A river trip provides a reliable stream of seasonal fun, thrills and wonderment for friends and family — except when things go wrong
In over two decades of rafting the Green River through the dark red canyons of the Gates of Lodore, I have come to expect laughter and giddy excitement while crashing cold waves on hot summer days. However, accidents sometimes occur out of nowhere, taking a simple summer adventure to an ordeal that has gone terribly, tragically wrong.
On a wild river, each of us is responsible for our actions. But when deep sobs and the guttural cries of grief arise when all passengers are not accounted for in the aftermath of a flipped raft trapped in a cottonwood tree, everyone takes a hit to the heart.
I don’t blame the river. I don’t blame the canyons. I don’t blame the tree. As Laurence Gonzales writes in Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, “Plan for everything to take eight times longer than you expect it to take. That allows for adaptation to real conditions and survival at the boundary of life and death, where we seek our thrills.”
A typical trip following a typical plan, including unpredictable weather
The river’s edge hummed with the excitement of students airing rafts, checking kayaks, packing provisions, counting PFDs and checking on helmets and paddles. We laughed and joked, swapped river stories, and when everything was ready, we walked to a large tree. Once assembled, we stood in a circle to listen to the safety talk. Everyone had rain gear — that was the consensus, anyway.
The trip leader explained that we would scout all the bigger rapids by pulling to shore and walking beside them to learn the way of the water and path of the currents. By name, the Green River’s largest rapids are Winnies Rapid, Upper and Lower Disaster Falls, Triplet and Hell’s Half Mile, all christened by famed river runner Major John Wesley Powell.
It seemed simple enough. The college students were eager to hit the river, and the Gates of Lodore beckoned. A tiny white cloud appeared above the canyon walls. The sky was blue, the river a deep pine color verging on brown. Sun shone on the rafts. We cast off one by one, catching the current in a curving thread of boats. Off we floated, channeled between the towering, red canyon walls, leaving the campground for the next batch of floaters.
We had new inflatable rafts to haul our gear, duckies or self-baling inflatable kayaks for one to two people, and hard-shell kayaks for experienced paddlers who wanted to dance around the rocks and rest in eddies. We had GORE-TEX clothing, neoprene wetsuits and river booties, special life vests, lanterns, river sandals and enough food for two trips. We had cotton clothing in dry river bags and we wore polyester shirts and shorts that would dry quickly in the sun, if there was any. That tiny cloud had grown, crowding the blue sky.
A light rain began to fall. Small rivulets of silver rain began to roll down the cliffs. It was much too early to camp, so we kept floating, a more subdued group, huddled on the rafts in our rain gear. The wind picked up.
As a college professor, my job wasn’t to paddle or to cook but to interpret the environmental history of the river and explain how the magnificent canyons of the Green and the Yampa were nearly lost to large concrete dams in the 1950s. I had several historic tales to tell, but it was raining, and we had miles to go as the oars slipped quietly through the gray-black water. And most of us were soaked.
Through two days of rain we ran the Green. We ran Triplet Rapids, avoiding the wall and the Birth Canal. At Hell’s Half Mile we played through the autumnal rock garden and avoided tagging the boulders, in particular Lucifer, the rock in the middle. Camping at Rippling Brook we climbed to the microclimate and ecosystem of the 75-foot Rippling Brook Waterfall. Then, Indian Summer returned. Despite the discomforts of rain the college trip ended safely.
This was a typical trip, ending with boatloads of worn but smiling faces. Another, a commercial trip laden with adults and grandchildren that launched on high water when other companies had canceled, had a different ending.
We never plan for this
When we pack for a summer rafting trip we take clothing, a camera, river gear, sleeping bag and tent. We pack beer, extra sunglasses, a jacket for the cool night air. But we never pack for death. We never plan for a tragedy, a whitewater death by drowning. Instead, our lives change the instant the raft overturns.
Hours later the helicopter comes by low and slow, looking for a shadow, one that shows the form of a body pinned underwater by boulders.
When our raft slammed into the submerged tree, the commercial river guide yelled, “High side! High side!” The command meant to move quickly to the upside of the raft to prevent water from spilling into the low side and flipping us. But in a tight canyon with the river roaring at 9,000 cubic feet a second, it all happened too quickly — with all of us tossed into the icy water. I blew out the back and swam to a fallen tree lying near the tip of an island. I clambered onto an old cottonwood tree, cold and alert, looking for my companions. Six of us had been on the sweep raft, the last of five rafts in the group. I saw no one.
It was the first day of the trip and the first rapid on a four-day trip. In those seconds after the accident, as I tried to understand what had happened, I heard only rushing water. Then I saw it, the upside down raft bobbing furiously where it remained caught in what river runners call a “strainer.”
In 20 years of river-running, I’ve been involved in plenty of flips; but I knew this one was different. On the island where I attempted to warm up, I saw the couple who had been at the front of the raft hobbling along the shore. They were barefoot — the river had ripped off their sandals. We hugged, shook hands, found our guide.
We walked the island looking for a way off, but the channel on both sides roared too swiftly for a safe exit. We noticed another of the river guides on the far shore, signaling to confirm that three of his five passengers were accounted for. The head count continued, until instantly we knew: one of us was lost.
Families want their taste of adventure, cold water splashed on hot skin, yells and shouts of excitement, a reason to hang on to the “chicken line” as rafts tumble through rapids. We crave adventure until we face danger. We seek a brush with death, not its embrace.
Our group had planned this trip months in advance without knowing that a record snowpack would force the dam above to release huge amounts of cold water, to both save the dam and irrigate fields of crops. These pulse floods are healthy for the environment to re-establish habitat for endangered fish and bird species. But with high flows there is no margin for human error. No room for mistakes with paddles or oars.
Everyone on our trip had wanted adventure, but now as four of us stood on the island, shivering, scratched, barefoot, with bright sunshine ebbing toward late afternoon shade, we were grateful simply to be alive.
The following days were a haze, blending together. Through them were the unshakable deep wails and sobs of grief from the man whose partner was missing. “Why her, God? Why not me? Take me, I’m older.”
The inevitable questions arose about the random nature of death — who dies, and why?
We were trapped in a canyon, but also trapped between competing interests in the American West — farming and irrigation versus river running. Even to retrieve a body the Bureau of Reclamation would not slow a scheduled dam release. How often does a drowning occur? Only rarely. At the put-in the head guide had announced that statistically we would be launching below the most dangerous part of the trip. We had taken the highway, arriving by van.
This summer rafters will launch with nervous expectations. Once they arrive within earshot of the roar of the rapids, it is time to wrap protective arms around those they love and extend a wish for all a fun, safe passage. River trips are pure joy, a seasonal adventure that will carry most of us through a lifetime of fun and reverie.
But I know how quickly a whitewater adventure can become shattering tragedy and loss.