trust and love

there are two main ways to rig a whitewater raft. many of us have done half-day paddle trips: you meet at an outfitter, are assigned a helmet, pfd, and paddle. 6 to 8 people are shuffled onto a raft with one guide. you line the sides of the boat while the guide sits in back ruddering and calling out commands, “forward 3!” that’s called a paddle raft/boat.


 the other option is an oar rig. you remove the thwarts (the big yellow inflatable cross-beams in the top picture) and drop a metal frame on the same boat so that you can tie in gear and provide for seating and storage space – often for multi-day trips. one person rows the boat with a set of oars while 1-3 passengers sit in front.

i generally row oar rigs. in fact, i’ve never captained a paddle rig. i hope to have the chance sometime, but when it’s all said and done, what i love is the movement and precision of rowing. putting your boat where you want it to be and letting the river do the rest…praying that you read the water correctly when you chose your placement. often, in the biggest rapids, that’s all you can do. you’re kidding yourself if you think you can move a boat in certain currents. ok, MOST currents in big rapids. you just have to trust and keep the boat pointed at whatever’s coming your way. hit it straight, hit it straight, hit it straight!

when you’re rowing an oar rig, you’re in sole control of the boat. on the flip side, when you’re a passenger in an oar rig, you have zilch. well, you have your weight, which can be helpful at the right times, but you have no control over where the boat ends up…or which direction it’s pointing when it gets there. when you’re sharing rowing duties on a boat, this can get interesting: especially when your co-captain is well known to freeze mid-rapid and drift into enormous holes* sideways. (*this is a diagram of a ‘hole’. the water drifts over something and comes back at the boat – either  an open hole where water is flowing through it, but creating a big wall that can stop and flip a boat, or a recirculating hole that can do the same, but has an even greater chance to keep your boat and/or YOU, should you end up in the water. basically, you want to hit them straight. always.)

in three years, i’d been considering myself lucky for never having been tossed out of a boat during a rapid. in fact, i’d only ever seen a small handful of people ever go overboard…and i’d NEVER seen a boat flip. this season i realized that it was becoming an ominous black cloud – something rare and dangerous when, in fact, it’s not generally dangerous, and the rareity only depends on the skill level of the person on the oars. the the fact of the matter is that everyone will swim, and everyone will flip. it’s absolutely inevitable if you’re a rafter.

i’ve heard stories (many having experienced this while in a boat with my new co-captain) from people who were tossed out of a boat into a hole and tossed and tumbled in the hole several times before finally swimming to the bottom (see the diagram) where water was exiting the hole. stuck underwater. whew. that gives me the shivers. i’ve had nightmares about recirculating in a big hole. i’ve woken up sweating from such nights.

knowing all of these things…this is the trap i was setting for myself going into the grand canyon. i’m going to flip on this trip. i can feel it. whether i’ll be on the oars or on the passenger bench, time will tell. i just had my fingers crossed that it would be nowhere near a hole. but, as life would have it, it’s often your greatest fears that come into reality.

most rivers in the US are rated on a 1-5 scale, but the grand canyon – due to the sheer size of its waves – is rated on a different scale altogether: 1-10. there are two 10’s at most river levels: Crystal and Lava. early in the trip we decided that i would take lava and my co-captain would take crystal. the others we decided on a daily basis. an earlier rapid was highly technical, so i traded out in order to be able to run it. i would run Hance (the new Hance, as it had just been changed by flash flooding) and david would run Horn. two very big rapids, but hance was long and required a lot of movement, Horn was short and sweet. …so we thought. turns out horn’s not so sweet at 8,000cfs – the level at which we arrived that day.

we scouted, made our plan, and got back in the boats. i tightened down all the straps, tucked everything away that could possibly come loose. standard procedure. and then we shoved off. the idea was that david would pull into the rapid underneath the top feature. “pulling”, or rowing backwards, is a much stronger stroke and really the only hope of moving the boat in really pushy water. he was intending on handing whatever spin happened at the top of the rapid, straightening the boat out again and continuing to pull across hoping that the water rushing towards two massive holes at the bottom. it was our only chance of getting to the water rushing just left of those holes…the ‘safe’ current.

well, he pulled in perfectly. our stern hit the slackwater underneath a pourover – just as planned. the problem was in the spin. the river spun us…and rather than straightening out and continuing his pull…david froze. he eventually got it spun back sideways so that he could keep pulling, but by that time it was over. we were too close to the holes at the bottom with no time to move the boat. the only hope at that point is turning the boat and hitting it straight with some momentum…and then hoping the first hole didn’t slow us down too much for the second hole directly following it. we didn’t do that. we drifted into them sideways…

the first hole delivered us unscathed… but only to the to the toothier second hole which wasn’t quite as kind. as we rode up the wall on the front of the hole, i felt the boat going over and myself tumbling back into the deepest part of the hole. i fell into the water and looked up to see a 2-ton raft flipping over and coming down on top of my head. just as i start trying to swim away (impossible in my location) my deepest fears came true: i was sucked underwater by this big nasty hole.  ….but here’s where it gets good.

as i felt my body go under, i was shocked that as i tumbled underwater, my feeling was not that of fear, but of gratitude. i was thanking the river for getting me out of the way of that boat. the boat – the thing i had always seen as my safe zone – was the only thing capable of hurting me in that moment. and the hole – the thing i had always feared  – was my hero. i swear i was smiling as i drifted through the bowels of that hole and was propelled 40 feet downriver before i popped up again, fine and well. even happy!

i had swam. finally. it was no longer looming in front of me. it had happened and had left me even more certain of my love for the river and the river’s deep love for me. john king, prior to the trip, had spoken to me about my fears. he asked me, “calais, what you need to decide is…do you love this river?” it was a deep resounding yes. “well then, remember that this river loves you. it’ll never give you more than you can handle.”

it was true. in fact, i learned many times over on this trip that the boat can often be the only potentially harmful thing in the river. sometimes you’re safer far from it. incredible.

safety is such an illusion. trust and love… trust and love…



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Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh and the greatness which does not bow before children.
-Kahlil Gibran

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