River Journal - Page Six

photo: Lining a boat in Mile Long Rapid
Lining a boat in Mile Long Rapid

photo courtesy black george simmons


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Wednesday, July 25 1956— Originally the expedition was scheduled for an earlier date in belief that a little more water would afford a smoother passage. If the water looked too heavy we could hook the boats together in a raft and overwhelm the river if necessary rather than risk maneuvering or going through the agony of a portage. The water is now not as low as on the 1952 trip, but is too low for raft making, as many passages are too narrow.

Thus far I have been trying Norm Nevills’s psychology of occasionally telling lurid stories of the ferocity of the canyon—so that when a bad rapid is reached the reality is nothing compared to its counterpart in oration.

This seems to have worked to my disadvantage as I think we should line the 4th break in the Mile Long Rapid and Looie wants to run it.

We pack slowing and carefully and securely. Most of the Robert E. Lee’s load is stowed in the Dixie Belle.

Frank and I strap on our life jackets and run the Jeff Davis through I, and tie up on the left bank. Hank and Russ do the same with the Dixie Belle carrying the Monitor in tow. The four of us line the Dixie Belle around II. Hank and I decide we can run the left side of II without trouble, and do so, continuing through III and pulling out on the left side above IV. Dick and Looie go upstream and release the Monitor. It hangs up on the left side of the big center boulder of IV. After 10 minutes of pounding it finally breaks through and disappears downstream.

Looie comes down in the flagship on a beautiful run, I through VIII non-stop, as planned yesterday.

Frank and I shove off after stowing cameras and run V, VI, and VII. In trying to thread our way into the left channel of VIII I hang us on a rock. We start to roll right so I jump on a rock with a line, intending to pull us back on course. Unfortunately or hilariously, depending on who you are, I fall over backwards into the river. At this moment we block the passage of the Dixie Belle. Hank tries to hold up the boat by grabbing a rock, gets jerked off balance, and falls into the river. He climbs aboard as Russ misses the guarding rocks and goes through the left chute without difficulty. Meanwhile Frank holds the Jeff Davis against some rocks while I thrash in the water with the line. Then Frank loses an oar. It lodges in some rocks on the left bank. I get to shore with a line and retrieve the oar, hand it out to Frank, pull the boat by line to the spot I was rowing for in the first place, jump in the boat as it passes, and polish the exhibition off with a sloppy handling job down the left side of VIII.

I lose my hat and goggles at VIII, but Looie discovers the goggles floating below and gets them for me.

We proceed to the rapid at Mile 203½ (Class 3½). We look it over then shoot down the tongue into the waves below—good ride.

There is a rock island at Mile 203 Rapid (Class 2½). All boats try the shallow, rocky left side, and all boatmen spend time in the water lifting.

Mile 202¾ Rapids forms a series of three at the present stage. We take a good look then come down the tongue of I (Class 1); start down the tongue of II (Class 3), but pull to the right toward the bottom; III (Class 5) has a narrow tongue, tightly guarded on the left by an explosion wave. We stay right and make a good passage.

"The Big Drop" is the name applied to the two rapids mapped between Mile 202 and Mile 202½. The lower of the two is considered the toughest in the Cataracts. Today the upper rapid forms two rapids. I is Class 4 and has lots of big boulders, but only one hole to avoid. Each boat takes a different route then follows the tongue on II (Class 2).

The lower part of the Big Drop is formed by a nearly solid wall of boulders behind which is impounded a wide body of water. It looks like a plan section of somebody squirting a mouthful of water through his teeth. After plunging over the sharp break the entire center is cluttered with fins, holes, churning foam, etc. Two routes seem possible. A narrow route of difficult entry is on the right side. It has one big hole near the bottom, but the hole is partly shielded by a cushion of water pounding off of a boulder to its right.

The other route is on the left side. A two-foot slot between two big boulders can be used as a guide over the first break as it leads over a series of short fast plunges.

Looie takes Dick as a passenger and tries the left route. The slot is hard to locate from the boat and Looie shifts right and left trying to find the guide. Looie hits the break about 8 feet too far right, and misses the slot. The bow of the boat drops over the break like a limp rag, pivots on the bow and slides on the starboard side into a hole. It looks like she will turn over in the hole, but up she bobs out of the hole sideways to the current. Dick tries to straighten the boat but the force of the water on one oar lifts him off of the seat, then wrests the oar away and through the tight "V" of the oar pins. The lost oar wedges in some rocks downstream from the sickeningly swaggering boat. The boat dashes against a rock, and for a moment it looks as if it will be impaled on the wedged oar. The oar washed free. The boat snakes to the left, sideswipes a boulder, pitches, and then rolls 30 degrees, catapulting Dick into the water. Dick is on the far side of the boat and not visible from our vantage points. Our next view of him: Looie is holding him by the collar of his life jacket with one hand and rowing with one oar. You can almost hear Looie’s, "What the hell ya’ doin’ out there man? You better climb in the boat before you get killed on those rocks."

The boat is out of trouble and in slow water. Dick is aboard and the oar is picked up.

After shooting four pictures I had worked my way downstream so as to be able to swim out in case the boat turned over. After a few words with Dick and Looie I leave them to bail, and head back to look over the other route.

Frank and I decide the water cushion will keep us out of the hole on the right side. We line the first 20 feet or so of the rapid to ensure hitting the correct course.

Hank snubs the Jeff Davis to shore while Frank and I crawl aboard. The water is very fast, and our sudden start prevents Hank from throwing all of the mooring line aboard and it snags.

Russ is shouting from the bank barely five feet away, but the water is roaring so loud that I can hardly hear him. Frank cuts us free with his pocketknife and we streak into the cushion, spin around the outside of the hole, into a wave below and to the left, and ease into quiet water.

Russ duplicates our route in the Dixie Belle, and also catches on the same rock as the Jeff Davis with the bowline. Russ cuts the Dixie Belle free, hits the cushion, spins around the hole, into the wave below, and all are through the Big Drop.

In spite of its short length I call this section Class 6½.

[Terminology for the Rapids now known as Big Drops I, II, and III has changed. Prior to my first trip through Cataract Canyon I consulted with Don (Laphene) Harris, the veteran of many Cataract Canyon boat trips. Don pointed out the positions of Big Drops II and III on my maps and noted that big drops occurred there. When Dave Arnold and I traversed Cataract Canyon in October 1952 we called these places Big Drop I and Big Drop II, and the same nomenclature was used by our U. S. Geological Survey Expedition in 1956. Thus, we considered today’s Big Drop I and Big Drop II as distinct parts of our Big Drop I, and today’s Big Drop III was our Big Drop II].

In 1921 the U.S.G.S. lost a boat in Mile 202 Rapid. We look it over closely so as not to make the U.S.G.S. a two time loser here. In 1952 the rapid was an easy one. Now it is called Class 4. All boats take the break on the left side, then pull toward the center for fast water.

Mile 201½ Rapids is small (Class 2). We follow the tongue.

Camp is pitched on the island at Mile 201. In spite of the busy day we whoop it up with a beach party (till 9:30), telling stories, jokes, recounting the days adventures, and even reading some Robert Service poetry.

[The rapid by the island at Mile 201.0 is now called Ten Cent Rapid. It is at the theoretical head of the Powell Reservoir, the place where the lake would begin when it was at full pool. A few rapids are usually present for 2 miles downstream to the vicinity of Waterhole Canyon. The island is submerged when the river is high.

A few yards downstream from the island on river-left is the site for the fly camp of the Canyonlands River Patrol. This station is occupied by Park Rangers with rescue boats and equipment when the flow of the river exceeds 50,000 cubic feet per second].

Today has been more fun than any I can recall for some months.

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Last updated: February 24, 2015

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