At the end of the day –

I lay awake for a long time in my sleeping bag, haunted by visions of the furious Colorado River surging over rocks, rapids, and re-circulators. I didn’t envision people in trouble in these torrents. Just swift, powerful, frenzied maelstroms keeping me awake for a long, long time.

At the start of the day:

Brian’s raft was ill-tempered. Sluggish. A real dog. We knew this from rowing the upper rapids in Cataract Canyon the day before. We’d lost an oarlock on the trip down so we borrowed oars from Western River in Moab, where Richard had worked. They weren’t a good fit for our raft and that worried us today. Rich’s raft worked well.

Up early at our Range Creek camp, we breakfasted and loaded the boats. Tasha and I got in dog-boat with Brian, and Amanda and Jordan jumped in with Rich. We planned to run Mile Long Rapid and pull in at the top of Big Drop 1 to scout the whole Big Drop complex. We were the earlieast boats on the river.

Big Drop 3 makes running Big Drop 2 a precise matter – how do you run Big Drop 2 without being dragged into “Satan’s Gut” on the left side of Big Drop 3? And if you run right in Big Drop 2, how do you avoid “Little Niagara”, the gigantic hole there? We‘d plan how not to do either of those when we stopped at Big Drop 1.

If we were anticipating the Big Drops, Mile Long Rapid got our attention real fast. We almost flipped dog-boat early on. I glanced back at the other raft. It was upside down. Rich, Amanda, and Jordan were on top of the overturned boat. Rich unlashed his spare oar and was trying to steer. He could spin his boat but couldn’t really make it go anywhere. This was going to be a really big problem.

They tried to right the raft using pre-positioned ropes but it was just too heavy. They’d been able to stay on the thing and they tried every which way they could to right-side it. We couldn’t do anything to help them from dog-boat. It was non-stop maelstrom and Brian had his hands full keeping us upright. We couldn’t maneuver very well and Rich couldn’t maneuver at all. We were alone and in trouble in the churning viscera of Cataract Canyon – heading for the Big Drops and Satan’s Gut. Tasha was 16 years-old. She was afraid. Amanda was 19 and Jordan was almost 16. I imagine they were afraid too. I felt helpless. All Tasha and I could do was hold on and high-side.

Rich’s raft migrated to the right after it flipped over. Brian was running the middle of the river. We floated out of Mile Long, through the lazy “S” turn, and into Big Drop 1. Rich’s raft was far enough right that I was sure it wouldn’t drop into Satan’s Gut. But they were lining right up for that other real fear – Little Niagara. She commands a great deal of the right side of the river in Big Drop 2. Water pillows up behind a gigantic boulder and pours into a massive hole. It looked like it would re-circulate anything that went into it this day.

Out of Big Drop 1 and into #2. Rich’s raft was right on course for Little Niagara. Brian ran just left of center. We went through a great big hole near the top of #2, wallowed out of it, and then Brian started rowing right. Rich’s crew? They dropped dead center into Little Niagara. We could only watch them disappear: Everything – gone for an extended moment. Then the raft popped up, still inverted. One by one, Rich, Amanda, and Jordan popped up, too. Little Niagara hadn’t re-circulated anything! The three of them climbed onto their raft again.

Now they were going to go through Big Drop 3. Nothing could stop that. But they were going to miss Satan’s Gut and float into the best place they could – just right of center. There are massive waves and holes down there but no real killers. I was sure they’d get through and we could beach their boat somewhere near Imperial Canyon. Right now though … troubles. Troubles for us dog-boaters. For all Brian’s straining at the oars, we just weren’t moving to the right. In fact, we were right on the margin of the powerful eddy on the left – seconds away from plunging into Satan’s Gut, or ducking into the eddy.

My Dad was right here in 1960 – right here in this same fix. Two men were in the water after an earlier upset. A rope had fouled the prop and stopped the motor. Dad saw his friend drop into Satan’s Gut. No one ever saw him again. Georgie White discovered the second man’s body two weeks later.

Dad’s raft plunged into Satan’s Gut, where its wooden frame was torqued, twisted, and shattered. All these things were in my mind and Mom would kill me if I died here today. We ducked into the eddy at the last minute.

The whirling pool spun us around a couple of times before Brian could nose us in. Tasha and I tied off the raft. “We’ll deal with this later,” I said, and took off running down the canyon. Brian and Tasha weren’t far behind. I climbed onto the boulders above the Gut but I was too late to see anything. I ran downstream to the next rise. Nothing seen there either.

I ran further but stopped when I heard Brian and Tasha whistle from the rise. They pointed to the right bank, downstream from me. There was Rich. We saw each other and he signaled “three OK” with three pats on his helmet. Then he pointed to Amanda and the raft farther downstream on the left bank. Jordan was hot-footing it up the canyon toward us. Tremendous relief! All three were off the water and OK. But how was Rich on the right side of the river and my kids and the raft farther down the canyon on the left?

Jordan and I met up with a deep hug. He told me that Amanda had come up under the raft at Little Niagara. She’d hit her forehead on a box and she had a near half-softball size goose egg. He and I hiked on down to their raft and Brian and Tasha joined us there right quick.

We celebrated everyone was OK. But Amanda’s bonk was really big. It could very well have knocked her out. She talked about coming up underneath the raft: “They say there’s air under there but there’s not and you really want to get out from under it”. The voice of experience. Bruising had started. She’d have two black eyes. But she was still cute. Tough stuff, too!

She and Jordan told us their story and how Rich had ended up where he was: Just below Big Drop 3, the raft had moved close enough to the right bank that Rich figured he could jump with the bow line, loop it around a boulder, and swing the raft out of the rushing current. He gaged his best bet and jumped. And the heavy raft just plucked the rope from his hands. We found out from him later that he was absolutely terrified. Amid the chaos, he didn’t really know where he was in the canyon. He thought the Big Drops were yet to come! In his mind he’d just sent Amanda and Jordan into the Big Drops on their own. He sprinted down the canyon after them, with no regard to his feet and legs banging on the rocks.

Meanwhile, Amanda and Jordan floated into Repeat Rapid and they finally got a break. Repeat carried the raft into its big eddy on the left. You can run Repeat time after time from that eddy. They merry-go-rounded a few times and finally passed close enough to the side to jump in, drag the raft to the bank, and tie it off. Watching from the other side and greatly relieved, Richard collapsed on his butt. They were all safe. But what about Tasha and Brian and me? We didn’t know it but they’d lost track of us several miles upstream, shortly after they flipped over. They hadn’t seen us for a long long time; they had no idea where we were ‘til we showed up, running down the canyon.

We had to right Rich’s raft. With everyone lifting and pulling, and a couple of “practice efforts”, we rolled the thing upright. First thing: Ice for Amanda’s head. Her whole forehead was swollen. It looked really bad but she seemed OK and she was lucid. It was going to be a stinker of a bruise, though. Jordan was A-OK – hadn’t even lost his strapless sunglasses. The raft? Lots to do there and we took care of the most critical stuff right away. Rich could only watch from the opposite bank. He must have felt exceptionally helpless. We couldn’t get to him and we still hadn’t seen anyone else on the river. He was very much by himself.

Time to go back and work with Brian’s raft. We wanted to row out of Big Drop 3, pick up Rich on the right bank, and ferry across Repeat Rapid to the kids’ spot. But getting dog-raft past Satan’s Gut wasn’t going to be easy. We gave the kids a three-hour estimate and started up the canyon. Amanda, Jordan, and Tasha started in on draining water out of things and putting stuff back together.

One of Western River’s big J-rigs floated past Brian and me just as we were hiking out of the kids’ sight. Western ran Repeat a few times, motoring up the eddy like they do. We hoped they’d stop and check on our castaways and then go ferry Rich across. But we didn’t wait to see. Our work was up at Big Drop 3 anyway.

Satan’s Gut is an echeloned, three-tiered affair. The first and third tiers might not kill as readily as the second tier would: The river drops into a really tight space against boulders on the second tier and the only way out is to the right, underneath tier one. It’d be hard to escape tier 2 before you’d drown.

Brian and I spent about an hour on the boulders overlooking the Gut studying the powerful eddy, how Big Drop 2 flows into Big Drop 3, and what chance we had of rowing far enough across #2’s current to miss Satan’s Gut. Otherwise, we studied how we might line the raft down the left side of the river. We decided we’d lose the boat over the 3rd tier if we tried to line it. So we studied again at rowing across Big Drop 2. Then, an epiphany: The strongest sensation came over Brian and me that we should not try. Rowing across Big Drop 2 was not the answer. It was surreal to tell Brian what he was telling me – what each of us knew at virtually the same time: We must not row! And it was actually quite a relief, but……

The only other option was an extremely arduous portage over the boulders along the left bank of Satan’s Gut. I’ve watched this circus from 2000 feet up on the canyon rim. It’s a lot of hard work.

Just then here came Rich and Tasha! Western River had made the check and plucked Rich off the right bank. He assessed things at his boat for a bit, then he and Tasha hiked up to us. This was big! Three of us now to do this work. Things were looking up.

Rich was apologetic when I hopped back up on the boulder pile to welcome him – sorry for putting my kids in danger. That took me by surprise. I’d watched him do everything he could to protect them and himself. His legs were bruised and bloodied from running madly among those boulders after the snag-a-raft idea didn’t work. I met my hero on top of those rocks!

We assigned Tasha to courier duties – back down to the others with news that we’d be another 2 to 3 hours. Then we wrestled the raft securely in place and broke it down into one and two man loads. We hefted them up over the boulders and down to river below the third tier. These were bone-bruising shuttles under an awfully hot sun. And there was no shade back where the young castaways were either. They were suffering too.

Soon it was time to portage the raft and frame. The frame cooperated pretty well but the raft, a mere cork in the cataracts, was a veritable blimp among the boulders. We worked it to the top a few feet at a time. But it was even harder to keep it from sailing down the other side. It got away from us when we hoisted it over a huge log. The boat slid into the river, pushing Rich ahead of it. Luckily it only beat him against some of the submerged rocks, not all. The raft settled into place and Rich emerged from the onslaught. We buckled the frame in place and Brian started re-rigging. Rich and I went back to haul more stuff.

It was showtime by now at the Big Drops. We watched a lot of boats run the gauntlet while we worked. Lots of people had gathered across the river on the wide beach over there, lunching, watching the white-water action, and happy not to be us as we slaved away. The boatmen in the oar boats all struggled against that super-strong Big Drop 2 current. They faced us on the left bank. With looks of intense respect and a dash of fear, they rowed hard right to skirt Satan’s Gut. And as hard as they rowed, none of them slid by carnage with much room to spare.

One guide for OARS lost an oar just ten or so yards above the Gut. We heard screams from other side of the river, above the roar of the rapids, as she unlashed her spare oar, rammed it into the oarlock, and made three powerful strokes. She grazed the right side of that first tier, which sent her raft spinning into the relative safety of the huge waves in Big Drop 3. It was a heroic effort! Satan’s Gut is no place for anybody at 40,000 cfs and above. Everyone there that day knew it.

Back on the boulders, the three of us were making good progress – just a couple of big aluminum boxes to portage. The rest of our stuff – life jackets, throw bags – everything, was down at the raft. Rich and I were lugging one of those boxes up the boulders when we heard screams again from the other side of the river. We turned to look. Right below us was a 14 foot paddle raft with four people inside and two others in the water, hanging on. They would go over the 2nd or 3rd tier of Satan’s Gut as sure as the sun was shining.

The 2nd tier had a murderous look. Tiers 1 and 3 had clear escapes directly below, but tier 2 had no clean route out. Dropping that raft into tier 2 would be like dropping six people into a wildly spinning cement mixer. The raft, with its frame, the paddles, and gear would slash and club at people like mixer blades, until the maelstrom itself chose to spit them out the right side – or not.

The bow of this raft glided by the 2nd tier but tier 2 made a vicious grab for the stern. It pulled it down … but not in. Enough of the 3rd tugged at that raft to yank the stern out of the 2nd. And in a snap the boat and six lives dropped out of sight over the 3rd.

INTERMISSION –

Pour-overs like Satan’s Gut tend to recycle floaty things back under the falls. Sinky things tend to go deep and the current takes them downstream. A visible margin defines your fate: Above, it’s back under the falls; below, downstream. If you can’t outswim the current, coming up too soon after a plunge can make things worse. Here was good and bad news: This raft came up beyond the margin and went on downstream. The bad news was there was only one guy in it. Five were in the river.

Luck shined on two of them. They came up like the raft did and started swimming to shore. The other three recirculated for another pounding under that 3rd tier. They reappeared in the recirculating pool, swimming hard against the current. Two young men were holding their own, some distance out in front of Brian. He grabbed a throw bag and doled out a perfect pitch – paying the rope right into the hands of both of them. But the current was too much for the last swimmer, a young woman. She went under tier 3 for a third dunking (counting the initial fall).

Action everywhere now – so much at once! Rich and I dropped the heavy box and hopped up to a perch 15 feet above the recirculating pool. Their first two swimmers had almost made land downstream. Brian was pulling his two in and the girl surfaced again in the recirculating water.

Rich and I had no rope so I started climbing down the sheer rock face to grab the girl. I figured I’d probably fall in but if we went under the falls together, maybe I could drag her down below the margin. Maybe also she might drown me in panic. But ya know, I distinctly recalled my training as a kid on how to control someone who’s trying to do that! Well, hell, maybe we’d both drown. But why not go down swinging?

Brian had almost landed his two guys and the other two had made land. They were running toward Brian. So was Rich, thinking, “throw-bag!” Brian lateraled a bag to their pair, and they flee-flickered it to Rich. I liked this play a lot and I scampered back up to grab the toss from Rich. But the girl went under the 3rd tier now for the fourth time! She came up weak and beat; and destined to recirculate again. She’d almost had it. I dropped the throw-bag to her as she floundered against the backflow. She grabbed the bag and I took up the slack. Rich was back with me now and we had her – if she could hold on. We made our way as gently but as effectively as we could across the boulders to Brian at our raft. From there, we pulled her into the eddy. We’d gotten her! We’d gotten her out of the river!

By now, the lone guy in the raft had gotten it to the side. He was running up to us, and that accounted for all six of them. Tremendous relief – again! They helped the girl to sit on that big log above us and worked to warm her up in the sun. She was ghost-faced and shaking from head to toe. She was cold. And she was scared.

We made sure the six were OK and confident they could re-prep their raft. They were a might bit “Gut-Shocked”, you’d have to say. They wanted to line their boat downstream for a while. We learned they were part of a five raft bunch from Salt Lake. Big Drop 1 or 2 had chucked four of them out of their boat. Two had gotten back in by the time they got to Big Drop 3. They didn’t know where their leader was, or anyone else in their party for that matter…. Rich and Brian and I went back to our own re-rigging.

Sometimes the right things happen in these kinds of situations. And sometimes they don’t. One of us mentioned how very fortunate it was that we’d been portaging Satan’s Gut when we were. Everything that had happened to our group, every decision we’d made, the time we’d spent doing what we’d done, and the epiphany that Brian and I experienced had put him, me, and Rich in the only position anyone could have been in to do those people some good when they needed it. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know why these things happen sometimes and not others. They just do.

Rich and I climbed back up on the boulders, got the last heavy box, and hauled it down to our raft. We finished re-rigging and pushed off for a ride through the lower part of Big Drop 3. Soon we joined Amanda, Tasha, and Jordan at Repeat Rapid. Eight hours had passed since we’d left our camp at Range Canyon. And we still had another boat to re-rig.

Jordan and the girls had gotten a lot of stuff organized and ready to load. Amanda’s forehead was very swollen but she stuck with things and we kept an eye on her. We set to the re-rig action right away. We were used to it by now. Stuff was lost, bent or broken and it took some improvising to get the raft ready. Lake Powell was very low. The river flowed clear past Hite. Imperial Rapid was no laughing matter and a lot of rapids farther downstream took me by surprise as well.

Rich was still pretty shaken so we decided to put me on his raft with Jordan. Amanda took a spot on dog-raft. What would help Rich’s confidence a lot more than anything I could do was some other urgent incentive to set to the oars and row. The 18-foot raft that bobbed on by us, upside down in Repeat Rapid, put him right back to work!

Rich powered through Repeat’s big eddy and set to catching up. The upset raft was just like ours and its formerly festive floaters were in a fix a lot like ours of that morning. Two 10 year-oldish boys clung to the top of the overturned raft and three other people were in the water, holding onto its downstream side.

We all swept into Imperial Rapid. Rich was tiring with the sprint so he and I swapped rowing chores, racing to catch the uncontrolled raft. There were a lot of rocky pour-overs in that section and we chilled at the thought of the three downsiders being raked across one of them. All the gear hanging from that raft would meat-grind them. Meanwhile, Brian and the girls hadn’t seen the capsized raft and they wondered why we were trying to ditch them.

Back at the oars now, Rich was getting near enough the upset raft for us to do something. When he was close, I leaped over onto their raft. The boys there were OK. I presented to the three in the water, surprising them pretty good – two teen girls and a thirty-something guy. I checked that they were all OK – arms and legs properly attached and stuff, and pulled the two girls up. We all grabbed the guy and ripped him out of the water, too.

The river was swift but had smoothed out quite a bit by now. Brian caught up enough to see what we’d been up to. He nodded approval. Jordan threw me a rope from Rich’s raft and Rich started towing us over to a big sandy beach. Soon we were all on the warm sandbar, tremendously relieved to be out of the river once again!

More boats came into our eddy and tied up. We learned that they were the five boat bunch from Salt Lake, the one with the 14-footer at the Gut. The 18-footer we helped was their lead boat and the thirty-something guy was trip lead. They flipped in the rapid just below Big Drop 3.

That overturned raft was even heavier than ours. But we got it upright and they set to re-rigging it. The two teen girls were very cold. They sat on a log in the sun and the others worked to warm them. We learned later that one of them had suffered a concussion.

They invited us to camp there with them but we needed more miles that day. We rowed until 8:00 pm and found a perfect, serene little spot just above Rockfall Canyon. We were really ready for this day to be over. And really, really grateful we were all on this pristine little sandbar to enjoy steak and potatoes and the night’s sleep. It had been a most turbulent and trying day on the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon.

Soon –

I lay awake for a long time in my sleeping bag, haunted by visions of the furious Colorado River surging over rocks, rapids, and re-circulators. I didn’t envision people in trouble in these torrents. Just swift, powerful, frenzied maelstroms keeping me awake for a long, long time.

One Responses

  • Still gives me anxiety to read about this. Also, makes me so grateful to be married to such an incredible man who has the strength, knowledge, know-how and (dare I say it) balls to have run over those rocks not caring about what happened to him to save my sibs. You all had guardian angels that day!

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