Day 08: Hance Rapid
After packing up camp and loading the boats, it’s time to scout Hance Rapid. As soon as we shove off from shore we’ll be into it, and we’ll want to know where we’re going; Hance is the biggest rapid of our trip so far, an 8 out of 10 if numbers mean anything. I follow the rest of the group up a tall sand dune above camp, where we have a good view of the entire rapid.
Tom Martin talks us through the run. The left side of the rapid is rocky–probably too rocky at this water level. So as we shove off from camp on river left, we’ll have to row across the current to river right for the entrance. There’s a big rock forming a pourover here in the main channel, so we’ll have to slip by it on one side or the other. The right side would be fairly simple: a nice wide tongue of green water leads down into the rest of the rapid.
What we really want to do, though, is to catch a narrow tongue of water on the left side of the boulder just past the rocky left side of the rapid, an entrance maybe twenty feet wide. Once we’re in, the trick is to start pulling hard across the current, back toward river left. Here there’s a flat stretch of water called the Duck Pond, and by pulling across the Duck Pond toward river left the whole way, we ought to be able to dodge the big rocks and holes of the right side run.
Waiting at the bottom of the Duck Pond run, though, is a mostly submerged rock called the Rubber Magnet (rafts like to hit it, apparently). We’ll want to keep just river right of the Rubber Magnet. If we’ve done all that, we’ll be headed for the biggest hole at Hance, a huge drop into an eight-foot standing wave at the bottom of the rapid. Ideally we’ll be able to keep pulling toward river left to barely brush the big hole on its left side.
It’s a lot of maneuvering for a Grand Canyon rapid; most of the whitewater we’ve run so far has been all in the set-up: enter the rapid in the right spot and most of the work has been done for us. This one will be different.
A half dozen rafts and a few kayaks from other trips pass through Hance as Ian McCluskey, our videographer, sets up to film the replica boats’ run. It’s a complicated multi-camera shooting schedule–one camera above the rapid on river right across from camp, another on the high scouting dune, and boat-mounted cameras on some of the replica boats–which looks like a big mess to me, but Ian seems to know what he’s doing. It’s nice to watch the other groups make the run first, and they all go through without problems. Then it’s time: launch on two-minute intervals, with the rafts first so the camera operators can practice.
Tom Martin’s wife Hazel, an experienced river runner and Canyon veteran, goes first, with Pam Mortenson as a passenger. And somehow without really meaning to be there, I’m next in line. I glance at the watch velcroed to my raft frame to time my two minutes as Hazel shoves off and starts rowing toward river right and the entrance to Hance Rapid.
She drifts in sideways to the current to be able to make final lateral adjustments to her approach. But somehow she has lined up directly over the boulder. Worse yet, she’s still sideways as she slides over it. Imagine a car parked in a driveway, and the pavement under the left side of the car suddenly drops five feet while the wheels on the right stay at the same level–that’s what happens to Hazel’s raft.
I’m just about to shove off on my run as Hazel’s raft slides sideways over the drop. Suddenly Tom Martin is blowing his whistle and starting to row the Gem toward the rapid, and people are saying Hazel is in the water. I’m already in position in the currrent, so after pausing to make sure my heaving line is ready, I start to row toward the rapid entrance ahead of Tom.
“You need to be further right, amigo,” he shouts to me, and I start pulling harder across the current.
And then I’m almost there. I can see the pourover where Hazel went over, directly in front of me–definitely something to avoid. The narrow tongue on the left is there, I can see it, I know I can probably make it with a few hard strokes back left–but I don’t want to miss and put another person in the water. One is bad enough. So with very little time left to think about it, I pull hard right instead, anything to avoid the pourover.
The right tongue is broad and inviting and seems like the obvious line–except that it sets you up for a run down the rocky and hole-filled right side of the rapid, with no chance to get into the Duck Pond. But I’m only worrying about staying upright so that I have a chance to pull Hazel in if I can reach her. At about 47 degrees Fahrenheit, the water of the Colorado is too cold to last long in, especially dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. And there are plenty of other hazards: rocks, holes, undertows, who knows what. And so I’m off down the right side, knowing that I might have the first chance to pull Hazel in, and hoping not to screw it up if I do reach her.
As I come out of the first waves after the initial drop, I look ahead and see Hazel’s raft ahead about halfway through Hance Rapid. There are TWO people aboard again. Somehow Hazel is back in her raft and already working at the oars. Between waves I turn back toward Tom Martin, racing through the rapid behind me, to give the OK sign (pat the top of your head with one hand) and point toward Hazel’s raft over and over, hoping he sees me.
The rest of the run through Hance, for me at least, is a test of luck rather than skill. Or maybe a test of how idiot-proof an eighteen-foot rubber raft fully loaded with gear really is. It’s a big heavy boat that seems like it can punch through most holes and waves–as long as you hit them straight. And somehow I do, despite being thrown off my seat by one wave, and losing my grip on my left oar in another. Then I’m at the bottom of the rapid with the giant hole in front of me.
Again, not much time to think. I take a feeble pull sideways above the hole, hoping to miss it on the left side as the original plan called for. But my half-hearted attempt shows me that I’ve come through the rapid too far on the right to make that work. I have a few seconds to make my next choice: straighten out the raft and punch directly through the hole, hoping not to stall out on top of the wave and flip; or pull two hard strokes back toward river right instead, and hope there’s time to miss the hole on the right side. If I don’t, that’ll mean going through sideways. And that will mean coming out at the bottom upside-down.
I pull hard to river right. One stroke. Two. And then there’s just time to mostly straighten out the raft and I’m sliding by the right side of the hole, safe. Hazel and Pam are up ahead, already eddied out of the rapid on river right waiting for me.
It’s clear that even an experienced boatman can have trouble. Hazel had gone into the rapid calmly, thinking she was pretty much on line.
“I hadn’t realized there was such a big drop on the other side of the rock or I definitely would’ve cranked harder,” she tells me later. Instead, she was thrown from the boat, which ran over her (luckily the water was deep enough or it might have pinned her to the river bottom).
Her passenger, Pam Mortenson, was facing forward when they went over the drop. “The thing hit me, and I turned around to say ‘Wow, that was a good one!’ and she’s gone!” Pam Mortenson says. She rode through most of the rapid alone, in a raft with no one at the oars. Meanwhile Hazel was trying to keep track of the boat’s position as she floated downstream. She wasn’t worried.
“I’ve swum several times before, but that’s the longest swim I had,” Hazel says. “You don’t have time to think about it, you just get on with it. The water didn’t feel cold at all. Didn’t lose my shoes.”
As the raft passed over her at the top of the rapid, Hazel managed to grab the flip line and hang on, but the raft spun away in another wave, leaving her alone in the water. She was able to turn into another wave and swim up it to the top, where she had a moment with her head well above the water.
“I had enough time to turn around and look back,” she says, “and I saw the boat about twenty feet away, over my left shoulder. I tumbled again, and I came up and the boat was right next to me.”
She managed to grab the raft again and, with Pam Mortenson hauling on her life jacket, was able to climb aboard. They hit one more big wave–hit it straight, luckily–and then Hazel was back at the oars.
“There was one rock ahead of us when I got to the oars, about six inches under the water, and I KNOW I’m not sticking to that rock,” Hazel says.
No way, no adding insult to injury. A few hard pulls and they were past the rock, safely in the tail waves of the rapid. Altogether, Hazel was in the water for maybe twenty seconds.
I ask her how long she was held down. A few seconds at a time, she says.
“It was more the turbulence, just the fact that I was getting rolled over. Because I was worried about being Maytagged.”
Getting Maytagged is what boatmen call getting caught in a keeper hole, one that holds you underwater and rolls you around and around in one place like a front-loading washing machine. Getting Maytagged drowns people. Hazel was lucky; we’ve all been lucky.
I ask Tom Martin how worried he was, with his wife in the water at the top of Hance Rapid.
He pauses to think. “The short answer? Very,” he says. “A swim at the top of Hance is typically fatal.”
Tom would know; he’s been keeping records of Canyon accidents and fatalities for years.
Clear Creek Canyon
It’s a big day for rapids: a mile and a half after Hance comes Sockdolager Rapid (a 7), and Grapevine (another 7) two miles after that. Sockdolager and Grapevine, though, are much more straightforward. Big waves–far bigger than anything I ever hope to encounter in my sail-and-oar boat–but pretty much a straight run through each one.
With Sockdolager and Grapevine, we’re into the inner gorge of Grand Canyon. Here giant angled fins of black rock drop directly into the river on both sides. It’s a dark narrow stretch known as Upper Granite Gorge. The black rock is Vishnu Schist, some of the oldest exposed rock on earth, shot through with veins of pink granite and quartz. We camp at a small beach at the base of the black cliffs, just upstream of Clear Creek Canyon.
It’s my day off, so I have no camp duties. Instead I join Tom Martin and Ian McCluskey for a steep scramble over a ridge of Vishnu Shist. The ridge separates our camp from Clear Creek Canyon, where we can get water (the Colorado is so silty it clogs filters unless you let the sand settle out overnight). We drag two empty six-gallon water cans and a gravity-fed filter up the ridge and down the other side.
Then it’s back to camp with the full jugs, ninety-five pounds of water. Tomorrow we’ll hit Phantom Ranch, at the base of the popular Bright Angel Trail. Civilization.
“You’re going to meet people who’ve had a shower in the last day,” Hazel says. “And they’re going to look at you and say ‘You’re one of those rough tough rivermen.’ You have to walk with the appropriate swagger.”
With her swim and self-rescue in Hance Rapid, Hazel has probably earned more of the swagger than the rest of us.
All historical photos in this blog are provided courtesy of Historic River Boats Afloat. All rights to these photos are retained; please do not re-use or re-post them without permission.