I used to be a rafting fanatic. I’m still more dedicated than most but I got off to a late start this year. I usually try to get on the water by my birthday in late February but weather and circumstance pushed things back.
I did manage to spend a couple of nights out there last weekend and covered about 75 river miles.
Back when I was young and strong and dumb, I ran Ruby Horsethief and Westwater Canyons in February with a crew of three. How we hunkered down as the snow fell. When we floated up to the Westwater Ranger station it was deserted and there was about 3 feet of hard snow on the ground. We were 25 miles from our truck and in those days there was no cell phone service at Westwater so there was no turning back.
I would have turned back if I could have.
We plunged down the Colorado River past Stateline. By the time we got to the Class IV rapids there were walls of ice on the banks over 10 feet high. Icebergs spun in the frigid water. There was no sign of anyone and no one else was coming up behind us, that’s for sure. Our one boat crew was in a do-it-or-die-trying situation.
I’m familiar with those rapids and have seen them at many different levels but never like this in the clutch of winter’s worst. This was not a day for splashing, never mind swimming or flipping. Because you know what they say … there are three kinds of captains: the ones that have flipped, the ones that are going to flip and the ones that are going to flip again. I am certainly in the third category.
Like my friend likes to say, “This is a summer sport.”
That’s true, but every once in a while you find a rare moment of comfort and beauty and magic and solitude that provides a one-of-a-kind memory.
Westwater gets extremely frightening as it approaches 50,000 cubic feet per second. I was dumb enough to try it twice at very high levels and it was the most terrifying experience of my life. Beside vicious swirls and eddies most of the rapids are washed out. The water moves extremely fast and you spend most of your time and energy just trying to keep the boat in the fairway.
The one feature that just gets bigger and could never be washed out is called “Skull Rapid.” It can be challenging at any level and I’ve seen plenty of carnage there. The entire Colorado River goes over a house-sized rock and then slams into a sandstone wall known as the “Rock of Shock.” Some current goes right into the “Room of Doom” and the rest goes left.
No one wants to drive into the Rock of Shock. Nothing good comes of it.
At almost all water levels the move to avoid disaster in Skull Rapid is pretty simple. Face the boat right, drift into the V-wave and pull like hell at the right moment and you slide right through, slipping left of the Rock of Shock and the Room of Doom.
Missing the move can have dire consequences. The Room of Doom is a powerful eddy that can be really difficult to get out of. There is often debris getting rinsed and boat parts and even dead animals have been seen whirling around and around. Stay out at high water.
My heart was in my throat when I turned my boat into position at high water. Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize (until it was too late) is that the river spins your boat in a quick, unexpected 180 just as you are getting set to pull left. This was a new thing, only happening at high water. I had to waste precious seconds turning the boat back around again before pulling left for my life. The raft went high onto the swell of the Hawaii 5-0 sized wave as it crashed into the rock. My boat skittered off to the left, a hair from flipping and causing untamable mayhem.
So yes, it’s a summer sport and really high water at Westwater is for the bravest and most skilled among us. I no longer have anything left to prove. I have stared into the mouth of the dragon and it will haunt my dreams forever.
That’s why I stayed out of the whitewater last weekend. It was enough to deal with the wind, the cold and the low water. Even relatively flat water can be a challenge in 35 mph winds. And although we were never in any danger, my dog and I had to hang in there through some arduous conditions.
I’m glad I went as I got to see an American Bald Eagle dive into the Colorado River and snag a fish right next to my buddy’s boat. I would not have seen that had I stayed home.
Steve Skinner encourages you to get outside. Just don’t get too far out. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.