TUNA FOR LUNCH
I think probably everybody who runs the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon stops to look at Crystal Rapid before running it (except maybe three certain guys in a dory in 1983 – “The Emerald Mile”). Crystal has earned that distinction. We were four kayakers. Eight others in our group rode on a 22-foot raft. And we’d stopped to look at Crystal. David, Tadd, Nate, and I, decided not to kayak it. Kevin, our boatman on the raft, studied his approach.
Kevin. He’s good. He’s good at pretty much everything he puts his mind to. Outstanding athlete, kayaker, boatman and river-guide, jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-them-too, good judge of a person’s aptitudes and attitudes. Tireless. Stubborn. Direct. Kinda hard to work for but you sure want him around when things go awry. That said, I’d learned how to work for him and I learned a plethora of things from him – a horn-o-plenty-good-stuff.
All Kevin’s passengers rode through Crystal and we watched him make a perfect run. Then we jumped in our boats to catch up. It was mid-day. Tuna is the rapid just below Crystal and we beached our boats there for lunch.
Mike. He’s a school teacher, a coach, and a wheelchair athlete. He lost both legs and very nearly his life on a landmine in Vietnam. His comeback is much like Lieutenant Dan’s in “Forest Gump”. Mike was still on our raft when one of Georgie White’s Triple-Rigs, three rafts about the size of ours lashed together to make one big one, approached Tuna. They’d just run Crystal and were celebrating it big-time.
Georgie White is a river running icon; some would say a full-on goddess. In 1960 she found and buried the body of a man who had drowned in the Big Drops of Cataract Canyon two weeks beforehand. My Dad was on that earlier trip. His good friend also drowned but his body was never found. Dad was with us on this trip. He and Georgie talked about the Cataract incident at Lee’s Ferry while we were preparing to launch. We and Georgie’s group kind of leap-frogged our way down the Grand on this trip. She had four or five boats on the river.
There’s a huge rock near the top of Tuna. You can see it from forever as you approach. But not if you’re not looking, I guess. Mike yelled that the triple-rig was going to hit the rock. I didn’t believe him. I’d already gotten out of my boat and was walking up to our lunch spot. Mike yelled it again. The triple was gonna hit that rock! “Only if they tried”, was my thought, and I ignored him. Then I heard the triple’s motor rev. Mike and others yelled the alarm. Sure enough, they’d hit it! Dead on. Plumb-Level-Square. Their first raft folded up and over onto the other two, clam-shelling people and gear. Then the whole thing slid off the right side of the boulder. The raft unfolded and went on down through Tuna – down through Tuna with five fewer people than they’d started with.
Three were on the rock they’d hit. The other two were groping around the cliff, on ledges near the bottom of the rapid. They’d got their legs under themselves and were standing in swift, knee-deep water with their backs to the cliff wall. Pretty dang precarious.
The big rock lay about 150 feet from us on the left bank. We yelled to the three guys out there, asking them what they wanted to do. They said they’d wait for the rest of their party to come back for them. We pondered that for about a second. Unless they had another raft upstream, that just wasn’t going to happen. But why argue? We yelled back that we were going to get their other two guys off that cliff farther down. When we passed by the rock, they could jump in behind us and we’d pick them up. They found no joy, no solace, or reassurance in that at all. And who could blame them? They’d just bailed out from under a third of their raft that was pancaking down on the rest of it. And we’re telling them to jump in and swim the rapid that had just done that to them? Again, they said that they’d wait.
Several other river parties had gathered at the top of Tuna by now. We briefed them real quick and left the guys on the rock to them. We pushed into the river and ran close to the rock, yelling at them to jump. None of them did. I have no idea how or when they got off the thing. Now we aimed for the two guys on the cliff wall. We yelled for them to jump and one of them did. Our raft guys pulled him aboard and Kevin swung into an eddy just below, but around an abutment and out of sight of the precarious perch on the ledge. We kayakers spun around and surfed the waves near the other guy still on the ledge.
Tadd. Tadd’s a bit tentative when it comes to water. His younger brother drowned in a remote mountain lake and Tadd was among those who had to carry him out. This guy on the ledge was about 65 or 70. He was cold and scared. Visibly shaking. I think Tadd’s bit of timidity about the whole water thing, combined with a profound empathy for someone in trouble and afraid in the water, resulted in a degree of courage that none of the rest of us could immediately muster. Tadd surfed over next to the guy. Now this is a Grand Canyon rapid. It’s swift and rough – very easy to tip over. If he did, he’d be upside down against that cliff wall. But Tadd went over to the guy and while surfing next to him, explained that our raft was just a few yards downstream, around the jutting cliff. He told the guy to get in the water and hold on to the back of the kayak. Tadd would pull him around the cliff to our raft in the eddy. And that’s what Tadd did. He did. He did. That’s just what Tadd did.
The guy who’d jumped in after the raft was an assistant guide for Georgie, and with both the cliff-walkers safely on board, we took off down the river to find the main party. It was a mile or so before we came upon them. They were hunkered into a very small eddy among some cliffs. We returned the two we’d plucked off the cliff and told them about the guys on the rock. Some of their folks here were injured. Their guide had climbed up the cliff a bit and was trying to raise someone on his radio. He wanted a rescue helicopter, right there, right now.
George Cunningham. An EMT and head of the Utah County Jeep Patrol Search and Rescue. He was with us. He’s quiet – but a take-charge guy in his element. He pointed out several injured and unattended passengers to the guide – lots of deep cuts, bleeding, bruising, at least one broken bone, and victims of shock. He and my Dad, a dentist, wanted to get in there and administer First Aid. We had an extensive kit. But their guide would not allow it. He simply would not allow it. He would not allow them to even step onto his boat. He wanted us to go downstream as fast as we could, find Georgie, and report the accident to her. We pressed the issues as far as we could, I guess. But it was the guide’s boat – he was the captain. We weren’t convinced he had what it took to handle his situation but ultimately we acquiesced and took off after Georgie. We did bring him a company employee. We’d helped out that much, I suppose….
Harold. Our group’s Attorney at Law. Maybe we should have transferred his flag (or card, at least) to les misérables….
Kevin ran the motor fast. It was all we could do to keep up in the kayaks. But pretty soon he had to slow down because he couldn’t see. None of us could see. It had rained pretty hard every day in the canyon. August is monsoon season and thunderstorms roll up from the south most of the month. This day’s storm was a monster. Wind just roared up the canyon and the rain pummeled us right in the face. Hard. Rain hit the river so hard that the splashes hit us in the face, too. We couldn’t see more than 20 feet in the stuff. This thing was laying down a lot of water around the Grand Canyon country. All the sudden the storm gave out. No … it didn’t. Nope. It was a cruel fake-out! It changed direction and came back down the river with the same fury. It pelted us from behind for about as long as it had in the face. Then it really did either give up or move on. By the time we found Georgie White the skies had lightened up quite a bit.
Georgie had pulled off at a campsite for the night and we pulled in beside her triple-rig. We talked, and gave her and her boatmen as much detail as we could. The mishap raft was in a very narrow part of the canyon. They were going to have to move somewhere to meet a helicopter. We’d done all we could about things so we headed off to find our own place to camp. A light rain began to fall.
Waterfalls. They began to fall from the rims of the Grand Canyon. A few at first. Then a handful. A dozen. More. Two, three dozen more, maybe four dozen waterfalls. Every little drainage and arroyo, and every big canyon on the high plateaus north and south of the Grand Canyon had filled with water.
Flash floods! Reds. Vermillions. Water. Heavy-laden with high desert soils. In a breakout of instances, the frenzied finales of these flash floods plunged into the Grand Canyon from thousands of feet above. The wind blew some into misty, sorrel horsetails; others plummeted 5,000 feet, unfettered. Still others crashed in unison from a couple of thousand feet onto steep taluses, then raced each other through the menagerie of rocks to surge into space off the next precipice. Vermillion cascades graced the canyon on both sides and in both directions, near and far – this was among the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Ever. So much muddy water pouring into the Grand Canyon from so high above! An absolutely incredible, and surprisingly long-lasting event. A sublime end of the day for us.
But not for the injured still on the mishap raft, I’m sure. It’s been 37 years and I still think of how those people could have been better cared for. But then, I can’t put my grandson down for a nap because he cries when you leave him and his Mom and Dad say that’s just the way it is; you just have to leave him. So I have to have Grandma do it, ‘cause I just can’t turn my back on that and walk away. I go out to the car until I get a text that he’s stopped crying and is asleep.