I return to the beach a few minutes late, a victim of prior appropriation. The kayaks have already been claimed by the Wolff-Renzi clan, in a ruthless application of western water law: first in time, first in right. Kimberly is sitting on Weisheit’s raft, already gripping the straps so tightly her hands are turning the color of a blind cavefish. I look at Brian. It’s 115 degrees, the sun is bouncing microwaves off the cliffs and he’s not wearing a shirt. Is that smart? He hasn’t rowed this river before. He’s written crib notes about the routes through the rapids on his arm like a rookie quarterback thrown into a playoff game. He’s only 18. He’s even more excited than I am. What the hell, I think as I step onto his raft, it could be fun.
Now everyone must strap on lifejackets, our orange carapaces. We’ve entered a region of laws and regulations. Our names must be entered in a register beneath a gaudy sign that warns: DANGER! EXTREME RAPIDS AHEAD. We must inform the government where we will camp. How long we will stay. We must promise not to piss in a claret cup, shit on a prickly pear, feed the cougars, swim naked, have sex in public or stomp on the blue-black cryptogamic crust that stitches the desert top soil in place.
The consumption of the Colorado’s water is scarcely regulated at all. It ends up in the drip-dry lawns and lagoon-sized pools of Phoenix, the stubby alfalfa-bearded hills of northern New Mexico, the emerald fairways of Scotsdale, the dark slurry pipes that flush coal strip-mined from the gaping maw of Black Mesa to the powerplants that smudge the skies of the Four Corners, the crusty, salinated plantations of the Imperial Valley, the neon nihilism of Las Vegas.
But travel on the Colorado’s waters as restricted as a border crossing from Mexico. Visitation through Cataract is ordered, directed, controlled by plans concocted in Washington and enforced by river cops and park rangers in mirror shades and packing pepper spray and automatic weapons. Precisely, 7,954 rafters will be permitted passage through Cataract in a given year and not a person more: unless they happen to be a federal judge, a Russian dictator, an engineer. There’s much for a desert anarchist to resist, but few places to hide down here anymore. Butch Cassidy wouldn’t find sanctuary in the new Canyonlands. Neither would Alonzo Turner, friend of Joe Hill, Wobbly, sometime resident of the canyons, who carved his name followed by “Socialism 1912” on the now submerged walls of lower Cataract.
Despite the thrills that await us downstream, I already long for the anonymous freedom of our indolent days on the Green River.
* * *
The walls of Cataract begin to squeeze together, edging out even the tenacious tamarisk. There is only rock and river, which is beginning the most extreme descent since its fall from the Rockies and the Wind Rivers. Over the next 18 miles, the Colorado drops at the rate of 17.3 feet per mile, more than twice the slope of descent in Grand Canyon. As Roderick Nash wrote, “For years men have marveled at the Grand and feared Cataract.” There’s no turning back now.
We hear the rapids twenty minutes before we round that last bend, we glide past the point where Bureau of Reclamation zealot Eugene LaRue wanted to build the Junction Dam to innudate the Green, Grand and Colorado with one concrete plug, past the mouth of Red Lake Canyon and the ghostly, charred remains of a cottonwood grove torched by hikers in 1989, and finally meet them face to face. A low, steadily mounting rumble carries up the canyon, like the rolling bassline in a Temptations song played by the great James Jamerson.
Weisheit stands in his raft, scans the river, finds the silky tongue of the rapid, known as Brown Betty after a boat that broke free of its line here in 1889, and slides over the three foot waves. We follow taking a line slightly to Weisheit’s right. The crest of the first big wave pops the raft up and then bow dips into the hole, spraying us with warm water, then we’re up again and into a rollercoaster of v-shaped tailwaves.
I look back and catch a glimpse of Lorenzo’s head, poking out of a frothy wave, nearly get whacked by Brian’s long oar. He apparently followed us too closely or shot much faster through the rapids in his yellow kayak. Brian issues a stern warning. Lorenzo executes a pirouette on the crest of wave and raises his paddle in a gesture that is open to more than one interpretation.
We reach the eddy, catch our breath and almost immediately plunge into Rapid Two, which, for some peculiar reason, Weisheit seems to be running backwards, oars raised to the heavens like the outstretched wings of an Anhinga.
Brian and I take a more conservative approach, after all we’re carrying the Groover. But once again Brian hits the waves slightly to the right of the Master’s line. The first swell jolts our raft, twisting it slightly so that we enter the hole at a precarious angle, spray drenching the raft as it tilts into the torrent and toward a shiny stiletto of rock before settling back down into the safe tumble of tailwaves. And there goes Lorenzo flashing out of the mist on our left, this time, scooting past us in his Buddy Holly glasses and Hank Williams straw hat. Brian’s scatological exclamation drowns in the feedback of the rapids. Where are that child’s parents?
Well, it so happens that at this very moment the nose of Daniel and Marta’s blue tandem kayak is penetrating the back of a standing wave like the beak of a pileated woodpecker piercing a rotted aspen branch. Their heavy rubberized behemoth, difficult to maneuver in the calmness of the eddies, exhibits all the nautical grace of a Civil War submarine in whitewater. It doesn’t slide over rapids so much as bust through them. The Sledgehammer.
And so it goes. Rapids, pool. Rapids, pool. Rapids, pool. Until Weisheit stands again, striking his best Sacajawea pose, and points to a beach of shattered rock on a large pool at the ragged lip of Rapid 5, which hisses and growls at our approach.
After we tie the boats to the sand anchor, Weisheit begins preparing lunch. Out of his catchall he plucks a bag of lobster meat, a jar of olives, a red onion, two celery stalks, sea salt and black pepper, tortillas, French mustard, sprigs of fresh cilantro and thyme, two bags of chips, eight brownies, five apples, a melon and a jug of powdered lemonade. Like a sommelier of French wines, he sniffs each item for the faintest trace of deer mouse urine. I don’t enquire as to how he came to familiarize himself with the distinctive scent of mouse piss.
I take a look around. We have entered a new geological architecture and none of us even noticed, our attention has been so firmly riveted for the last hour on the river’s rapids and rocks. We are now in the lower level of the Permian, a transition zone where the geology gets weird. The dominant rock here is called the Elephant Canyon Formation, a clastic melange of stones, a mixing of shales, limestone and sandstones into a bulky mass formed during one of the most cataclysmic ages in the history of the Earth. The Elephant Canyon rocks wear the scars of that time of titanic geological combat.
The early Permian period also bore witness to a great explosion of life forms, when 90 percent of the animal phyla on Earth originated. These stones spit out fossils as compulsively as Daniel Wolff expectorates the shells of sunflower seeds. The ground is littered with crinoids and brachiopods, fusulinds and trilobites-both of which disappeared after the great Permian extinction. All frozen in stone. Here the past keeps reasserting itself in deep cycles of burial, petrification and resurrection, exposing paleontological inscriptions that undermine the revealed Word, realtime geological apostasies.
Glen Canyon Dam itself may end as a fossil: its abutments buried in silt, its gray arc sealed in sediment. Even in its shackled state, the Colorado is a river of dissolved stone, a river of mud, sand and rock. It carries a more robust sediment load than any river in the country, all piling up in the riverbed, up the lateral canyons, behind the dam. One of the reasons put forth for building Glen Canyon Dam was to serve as a sediment trap to save Lake Mead from becoming a mudflat. By 1955, only thirty years after the floodgates closed at Hoover Dam, more than 10 percent of Lake Mead’s storage capacity had clotted with sediment. Since then the death of Lake Mead has slowed, but only marginally, and the death of Lake Powell has begun.
More than 44 million tons of sediment are dumped into Lake Powell every year. That works out to 85 tons every minute. The dam’s outlet tubes are already silting up. The Bureau of Reclamation itself estimates they will be filled with muck within a 100 years, probably less. A 100 miles of the reservoir is now clogged with silt. The silt-laden side canyons are now eerie badlands of sediment. The recent drought has exposed the relentless march of mud. But even under the most extreme global warming scenarios, there will still be wet years, El Niño winters, seasons of heavy snows and tumultuous floods. In a big flood year, all of that accumulated sediment will be flushed down the canyon in one mammoth event, pushing it all to the base of the dam itself, turning the once blue waters of Lake Powell blood red. In a mere 700 years, a geological nanosecond, the silt will have topped the dam, sealing it up as a fabricated intrusion, a temporary diversion for the restless river, an encased relic of human folly.
* * *
Rapid Five (the USGS simply numbered the rapids of Cataract, instead of naming them, because they assumed the entire canyon would eventually be innudated under dam-clogged water) is the first truly dangerous falls in Cataract Canyon. Powell capsized in a dory here. It’s one of the rapids, punctuated by spiky rocks, two vicious holes and a tricky turn, which can be most dangerous during the lower flows of July. We walk downstream about 200 yards to a ledge above the river for a herons-eye view of the cascade.
Weisheit charts our intended course in the sand, noting the danger points, the shards of rock, the lateral waves and sucker holes.
As we are studying the rapid, a man in a pricey toe-nail-polish-red fiberglass kayak shoots past the rocks, hits the hole head-on, flips, submerges under the wave. One, two, three, four, five seconds pass. He pops back up thirty feet downstream, gripping his paddle and chasing his kayak. Score one for Rapid 5.
Some of us are properly chastened. Others in the group openly calculate the cost-benefit ratio of scrambling around the rapids across a rubble pile of rock that looks as if it might possibly be the Cancun of Crotalus viridis.
“Don’t fear the river,” Weisheit counsels. “I’ve been down Cataract more than 300 times, sometimes encountering 30 foot waves, sometimes scraping bottom. It’s always different, but the river will always take you through. Follow where it leads you.” May the flow be with you.
After digesting this Aquarian koan from our normally hyper-rational leader, we begin to refer to Weisheit behind his back as “Sensei.” Later he will quote Yoda, confirming our impression of a river mystic waiting to break free. His white wide-brimmed hat, like the one John Wayne wears in the last act of The Searchers, enhances the aura of the riverkeeper.
Before our Sensei allows us back in our boats, he makes us practice the procedures for self-rescue in the vortex of a killer rapid. Never lose your paddle. If the raft is listing or stuck on a rock, go to the high side. Cling to the boat even if it ejects you. Flip an overturned kayak as soon as you can, hurl yourself into it and resume paddling before you are punched by another wave or stabbed by a thorn of rock. Failing that, float downstream feet-first. Avoid the boulders. Hold your breath. Find the eddy. Don’t expect much help. And always keep this in mind: drowning is a relatively pleasant way to check out. Very poetical, in fact. See: P. Shelley or H. Crane.
We line up our boats behind the Riverkeeper. Lorenzo is firmly admonished once more to stop cutting in line. He responds by singing, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” in a falsetto that would humble Little Willie John. Overhead, a dark raptor circles. Eagle or vulture?
Weisheit and Kimberly pause at the edge of the rapid, their raft seems to levitate, then it plunges into the foam, disappearing from view.
Brian and I hold back for a few seconds, then make our own cautious approach. A shank of sandstone protrudes on our right, a fat boulder lurks to the left. The river compresses between the two stone guardians in a slick, almost glassy current, until all hell breaks loose a few yards downstream at a deep trough backed by a curling wave. Again we slide right, scraping the nasty rock. The minor collision bounces us back left, correcting our line just as we hit the hole. Water pours over my head as we slice through the grinning wave, then pivot past a hidden shard of rock and ferry furiously across the tailwaves toward the recirculating waters of the eddy on river right, where Kimberly and Weisheit are shaking their heads at Lorenzo, who, staying more than the obligatory oar’s length away from our raft, charts his own route down the dangerous waters surging to the right of the gleaming rock. The punk easily beats us to the eddy, wagging the yellow blade of his paddle at me like a severed head on the outstreched arm of a Fremont water demon.
* * *
The view of the river from the kayak is different. In fact, down here there is no view of the river. There is only the the smirking mouth of the wave. Then a prong of rock. Then a whirlpool. Then a pourover. Then an even bigger wave. Then a boulder the size of Rhode Island and less forgiving. Then a hole that sounds like a garbage disposal crushing coffee beans or raw bones. Then
Of course, that’s when you can see at all. Once you hit the first wave, a blinding spray splinters into your face and you can forget all about the nuances of reading the river or following the complex sequence of steps in Weisheit’s elegant choreography for dancing through the run of rapids.
Pummeled from all directions, including an impertinent jab at my ass by something as sharp and unyielding as a prison shank, I try to recall the basics. Slip down the tongue. Watch the air bubbles. (But watch them do what, exactly?) Paddle through the big waves. Lean into the rocks. Face your danger. Hold your breath. Squeeze the paddle so tightly your knuckles turn white. Yes, it’s white knuckle time at Rapid Six, familiarly known as, gulp, Disaster Falls.
But in the end, it all comes down to touch, balance and dumb luck. So I close my eyes against the boiling froth, let the river seize my kayak and careen blindly through the rapids, tilting and twisting, diving and listing, like a startled chukar taking off in a duststorm. It’s so easy when you’re stupid.
The next stretch of river is known as the North Sea. In big water, Rapid Five washes out, its waves, holes and rocks submerge under the brawny, unobstructed current. But at 70,000 cubic feet per second, the North Sea rears up, its waves swelling to titantic proportions. In early June, the North Sea regularly produces waves that are 30 feet tall. And not just one wave, but a train of them-10 to 12 raft-swamping waves in a row, each feeding off the other. The entire run is boxed in by vicious lateral waves that foreclose easy retreats.
Weisheit has descended those rapids several times under the most harrowing conditions, battling not only waves taller than any building in Moab, but also cottonwood trees and railroad ties shooting through the rapids like battering rams. So did his friend, Big Linda Wittkopf – by herself, in an 18-foot bucket boat, on a day when the waves grew to 45-feet tall. Imagine that. But that is not our river, not today anyway.
Weisheit tells me that Big Linda has just been diagnosed with cancer. She has rejected the useless blasts of chemo and is fighting for her life with alternative therapies. Here we confront some of the cruel facts of life for river guides. They perform back-wrenching work in extremely dangerous conditions, expose themselves day-after-day to melenoma-inducing sunshine, killer rapids, rattlesnakes, scorpions, black (and occasionally horny) widows, earn meager pay without pension, regularly get stiffed on tips from chintzy European clients and almost always lack even the most basic level of health insurance. It’s a great life, at a stiff price.
Weisheit’s wife, Susette, was a top river guide for 20 years, easily John’s equal. A native of Colorado, Susette spent part of her youth riding broncos on the rodeo circuit. She also raced motorcycles across the desert. But river-guiding took its toll on her back. She stopped rowing and took up deep-tissue massage, many of her clients are guides. Now Susette is making a film about the life of one of the first river guides on the Colorado, Kent Frost, a native Utahn from the uranium boom-bust town of Monticello. Frost, who wrote a beautiful memoir of his life titled My Canyonlands, just turned 90. Susette safely portaged to a new life. Other guides aren’t so lucky. Alcohol, drugs and depression take their toll.
“Why don’t the guides organize into a union?” Wolff asks.
“It’s not in their character,” Weisheit says. “They’re loners and tribalist, suspicious of organizations. The family-owned operations, like Tag-a-Long, treated the guides more humanely. Gave them places to stay. Fed them. Encouraged them to about the cultural and natural history of the area. But conditions are changing as the bigger corporations take over. The guides are increasingly treated as interchangeable parts in the machine.”
* * *
As the sun eases below the crimson rim, the big obstacles downstream are sharp rocks, a few seething holes, two shadowy boulders that would, if given the chance, pin you down for eternity, and, naturally my own incompetence with a paddle. But I pinball my way through this diminished North Sea, exhausted and exhilarated, and zigzag over to the most beautiful beach in Cat Canyon: Tilted Park.
Weisheit is already on the river bank, but curiously he shows no signs of preparing the evening’s culinary fare. What gives?
“Playtime!” Weisheit yells.
Here is what passes for fun and games among the elite river guides of the Colorado. Pile as many people as you can into the inflatable kayaks. Hand the paddles to the two most credulous members of the crew (that would be me and Wolff) and point them downstream toward a Class 4 rapid, snickering with evil confidence that the two morons with the paddles will find some damn way to flip the boats.
Wolff goes first, his yellow, single person kayak over-loaded with Marta and Brian. Rapid 10 is a series of three large waves of mounting ferocity. We watch as the yellow kayak vaults over the first wave, shudders across the second, rises and then cartwheels backwards on the third, dumping all three into the torrent.
I ease the blue barge into the current as Wolff desperately tries to catch his kayak before it is swept into Lake Powell ten miles downstream. Weisheit begins bellowing commands. “Left, I said, left damnit.” At the same moment, Kimberly screams, “Right, right!” Okay, so who would you obey?
As it happens, the kayak is about as manueverable as the Exxon Valdez after shredding its hull on Bligh Reef. So we limp into the rapids, at one with the river. At last, satori!
The blue nose of the kayak tunnels through the first wave, submarines through the next, and, even though I catch a glimpse of our Sensei deviously trying to scuttle the boat, we bust through the lethal third wave and lumber into the eddy.
“AGAIN!” Weisheit screams, maniacally slapping the sides of the kayak.
This time Kimberly and I transfer to Wolff’s wounded duck of a kayak, leaving Weisheit to his own kamikaze mission in Big Blue.
Apparently, Cappy Wolff’s pride is bruised after his capsize. He insists on paddling again. Once more into the breach we go. This time I sit in the bow, my feet dangling over the edge of the small boat, gripping a carabiner clipped to the bowring. The first wave jolts me five inches off my seat. Then we dive into the hole, Wolff and Kimberly sliding forward toward the gaping trough, nearly nudging me out of the kayak, until we are punched up and over the crest of the second wave, where we are suspended for a moment, eye to eye with the Last Wave, performing its best imitation of the Earth-cleansing tsunami of aboriginal eschatology. Then it hits us with the force of a Mike Tyson body shot. The kayak shivers and stalls. We are pounded again and yet again, when I make a fatal error. Instead of leaning into the rapid, absorbing the blows of the hyrdaulic and pushing us forward, I instinctively lunge backwards, pulling the bow of the kayak with me. For a moment, we assume the position of a Tlingit totem pole: Wolff as beaver, Kimberly as bear, me as raven. Then, over we go, backflipping into the river.
The hole is deep, the water warm as fresh urine. Mine? The current contorts my body into angles it was never meant to bend-Rolfing by rapids. After a few seconds of this odd, violently erotic sensation, the hole expels me. I surface twenty feet downstream and scan the river. Kimberly has safely made it to the eddy. Wolff is pursuing his runaway paddle and the over-turned kayak is hurtling downstream, aimed directly at my head.
I snatch the bow ring and lug the kayak in a cross-chest carry toward the eddy. My progress is interrupted by a rock protruding from the river like the Colossus of Maroussi. Our initial encounter is a glancing blow to my shin in the middle of a finely executed scissorkick, then the current pens me against the sandstone obilisk, the kayak pressing on my face like a waffle-iron. Out of the corner of one eye, I see Weisheit on the bank. Is he actually skipping? Hard to say. But the Sensei is definitely shouting, “Again, again! This time no boats!”
Marta says, “No thanks, boys.”
And it looks like the teenagers won’t be joining us either. Brian is curled up asleep under an arching cottonwood, dreaming of a Double Whopper With Cheese and Lorenzo has already hustled back to camp, where we find him reading two books at once, Jack London’s The Iron Heel in his right hand, Walden in the left. He prefers the London. “Thoreau,” he says, “can’t stick to one idea and work it all the way through. Walden’s a hodgepodge of unfinished thoughts.”
“If only Ralph Waldo had slipped some Ritalin into Henry’s porridge, perhaps he wouldn’t have been so easily distracted,” I say.
“Thoreau just needed to get laid for once in his life,” concludes Marta.
After this definitive diagnosis, what can a poor boy do, but slide into the Colorado one last time, wearing only a life vest for flotation? After all, are we not men? Wolff, Weisheit and I lean back into the current, wave our farewells and surrender to the flow like three plump Ophelias, singing Hey, nonny, nonny, as the rapids grip our feet and pull us down.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering from the War on Terror. He can be reached at: email@example.com.