Gary Painter (photo: Jia Carroll)
We left Blacktail Camp at 8:45 am for another big day of rapids. Fossil, Specter, Bedrock, and Deubendorf were just names to me, but I wouldn’t be rowing them. To the ten crew members who weren’t boatmen, big rapids meant waiting in the heat, sometimes for over an hour, while the rowers made up their minds about how they planned to get through.
I got the oars first thing that morning and moved into the swift current, calmly manouvering the raft through small rapids in ways that would have seemed impossible to me a week ago. I went through Forster rapid, which had a rating of five – which means a moderate drop and waves high enough to turn a boat if you aren’t correcting course with the oars, but a line that is straight. In rapids like these, if you enter at the right place, the main thing is point and shoot.
I turned the oars over to Pedro just above Fossil, another 5, and shortly afterward we pulled over at a place Rod knew about that most guidebooks don’t mention. It was a cliff face where salt oozed out of the rock, forming crazily detailed columns and stalactites that were often several feet long. Tania said that it looked like a movie set designed by Tim Burton. Rod explained that the layer of sandstone that contained the salt was formed underwater, so it was immersed in brine. Tectonic forces gradually lifted the rock layer out of the water, and when the river sliced through the rock, the trapped brine started leaking out of the cliff face.
Salt seeps were important places to Indians and other early Canyon travelers. When it’s hot, your body also becomes a salt seep as sodium-laced sweat constantly leaks out of your pores. Salt is an electrolyte, and if you don’t replace it you will eventually crash, like a marathon runner who isn’t drinking enough Gatorade. Several “salt mines” in the canyon are important archaeological sites, but this one was so remote that early canyon-dwellers never used it. It was
definitely a do-not-touch zone. The salt straws that had broken off were hollow and quite thin, so a casual tap could undo something that took many years to build.
We got back in the boat and Pedro pulled through a stretch of calm water. It was hot and still, and we were bored and punchy. Tania and Pedro and I made up a song.
Our descent into Specter rapid (6) was a wake-up call. Specter starts with a projecting rock that limits your point of entry; the current runs into a wall on river right and bounces off it, creating chaotic wave patterns; and a boat-eating hole in the middle of the river means that it’s important for the boatman to split the difference between the wall and the hole. The drops were hard, the waves were big, and the hole would have definitely taken us for a swim. We all made it through Specter, but we also stopped singing funny songs.
A bigger, more complicated challenge was looming a mile downstream. Bedrock rapid (7) is located at a spot where the river bends to the right. It’s complicated because a big fin of schist juts up in the middle of the turn and bisects the channel. The rock is perhaps 150 feet long, and our guidebook advised that we avoid running the rapid on the far side of the rock. It told us to stay close to river right until we cleared the point of rocks and the river started to turn, then row hard to stay on the right side of the big projecting schist fin while not running into it. What would happen if you didn’t make the turn and ended up running it on the left side? Nobody knew, because we couldn’t see past the big rock.
Scouting Bedrock took forever, mostly because of Jim. He was attracted to rapids as an engineer would be to a complicated problem in fluid dynamics. Gazing at the water, he would go through every rock, wave, and eddy in sequence. He would try to add them all up, in hopes of finding an answer. When information was missing (as at was at Bedrock), he would consider every possibility and vigorously debate anyone else’s opinion if he could come up with a plausible alternative. The result was like a field seminar that Rod moderated as Jim, Pete, and (sometimes) Pedro went around and around — while those of us who weren’t enrolled in the seminar sweated and waited.
Not all the boatmen required that much time. Tim McGinnis wouldn’t say much. He might ask a question or two, and then he would listen and wait with the rest of us. Gary Painter was also a quick decider. He described his rapids philosophy as, “let it come and let it go.” This was Gary’s fourth time down the Colorado. He was definitely interested in getting out and taking a look before going through a big drop, and he would do what he could do, but he also knew that the river determines most of what happens in there.
“I had a lot of faith in our rafts,” said Gary. “They were so stable and heavy.” Gary’s previous Colorado River runs had been in his own raft, which has catamaran-style tubes and is much lighter and smaller. “It’s more fun,” he says. “It’s bouncier. It’s like driving a sports car. The rafts we were using were more like minivans.”
Gary and Jia were the delegation from Steamboat Springs, and they usually traveled in the same boat. It looked to me like they were having a lot of fun, even though it was their job to carry the ammo cans after we had filled them with our poop — and by day ten, this amounted to about 200 pounds of smelly cargo. Jia reported that the sealed cans didn’t smell — much. But she kept smiling and having a good time. Nothing ever kept her from smiling.
Gary is in his late 60s and retired from a career in fine carpentry. He exudes a laid-back coolness, and the younger crew (Jia, Tim, Lukas, and Baer) were drawn to him. He had a deep, horsey laugh and his mouth was usually set in a smile. I joked that Gary had some special quality, like a rock star, and one afternoon I suggested that he was the lead singer of a band I called the Anal Vectors (see day two for an explanation of this term). He dug that. He grabbed a paddle and struck a pose like James Brown at the microphone, while Jia and Tim posed like back-up singers.
The long wait at Bedrock gave us a lot of time to explore another strange rock formation called the Dollhouse. This was a cluster of pink pegmatite perhaps twenty feet tall and fifty feet in circumference, with pinkish-white crystals that looked like fat marbling a hunk of raw beef. Eons of high water had eroded circular chambers in it and made holes big enough to walk through. It was a naturally occurring three-room house. I found a shady nook near the entrance and crouched there, listening to the silence. When the scouting party finally returned, they had to pass through a rock gateway one by one. As they did, I took their pictures.
We all got through Bedrock rapid without incident. We aimed for the near side and rowed like hell to keep from getting pushed up against the fin, just as the book advised, and it worked. Pedro gave me the oars when we got back to calm water and I rowed a mile to Deubendorf rapid (7), where we had lunch and endured another long scout. Pedro then took the oars back and it was a good thing he did, because this one was especially rough.
Low water meant that the only way through Deubendorf was on the left side, which featured several big holes, and we had no choice but to go through them. The drops were hard enough to lift us off of our seats, and the waves were destabilizing enough to tip the raft twenty or thirty degrees. When things tip more than forty-five degrees, you often swim. Deubendorf was the first time I saw Pedro get rattled. After it was over, we were all shot through with adrenaline, as if we had gotten through a close call in heavy traffic.
We pulled in at Above Owl Eyes Camp around 3:30 pm. It was a large, flat, exposed beach with no shade to speak of, and the sun was unbearable. The Kirchner brothers, who have four engineering degrees between them, took a tarp and paddles and rigged up a sun shelter. The design was not simple and the erection was not without controversy. As the minutes ticked by, the non-laborers drank beers and became a fine peanut gallery. When the tarp was finally raised, everyone cheered. Then Jia broke out a set of bocci balls, and most of the crew went to a level sandy spot to play and drink some more.
The afternoon slipped away. Christie had injured her knee in Deubendorf, so she iced it down and took a nap. The scouting, the heat, and the tarp proved too much for Jim and Pete, who got into an argument and then retreated to separate corners. Around 5:30, I noticed that no one had started dinner. So I asked Jai, Tim, Nan, Gary, and Tania to step into the breach and they performed brilliantly, producing paella and a green salad. With Tracey’s help, Tim even made cornbread in the Dutch oven.
It was my favorite meal of the trip, but by the time Jia, Tim, and Baer put away the dishes, it was pitch dark outside. There’s a good reason why ship captains keep the alcohol under lock and key until all the chores are done.
Quotes of the day:
Peter: “Vacation? This is more like a death march with appetizers.”
Jai: “We’re all full of poop, so we’re out of that loop.”
Nan: “He organizes, I scatter.”