The people in my group speak English, but the words confuse me. “Haystack” and “pillow” mean something different to Grand Canyon Boatmen than to someone raised in the dairy country of Northern Utah. I’d floated the San Juan River a year earlier, so I could row—sort of. But I’d never seen a rapid like this. I’m part of a private group on the biggest whitewater trip in North America, a float down the Colorado through Grand Canyon.
The chatter continues, and I elbow through to see what they’re talking about.
Seventeen miles after launching at Lee’s Ferry, the private group I’m with is perched on a cliff, scouting Houserock Rapid. Twenty feet below, The Colorado River rumbles downstream, taking a sharp right turn. At the corner’s apex, a boat swallowing hole churns next to a bus sized boulder that’s covered with cheese-grater sharp ridges.
“A boat ripper,” one man says.
At least I understand that part.
The men and some of the women point at the hole and the rock. Words like “current” and “wave” give me insight. My stomach heaves, as if the river is inside trying to burst free. I’m literally moments away from rowing my raft, complete with eighteen days of gear and food around haystacks, tongues and eddys without knowing which is which.
“You can do this.” My father’s hand rests on my shoulder.
I swallow hard, refusing to puke the oatmeal and peaches I’d had for breakfast. A man named Roger approaches. Even through his mirrored aviator glasses, the stare makes me more aware of my inexperience. He looks away, shaking his head in disgust. For a second, his back turns and I think he’ll leave. But then he spins around and steps forward. Beneath his hat-dana, the mirrored glasses reflect my image: pale, face drawn, mouth partially open. Several people flinch as a wave crashes below.
“Rapids do that,” somebody explains. “They roar along, building to an explosion.”
“You gettin’ any of this?” Roger asks. I’m glad his eyes are hidden because his arms and elevated voice do plenty to convey disgust.
“Little bit.” My voice cracks. “Kind of.”
Roger sticks out among our group. He’s floated The Colorado River through Grand Canyon thirteen times. He’s been down Cataract Canyon close to fifty. Most importantly, Roger has never flipped his raft.
He turns to the river, stomps his sandals and scratches at his beard. Roger’s annoyed, but he brings to mind a character from an old movie. He’s Oddball, played by Donald Sutherland in Kelly’s Heroes, the hippie-tank-driver who saves Clint’s ass.
“Do this,” He says. “Put your boat three boat-lengths behind mine.” Roger shakes three skinny fingers in my face then pauses long enough for the rapid’s roar to fill my head. “Do everything you see me do—and hope I don’t fuck up!”
Middle aged and lean, Roger, strides toward the beach. Other boatmen, oars in hand, are ready to guide fully loaded rafts, through the first serious rapid of the trip. Passengers unknot ropes from around rocks and tamarisk bushes, freeing the rafts into the calm water above the rapid.
“I think the captain has given us our orders.” Dad’s smile is obviously meant to man me up.
I nod and we walk toward the river. On the raft, I notice as people in boats to the left and right buckle their life preservers and help one another cinch straps that had previously been loose. I blush, wondering if anyone noticed that I didn’t remove my life preserver to scout the rapid. My father coils our bow-line, buckles up and launches us into the river.
The first raft plunges downstream ahead of Roger. For an instant, the boatman yanks then pushes the oars before his sixteen foot raft disappears into the spray beyond the edge. Stroking forward, I estimate three boat lengths, but I oar too aggressively and fear that my bow will bump Roger’s stern. As I back-paddle, the current accelerates Roger well beyond the distance I want.
“You heard him, Son,” Dad yells over his shoulder from the bow, his voice barely discernable over the crashing water. “Do everything you see him do!”
In two oar-strokes, Roger disappears, and then the current takes me. For the next fifteen seconds, I’m in the middle of an automatic car wash as water douches out my ear canals and peels back my eyelids. I work the oars and catch glimpses of Roger as I try to pinpoint where he is in the rapid so I can mimic his movements at the right time. On the downriver side of a hole a back-curling wave sends a wall of water over the bow and my father’s head. It shows me how it looks from behind as water skier yells, “Hit it!”
Toward the bottom of the rapid, I angle my boat backwards, like Roger did. I pull away from the cheese-grater rock and hole that up close could easily swallow three rafts. The boat is now full of water and I swear I’m rowing a tank instead of an inflatable.
“Rock over here!”
I yank on unresponsive oars that seem to be stuck in cement.
“An inch is as good as mile,” Dad tells me as we slide past barely missing.
“Thanks,” I respond, rethinking how I tried my best to match Roger oar-stroke for oar-stroke.
I jump on the dry-box and pump my fists in the air. My victory dance is interrupted when I look down at Dad throwing water from the non-self-bailing raft. Across the swirling pool, Roger is helping his wife and son do the same.
Bear Bryant’s words to his football players come to me.
“And when you get to the end-zone,” the coach told them, “Act like you’ve been there before.”
I work the hand-held bilge pump to help return the rest of the water to the river.
“You guys okay?” Roger asks.
“Thanks to you— Captain.”
“Wasn’t pretty, but you made it,” Then he gives me a “That’ll do pig” nod. “Let’s get out of the eddy and run another one.”
That evening over steaks and Dutch-oven potatoes, we relive the adventure. Roger emerges my captain.
“Mind if I follow again?” I ask at the next big rapid.
“Catch me if I fall out.” His polite response contrasts with my first impression and Houserock’s F-bomb.
Grand Canyon lifts our eyes as the Colorado’s current pushes us around each bend. The days roll together, and the June sun darkens our tan-lines. During stretches of flat water, I row close and pepper The Captain with questions about rafts, rivers, dry-boxes and oars; he patiently answers them all.
At Tanner Rapid I go sideways through a hole. The river moves faster than my boat as I surf and nearly flip.
On day eight, we launch into adrenaline alley, a river section with rapids like Hance, Grapevine and Sockdolager. The waves are bigger, the current faster. It exposes me for what I am: a hacking, clumsy rookie on the oars, slapping at surging water, while The Captain finesses through.
Each night we sleep under the stars, the river lulls us to sleep then becomes the soundtrack of our dreams. By day we savor new experiences with each bend. In addition to the rapids, we hike side canyons, visit ancient Hopi murals, shower under waterfalls, and watch the moon and sun rise above canyon walls.
By the time I learn The Captain works as a child psychotherapist at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, my first impression of him is as far away as New York City.
“I bet The Captain’s an amazing therapist,” my father offers.
I think about how he coaches me through the rapids. How he tolerates my pestering questions, and picture him counseling grief stricken children. Having two daughters under age five, I note everything he offers about raising kids.
The night before Grand Canyon’s ugliest rapid, Lava Falls, I follow him through the chow line, taking identical portion sizes, mirroring on my plate where he placed the pork-chop and potatoes on his.
The Captain smiles.
The next morning, I know what The Captain will do after studying his moves for close to two-hundred miles. An unanticipated current spins his boat almost ninety degrees. I adjust beforehand to create a cleaner run than my mentor.
The second to last day of the trip the Captain’s somber mood makes me wonder if he’s finally sick of having a tag-along.
Perhaps I’m a barnacle.
The final morning, I talk with others of ice-cream and fountain drinks, at the first convenience store. The chatter continues at the takeout ramp as we unload the gear onto our waiting vehicles.
I twist the valves in my raft. The once tight tubes deflate. A few yards downstream, The Captain, head bowed, stares at his raft’s flaccid tubes like he’s visiting a sick relative.
And I want to trade all civilizations comforts for another day on the river.
Everyone hugs goodbye, except The Captain, who shakes hands. I’m surprised when he pulls me close.
“You’ve earned your wings.”
He moves across the parking lot and opens his SUV’s door.
“Next time,” He yells to me before climbing in. “I follow you.”