Day 23: The Things They Carried
The river rats were defined, at least in part, by the things they carried, which varied according to mission and personal
preference. They all carried cam straps–red ones, blue ones, wide black ones–and some of them, like Norm Takasugawa,
seemed to carry more straps than could possibly be necessary and yet Norm used them all and would still ask the boatmen
nearby if they had any extra straps, and would find a way to use them if the answer was yes. The straps weighed 5.6 ounces
each, and the wide ones 9.1 ounces each, and there were straps lashed and girth-hitched and strapped to every corner of
And all of them carried dry bags, which weighed somewhere between 11.4 and 56 pounds. They carried their own personal dry
bags, and they carried everyone else’s dry bags, and they carried other dry bags that no one was ever seen to use at any
time on the twenty-four day trip and yet even these bags had to be loaded and strapped and carried up the steep beaches,
and then carried back down the steep beaches and reloaded and strapped down again in the morning.
Some of them carried two six-gallon water cans, which weighed 1.8 pounds when empty and 49.8 pounds when filled with
water, and they carried them up and down steep narrow trails through thick brush to refill them. And David Perez
carried the kitchen box, which weighed enough that carrying it up and down the steep beaches was a two-person job
although on more than one occasion David had been seen carrying the box himself. Three of the boatmen carried aluminum
tables with folding legs. The tables weighed 8.4 pounds each and, like everything else, had to be carried up and down
the steep beaches, not only every morning and evening but one of them, also, at every lunch stop along the way. Roughly
sixteen percent of the river rats’ time was spent carrying tables, although they did not complain about this.
Hazel Clark carried the groover box with its toilet seat and pee bucket seat and soap and hand sanitizer and toilet
paper and rubber gloves and toilet bowl brush and a bottle of powdered Clorox to sprinkle upon groover deposits to
control odor and also the all-important statuette whose absence from the head of the groover trail indicated that
the groover was in use, although sometimes one of them would forget to bring the statuette back with them from the
groover, which caused no end of problems when it occurred. And some of the other boatmen carried boxes of shit and
used toilet paper, although they had originally been filled with wood and bore tape labels that stated: Shitbox Full
of Wood–labels which the boatman carrying the box was well advised to modify to read: Shitbox Full after what was
contained in it was no longer firewood but instead other organic materials.
The baggage boats carried huge coolers filled with block ice and lunch meat and milk and soy milk and mayonnaise and
Grey Poupon and French’s Mustard and Jimmy Dean breakfast sausages with a half-life of 3.8 months. And each boat
carried ammo cans, which weighed anywhere from 6.4 to 37 pounds and were filled with food and trash though with
luck never both at the same time. And other boats carried plastic waterproof containers filled with Tabasco sauce
and green Tabasco sauce and cinnamon and salt and vegetable oil and olive oil and canola oil and paper towels.
Craig Wolfson carried the rescue kit with its carabiners and pulleys and long static lines, which weighed 28.3 pounds
and was what they used to right Norm’s boat after he daringly chose the far right run at Killer Fang Falls, introducing
both himself and his passenger Pam Wolfson to the Colorado River Swim Club. And Pam Wolfson carried a two-piece drysuit
of expensive waterproof material, a suit she wore every single day of the trip. Except the day she flipped in Killer
All of them carried toss lines, which the writer used to fish Pam Wolfson out of the river at Killer Fang Falls. And
they carried an extensive vocabulary, much of it profane. And the profanity level went up as the waves got bigger and
the holes got deeper, and went further up as rafts and dories did things their boatmen did not want them to do–things
like going into a big wave sideways, or running the hole at Two Hundred and Nine Mile Rapid and flipping.
Greg Hatten carried lollipops and booze, which weighed a lot but no one ever complained about it. And besides, the load
was lightened rapidly as the trip proceeded. And Tom Martin, Norm Takasugawa, and Greg Hatten carried a disturbing
tendency to sing the morning coffee call and the evening dinner call in four-part harmony that sometimes bordered on
barbershop and other times on insanity. Besides which, Greg Hatten carried also an even more disturbing tendency to
break into song–the song in question being invariably “My Sharona” with lyrics changed to “My Portola,” an infectious
and unbreakable habit he had been introduced to by Ian McCluskey, a never-ending font of obscure songs.
And Ian McCluskey carried ten thousand dollars worth of camera gear and a hip flask filled with single-malt Scotch,
and the lyrics to every song written in the U.S. between 1968 and 1989; and at times he was known to carry two open
cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon at the same time, although later he made the claim that only one of the cans was for himself,
though none of the other river rats stepped forward to claim the second can.
Natalie carried her own lime-green dry bag, which weighed more than she did and was bigger, too, and she carried it
up and down the steep beaches by herself, where she set up her own tent each night (a tent that on one memorable
occasion she even managed to capsize while inside it). And Pam Mortenson carried in her head the location of every
piece of food on the trip, which was a necessity because she was also the only one among them able to decipher the
menus and food location sheets she had prepared for the others so they would not constantly pester her with questions
about why the kale was not on David’s boat where the list said it was, or where the bread rounds for lunch could be
found, or the second bottle of vegetable oil. And she carried the weight of having to answer these same questions
every day as each new cook crew came on duty. We have yet to find the lettuce.
Cece Mortenson carried a boundless enthusiasm for steep long hikes on loose rock, which weighed more heavily upon
her companions than it did upon her. And she carried an ill-advised notion that several rafts lashed together into
one long raft would be faster than a raft by itself. And she carried, too, a hat that more than one bystander
characterized as being reminiscent of a bellhop’s, which seemed odd on someone whose life was a chaotic mess of
mountain guiding in Canada, skiing in Afghanistan, and teaching polar survival in Antarctica for three seasons.
Randy Dersham, when he was still with them, carried a ridiculous hat designed to look like a visor whose spiky
gray-and-white hair perfectly matched Randy’s own hair–so perfectly that it was three days before the writer
realized Randy was wearing a hat. And after Randy left, the hat stayed with them. And Crystal Elliot carried a
helmet which she wore in the rapids and carried also a look of intense focus and even more importantly she carried
the cook crew, which apart from her consisted only of the mostly helpless writer and the equally helpless Dave
Leif Mortenson carried a bewildering network of cables and motors and cords and volt meters and power strips and
satellite phones and twelve-volt batteries, all of which weighed more than a single person could carry in one
trip although on more than one occasion Leif carried it all and manhandled it into the river where electricity
may or may not have been generated by the river’s flow. And Leif carried, too, his newly earned “Left At Bedrock”
membership and an occasional willingness to crack open a river-chilled PBR before 10:00 a.m. And in camp he carried
an endearing inability to remember whether at any given moment he was speaking in Japanese or English, stopping
himself midstream on more than one occasion to say (usually incorrectly) “I’m sorry, that was in Japanese, wasn’t
it?” and also carried the responsibility for being the only one of the group to be able to solve the
“Truthteller and the Liar” riddle, inventing a completely new and insanely complicated method to do so.
And all of them, once they reached the Hualapai Reservation on or about Day 21, carried a habit of bursting into
Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” whenever a Hualapai tourist helicopter flew by overhead, which happened often, over
and over, transforming the silence of the Canyon with its bubbling waters and twittering wrens into a near-continuous
Airwolf roar for the last few days of the trip.
And they carried, some of them, little tubes of chapstick, which all unbeknownst to them melted to liquid wax in the
day’s heat and poured uselessly onto the sand whenever they were opened. And Dave Mortenson, on the morning of the
last day, carried streaks of lipstick on his feet which appeared there after Dave’s mistaken belief that it was one
of the chapstick tubes he held in his hand.
And they carried Richard Carrier, a token Frenchman and Chilean river rat. And Richard carried an orange Patagonia
jacket which had been a present from his girlfriend, and a outrageously cool French accent and a surprising command
of the nuances of American profanity, although made perhaps inappropriately elegant because of his accent. And he
carried, too, a surprising resemblance to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride as he rode the big rapids, and yet he rode them all
without flipping or bashing his boat onto the rocks and even mostly managed to keep hold of both oars.
Yoshie carried silence and calm like a quiet evening even in the midst of white watery chaos, and carried, too, an
astounding cleanliness that made her appear that she might, at any moment, be off to play in a polo match, and also
a shy quiet smile and two dry bags at once, each bigger than herself, and at night she carried a need to stand on
the lunch boxes to reach the table for cook crew and supper dishes.
Norm, besides his endless straps, carried 426 pounds of M & Ms and Chewy Chips Ahoy cookies and also a cage on the
back of his raft that contained a baby condor he had constructed from the discarded pelvis of a long-dead desert
creature, with a beak carved of driftwood and stained yellow with French’s mustard, and a few feathers epoxied on.
And he carried, too, a disturbing (especially to his passengers) tendency to choose a run through each rapid that
no one else would run–usually for good reason.
And Dave Mortenson carried with him a bottomless leprechaun’s bag of stories–stories about Republican politics in
Washington state; stories about dramatic leaps from falling boulders onto tall and many-spined barrel cactuses;
stories about masturbating monkeys and Moulty Fulmer; and stories about fires at Nankoweap and long cold hikes in
the Canyon and routes that reach all the way from the river to the rim but are not for the faint of heart; and he
carried a pith helmet with a khaki chin strap which he wore to honor his father, who had run rivers with Moulty
Fulmer and Pat Reilly and other early river rats.
And Craig Wolfson, after Randy was no longer with them, carried the ridiculous hat, and also carried a casual and
lanky rowing style even in the biggest of the big rapids, a slow steady unhurried pulling that always put his boat
on the right line and, frankly, made his runs boring to watch because of their complete lack of drama and a total
absence of “Oh, shit!” moments. He carried, too, an unceasing habit of telling rookie boatmen how they could be
completely fucked up and die in whatever rapid the rookie boatman was currently scouting. “I saw a twenty-two
foot snout boat run this rapid,” he’d say, “with sixteen men on the oars. They hit that lateral wave there, got
surfed into the hole, and got Maytagged around in their until they ran out of food and had to start drawing straws
to see which one of them they would eat next. They never did make it out,” he’d end with, and walk away.
David Perez, besides his red-white-and-blue knit beanie, carried a propensity for eating meat as often as possible,
and in as big a quantity as he could manage. And he carried, too, a helmet–for one and only one run–which came in
handy when his raft landed on his head. And he carried, when the trip was done, a tan that was wholly inappropriate
for the Pacific Northwest.
And Hazel Clark carried a quiet competence and a willingness to work hard and without attention, an attitude
underscored by an elegant English accent, although her long stay in canyon country had eroded the accent to such
an extent that she no longer was able to say “al-you-min-ee-um” in proper British fashion without prompting.
And the writer carried a tiny netbook and a keen eye for other people’s failings and eccentricities, and also an
unvarying habit of shouting “Disaster!” anytime that he spilled or dropped something during cooking duty, which
added greatly to the excitement of everyone in camp and made supper much more enjoyable for all. And he carried,
too, a thick grey cable-knit sweater which he wore in the morning in camp before repacking his dry bags and
carrying them down the steep beaches and loading and strapping them onto his boat. And he carried an endless
knowledge of natural history, from the giant cave bears and canyon lions whose claw marks can still be seen on
the basalt walls, to the little-known rowing goats and how the lyrics to the instructional song “Row, Row, Row
Your Goat” have become corrupted over the years to the present “Boat” which totally destroys the memory of the
intrepid tundra goatmen, who, lacking wood to build boats, would capture mountain goats and row them across the
rivers. And all of the rest of them, especially ten-year-old Natalie, who was most frequently the target of the
writer’s instruction, carried an unfounded tendency to automatically disbelieve anything the writer said.
And most important, the writer carried a river hat with a braided blue cord around the brim and snaps on the side
that allowed one side or the other to be folded up against his head, and it was the hat that the river had given
him in exchange for the one he had lost in unkar Rapid many days before.
And Tom Martin, whose maps and guidebooks they all carried with them, carried high rubber boots that he wore on
the colder days–thigh-high boots that made him look like either a river pirate or a dominatrix, depending on the
propensities of the observer. And Tom carried also a habit of prompting Natalie to pester her grandpa for her own
kayak each morning, and he carried the knowledge and experience of more than fifty Canyon river trips. And he
carried, too, an infectious enthusiasm and an unvarying belief that anyone, even a never-rowed-whitewater rookie
from Wisconsin, could handle the big rapids and the holes and the eddies and all the challenges of the Canyon.
But the best of them, Natalie, carried this: a giggle that can light up the river, a strength and unending
enthusiasm for rowing heavy boats, and a happy grin and a habit of running the most difficult rapids multiple
times, and an amazing analytical ability to read the rivers (“Norm is going too far right,” she said just before
he flipped on the Killer Fangs. “He isn’t going to make it.”), and a high tolerance for hiking and scrambling up
loose rocky peaks, and also a disappointing ability to know when the writer was lying to her about giant cave bears
and rowing goats, and an enthusiasm for lollipops and cocoa-covered almonds.
And now, on the final day, they carried the need to pack up camp one more time and leave the Canyon behind for
now. Straps, coolers, frames, floors, oars, oarlocks, everything must be stripped off the rubber boats and loaded
somewhere else, and endless sorting of gear and bags and boxes and stoves and tents and ammo cans, and the wooden
boats loaded onto their trailers, and all of it a last long ritual to mark their passage down the river.
And the group will separate, and go their separate ways, and maybe never assemble again in this exact combination;
yet they will carry with them, all of the boatmen and passengers, the memory of their time on the river and their
long slow timeless trip down the Canyon and between the high stone walls. And after the last great unloading of
boats and re-packing of gear they’ll return to school and jobs and life outside the Canyon, but they will not