Hoping for river magic on a trip with Dad

  • The Hebners, barely visible, at Lava Falls

    photo courtesy Nancy Hebner
  • Logan Hebner and baby


What do you feel when you stick your parents in the river? I have in my office an 11-by-14-inch photo of my dad and me in Lava Falls on the Colorado River. It's a fine river photo: just heads and oar tips visible in the V-wave. It's printed off a Polaroid. My father clutched it like a lizard on the lower beach, an instant heirloom. Passenger Steve, a grocery stocker, gave him the photo on the spot. Dad sent him a blowup.

Parents-on-the-River. When I found them at Marble Canyon Lodge, they were visibly shaken: a mixup at the Las Vegas airport, no dory sign, much confusion.

Other friends of theirs had done the Grand Canyon in 40-foot boats. They were sure my parents had their facts wrong; 18-foot wooden boats? While we ate dinner, Mom eyed all the lodge photos of the big rafts getting trashed. She looked at me hard. Other boatmen - Brad Dimock, Kenton Grua - and I worked them attentively, with assurances, confidence.

Later, in the lodge room, we were packing, and Mom showed me her rain overall bib. I told her to be careful. If they aren't properly bound and you fall in the river, water fills up in the bib, taking you down ... I glanced up and realized the effect of my words; this was the hardest look my mother had ever given me.

My father's nose was bleeding again. He's been struggling with Parkinson's disease. I knew this trip would be a gamble, but hoped for some river magic to course through him. My mother understood this; she has never enjoyed camping but knew a challenge might be just what he needed. Now she was troubled.

I told her of the faith I had in the people I'd worked with on the Colorado River. I told her I couldn't think of anything more healing for him than to be in this place, with these people. Though still distressed, she accepted my word.

The first days were tense; marathon nosebleeds, shaking. But my father was game, and mom suffered silently. When I saw Scott Eilber nick the first wall wave in Unkar Rapid, skying my parents, I found myself laughing hard, relaxing. They got out with big smiles.

The late September weather was straight from central casting; the water levels kind. Mom went on all the hikes. The canyon showed my father how much ground he'd given up to Parkinson's. It also showed him reasons for fighting back. He and I somehow hiked up Havasu a couple of miles; in camp he played the guitar and harmonica. And as he relaxed and got stronger, so did Mom.

Since the first phone calls that spring, we had been chewing on whether or not I would take him through Lava Falls. It depended on the water levels; I told dad that we would look at it first. That night, boatman Rudi Petschek was optimistic, and next morning he said it would be perfect drama water: clean run, exciting, yet relatively safe.

Dad had watched a few rafts go through from higher up and was ready to go. Coming across to help him on, I slipped on the wet ensolite seat and went up ice-skating style, tossing a bilge pump into the river. I almost dove for it; the water was moving slowly. Maybe I should have, but the water had that above-Lava power, as if coiled, and I did what I always do: yelled for Rudi, who rowed out, sans life jacket, and grabbed it for me.

I looked over at my father; he had gotten into the raft, had more or less plastered himself into the back, and looked at me with a great calm. I smiled and got in.

As we floated down, I asked him to give a yell. His voice had been affected by his condition and he had been whispering for over a year. I uncorked a real whoop, putting the bilge-pump botch behind. It's the moment I remember most clearly: that strange calm, right above, right before; the pounding, the breathing, the power of the water, the river dropping out from sight, moving slowly.

Dad lets out a cracked little hoodle, but his eyes and teeth gleam. I had told him to map out the rapid in his head from above, and now I ask him to stand, and have a look; to feel the vertical.

He stood, and managed to say, "Jesus Christ," and re-wedged himself.

As we move we seem too close to the ledge ... o, good entry over to the left of the first V-wave, push with the left oar to straighten out and down the luge run we go flying, oars like wings, soaring, falling, BOOM into the Big V, click goes the polaroid; perfect. The river grabs my left oar and takes it out of my hand; I regain control right at the black rock, barely nick it and get snapped into the eddy.

All the tensions and anxieties from the trip flash over into joy: relief, release, salvation, my father, my mother.

Dad gets out at Lower Lava, jubilant. He is about to speak but starts coughing something up from deep down, like a cat coughing up hair. Then he starts talking. Normally. He gives a little whoop. Then a yell. Then a dance. Lava magic.

My father kept the beard for months and retained his voice. L Dopa kept his shaking at bay. He carried a copy of the photo with him for months, showing it even to cabbies. The photo sits in front of me now, and through it I enter that world.

When I felt the need to reach out and help my father, the Grand Canyon was the place; boat guides were the people.

Logan Hebner writes in Rockville, Utah. A version of this essay was printed in Hibernacle, an occasional magazine of Grand Canyon dory boating guides. His father, Chuck Hebner, a Delaware state legislator, died March 14, 1999, of complications from Parkinson's disease. His ashes were released off Toroweap on the North Rim, overlooking Lava Falls.

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