Day 22: A Long Way to Go and a Short Time To Get There
Today’s run takes us from our camp at Bridge Canyon, river mile 235, a long long way to somewhere around mile
263–twenty-eight or twenty-nine miles. We’re hoping for tailwinds.
Here below Diamond Creek, we’re actually heading into the upper reaches of Lake Mead. The Canyon is a bit wider here,
more open, and all along the steep sandy banks are piles of sand dropped here as the river slowly silts out. Glen
Canyon Dam, two hundred and sixty miles upstream, prevents the Colorado River’s natural cycle of floods from flushing
the Canyon free from silt and debris, and imposes a time limit–no one is sure how long, of course–on the lifespan
of Hoover Dam downstream. Eventually Lake Mead will be filled with silt; Glen Canyon Dam is only delaying the
inevitable, a brief anomaly in the steady flow of geologic time.
Our new crew members–Rich Turner, Helen, Elmira, Kristin, and John–are adjusting well. We have one tiny riffle
left just below camp, so I remind everyone that today is probably their last chance to join the Colorado River
Swim Club. Eventually we shove off and head downriver, but no one takes advantage of the opportunity.
And then for a long long long long long time we float down the river. Just when it seems it can’t go on any longer,
it does. There’s the usual stop for lunch along a sandy beach and then the day continues. At least, for the most
part, we’ve had the hoped-for tail winds. But there are snaky corners of the Canyon where headwinds prevail.
Craig Wolfson actually has a wind-ometer aboard the Susie R, and at lunch he tells me the highest gust he recorded
was thirty-seven miles per hour. Having rowed Fat George through the headwinds, I’m convinced the highest gust are
a good ten miles per hour over his readings.
There’s another new arrival at lunch: the Gem’s missing oar, lost yesterday. Another group of rafters found it and
left it on a beach with a “For Sale” sign attached. Some of our boatmen saw it and hid it away on their boats. Now
at lunch they present the missing oar to Tom Martin. The Gem’s flip just became a lot less expensive than Tom thought
it would be. We stand around at our lunch beach eating sandwiches–our new crew members brought in fresh mangoes,
tomatoes, and lettuce. Lunch just got better. But finally we’re underway again, with miles to go before we camp.
Headwinds and Other Disasters
I thought rowing my little fourteen-foot sailboat Jagular in stiff headwinds was tough work, but after tbree weeks
of a two-thousand pound raft I’ve changed my mind. Today the wind is blowing so hard there are whitecaps on the
river, and if you stop rowing for a moment you’re parked in the current, or even heading upstream. Finally I
discover part of the problem: Dave Mortenson, my morning crew, (always blame the crew) has left a mesh bag filled
with half a dozen cans of PBR hanging off the port bow. It’s a great sea anchor–we’re last in our fleet of ten
boats by a long stretch. At least we’ve handed out river-chilled cans of PBR to the boats that have passed us.
Slow but popular–that’s us.
But we’re doing better than we were yesterday, when Dave Mortenson was riding shotgun aboard Fat George. It was
his second day riding with me. The first, a long ways back, was when we ran Horn Creek Rapid together and I almost
successfully gave Dave the deep six by cleverly neglecting to tie down the hatch cover that he was using for a
handhold as we went into the eight-foot drop. Yesterday, though, we did one better. Approaching a minor ripple
with a single spike of rock–maybe two feet of obstruction in a river a hundred feet wide–we piled directly
onto the rock.
There are a number of things that can happen when you hit a rock. You can, in a rubber boat, bounce off. Or you
can slide over into the hole that’s usually waiting beneath. Or you can grind to halt and get stuck on top of the
rock. Or, perhaps most interestingly, you can slide up on the rock, get briefly stuck, and drop the downriver
side of the boat into the hole while the upriver side is still parked on the rock. This last option is usually
the most dramatic. It’s the one Dave and I chose–sideways.
There’s no disaster you can encounter in a raft that you can’t make even more interesting by going into it
sideways. For a long moment our raft hung on the rock, broadside to the current, and then the port side dropped
into the hole. I had a brief glimpse of Dave hurled from side to side, banging around the cockpit and sliding
across the decks, and then I was throwing my body toward the starboard side–the high side–of the boat. This
move is, appropriately enough, known as high-siding. In theory, the application of a terrified boatman’s weight
with the proper amount of force can counter the seemingly inevitable flip that precedes the usual high-side
Remember that this one single rock was the only obstruction in an otherwise completely placid stretch of river.
But a skilled boatman can find excitement everywhere. It takes a keen eye and a lot of river sense to pick out
and run the most challenging line.
We came through our high-siding intact, and only had to do a few dozen laps in the recirculating keeper hole
below the rock before we were spat back into the current. I thought it would be the day’s moment of high
drama–until the later boat flips and swimmers dropped it off the list. But now, a day later, replaying the
incident allows a temporary escape from the tedium of intermittent headwinds.
From the Fury of the Norsemen, Good Lord, Deliver Us
And then the longship appears on the river. Or, more accurately, two rafts lashed together end-to-end: Cece and
Yoshie have joined forces, with Elmira, Pam Mortenson, and Natalie aboard as crew. I’m enticed to join them, on
the theory that misery loves company, or a fool and his money being soon parted, or something like that. Now
that I’ve removed my PBR sea anchor from the water I’m making good time, and I’m reluctant at first. But I’m
intrigued, too: will the usual theoretical limit on hull speed (Hull Speed = 1.34 x the square root of a boat’s
waterline length) hold true for rubber rafts lashed together? I tie onto their stern to find out.
Results of the empirical testing are inconclusive. We may well be the fastest boat on the river, but the three
boats’ insane inchworming means we’re covering twice as many river miles as anyone else. We rig a steering oar
at the stern of Fat George to try to keep our boat straight–or at least, straighter than the U-shaped monstrosity
that seems to be its natural shape–but the steering oar proves to be a mistake. Natalie immediately takes charge
of it, and starts shouting orders to her crew.
“Pull! Pull!” she shouts in true despot fashion, keeping a tempo we can’t match. We keep rowing, and she keeps
shouting. “Pull! Pull!” Every now and then she shoves the steering oar far to port, or to starboard. Results seem
to be the same either way. Our crew keeps rowing hard–believe it or not, we’re still ahead of several other boats.
The Portola catches us and briefly ties in at the bow to make it a four-boat flotilla, a fifty-four footer, but
Greg Hatten stays attached only long enough to row us into an eddy, where he drops his connecting lines and rows
away like a rat deserting a sinking ship.
In fact, the only way to steer our longship, it turns out, is for the lead boatman to row like hell and point the
lead raft in the direction we’re hoping to go. Eventually–usually–the tail end of the train will snake around like
a sidewinder and head in the same general direction. By then, though, it’ll be time for the lead boatman to make a
correction in the opposite direction. And so we row down the river, snaking along in giant S-curves and steering like
a Mississippi tugboat captain, planning the next move several bends of the river in advance.
But we’re still ahead of a couple of boats. Well, we’re ahead of one boat–Ian and Hazel–after Richard passes us in
the Susie Too. We’re expecting to camp at any moment so we keep rowing hard. Can’t let Ian pass us before camp. It’s
just up ahead. But hmm… the other eight boats are already pulling out, so far ahead we can barely make them out.
We’re not camping there, it seems. We pass another potential campsite, and another, and still none of the boats stop.
None of the campsites we’ve passed have been particularly attractive–they’re silted out and overgrown with
tamarisk–but by this point the crew of the longship is willing to settle for a shrub to tie off to and a night
aboard. Anything to stop rowing. We rotate in and out for breaks, and talk about throwing Pam Mortenson overboard
so we can blow our man overboard whistles and bring the rest of the fleet to a forced halt. But finally it occurs
to us that not only does my boat have the cooler with all of our fresh food aboard, but we’ve also got all the PBR.
We’re pretty self-sufficient, which cheers us up immeasurably. We rummage around in the cooler and discover lunch
meat, cheese, and better yet, a bag of left-over Dutch oven brownies. I immediately eat a chunk of brownie bigger
than my head and begin rowing with increased vigor.
And up ahead the boats have pulled into camp. twenty minutes later and we’re tied up alongside. There are no