Cold Beer and Shrinkage
by dustin sturges
Rachel and I went down to Southern Utah a few weeks ago so that we could climb a little and get my raft out of storage. We drove all-night and got to Durango at about 2 a.m. As the sun came up, we gathered our thirty-year-old Udisco raft and hit the road.
We sped North along highway 191 to Moab. We had our sights set on Washer Woman Tower at the other end of Canyonlands National Park. We turned in at the Potash road and almost ran off the road a few times looking at the roadside climbs. The dirt road at the end of Potash is well maintained and after many miles, connects with the white rim trail that runs the length of the park.
We got to the boat ramp just beyond the gigantic hole in the canyon that is the Potash mine, and unloaded. The shuttles were dispatched for the long drive down to Hite Marina where the plane was being readied to fly them back to Moab. For most of the day, we tried our best to get the mountain of gear we brought to fit into the twin Udiscos and the brand new perky NRS boat that we had rented. I have no idea how we did it, but we did. The other Udisco had been bought by some family friends when we bought ours. It was captained by O-man, the oldest son from that family.
Adam Olsen got the name O-man from the many occasions that the rest of the tribe would sit in the eddy watching him through the cracks of their fingers unable to say anything but "oh, man!"
For the next four days we rowed. Flat water is an arduous task to undertake in a raft. Your hands get hard, and your back gets sore. Every night we were treated to the epicurean creativity that Scott and his girlfriend Alex had brought for us. After dinner we would pass the guitar around the campfire until we fell asleep. Between five musicians we never ran out of songs.
We all awoke rather sluggishly on the fifth day, having had a layover day to patch the Udiscos and lighten the load of beer we had brought. The early morning was spent getting everything strapped on as securely as we could. The law of averages says at least one out of three boats will flip in the rapids that we were running that day. Fortunately, we had partied like rock stars the night before, so almost everything heavy went into the NRS boat, leaving the leaky Udiscos well above the water line.
As we rowed out, a chatter of fear-sparked-excitement went through the entire group. We had all run white water before, but O-man and I had always been on the business end of the bail buckets that were now faithfully manned by Rachel and John in my boat, and by Steph in O-man's. The sun was beating down and we were all happy at the prospect of getting a little wet-at least as we floated past the Doll House. The Doll House is a twisted, odd formation that looks like something out of a Salvador Dali painting. We listened to what sounded like a 747 airliner flying low up the canyon and enjoyed the calm before the storm.
Coming into the first rapid, I was having doubts about my ability as a boatman, but the four previous days of flat water rowing served me well. The canyon dropped away below us and sucked us in. I turned and twisted the boat to meet each four-foot wave as it came. We got a little bit wet, but the line that our fleet of five kayakers picked was always good.
Cataract Canyon consists of about twenty rapids, but only four are named: Mile Long (aptly named), and Big Drops 1, 2 and 3 (also aptly named). We read and ran Mile Long and Big Drop 1 without stopping, but as the cacophony from down stream began to deafen us, we pulled over to scout. The sight that greeted me as I topped the rise we had parked behind could only be described as terrifying.
The river, already running fast, narrowed thirty feet and dropped twenty in the space of a few hundred yards. Jagged, house-sized boulders jutted out of the middle like the teeth of an enormous pre-historic beast waiting to close its jaws on anyone daft or unlucky enough to find themselves in the middle of them. The school bus sized holes were the throat of the creature and standing up above them, I was sure I could see clear to China.
We sat there contemplating the true meaning of stupidity as we chose our lines-left of the first tooth then pull right for all that you're worth to avoid the throat, and ride the tail into the eddy at the bottom. Scott was the first to go. We watched as he paddled out into the stream, his kayak looked like a child's paper boat in the raging torrent. He hit the first wave and disappeared, surfacing thirty feet down stream upside down. He rolled back up, gave a hoot of triumph and eddied out.
O-man was next paddling raft A (the Udiscos were labeled A and B in ancient fading spray paint). He dropped in and headed towards the first tooth. He misjudged the distance and had to paddle forward to avoid the rock, killing his momentum. He missed the rock, but was sucked straight down the throat of the beast. All of us on the shore held our breath as he squared up to the hole, calm as Buddha and grinning like the Cheshire cat. The raft stopped dead as it hit the massive wall of water. It then folded violently in half, right on top of Steph. Just as we were pulling the body bags out of the other rafts, the monster spit out raft "A" with extreme prejudice. After a full three sixty, O-man was able to straighten out and paddle to the eddy, still calm and grinning. The roar of cheers from up river could almost be heard over the roar of the beast. Two more boats to go.
I was next. Being the least experienced boatman of the group, I wanted to be in the middle of the other two rafts (so the first could show me the line, and the second could pick up the pieces after I screwed it up). I returned to my raft and informed my passengers of our position. "O-man just got schooled. I think we're going to die." Luckily, my boat mates were much more optimistic than I was (poor fools) and we shoved off.
"Left of the rock- not too close- pull right-NOW!" The teeth passed by on the right, and the throat on the left, just as we planned. We got some minor slaps from the tail, but made it to the eddy in good shape.
As my bailers went to work, I concentrated on breathing. Time for the last raft. An experienced boatman named Chad, whom we also had grown up with, was rowing the NRS boat. It was the only one of the three that was guaranteed not to sink on the flat water, so we had loaded it down with everything we could fit into it. Unfortunately this made the boat too heavy to avoid the throat, and in went another. The three-thousand-pound raft barreled into the throat. When it hit, it bucked violently, heaving two of the three passengers ten feet into the air. Then just by sheer merit of mass, it punched through the other side. The passengers soared like eagles and dropped like rocks. They hit the water about twenty feet apart.
Alex swam back to the NRS, and the other (who shall remain nameless) rode the tail into the eddy where he climbed aboard our boat. All I could do was hand him a beer and laugh. He had been in a kayak, swam Mile Long and Big Drop 1, gotten into the raft, and ended up swimming 2 anyway.
We scouted Big Drop 3. It looked fairly straight forward; line up ten feet off of the first tooth, miss the throat of death on the right, and ride it straight out the other end. O-man went first again. "No worries, no hurries, no panic." Unless he gets swallowed, he makes everything look so easy. This one he just danced through.
I was next. I had to get lined up fast because there was a strong current going the wrong way. We followed the eddy line around and pulled into the maelstrom a little too late. I was pulling with everything I had, but it just wasn't enough. We were headed for a large rock, but that wasn't my main concern. I was concerned about the giant hole on the other side. We narrowly missed the rock on the wrong side. Everyone in the boat cheered.
"Don't cheer yet! We're screwed!" I screamed, and pulled for our lives.
The looks of stark terror on the faces of John and Rachel as the monster hole reared its head just down stream would have been hilarious if I had not been in the same boat. I was rowing as hard as I could, and was amazed to see the hole pass by on the right as I squared the boat. Not exactly as planned, but good line anyway.
The NRS boat pulled through the last drop without a hitch and we rode the river on to camp. The sun slowly set in the West and the tribesmen all drank for their swimming. One beer out of Woody's river bootie for each incident. Tales of river heroism filled the still canyon darkness.