Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.
Here they come! The dories! Headed for the most difficult rapid in the Grand Canyon, at the worst possible water stage. This morning, blue skies and sunshine have been replaced by a dark, heavy bank of storm clouds. Tension is high, the air is still. Beads of sweat form on the brows of the boatmen, adrenaline pulses through their veins. Nobody speaks a word as the gaily painted wooden boats, carrying their cargo of smiling tourists, drift closer to the roaring rapid and an uncertain fate.
The steady-flowing flat water becomes swift. Churning current gushes through a channel choked with house-sized boulders, recycling holes, fang rocks and slots. A rapid of this caliber is considered runable only by boatmen and women possessing the utmost degree of skill and experience, nerves of steel, lightning-quick reactions, ultimate courage and bravery, as well as the ability to perform with Zen-like concentration.
The first dory approaches the top of the rapid. As the boat picks up speed going down the tongue, the boatman begins making his cut. He aims for the lateral, trying to break through it at the mellowest part. He has good angle, strong strokes, but he's a tad too early. The boat hits the biggest part of the curling wave, and it stops his momentum, kicking him right. He tries to recover his angle, but he's in the big waves now, and can't get any strokes. He's out of control! Luckily, he barely misses a huge rock on the left, but then has to struggle to straighten up for the giant hole at the bottom. Into the hole they go, straight as an arrow! The boat climbs up the wave on the other side, the little dory stalls and shudders, the boatman pushes on his oars with all of his strength, but it's not enough, the boat is spun sideways at the top of the wave, the upstream gunnel goes under, they highside but it's no use - over they go!
The second boat enters the rapid, they're looking good, perfect angle, strong strokes. Suddenly, I hear a SNAP! He's broken his downstream oar!
I can see him reaching for his spare, but as he goes for it, a sharp wave slaps the side of the boat, washes across the deck, and knocks him out of his seat. He fights to regain his balance, but not before another gigantic wave engulfs the entire boat, raking him across the deck and over the side. Now the little dory is bobbing helplessly, full of water and tourists, toward the horrible rock! Sitting in the stern is Lucille, a fifth-grade teacher from Winnipisaukee, Wisconsin. She suddenly realizes the boatman is gone, and quickly gets to the boatman's seat, grabs the remaining oar and pulls with all of her might! The dory turns, just enough so as to barely touch the rock and spin around it. Next, they go into the hole at the bottom. Lucille launches her 110 lbs. to the highside, and by some miracle they wash through, rightside up!
All the others have gone now, it's my turn next. As I draw near to the top of the rapid, another gust of wind and sand rocks our world. Again, I battle for position and am able to hold on until the gust subsides. We enter the rapid during a lull between gusts, in just the right place. Everything is clear now. I can see the run, the markers and where I want to be. As the boat picks up speed, down the tongue, I turn and begin pulling to make a cut across the lateral. My angle is perfect, speed and timing are perfect, and I break through the lateral at exactly the perfect place. A couple more strokes and I'm there. I then push out just enough to miss a square rock, and begin looking for the slot between the hole and the rock at the bottom. I see it, and pull once on both oars, straighten and pop through the slot with hardly a drop of water! We all yell out in triumph! We've made it, unscathed! We look downstream to see how the others are doing. Both upside down boats are rightside up with all aboard! They are all waiting in an eddy for us. I row downstream to catch up, the wind picks up again - and "
As the third boat approaches the rapid, I feel the air stir. The clouds have darkened, a flash of lightning fills the sky, a clap of thunder crashes, and I see a wall of sand whirling upstream being carried by a fierce gust of wind. I turn my boat to face the force of the gust, and struggle to maintain my position. The boatman in front of me is not prepared for the force of the wind and is blown off course, away from the run, and into a shallow rock. He slides over the rock, but it looks like a sharp drop. They are way too far right now, and I watch as the boatman threads the needle between rocks, turning, pivoting, pulling, pushing, it looks like he is squeaking through - he may even be far enough left to miss the huge hole at the bottom - but no - they're going to catch the right side of it. They go into the hole and disappear. Suddenly, I see the entire deck of the boat, everyone is leaning, but it's not enough, the huge wave rolls them over!
* Rain begins to fall "
* just a light sprinkle at first "
This drawing was created by Ellen Tibbetts, who worked for Grand Canyon Dories from 1975 to 1993, as a cook, and then as a boating guide. Her drawings first appeared in the group's newsletter, Hibernacle News, and a Grand Canyon River Guides publication, Perspectives on the Colorado River Management Plan. She teaches ceramics at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.