Soaring on a wild river
“Just the thought of white water makes me wet,” was the motto printed on the river guide’s koozie for the cold drink. Just the thought of a wild river running through red canyons makes me soar. Thirty some years ago, having just sold a sweet Jersey cow, I sent the money off to Colorado Outward Bound for a raft trip through Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River. That trip—in small paddle rafts—inoculated me with a passion to scare myself silly on rivers.
In the intervening years my long-term partner and I have been fortunate to float great rivers in our inflatable kayaks (aka duckies) or with friends on their rafts. Rio Grande through Big Bend, White River and Bull River in British Columbia, main stem of the Salmon, Grand Round, San Juan, Flathead, Blackfoot, Kootenai, Clarks Fork—damn, we have been lucky.
Now my buddy’s shoulders are shot, but I’ve got a few more years of paddling through rotator cuff repairs. I have always wanted to run through those big drops in Cataract Canyon again, so last winter, seeing an ad from Sheri Griffith Expeditions,* I decided to throw some money at the urge and actually buy a trip. It proved to be a good choice: six paying guests, a published author—Page Lambert—to inspire and lead journal writing, three river guides, a couple of duckies and three rafts.
A big desert river is so very different from our clear, cold rivers in the Northwest. The red rock rising 500 feet above the Colorado River south of Moab glows in the morning sun and causes the silt-laden river to become brick red. The water is lukewarm. The only greenery is shrub growth along the narrow river corridor. The stone walls have leached minerals leaving a stain, ‘desert varnish.’ The varnish is blackish until carefully viewed, and then it becomes the blue hue of the tip of a new crowbar. Being a guest allows the time to gaze at the scenery as it scrolls past.
In a desert river, the rapids are not full of white water. The brown water gets tossed high, mixes with air, and becomes the color of mountain spray blossoms. The rapids still roar as the water speeds over and around rocks while losing altitude, but the water foams gold/brown.
The three rafts are rowed by the river guides. These people are strangers, and I realize that I have put my trust in the hands of people I don’t know. It isn’t like following Keith’s line through Alberton Gorge or riding Steve’s raft down the Salmon River, the skill level of these guides is unknown. And these three guides are so young.
How young? My Eddie Bauer down sleeping bag is older than these people who hold my life in their strong hands.
As the trip progressed, the guides proved their worth again and again. They worked well together, having to make some trip altering decisions while keeping an unruly flock of guests safe and comfortable. The food and the camp cooking impressed the other guests, but I have come to expect that level of incredibly good food on raft trips. What really impressed me was the guides’ patience, playfulness, nurturing nature and river skills.
Brenda, Annie and Tabatha are young women with the strength, knowledge, and nature to have become great river guides. By day four when we reached the big drops—one was formally known as Devil’s Gut—I had total confidence in the girls to get us through.
There is something uplifting to observe committed, brave young women. The three river guides reminded me of Erin Bolster, the twenty-five-year-old wrangler for Swan Mountain Outfitters near Whitefish, Montana. Last year, a grizzly chasing a deer burst into the trail ride she was leading. Most of the horses turned and ran down back down the trail. One, with a terrified 8-year-old boy barely hanging on, ran perpendicular to the trail. The snarling grizzly, his eyes on the motion, intent on the hunt, chased the errant horse. Erin, mounted on a large Percheron/Quarter horse cross, charged the growling grizzly and faced it down, not once, but three times. She was successful in persuading the grizzly to quit chasing the horse and boy.
With young adults like Annie, Brenda, Erin and Tabatha, capable women who challenge wild life and wild rivers, maybe not all is hopeless.
*This trip marked the 15th year that Page Lambert has co-led a river writing journey with Sheri Griffith Expedition.