cooler on the back of the trailer and extracts a mostly empty bottle of Captain Morgan. “Bad luck to bring back un-drunk liquor,” he says, taking a pull. He removes his hat, revealing a bald, sweaty pate, wiping his forehead on his sleeve. Bottle held limply at his side, he wags his head, an empty gaze directed at his feet. “Goddamn,” he mumbles, “I’ve had a smoke and a shot of rum and I still can’t get the fuckin’ taste out of my mouth.”

I cringe at this because I taste it, too. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, or the taste of my own blood from cut and bruised lips, or the stale air I inhaled while helping Frank try to breathe life into a man, a husband, a father of two lovely daughters. But it’s definitely there: sickly and stale, nauseating. The taste of loss. Something I really don’t need. Not now. Not ever.

June 20, 2005
Boundary Creek, Middle Fork put-in, Idaho

Boundary, like most popular river put-ins, is a place where you seemingly always run into old friends and acquaintances, at least you do if you’ve been in the river-running culture for a couple of decades.

The night before our first launch of the season, I caught up with Jane, a long-time friend from South Africa, and a fellow guide. She was working in Idaho for the summer, taking a break from her other rafting job on the White Nile in Uganda. We spent the evening talking about our lost loved ones (her dad had just passed away), lost loves (I’d just lost my girlfriend) and the inevitable discussion about why we, two supposedly intelligent people entering middle age, were still guiding — and still single. Was it a calling? An excuse to avoid real life? The only thing we knew how to do? Ten years of talking about it and neither of us was any closer to an answer.

But the river heals all. At least that’s the cliché I’d like to believe. Most of the time, it works, anyway. I’d just come off a Grand Canyon trip where I had 18 days to process the recent heartbreak. But when your partner dumps you by email (while you’re off skiing in Switzerland), then promptly moves out, gets engaged to a much younger guy and announces she’ll never see you again — all within five weeks — well, even running Lava Falls and watching two billion years of geology drift by can only do so much. It was better than self-medication through drinking at least. Though I’d done a lot of that lately, too. Unlike the river, booze generally doesn’t help. But sometimes a little self-destruction is all you can manage.

Rigging paddleboats on put-in morning, I ran into some folks from back home in eastern Idaho, launching their own float trip. They asked about my winter and I told them about the ski trip, the break-up, the Canyon. They then decided to fill me in on my ex’s activities during my time abroad — like seductively hanging on every guy in the bar at the local ski hill. So much for Grand Canyon therapy. Where’s a fucking gin-and-tonic when you need one?

My new round of self-pity was cut short when a school bus rolled in, spewing forth our guests for the week. They were a pretty typical group: an abundance of married folks in their fifties and sixties, a handful of kids and exactly one blonde 19-year-old girl, whom the all-male crew had anticipated, having spotted her “stats” on the trip roster. We do that, you know, scan the guest list for females of desirable age, height and weight. Yeah, we’re pigs. Not that our lechery gets us very far. Nowadays, they’re all old and married, or almost a kid, like this one.

We promptly put our folks to work, forming a fire line to load gear onto the boats. I positioned myself between the rafts and a string of guests headed up by a pudgy, middle-aged guy who seemed none too steady on his feet. Nothing unusual there, as our guests tend to be that cross section of America who work behind computers and get most of their exercise dodging salads. Wow, I thought, this guy’s getting winded just standing there, even before he starts trying to huck fifty-pound dry bags around. Must watch him this week. But then he boarded one of the oar boats, I captained a paddleboat the first day, and with 23 guests to get acquainted with, I almost forgot about him.

His name, it turns out, was Steve. By the end of the trip, I’d never forget him.

Steve’s daughters did get in my boat that first day. Jean, the 19-year-old, was a cute, smart, articulate college student. Physics major, no less. It turns out that her not-so-steady dad was a 51-year-old nuclear scientist at Los Alamos. “But the real brain is Teri,” Jean said on the boat that afternoon, nodding at her sister, a freckle-faced brunette with the self-conscious smile of a 15-year-old stuck with braces. “She’s the math whiz,” Jean said. Given that dad was Doctor Science and Jean obviously no slouch, I safely assumed teen-aged Teri could out-calculate my dirt-bag, raft-guide ass in her sleep.

The first day, we pulled some miles, getting into camp late. After slaving over a hot grill, carefully preparing “Burnt, Raw Chicken in The Dark” (as the crew was fond of calling it), I pulled up a camp chair on the beach to read “The Kite Runner,” a popular tear-jerker set in war-torn Afghanistan. Teri and Jean sat nearby to read as well. It turned out Teri was also reading “The Kite Runner,” while Jean enjoyed D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers.” Over the course of the six-day trip, we had something of an informal book club going, spurring some nice conversations in between the guides’ mandatory beer-drinking sessions.

I noticed that Steve, his wife Mary, and their daughters were unusually close-knit. Nineteen-year-olds simply don’t camp right next to their parents and little sister on these trips, but Jean did. They slept side-by-side under the stars when the weather was good, and in adjacent tents when it wasn’t. Also on the trip were three close family friends, including a fun, personable couple heavily into bird watching and a guy named Arnie, a perpetually cheery fellow always ready with a kind word and a hearty laugh. They were low-maintenance folks, thoroughly enjoying the river, the scenery and each other’s company, despite persistently rainy weather.

It wasn’t until the fifth day that I had occasion to chat with Steve, and then it was an unsettling conversation. I stood with coffee mug in hand, waiting in line behind Jean to use the groover — our portable toilet — at Survey Camp. We were chatting amiably when I noticed Steve struggling across rocky terrain twenty yards away. His head was listing to one side, as he stood with a helpless look on his face, afraid to move. He weakly called Jean’s name and she ran to him, her cheery morning mood instantly turning serious. I started to help, but thought better of it, not wanting to embarrass Steve. Jean helped him across the rocks to where I was standing and leaned him up against a ponderosa pine. She left to use the facilities, leaving me with her dad, who manually supported his own head as he leaned on the tree. Steve, sensing the awkwardness of the moment, explained he had a muscle control issue that would be okay after taking medication. “The wheels came off about three years ago,” he said, between clipped, shallow breaths. He described how he’d endured three lung cancer surgeries, lost part of his lungs and diaphragm. “It sucks,” he summarized, staring at the ground. Arnie later told me Steve was a fairly serious road cyclist before he got sick. He had become shadow of his former self, in the physical sense at least. I listened sympathetically, not knowing how to offer support, my thoughts drifting back to the painful memories of my own family crises: my mother’s lost battle with cancer, my father’s excruciating, prolonged death from AIDS. I offered to take him on my oar boat for the day, the only gift I could think of under the circumstances. He said that would be nice, looked me in the eyes and smiled. “I’m so glad the girls are having a great time on this trip. Thanks.”

After Jean returned and helped her father back to their campsite, I approached our trip leader, Neal, and Brandon, another senior guide for the company. I described the encounter and discussed Steve’s condition. They had recently heard the story from Steve as well, and seemed appropriately concerned. Shockingly, Neal said we had not received any medical info on Steve prior to the trip, which left me wondering if that was the result of a bureaucratic snafu or a deliberate omission by Steve and his wife to insure his participation on the trip.

As I finished rigging my boat that morning, Steve walked steadily down to the shore with the other guests, looking okay. He said he would be riding in Neal’s oar boat for the day, as he had a rigged a backrest for him. No worries, I told him, glad to be free of the responsibility.

The sun emerged in all its glory as we floated into Impassable Canyon, always my favorite part of the trip. The river flows deep and green between towering walls of granite and the rapids gather energy, the Middle Fork swelling with each new tributary. A couple of our inflatable kayakers spilled and swam in the bigger water, but nothing serious. The melancholy of my recent heartbreak wouldn’t quite let me go, but at least I could feel the Middle Fork working a little river magic. I come back year after year for that dose of positive juju: the surging power of moving water, the refraction of sunlight in its depths, the subtle excitement of an upstream breeze blowing spray across the cresting waves. I also see that magic in the people around me. That’s what guiding is, I suppose — constantly reliving and rediscovering the wonder of rivers, through others and in your own heart, every time you’re out there.

On the final day of the trip, we ran the last of the major drops on the Middle Fork. The inflatable kayakers eventually gave up and boarded the rafts, tired and chilly in the morning shadows of the deep canyon. As we reached the confluence with the Main Salmon, our flotilla of seven boats had only one remaining rapid to run: Cramer Creek. It was also the biggest and most unpredictable drop of the trip.

Forest fires during previous seasons had stripped much of the surrounding high country of its forest cover. Over the following years, powerful thunderstorms caused numerous creeks to flash flood, emptying massive volumes of boulders, sediment and trees into the canyon. In some areas, the entire river was temporarily dammed, drowning major rapids beneath temporary lakes. As the relentless river carved away this alluvial debris, new rapids formed, the biggest of which was Cramer, sometimes called “De-rig” rapid, located on the Main Salmon just above Cache Bar, the take-out. Like any young rapid, Cramer was rapidly evolving, as water levels changed and high water tumbled unstable boulders in the channel.

Guiding a paddleboat, I followed two oar boats across the flat water above the big drop. I was a bit anxious, as my crew included Jean, Teri and some younger kids. It wasn’t the strongest crew, but at least they were healthy and enthusiastic. I thought Steve and his wife Mary had chosen wisely by riding in Neal’s oar boat, a decidedly more stable platform. Neal was out in front, leading our little flotilla toward the rapid and take-out, about a mile away.

As the thunder of Cramer became audible, a horizon line appeared before us, the pulsing turbulence of the rapid’s gut occasionally leaping into view beyond it. I steered my raft toward the right bank for the scout. I had not seen Cramer since the previous July, and was wondering if high water had changed it once again. But Neal wasn’t pulling over. I thought that unusual, but he and most of the crew had been down the week before, so I guessed he felt okay to read-and-run. Reluctantly I followed, rather than foul the boat spacing and get left behind.

Neal disappeared over the drop. An oar and one side of his raft briefly popped into view a moment later. Christ, he took a hit. I didn’t notice much about the next boat’s line, as I focused on aligning myself right of center, the entry I remembered from the previous summer. As the drop came into view, I saw that our position and trajectory was less than ideal. Below me was a startlingly huge, river-wide wave: crashing foam on the right and left, a towering and intermittently breaking green curler in between. I was already moving toward the center, the meat of the wave. Right or wrong, I made a split-second decision to continue that path. Turning would slow me down, and even if we crashed and burned down there it was a clean swim, in deep water, with no sticky holes that I could see. Time to go big. We came in with as much speed as we could muster, the green wall rising above us, surging at the worst possible moment, breaking over our heads. The boat crashed to a halt and spun sideways. I sensed that familiar rising, listing feeling that usually precedes a flip. Teri tumbled into the foam and I grabbed a boy next to me as he nearly followed. I moved to the high side, thinking we were going over, bodies struggling to hang on. But the raft came down upright. We recovered Teri, who was still close to the boat, scrambled back into position and commenced to celebrate our sketchy but successful run, hooting and hollering and raising our paddles in a high-five salute. One of the kids, distracted, stared downstream. He said, matter-of-factly, “Hey, look.”

I turned and saw a body lying supine across the front deck of Neal’s boat, legs draped over the side. The cockpit was empty, both oars unmanned and dragging in the water. Neal hunched over the body. Shit.

We paddled hard to catch up. A look of dread spread over Teri, barely recovered from her swim. She knew. I knew. Steve had swum Cramer, too.

It was floating mayhem as we tangled with a group of private rafters trying to help out. Neal jumped back on the oars and pulled toward the right bank, wisely landing about a hundred meters or so upstream of the boat ramp. The ramp itself was jammed with rafts, vehicles and what looked like a hundred people. I eddied out just below Neal and scrambled onto his boat.

My first thought when I saw Steve was that he was dead.

He was cyanotic, skin blue and gray, and his eyes bloodshot, yellow and vacant. Neal said he had an airway and very labored breathing. I took his pulse — weak and thready — and found him totally unresponsive. But his color slowly improved with each croaky breath. It was cool and cloudy out, so we quickly gathered a sleeping bag and fleece to warm him up. I located the satellite phone, dialed an emergency number and handed it to Neal, who moved into to his designated trip-leader role as emergency coordinator.

Brandon and I worked to warm up Steve while Arnie shouted in his buddy’s ear. “C’mon, Steve, breathe, you can do it. You beat cancer! This is nothing! We’re pulling for you, come on!” Steve’s wife Mary, sat on the front of the raft, sad, calm, resigned. She shook her head grimly. She was giving up. In the background, I could hear Teri in the paddleboat, crying. Jean was trying to reassure her sister. “It’s okay, they’re doing everything they can.”

Minutes passed as Neal contacted Life Flight and the Salmon ER. One of the other guides sent a guest down the road to the ramp to ask if a doctor was present. Amazingly, he returned with a young female physician who’d been a guest on my friend Jane’s trip, now de-rigging at the ramp. The doctor checked out the patient and came up with the same assessment: hanging on by a thread. She called up to Neal. “What’s Life Flight saying?”

Neal appeared composed and clinical behind his sunglasses. He was on the clock doing his leadership bit now, but I knew the emotions, the self-doubt, the what-ifs, would hit him later. “Fifty-five minutes,” he replied flatly.

The doctor stared me dead in the eye, pursed her lips and slightly moved her head to the side. Way too long. I readied a face shield and timidly suggested we consider assisted breathing, a suggestion that quickly became moot. Steve convulsed and vomited water and sputum. We log rolled him to one side and let him drain, but within seconds his grayish hue turned blue once again. I took a distal pulse as the doctor tried his carotid.

“I got nothing,” I told her.

“No pulse. CPR, let’s go.”

She pulled back the sleeping bag and Steve’s shirt, revealing evidence of the battle he’d fought for three years: his torso was completely perforated with surgical scars. Grabbing a face shield, I tilted his head, pinched his nostrils and put my lips to that thin sheet of plastic, staring into blank eyes as I exhaled. It took a couple of tries, adjusting his head and flattening the mask, but air went in and his chest rose — though something wasn’t quite right. He had to have more lung capacity than that.

The next hour was surreal: breathing, compressions, my lips bruised and bleeding from pressing too hard on Steve’s mouth, the voices around us, more news of delay from EMS. All the while, Arnie never let up his vigil, never stopped voicing encouragement to his best friend. Frank took over breathing after about 10 minutes, but the doctor, on a mission, continued compressions. Almost dizzy, I sat back and tried to comprehend what was happening.

And Billy came to me.

Five years before, I’d been kayaking with a friend named Bill Danford on a class IV-V section of Idaho’s Teton River Canyon. Things went really bad, really quickly, when Billy broached his kayak across two rocks mid-stream. Though I was able to get to him, I failed to free him from his boat. He literally drowned in my arms. The event shattered me. I have lived with the guilt of failure and the guilt of survival ever since, only recently coming to terms with that day.

In the aftermath of Billy’s death, I repeatedly told friends I imagined the only thing worse would be losing a commercial client, someone who put their entire trust and faith in us to ensure their safety. I said if I ever lost a guest, I was done, I wouldn’t be able to guide, or even to boat at all. Prior to Billy’s death, I’d witnessed two Colorado river fatalities, suffered by other river parties, one of which was a commercial trip. And now it was happening to us. We were losing one.

So, is this how two decades of floating and fun and friends comes to an end?

I looked around, catching my breath. Neal was performing flawlessly as a leader, while Brandon and Frank worked with the doctor on Steve. The other guides were efficiently directing and caring for the other guests, who continued to look upon us with trust and faith — despite the fact that we were losing the battle. It’s difficult to articulate, but I could feel their support, not just for Steve and his family, but also for us. They knew we were trained and competent and there for them — and that we were hurting. But they were there for us, too.

Okay. Win or lose, I’m right where I’m supposed to be. It sounds hopelessly corny, a cliché, but the situation made me want to be a better guide, a better person. Fuck quitting.

I rowed the boat down to the ramp as a local first responder vehicle approached, twenty minutes or so since our first emergency call. They beat Life Flight to the scene, but the nearest hospital was a two-hour drive away. I relieved Frank on breathing duty, though I knew at this point we were just going through the motions. As we continued CPR, the first responders set up an AED, a compact defibrillator, but Steve had nothing to give. The electronic voice of the AED indifferently bleated “no shock advised” after each analysis. He was gone.

We kept going for another half hour, mostly for the benefit of the family, Arnie, the crowd around us and for our own collective conscience. I looked up at one point and saw Jane, quietly packing her trip. Our eyes connected and she gave a serious nod. She was with me throughout, and I could read her mind: that could be me, breathing into one of my own guests.

Nearly an hour into the rescue effort, docs at the Salmon ER finally gave us the okay to call it. I felt momentary relief, but immediately began dreading my next duty, or what felt like my duty. I paced around the rescue vehicle a couple of times, trying to hold back tears, trying not to look at the raft on the ramp, a dead man lying on it, staring at a gray sky with lifeless eyes. Hold it together. Do what you’ve got to do.

The girls were at a nearby picnic area with the other guests. Teri sat by herself, head in hands. Stunned guests milled around, organizing personal gear, preparing for a long, quiet bus ride. I knelt before Teri as she raised a disbelieving face, eyes streaming with tears. What do you say when words are wholly inadequate?

“I’m so, so sorry.” I hugged her, then took her cheeks in my hands. “But now you’ve got to be strong, okay? Your mom and sister are going to need you, too.” Sure it was trite, but so true. As an adult orphan who’s been there with my own siblings, I knew this first hand. There’s strength in numbers, especially family. Hell, maybe that’s why this was different than the last time for me. I was with my family. River family.

Teri nodded, managing a weak smile. Her braces were beautiful.

Jean caught my eyes and came to share an embrace. “You guys were awesome,” she said. “I’m so sorry you had to deal with this.” I was dismayed that she was “apologizing” to us. She didn’t know it, but those few words were tender mercies, probably saving us years of guilt. Before my eyes a lovely, college-aged girl became a woman: strong, intuitive, compassionate. Personal qualities I’d taken for granted in another young woman I’d met on the river years before. A woman I’d recently lost.

Mary, the girls and Steve’s friends gathered around his body as he lay on the raft, strangely parked on a concrete boat ramp like a funeral pyre ready to be floated and set alight. Arnie broke down, finally surrendering, sobbing over his friend. I should have told him that when I go, I hope a buddy like him is by my side. The girls cried as well, but Mary appeared stoic throughout, perhaps finally facing a future she’d long known would come.

Yes, Steve had cancer, and yeah, he died. But watching his loved ones around him, saying their good-byes, I wondered if I’d ever be so lucky.

August 3, 2005
Moose Lake, Jedediah Smith Wilderness, Teton Range, Wyoming

I pack away the GPS and check my watch: 4:30 p.m. I’m done logging data for the day, but I’m still looking at a 10-mile hike back to the trailhead. Before me, Moose Lake is a translucent spectrum of blues surrounded by wildflowers and alpine meadow: bright yellows, blues, reds and greens fluttering in the wind like a field of prayer flags, their mantras heaven-bound. I inhale deeply and feel rarefied alpine air massaging my skin. Despite the fatigue from a long day of mountain walking and the prospect of the hike ahead, I’m feeling very much alive and healthy. I’m at my other seasonal job, with the Forest Service, mapping trail conditions in the Teton high country — an ideal place to reflect on an eventful, intense summer.

I guided three more six-day river trips in the Salmon River country after we lost Steve, twice as trip leader. “Everything can go wrong this week,” I told my first crew, “and this will still be the best trip of the season.” Sometimes I’m overly obsessed with details when I’m head guide, but after this June, maybe I’ll learn not to sweat the minutiae. Hell, all three of those trips were the best trip of the season.

And perhaps the first one wasn’t as bad as it felt at the time. Steve spent his final days with friends and family on the Middle Fork — rather than in bed, attached to a morphine drip, the way my mother went out. I know that’s little consolation for a wife and two young women who watched him fade away, but perhaps they’ll see it that way some day. People always said that about Billy, that “he died doing what he loved.” Until recently, I said that was bullshit. I couldn’t get past the memory of his suffering, of his frantic struggle to get his head above water, to breathe, to simply stay alive. But taking the long view, it’s starting to make sense.

I confess that the traumas of my past have left me with a steamer trunk full of baggage: bitterness, anger, resentment and a fear of further loss. This baggage has cost me dearly, even in the best of the times, leading to self-alienation and helping sink my last relationship. I was so afraid of losing her — of reliving the cycle of pain and grief —that my fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I withheld my soul, and lost a big piece of it as a result. Watching Steve’s family and Arnie in their finest hour provided invaluable perspective: they gave each other 100 percent of their love, though Steve’s days were undoubtedly numbered. Hell, none of us gets out of here alive, so why be half-assed about it? Life’s too short to be guarded, to hang out in your comfort zone waiting to die a “dignified,” peaceful death in your sleep. Sure, Steve could have sat on the couch and lived awhile longer, but he chose to take a chance and share a special, somewhat risky place with his family. It went wrong, but they lived life for real, together, all the way to the end.

Steve’s passing gave me the push I needed to follow some long-time aspirations of my own: this winter I hope to volunteer with a malaria prevention program in Uganda, while kayaking some big water on the Nile — with Jane, of course. I’m also planning to make my way to Cape Town, South Africa, where I’ll train for my childhood dream of blue-water sailing, work on my skipper’s certification and maybe join a yacht delivery crew headed back across the Atlantic. With any luck, I’ll be home for the summer, guiding on the Middle Fork once again. Yeah, fuck quitting.

Am I expecting a cathartic journey that will make it all better, mend a broken heart and answer the big questions? Oh, hell no. But time, especially time on the water, is bound to heal some (better than liquor, anyway), and maybe spark a little passion. Who knows where it will lead next, who I’ll meet, how it may alter the course of my life?

Most of us too often forget to celebrate love and life, the only gifts we’re given that really matter, until we witness death first-hand. It is a visceral, dreadful, final reminder of how fleeting and precious our existence really is. How many times must we be reminded before we finally heed the lesson?

Author’s note: This piece was adapted from an email I sent to friends and family in the summer of 2005. I did indeed travel to Africa during the winter of ’05-’06, following the very itinerary I imagined — including a sailing voyage across the Atlantic. I currently live in Steamboat Springs, with a wonderful lady and her daughter, and continue to guide part-time on Idaho’s rivers.

A refugee from Los Angeles, Rob Marin has performed a wide variety low-paying jobs on the Pro Leisure Tour, from dishwashing and journalism to ski patrolling and sailboat delivery. He currently teaches geography and mapping technologies in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Thirsty River

Editor’s note: This is a chapter from, and provided the conceptual impetus for, the recently released book, “The Return of the River: Writers, Scholars, and Citizens Speak on Behalf of the Santa Fe River” (Sunstone Press), which Ms. Bello edited.

Every evening when the light turns golden and the Sangres glow red, my husband and I make our way to the Santa Fe River. The dry course we follow is a bed of sand and rock between high, eroded banks. We watch the clouds, pay attention as the trees drop and regain their leaves, notice the patterns left in the sand by wind and intermittent water. We come in all weathers and all moods, sharing the triumphs and challenges of our day or simply walking in silence. The river is our tonic, an open space curative that offers rejuvenation day after day. As the wheel of seasons turns, I grasp that this channel contains not water but the flow of our lives.

In the heart of winter, Elliot and I are often the only people out at sunset, but as the weather warms and days lengthen, we begin to see our neighbors. Even on the finest days, however, we see no more than a handful of people, a few dogs sniffing the sand.

“Why aren’t there more people here?” I ask Elliot one day. It seems strange that in a town full of nature lovers, this open space corridor is often abandoned.

“Maybe they don’t realize this is the river,” he says. “They forgot.”

Once upon a time, this river flowed like any other in northern New Mexico. It meandered down out of the mountains along a sandy-bottomed, ground-level bed surrounded by willows, cottonwoods, farms and meadows. As I walk the deep gash that is so easy to mistake for an impressive arroyo, I try to imagine what it once looked like. I can barely see it.

Gone are the native plants, the animals and fish that once thrived here. Denied water, the river’s bed of sand has grown lifeless, its banks fallen in. The near horizon opens on barren fields. Fields where food was once grown, irrigated by arterial acequias. Those fields are called lots now, and everyone knows it won’t be long until houses grow out of them.

After a half-mile or so of walking, the few cottonwoods and elm trees that grow along the path fade into grey-green chamisa and dried grasses. My friend Sarah won’t walk this section of the river.

“It’s too brown and dry,” she says. “And so depressing.” This is where the junk cars start to rise out of the brown earth, and the cholla cactus grows thick as weeds. I have heard things like this before. Newcomers say, “I miss the ocean, trees, rain.” They say, “You call this a river?”

I don’t mean it to be, but my voice is sharp when I remind Sarah that the river is dry because we drink it.

One evening in March, Elliot and I abandon the river and walk up a ridge overlooking Santa Fe. The sun has just set, leaving a band of orange along the horizon.

“Where does the water for so many houses come from?” Elliot asks. “It should be sand running from these taps, not water.”

I scan the dusk-washed land. Junipers are sprinkled over a sea of dried grass. The piñons are gone, dead from the long drought we’ve been in. Lights shimmer in the black expanse stretching before us, blocks of light following the highway south. If there is enough water for all of these homes, how can there not be enough for the river?

Wherever the water comes from, too much is being asked of this land and too little is given back. The river that has supported settlements in this valley for over a thousand years no longer flows. It is a bed of sand. And the city grows, and grows, and grows.

As the days turn warm, the river begins to run with snowmelt. Muddy. Frothing. Roiling with the trash that has lain unwashed all winter. Foam swirls against concrete, against rock, against sandy riverbank.

Elliot and I squat side by side and watch the torrent. There’s no crossing it tonight. The water splashes up against us, cold. If this river’s singing, the song is a dirty one, the kind that pours from a downtown bar late on a Tuesday night. The river has reclaimed its channel, liberated by reinforcements of melted snow in the war against containment. It is like a prisoner whose face twists with anger, sadness and relief when finally freed. A prisoner who runs away as quickly and violently as he can.

The water level changes slightly each day, leaving behind dark, wet spots in the muddy banks. Prints from people, dogs and birds spatter across the damp sand. The metal caging that was supposed to protect the banks from erosion hangs empty. Tree roots caught in the wire mesh are all that remains of the soil they grew out of. Elsewhere, the path has literally fallen into the river. A new one runs through the cactus a bit farther from the river.

Decades ago, efforts to stabilize the banks led the Army Corps of Engineers to wrap heavy wire fencing against the river’s sides. They strapped stones into retainer walls, and paved the riverbank with concrete rounded to look like rocks. The cutting of the riverbed was encouraged to safeguard the increasing density of downtown buildings from catastrophic floods.

This kind of “maintenance” reflects the way Santa Fe has perceived the river. It is an extension of our plumbing, a faucet that can literally be turned off and on at will. The river is the drain that carries wasted storm water away, but is not thought to need water of its own. When it starts running again, south of town, the water is treated effluent.

Up at the reservoirs, it is someone’s job to decide how much water to release to the river, how much to hold. The city’s water glass needs to be filled before the snow melts, but the reservoir must not overflow. It is a job that swings between stinginess and excess. I wonder how the person at the gate can bear to let any water loose, or to keep it contained.

In early April, the group American Rivers declares the Santa Fe the most-endangered river in the country. It is strange news, coming at a time when the river has begun to run peacefully. The rush of water has slowed to an ankle-deep ripple. It has found a curving path through the wide riverbed, and runs braided in the loveliest sections. The nondescript trees growing out of the rocky sand turn green. I am happy to see the color, but then realize the trees are Siberian elms, an invasive species. Other plants come up — mustards, mallows, verbena. Three cottonwoods burst open with the freshest, lightest green leaves imaginable. Finally, slender willow leaves emerge from the few pockets where they have survived.

Every afternoon, children can be heard playing in the water. Families come fishing. I see an elderly couple walking hand in hand, and later sitting and watching the water. A beaver has been sighted just east of the section Elliot and I walk each day after work. A beaver. We stay out past dusk in hopes of seeing it.

I have always taken pleasure in walking along the river, but now that it flows, just as its name suggests it should, a sense of wonder and gratitude overcomes me. It is the reverse of witnessing an amputation. Indeed, it is a resurrection.

Water flows again through the heart of our community, restoring a semblance of balance to the river. It is as if a special pair of glasses have been given to me, allowing me to glimpse the invisible thread that connects the willows and rocks, the wild alfalfa, the raven flying soundlessly overhead. Allowing me to see this oversized arroyo for what it is meant to be — a living, breathing, riparian ecology.

What else does the river offer that we have forgotten in our thirst for its liquid? Beyond mere sustenance, what else is carried in its arms?

While walking the river, I have awakened to its emptiness. Each time we take a drink, we drink the river. Instead of flowing along its course, it runs through our bodies. How can we not become attentive to the needs of the river, when it has been sacrificed to sustain us?

The empty riverbed is my responsibility because I, too, am a container for the river. In gratitude, it is time to return those waters to where they belong.

I am driving to work one morning before dawn on Alameda, parallel to the river. The sky behind the mountains is rich with pinks and reds. A great creature swoops in front of my car, flies low in front of me. It is a bird, I realize, slamming my brakes in surprise. A great blue heron flying upstream. My heart leaps into my throat. A heron on the Santa Fe River.

Migrations, rhythms, cycles. Before me is the hope of the river — a reminder of what has been broken and what will be healed. Before me is a fragment of balance.

At the hospital parking lot, another nurse comes up to me. “I was driving behind you when the heron flew out,” she says. Though we only know each other by sight, she takes my arm and squeezes it. “I wept when I saw that, and I was so glad someone else saw it too.”

Our hearts are as broken as the river. It is time to piece this tapestry of ecology, of community, back together.

At an Earth Day celebration, the Santa Fe Watershed Association has a booth. They have two displays of river water habitats. A plastic basin holds river water from the Pecos River. Filled with floating leaves, dirt and other natural debris, it is home to scores of bugs — stonefly, riffle beetle, dobsonfly, mayfly — and those only the ones visible to the naked eye. The signs of a robust, intact waterway.

Another plastic basin contains a sample from the Santa Fe River. It is dry, empty except for a few red rocks and some sand. Someone comes up behind me and asks if they can pour some water into the Santa Fe basin. After all, the river is running, even if it doesn’t have any life to speak of. Most people agree that the beaver swam back to the Rio Grande.

I join the association. It seems like a small step, but never before have I translated my yearning for something, or my anger and frustration, into collective action. In her book, “The Open Space of Democracy,” Terry Tempest Williams asks, “At what point do we finally lay our bodies down to say this blatant disregard for biology and wild lives is no longer acceptable?” I have reached that point. I can no longer abide living a block from a river called most-endangered in America. It is as if I have crossed a threshold and burst into passionate flames. Only a restored river can put this fire out.

It might be years before the Santa Fe River sees year-round water and fully recovers from its degraded condition, but after a only a month or so of flow, it shows signs — like the heron and beaver, but smaller and perhaps more significant — of its return.

I marvel at the ability of the land to repair itself given a trickle of water and the attention of caring citizens. Dozens of small stone check-dams built by folks on their evening walks have done their work well, terracing the water flow and reshaping the riverbed. Sand bars have formed, and the river’s bottom is now lined with rocks and pebbles. Most incredible of all is the algae. First a coat of slime on the river rocks, it grows into a thick moss, and finally begins streaming with the water. Yellow green growth where once lay dry red sand. The joy of water and light and plant cells.

It only makes my fire burn hotter.

The river might flow for months yet, until late June. Inevitably, it will stop. The river dries up, year after year. The willow and cottonwood stems planted in a burst of optimism — let’s restore the living river! — will shrivel up and get washed away during a late summer monsoon.

“The world is going to be saved by people saving their own homes,” Pete Seeger said. I am relieved to have found my way to this truth. The world’s problems are too big for me. The river is a block from my house. I have known it in all weathers, all lights. I drink it in every glass of water from my sink. My heartbeat quickened when the heron swept across my path. Perhaps the world will be saved by people saving themselves.

I have heard people say, “There isn’t enough water for the river. It would be wasted if it ran downstream. We need it for our homes, our businesses.” The city hydrologist says that the river is considered a renewable resource, like wind power. What she means is that the water is renewable. It refills the reservoirs each spring after a wet winter, and thus can be used freely.

The river itself, however, is not renewable unless it is given water. The river is dying and will continue to die — its banks deepening and falling in, the native vegetation dead, the animals gone along with their habitat.

It is time for a reordering of priorities. A minimum amount of water necessary to sustain a living river should be released year round, period. If this were the case, we wouldn’t go thirsty. We would adapt, learning very quickly to live within our means. Water conservation measures, including rain catchment and greywater systems, would become our way of providing for the future, as opposed to dependence on “foreign water” like the San Juan River.

The Santa Fe River is our physical connection to the past, a tangible link that connects the generations that have come before with those who will follow. It spans time and history, anchoring us to our home. It is the thread that stitches us back into the tapestry of the wild, pointing us gently away from destruction and toward conservation.

The river is the place where the natural world, the mythical world, the spiritual and the historical worlds enter our bodies, our minds. Without it, we are adrift. Our land becomes as meaningless as a textbook on the past, a story without life.

The feast day of San Isidro, patron saint of Agua Fria village, comes in late May. I slip into the back of the church and add my voice to the choir. The deacon leads us in praising San Isidro, thanking him for tending the fields, the orchards, the acequias and the river.

A hand-painted banner of the saint is carried down the church’s aisle. Elderly women follow close behind the deacon; the choir with its guitars falls into step after them. The rest of us follow, singing the alabado de San Isidro. We proceed down the road, and turn toward the river. When the water comes into sight, there are dozens of people along its banks. Our voices grow stronger when we see them, and we carry the saint forward to those waters.

Flowers are handed out. Children give them to their grandmothers, to their neighbors, to conservationists and politicians. The deacon asks us to line up along the river, to raise our hands. He prays for the river, that it may flow and be strong, and that it bring spiritual strength to all in our community. We cry amen, ojalá, and drop our flowers into the running water.

They are red and gold. For a moment, like me, the water bursts into flames.

A nurse, herbalist and poet by training, A. Kyce Bello now works on honing her radical homemaker skills. She regularly takes her two small daughters to play in the dry riverbed.

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.


A few months back, I told you, in a Smoke Signals titled, “Hot Air,” about the two times I found myself, through no fault of my own (understatement), up in the wild blue yonder in a hot-air balloon. I might have even casually mentioned something about how BOTH OF THOSE BALLOONS CRASHED!!! Anyhow, part and parcel of that “Hot Air” tale was a little tangential aside about a certain river-rafting trip I took the day after the second of those aforementioned balloon crashes. I believe I wrote words to the effect of, “ … but that is a story for another time.” Well, this being Mountain Gazette’s annual Rivers Issue and all, I guess there’s no time like the present. To refresh your memory: I had been given an assignment by the editor of a long-defunct magazine named Adventure Travel to venture forth to the steamy reaches of north Georgia to pen a piece about a company that offered “Adventure Orgies,” which, provocative name notwithstanding, was nothing more than a different stupid adrenaline-based activity each day for a week. On the very first day of my Adventure Orgy — verily, within the first few hours — I was surprisingly more-or-less Shanghaied to take a balloon trip with a crazy-as-bat-shit pilot that resulted in a crash-landing, a wildfire, guns being leveled at me, police being called and, of all perplexing things, a Chattanooga TV news crew arriving on the scene so quickly they seemingly were parked in the very field we set ablaze on the off chance that an errant hot-air balloon might fortuitously fall out of the sky and crash at their very feet. A news story from God, if ever there was one. The scheduled second segment of our Adventure Orgy was a full-day raft descent of the Chattooga River, which straddles the border of Georgia and South Carolina. This is the very section of river upon which significant portions of the whitewater scenes from “Deliverance” were actually filmed. My guide, the man I was essentially profiling for Adventure Travel, assured me that the gnarliest scenes from “Deliverance” were filmed on the Tallulah River, which, I’ll admit, in my battered state, was something of a relief. For, you see, I had not recovered from that balloon incident. The deep gash on my right shin was oozing all manner of repugnant-colored fluids, my left shin was swollen so badly that it looked like some sort of Frankensteinian mad scientist had grafted a partially decomposed watermelon onto my leg and my tongue, which I near-bouts bit in two upon impact, was lolling involuntarily, like what you’d see coming out of a tranquilized rhino’s mouth in a National Geographic wildlife documentary. We drove to the quaint mountain town of Clayton, Georgia, where we met our two partners in river crime: a  sports editor from an Atlanta TV station and none other than Billy Redden, who, at age eight, was the banjo-picking boy in ”Deliverance,” though, as I mentioned in “Hot Air,” it was not he who actually picked those haunting notes that, to this day, strike fear in the heart of any non-Southerner who ventures forth into the more rural parts of Dixie. The national eight-year-old banjo-playing champion crouched behind Billy Redden, whose arms were literally tied to his sides, and slid his arms through Billy’s jacket and, without being able to see the instrument, picked the strings flawlessly. It did not help mitigate any preconceptions that I might have held when, before meeting Billy, who works as a professional river guide for Adventure Orgy Guy, I was told how he “auditioned” for the part of the (non-) banjo-playing boy in “Deliverance.” “They went way up in the sticks and picked out the most inbred, retarded-looking kid out of the local elementary school. And there were a bunch to choose from. Out of all the available material, they chose Billy. Then, just to make him look even more inbred and retarded, they shaved his head.” Of course, based upon that vision, combined with actually having watched “Deliverance,” I naturally assumed that Billy Redden would be the walking, talking epitome of every negative Appalachia-based stereotype imaginable. I assumed that he would likely be a perpetual drooler whose best attempts at fundamental articulation would mirror those of Jodie Foster when Liam Neeson first made her character’s acquaintance in “Nell.”  Ends up that Billy, by then in his 30s, while not necessarily the most handsome man I have ever met, was a totally great guy, witty and funny, and, if there was a drooler on the scene, it was I, due to my wounded tongue situation. We partially inflated the two, two-person, 11-foot rafts right there on the sidewalk in downtown Clayton, where both Billy and Adventure Orgy Guy were well known. The 17,000 passersby — all of whom had a mouthful of chaw and were named Clem — who stopped for a chat (our raft-inflating procedures apparently being the most noteworthy event to have transpired in Clayton since the last summer’s Hog-Sloppin’ Festival) were surprised to hear that we were headed for the Chattooga. “All y’all ain’t gonna run Bull Sluice, are all y’all?” was a question pondiferously drawled by every single one of those 17,000 curious chaw-chewing Clems. And when Adventure Orgy Guy answered in the affirmative, every single one of those 17,000 curious Clems slowly shook his head, let out with a feigned nervous whistle, and said words to the effect of: “Well, best of luck to all y’all. Wouldn’t catch us’ns trying to run Bull Sluice this time of year.” It will come as no surprise that these exchanges caught my attention, but I said nothing, at least partially because any attempts to speak all sounded like I was the guy tied to the chair with the gag stuffed in his mouth in a million Hollywood movie torture scenes, where, try though I might to spill the beans about where the drugs and money were hidden and where the torturers could most easily locate my cohorts, all I could do was grunt. Once we got on the river — me with Adventure Orgy Guy, Billy Redden and the Atlanta TV sports guy in the other raft — Adventure Orgy Guy, after much apparent mental cud-chewing, said: “You probably heard all 17,000 of those Clems back in Clayton asking about Bull Sluice.” “Grunt.” He proceeded to tell me that Bull Sluice is one of two Class-5-plus rapids on the section of the Chattooga we were going to run and that it had claimed literally dozens of lives over the years. Forgive me that I am not familiar enough with death-based river terminology to describe this properly, but it is a very short and steep rapid — a waterfall, now that you mention it — that changes directions three times in about 100 linear feet — once at the top, once halfway through and once again at the bottom. You start out going over the waterfall at about 10 o’clock, then you’ve got to alter your heading to about 3 o’clock, then you’ve got to go back to 10 o’clock, all while you’re attempting to negotiate a rapid that, even if it didn’t have three major turns, would be dangerous as hell. “Don’t worry though,” Adventure Orgy Guy said, reassuringly (at least in theory), we’ll be on the river a couple hours before we get to Bull Sluice, and, by then, you and I will be very comfortable paddling together. It’ll be great!” (This from the man responsible for placing me in a hot-air balloon that crashed-landed the previous afternoon.) The plan was for Billy Redden and the Atlanta TV guy to portage around Bull Sluice. Adventure Orgy Guy and I would pull over above Bull Sluice, walk downriver to shit our pants and devise an appropriate stratagem, return to our diminutive raft, clean our pants out, then tackle a rapid that might as well be named “Death Waterfall from Hell,” after which I would either have to clean my pants out yet again or arrive at the medical examiner’s office with skivvies full of caca. Since we had a couple hours to kill before we ourselves were killed, I opted to chill with the scene, which was wonderfully mellow. Even though the first day of winter was literally 72 hours away, it was sunny and warm. The passing scenery was straight out of Appalachia central casting. We paddled by scads of overall-adorned, dentition-challenged men, who, stunningly, were also named Clem, sipping jugfulls of moonshine while tending to their stills. We passed veritable tribes of corpulent women — all named Bessie May and Shirley Sue — sitting on riverside front porches shucking corn and green beans and smoking pipes while stirring vats of possum gizzard stew (or something like that). Captivating cultural distractions aside, the thought of Bull Sluice never completely left the back of my mind. Quite the contrary. Every time a squirrel farted on the riverbank, my eardrums translated the noise to the roar an impending life-swallowing rapid. Until finally, inevitably, we came to the spot where the roar was no longer a figment of my squirrel-fart-based imagination. We pulled over and, as Billy Redden and the Atlanta-TV guy started carrying their raft around the rapid, Adventure Orgy Guy and your humble narrator ventured forth to eyeball Bull Sluice with the idea of coming up with a plan that did not involve direct interfaces with mortality, or, better stated, did not involve direct interfaces with mortality for yours truly. My part of that planning process consisted, as predicted, almost entirely of shitting my pants when I laid first eyes upon the sphincter-puckering power of Bull Sluice. As Adventure Orgy Guy was pointing out the myriad ominous hydraulic intricacies of Bull Sluice, all the while stressing the many, many potential fuck-ups that we, more than anything in the world, wanted to avoid because, even the slightest, teeniest mistake at any of those many, many fuck-up points would most certainly result in a series of soulful obituaries in the Clayton, Georgia, newspaper, I came to a realization that, while not exactly stunning — insofar as “surprise” is a necessary component of the definition of the word “stunning” — was at least a bit disconcerting on the self-perception front. When you’re an outdoor writer on assignment for a magazine named Adventure Travel to pen a story about a company that offers something called Adventure Orgies, you are vocationally, if not dispositionally, obligated to live up to certain big-balled personality stereotypes. And none of those stereotypes include overt displays of pants-wetting wussiness when faced with a mere Class-5 death waterfall. Yet, I realized, much to my simultaneous chagrin and relief, there was no way in hell my increasingly shriveling nuts were going through Bull Sluice. Mortifying though it might have been on several levels, it was actually a very liberating moment. When I relayed, via a series of grunts and hyper-kinetic hand gestures, this non-negotiable reality to Adventure Orgy Guy, he seemed crestfallen. He also looked like he considered me to be a total pussy, which was just fine with me. The best stories are the ones you live to tell. I, of course, thought that we would then portage our raft around the rapid and proceed upon our merry un-dead way. Ixnay. Adventure Orgy Guy beckoned Billy Redden to join him in the raft we had stashed upriver. “This way, you’ll at least be able to get some photos of us going through Bull Sluice for your story.” To say Billy Redden looked shocked would greatly minimize his contorted visage. Yet, Adventure Orgy Guy being his employer and all, he hung his head and dutifully made his way to the top of Bull Sluice. I stood below the rapid, camera at the ready. A few minutes later, the little raft, which looked, against the fearsome immensity of Bull Sluice, like a toy boat bobbing in the surf of Oahu’s North Shore, shot into the maelstrom. There was no visual run-up — one nanosecond, they were not there, the next nanosecond, 14 kinds of fearsome hell were breaking loose. They entered Bull Sluice OK, but, at the 90-degree dogleg in the middle of the rapid, Billy Redden got his paddle caught between two rocks, and the force of Bull Sluice ripped it from his grip so intensely that the banjo-playing boy from “Deliverance” came within a single ass molecule of being pulled from the raft at a place that all but assured his doom. It looked at that frightening moment like his last above-water act was going to be a very wide-eyed, frantic arabesque penchee. The look on Adventure Orgy Guy’s face was a mix of fear and resolute determination that I will carry with me the rest of my days. He was down an engine in the middle of one of the most-notorious river rapids in the entire country, and, if he did not perform in extraordinary, superhuman fashion right then and there, fatalities were likely, which, while adding the potential for some spice to my Adventure Travel magazine story, would likely have negatively affected the overall vibe. In the time it took me to snap off one photo, they were out of the rapid. Adventure Orgy Guy pulled it off and saved the day. Their raft drifted limply to shore, its occupants spent in a way that all but assures many weeks of deep introspection. Billy Redden wobbled onto shore and staggered downriver a few feet, where he plopped down on a rock, lit a cigarette and muttered to himself, over and over, “I ain’t never going through Bull Sluice again … I ain’t never going through Bull Sluice again … ” And I could tell he meant it. Later that evening, on the long drive back to town, it was obvious there was something on Adventure Orgy Guy’s mind. It was just he and I in the truck, and we’d been drinking pretty heavily in silence for the better part of an hour. He finally said, “You know, you and I had been psychologically working our way up to Bull Sluice all day. I think if we had just gone through like we planned, everything would have turned out fine.” The implication, of course, was that, if Billy Redden (a professional river guide, I stress) had died in that rapid, it would have been my fault. I’ve got to admit, that observation rubbed me a bit wrong on numerous levels. But I really didn’t give it any further thought till I was back home, sitting in front of my computer, getting ready to write the Adventure Orgy story for Adventure Travel magazine. Right then, as we were bounding down the darkening Appalachia highway, beers in hand, there was much still to ponder. After all, we had a horseback-riding trip planned the next day. And, after that, rock climbing, wild boar hunting, mako shark fishing and, should I live that long, ocean sailing. There was still much that could (and did) go awry. But all that’s a story for another time. And what a story it is …

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