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for people who care about the West

Heard Around the West

 

ARIZONA

For sheer excitement, read the current issue of boatman's quarterly review, published "more or less quarterly" by that elite group, Grand Canyon River Guides. A special 25-page section revisits the dangerous spring of 1983, when an unusually snowy winter was followed by a May snowstorm and suddenly warming temperatures. Roaring like a freight train, snowmelt filled every tributary and barreled toward the Colorado River. For the Bureau of Reclamation, the urgent question was whether Glen Canyon Dam at Page, Ariz., could release enough water downstream before water flowed over the dam. The turbulent water had already damaged one spillway - floodwater digging down 11 feet to bedrock - but a temporary fix seemed to be working: Hastily erected plywood panels held back Lake Powell. But below the dam, a new river had been born, one that boatmen and kayakers had never experienced. They expected the Colorado to run at 6,000 to 12,000 cubic feet per second; now it had begun to boil at 72,000 cfs, 93,000 cfs and maybe even 100,000 cfs.

It was early May when Jeff Aronson decided to check out Glen Canyon Dam before taking passengers out. The dam shuddered, though its spillways were silent, he recalled, "after chunks of rock the size of apartment buildings were observed flying out." Some 45,000 cfs were being released by the dam, he said, while "the water, already at the dam's brim, continues to rise inches daily in a lake nearly 200 miles long." Nonetheless, Aronson launched in June and hadn't gone far when a chopper appeared overhead. From it fell a Ziploc baggie, weighted with river sand and tied with a red ribbon. The warning from Park Ranger Kim Crumbo read: "Glen Canyon Dam released 65,000 cfs this A.M. Should reach you in about seven hours. Camp high, stay safe. Love, the Park Service."

With no choice, Aronson continued, but stopped to scout the always-dangerous Crystal Rapids. There was, he saw, only one way through a boat-eating hole. He and his fellow boatmen were scared, and their clients knew it: "They can't read rapids, but they can read us." Everyone watched as a boat from another company slid inexorably into the gigantic hole: "I hadn't expected two-inch webbing to sound like that when it snapped. Artillery explosions. The boat disappears, tubes flailing wildly. Entirely gone. … Lifejackets appear a hundred yards downstream, thankfully containing heads." Aronson reports that his boat made it through safely, with everyone still aboard. Later, he got the bad news about the other boat: "Some broken bones. One dead. Older gentleman. Swam 10 miles."

Scott Thybony tells an equally harrowing story about Georgie White, who carried 30 passengers in a makeshift barge of three rafts hitched together. "Like a hot dog in a bun," the massive raft usually could power through any water, but the Colorado River a quarter-century ago was a different beast. The raft hit a hole and people began to pop out of it - "not only were they catapulted out - they were also catapulted through the boat between the pontoons. It was just crazy." Somehow, everybody survived, though some were hypothermic and others throwing up, and a few were crying and convinced their families were dead. The magazine, boatman's quarterly review, is based in Flagstaff, Ariz., and can be reached by e-mail: gcrg@infomagic.net.


THE NATION

A cute little car is coming to America from Europe, where it's been around for a decade. Portland has already bought three. Manufacturer Mercedes calls it the "Smart fortwo" since it's a good fit for two people. The Smart car gets 45 miles to the gallon and is just over 5 feet wide and only 8.8 feet long - 7 feet shorter than a Ford Explorer. Thanks to its "Lilliputian size," says Governing magazine, a Smart car can take up only half a parking space by nosing into a curb. This poses a knotty dilemma for city officials: Should they charge Smart car drivers the same parking fee as a pickup?

 

MONTANA

Over the years, reporter Scott McMillion of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle has been collecting quotes from the always-quotable Ted Turner, the multi-state bison-rancher and former media-mogul. Here's Turner on illegal immigration: "It's kind of unfortunate that the United States is building a Berlin Wall across our border with Mexico. Remember, Reagan said: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.' And by God, they did tear it down, too. I don't like walls between countries."

On bison and women: "Every time I've brought new ones (bison) into a pasture, they've broke the fences down just to see what was on the other side. Once they saw it was not as good on the other side, they stayed around. It's like, if you take good care of your wife, she won't leave you."

And on global warming: "People like to live close to the ocean, but they don't want to live under it."

Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. Tips of Western oddities are always appreciated and often shared in the column, Heard around the West.