Day 13: Dear Creek
That day the wind blew strong and true up the Canyon, and the boatman rowed his raft into the teeth of it. It was not
easy. But then, he thought, you did not expect it to be easy. You did not want that. And the light was clean and bright
on the golden walls above them and the boatman rowed the way the old river rats had showed him, a smooth strong pull
and a pronounced forward lean as he sank the oar blades into the water and he feathered the oars on each stroke and
his arms were bare as a boatman’s should be, though it was really too cold for bare arms and he did not have the abs
of a true boatman anyway. Still, it was good to be rowing in the chill air of the Canyon morning and it was good to
have bare arms and to be as much of a boatman as he could be even without the abs. He tried to match the straightness
and the trueness of the wind with the strokes of his rowing and although he did not completely succeed he did not
completely fail either.
And the wind blew. First there were four boats ahead of him, then three, and then he remembered what the old river
rats had told him, that it was now, when the wind blew, that you could tell who the real rowers were. And his oar
blades dipped faster, and he pulled more strongly, and soon there were only two boats ahead of him.
And here the Canyon narrowed. Tall walls of schist and granite rose on each side. Above him now was a huge cave and
as he rowed he stared into its mouth and he pulled hard on the oars and he thought about this place, how it was the
narrowest part of the Canyon and here he was between the walls of it, rowing.
And the wind still blew. And the boatman rowed. And as he rowed he thought about his lost hat, a hat that had been
with him for many years and had just been reaching the perfect broken-in-ness that the hat of a true boatman should
have, and he remembered the sight of the hat floating down the left side of Unkar Rapid. He had hoped then to recover
the hat at the bottom of the rapid, but he had not been able to. But then, he thought, you did not really expect to
recover the hat. You had only hoped.
But the hat had floated away down the left side of Unkar and he had floated down the right side and he had never
seen the hat again. But the river still flowed downstream between the red walls and the giant fins of schist and as
he rowed the boatman thought that if he had had to lose his hat somewhere and not recover it then the Canyon was a
fitting place to do it. After all, he thought, you can always get another hat. It is true that it will take many
years to break in a new hat, but that is a small price to pay for a trip down the Canyon.
For the Canyon exacts a price of every man who runs it, the boatman knew. And if his hat was to be that price then
he would count himself lucky to have gotten away with something so foolish at so little cost. For the boatman had
never rowed whitewater before and the size and the steepness and the explosiveness of the waves in the big rapids
surprised him still and as he slid down the tongue of each big rapid the jittery feeling he had had the first time,
at Badger Creek Rapid, returned again and again. But then, he thought, you did not expect anything different when
you began this trip.
And the wind blew, and the boatman rowed on. And as he rowed he felt the chill of the morning and the coolness of
the wind on his bare arms and because he no longer had a hat he wore a blue bandana tied on his head. And there
were the inevitable comments about pirates from his companions. But then, the boatman thought, you knew they would
make those comments when you tied the bandana on your head. You did not expect anything different. And soon there
was only one boat ahead of him.
And here the river became a mass of swirling eddies that formed circling whirlpools between the granite walls and
as he rowed the boatman reflected on what he had learned of eddies. You did not expect so many eddies, he thought.
You expected the river to flow downstream. And yet, most of the river did not flow downstream, the boatman knew now.
Most of the river was a mass of circling water that waited to snare passing rafts. Or, the boatman thought, if you
are trying to eddy out to wait for your companions, the swirling water will do its best to keep you out. Yes, the
boatman thought, that is a fair definition of what an eddy is. An eddy is a place in the river that when you want
to pass by, it sucks you in. And when you want to enter the eddy, it spits you out.
But then, the boatman thought, you did not expect this to be easy. You did not want that.
And the wind blew straight and true and the boatman dipped his oars into the water and leaned back slightly as he
pulled and leaned far forward at the end of the stroke and rolled his wrists to feather the oar blades the way the
old river rats had showed him and his boat surged forward into the wind and the boatman’s bare arms were warm in
the sun now and the shade was gone and without the wind it would have been hot. But the wind kept blowing.
You did not expect the wind, the boatman thought. That is something that you were not prepared for. Still, you did
not want it to be easy, for then a run down the Canyon would be no different than a stop at the South Rim visitor
center. And as he rowed the boatman thought about that visitor center, and how it had been there that he had been
given his first knife by his father. And he remembered how he had worn the knife on his belt for the rest of the
summer, and for many summers after that. He thought, too, about the mules and about how he had wanted to ride one
of them down the dusty trail to Phantom Ranch and how disappointed he had been when he had not been allowed to do so.
And now, the boatman thought, you have been to Phantom Ranch. You have walked the dusty trails at the bottom of the
Canyon and you have petted a white mule in a dusty corral and you have called the mule by name as you petted him and
wished for a carrot to give to him in the loneliness and the dust of the corral. Although, the boatman thought, you
did not really know his name and it was only a guess that the mule was called Whitey. Still, the mule had not
objected. He had even leaned his head sideways into the petting and scratching and had stood there a long while and
had stared hopefully after you as you had walked away.
It was in the canteen, the boatman thought, that you had paid your last three dollars for two lemonades and had
taken them out into the shade outside the canteen and drunk them one after the other. The last time you had been
in the Canyon you got a knife, he thought. And this time, two lemonades. The lemonades had been tart and cold and
the bottom of the cups had been filled with ice and he had drunk them both without pausing between, one after
another, drinking them so quickly that your teeth ached with the cold. And they had been good lemonades, perhaps
the best he had ever tasted.
But now he was rowing and the boat was pointed into the wind and his arms were bare as a boatman’s should be and
he did not put on his rain jacket or even his fleece pullover in the small rapids. He ran them straight and he
pulled at the oars to keep the bow of the boat pointed into the waves and he did not flinch as the water splashed
over his face and on his bare arms. After all, he thought, you did not expect it to be dry. And it was not dry.
And as he rowed the boatman thought about his camera, and how it had perhaps not been a good idea to leave the
camera beside him on the rowing bench as he had run that last small rapid. He picked up the camera and pressed
the power button but nothing happened. But then, the boatman thought, you did not expect it to work now. Still,
he thought, perhaps it is only that the batteries in the camera are dead. And the wind blew, and the boatman kept rowing. And now there were no boats ahead of him, and the boatman thought
that that was perhaps not a good thing. Because, he thought, you do not know where we are going. Your map is
tucked away into a dry bag at the very bottom of a pile of other people’s dry bags and there is no way you will
be able to get at the map now. And even if you could get at the map, the boatman thought, you do not know the
name of the camp we are planning to stay at and you do not know where the camp is or how far downriver.
And the wind blew, and the boatman rowed, and the map stayed buried in the black dry bag at the bottom of the
raft and soon they would be passing a camp whose name he did not know and behind him a long line of boats
followed where the boatman rowed.