Monday, May 31, 2010

Decoration Day

Happy Memorial Day to all veterans out there, and thanks for your service. Here's to the memory of my Grandfather Jack (Navy in WWI), Dad (Marines in WW2 on Peleliu and Okinawa), Uncle Bill (Army in WW2 in the Philippines) and Uncle Bob (Army Air Force in WW2 in North Africa). Here's thanks to my brother (Marines in Lebanon in 1981) and my Uncle Harry (shipboard Marine in WW2 at many battles, including the battles of the Philippine Sea and the Fast Carrier Strikes on Tokyo, bronze star recipient). I saw him in Durango this month and he's doing all right. See for yourself.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Livin on jacks and queens

Friday, May 7th was the last day of our rafting trip in Colorado and Utah, an uneventful day spent gliding down the Dolores River (which means river of sorrow) past its confluence with the Colorado River a short ways, which brought the third annual Bucket Trip to a close. On this trip I had undergone the most incredible day of my life on May 5th when two of our three boats got trapped in a rapids, with one overturning with almost deadly results. (Above: We're all still here. Trip's end. Photo by B.)

We had all survived, and become stronger for it. I brought home from the trip a gimcrack I picked up at the Denver airport, a magnet that has a Native-American saying on it.

The courage inside us is the strength that guides us. I put it on my refrigerator with magnet momentos from other trips because it reminds me of the minute that I spent underwater trying to escape from underneath the capsized boat.

The first BT was the trip of a lifetime, rafting on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The second BT was a wonderful sailing trip through the Florida Keys, gliding through the Everglades some and venturing out into the Atlantic a short way.

The trip on the Dolores River was unbelievable, an adventure that I will never, ever forget. My heartfelt thanks and admiration go to Guy and Joe Vinyard of Colorado for keeping us all alive, and to my other Sewell Hall friends, Amy, Barry, Carolyn, Harrie, Jimmy, Julia and Todd, with whom I shared this difficult and very intense personal experience.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Luck is the lady that he loves the best

We didn’t get onto the river on the fourth day until noon because J had to patch where he had slashed the bottom of his boat to let water out the day before when he got caught on rocks in the rapids and the river had poured in, threatening to capsize him. G had to patch the bottom of his boat too because it was leaky and full of small tears.

J used a sewing needle, floss, rubber patches and cement to repair the holes he found whereas G just smeared shoe glue over several suspect points. Both approaches seemed to work just fine.

Finally, an idyllic day on the Dolores River! We all just floated downstream in the brilliant sunshine with an occasional pull or push on the oars.

I took a turn for an hour on the oars and it was quite strenuous work as well as being nerve wracking as we bounced and scraped over rocks in the river while I tried to get the hang of pushing oars to propel a boat in a strong current. There was one more rapids to pass through and I relinquished the helm to G when we approached it.

Slider Rapids looked formidable enough, a solid class III, but after scouting it out from shore and endlessly palavering about possible routes through it, we all made it down just fine. We were all veterans by now, combat-tested.

We pulled into camp early that evening, about seven miles from Dewey Bridge in Utah, the end point of our third annual Bucket Trip. That night we enjoyed sumptuous beef burritos and had a sing-along around a campfire, with the best rendition being performed by J as he sang the title song to the old fifties TV series Maverick. (Right: Row, row, row your boat...)

Ridin' the trail to who knows where,
Luck is his companion.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Boat Recovery

G's boat had gone down the No-Name Rapids by itself after it capsized and, amazingly, lodged against a huge standing rock in the Dolores River below. Once all ten of our rafting trip entourage had been safely accounted for and the rest of the boats secured below the rapids, our two river men, G and J, who are brothers, went after it in the largest boat and I went along to lend a hand.

G and J fell to intense bickering like brothers do even as they performed incredible physical feats and at one point I had to tell them to quit arguing as we attended to the boat recovery. We went by the hung-up boat once and missed it in the strong current and had to be hauled upriver by everyone on shore pulling on our tow line for another attempt at beaching on the mid-stream rock with our oar boat.

On the second pass J grabbed the capsized boat's floating bowline as we went by and somehow. by holding onto it, pulled our heavily-laden boat into the lee of the current behind the large boulder. G scrambled onto the rock then and started working on freeing the stuck overturned boat.

At one point our boat started floating away and G, standing on the steep rock, held our towline in one hand and the other boat's bowline in his other hand and I couldn't believe the strength, or will, he displayed in not letting go. He freed his boat alright, but let go of our towline in the process and we drifted away and his boat started floating away too.

The first rule on the river is to stay with the boat and J shouted to him as we floated off, "Jump in and grab your boat!" Which is what G did, executing a prodigious leap into the river for the second time within the hour, this time all the way to his escaping boat, which he grabbed onto.

We oared over to him, took the bowline and pulled the upside down craft to shore. Then, after securing the large boat to the bank, the three of us got in the shallow water and tipped the overturned boat right side up. (Right: Drying our stuff at camp that evening.)

Dress to swim and rig to flip. Incredibly, all the baggage and equipment, except for the oar which A had already retrieved, was still with the boat. (Left: We had a lot of stuff.)

Water had invaded all our dry bags though, and our sleeping bags were wet. It meant for an uncomfortable night for G, Jy and I when the nighttime chill settled in but hey, we were alive and our third day on the river, the most incredible day of my life, finally drew to a close.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Giving thanks

I went to church today for the first time since my life-altering moment under the boat on the Dolores River in Utah on Cinco de Mayo, to give thanks for discovering the strength within me when I was in the river to get out from under the boat before I drowned. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, you know?

I was relating my nascent faith to a friend today and she pointedly asked about me delaying for two Sundays after I got back before I made it to a service if that's how I now felt about it. She's actually not much of a believer herself, and views my belief with skepticism.

I just laughed. Two Sundays ago, today, it doesn't matter really, not to me anymore. (Right: Tough times on the river. We all came out alright, thank God.)

I think I've changed a little, actually. Tomorrow, for all my non-readers out there, we'll recover the overturned boat and learn the truth about "dry bags" as the cold night descends.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Let's speed this account of a single hour on the Dolores River up...

So we got the second boat out of its predicament on the rapids by utilizing tow lines, which is ropes used to haul the boat downstream while it is in the river. T was instrumental in this, as were others; I helped out a little by being a stout leg T could grab onto for support while he perched on a rock and extended a rope out to J, H and C who were laboring in their stuck boat in the river. (Left: Tow lines.)

J had had to slash holes in the bottom of his raft while the river was pouring in to let water out when he first got stuck in the rapids so his boat didn't capsize like ours did with potentially deadly effect. Once J's boat got free and navigated the rest of the vicious No-Name Rapids, T and I, with G acting as captain, brought the third boat through this nasty little rapids on a wet and harrowing ride. (Right: T, Jy, B, Ju and A.)

G justified his 100% safety record by bringing the small paddle boat through flawlessly. T's score sheet also read 100%, but at this moment he wisely deferred to the leadership of the vastly more experienced G. Me, I was just crew. (Left: Happy to be alive on the river, thank you.)

Meanwhile down river A chased a floating oar from G's overturned boat a mile and a half downstream and then dived in, swam to midstream and brought it back. This became very important later when J's boat lost an oar in a subsequent rapids, his boat having already lost its spare, and our boat was able to lend its spare oar to J.

The river below the rapids had a current of around seven miles an hour and A ran the floating oar down at her standard marathon speed of about eight minutes an hour. Yay for runners. A and her husband T are heroes of mine.

Now we had to recover our capsized boat. Incredibly, it was hung up a quarter mile below the rapids on the only free-standing rock in the Dolores River between the pernicious rapids we had just passed through and California.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Dolores River

May 5th, about 2 pm, on the Dolores River in Utah was the most incredible hour of my life. I almost drowned under a boat, lived through a harrowing journey down a raging rapids and then immediately had to plunge into a lengthy rescue mission.

So what is the most incredible hour of your life? Coming out of the womb?

I feel close to Jy because he went down the same rapids I did, and had to work hard to survive his passage. Meanwhile, G leaped astonishingly to safety.

G is an American hero of mine, an amazing mountain man. You would want this man in your foxhole! His late father went on combat patrols in Normandy in 1944 and walked by German patrols in the dark.

Yeah, not much matters to me anymore. So how was your summer vacation?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A self rescue

Cinco De Mayo this year was the most incredible day of my life. For the rest of my life, I will celebrate each new one I attain as a gift of life. The events which I have been describing in the last several posts all occurred on the Dolores River in Utah on Wednesday, May 5th.

I escaped from being trapped underneath the overturned boat and survived my passage down the powerful rapids. G and Jy managed to shove the upside-down boat free of the rock but its sudden departure, still-capsized, down the rapids left them stranded on the rock that had upset us, twenty feet from shore. (Right: Our boat gets away, wrong-side up, never a good thing.)

Jy was unable to crawl up the rock and slipped backwards into the water. He disappeared down the rapids.

Another of our boats was trapped on submerged rocks forty feet behind the standing rock where G was. It was a hell of a mess.

G walked around the rock, obviously hesitant to go into the river and be swept downstream. From the shore where I was, I gripped a stout sapling branch in one hand and waded into rushing water up to my chest. (Left: Jy and G are in extremis.)

Steadying myself on my anchor of the branch, I extended myself fully, my free hand open, my back leg on the bottom near the shore but my forward leg dangling in the deep water, and urged G to run off the back side of the rock, jump upstream as far as he could and try to catch my free hand as the current carried him down the rapids past me. The extension of my body bridged about half of the gap from shore to rock.

G went to the top of the rock, turned and ran off its back. He made a tremendous leap and splashed upriver into the water. (Right: Jy was gone and G contemplates going into the river as well. Behind him, J, H and C are in distress on their boat.)

He stood up, in waist high water. His astonishing jump had carried him past the swift current into the calmer water nearer the shore.

G had executed a self-rescue. At about the same time, Jy showed up from down river, wet and shivering but safe and unharmed.

Now we had to go rescue the boat in the middle of the river, find our boat, and get the third boat down below this hellacious No-Name Rapids. The day was far from done. (Right: Carefree days on the Dolores River.)

Downstream, B was running after A and yelling at her not to go into the water as she chased after a paddle in the river from G's boat. Since she is a Boston Qualifier and he is not, she was pretending not to hear him as she outdistanced him and then plunged into the river.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Another Ride Down A Rapids Without A Boat

Our third annual Bucket Trip was the gift that kept giving, the trip from hell. The adventures kept coming at us non-stop and they weren't through yet.

On the afternoon of the third day of our trip down the Dolores River in Utah on three rafts with 10 persons, Jy had skippered our boat into a huge standing rock in the middle of a rapids and it had flipped over. After a harrowing escape from underneath the boat, I had gone on a wild ride down the rapids to the bottom.

After I shakily pulled myself out of the river, I had gone back upriver to see if I could help out with our capsized boat. I hadn't seen Jy or G, the other man in our boat, since I had been dumped unceremoniously into the frigid water.

I hoped they were both alright.

Well, they were, more or less, at least for now. When I arrived on the bank across twenty feet of torrential rapids from where the rock was, the scene was shocking.

The overturned raft was being held fast by the current against the rock we had crashed into. Jy and G were out of the water pressed against the rock themselves, standing atop the higher pontoon of the boat, shoving against it with their legs trying to get it to move off the rock.

Forty feet behind them was our largest boat, tilted precariously in the river, hung up on rocks in the rapids while its three occupants scrambled about the boat deck and stepped into the seething water which was pouring over the barely submerged river rocks in their attempts to free it. Just like our capsized boat, it was stuck tight.

On the bank with me were the last four members of our trip, both couples that had been in the 4-person paddle boat. When its captain, T, had heard the approaching rapids, he had judiciously put in on shore to scout it on foot before embarking down it.

We watched helplessly while the five persons in the river worked frenetically to free their boats. There was no getting out to them, the river was too deep and the current too strong.

The two women on shore, Ju and A, accompanied by B, went downriver on foot to try to collect anything that might break free from the boats. This is called recovery, not rescue.

We all hoped it wouldn't be bodies.

After many long minutes, perhaps a quarter of an hour, G and Jy had made some progress in shifting the position of their boat. It moved downstream ever so slightly while they shoved against it while keeping their backs pressed against the vertical wall face of the standing rock they were leaning against.

Suddenly the current caught the boat and it broke free of the rock. With a shout, Jy and G scampered about trying to scramble onto the raft before it left them on the rock in the middle of the rapids.

This proved to be impossible because it was still upside down. Down the rapids it went, sunny side down, sucked down the same vortex that I had been sucked into when I got out from under the boat.

It left its crew behind as it disappeared from sight.

G, being an experienced river man, crawled higher on the tall rock where its angle was less severe and gained his feet. He climbed to the top of the twenty-foot rock and looked off downstream at his disappearing boat.

Jy, not being used to such things, was clinging to the rock face with his river shoes barely out of the water. He pressed his belly against the smooth granite, his fingers dug into a couple of slight crevices.

"G, help me, I can't get up the rock!" he called out. G kept watching his boat. Behind them, the crew of the other stuck boat were oblivious to the drama on the rock as they frantically worked in their own little island of chaos to free their boat.

Down river, A was having her own adventures, which involved going into the river to its midway point. Her status as a Boston Marathon Qualifier enabled her to save our trip from further, possibly irreparable, disaster.

Jy was aware of my presence on the bank opposite him. He had been visibly relieved, as had G, when I had showed up, because it meant that I hadn't been killed or severely injured. Jy also now had proof that a passage down the rapids was survivable.

"G, I can't climb this cliff! I'm going to swim down the rapids. Do you think I should?" Jy had a life jacket on, as did we all.

G grunted. Life on the river is tough.

He was clearly worried about the boat, which was his possession and contained all our stuff. Jy slid backwards into the raging river and was gone down the rapids in a flash!

Jy was on his own now. There were persons down below who could possibly help him if and when he emerged from the rapids.

Did I already say that life on the river is tough? (Left: Jy disappears down the rapids on a lonely ride. Good luck, buddy!)

I hadn't read the trip brochure closely enough before I came on this trip. At the last second, I almost gave in to my vague unease about it and went off to Custer's Battlefield instead. Talk about last stands. Look at them all! Don't let any escape!

Jy had vanished down the rapids. G was atop a standing rock in the rapids, twenty feet from safety across a rampaging channel of churning, frothy water.

J and his crew were caught in the rapids in the middle of the river. They had already lost their spare oar the day before when their boat got stuck at Stateline Rapids, the supposed "tough" rapids on this trip.

Unbeknownst to me, A was diving into the river at about that moment down below after a long run in pursuit of one of the paddles from G's boat. This trip was five days on a remote section of river, devoid of serviceable roads nearby and without cell phone service, and every oar was precious.

My boat, with all of its baggage, had floated away downriver upside down and was out of sight. The only possessions I had left were the soaked clothes I had on.

I had almost been drowned under the boat and then killed in the rapids.

There was the paddle boat upstream, our smallest boat, which still had to make it past the rapids.

Night would come soon enough, with its 40 degree chill.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Wild Ride Down A Rapids Without A Boat

Disaster overtook our rafting trip on the remote Dolores River in Utah during the third day when the boat I was in ran into a huge jutting rock in the middle of No-Name Rapids and flipped over. I was trapped under the boat but escaped when my desperate dive into the underwater current carried me out behind the boat beyond the rock.

When I came up, I greedily sucked in a mouthful of air just as a cascading wall of foaming water poured over my head and drove me below the surface again. I was swept away down a long rocky chute by this torrential deluge of water rushing past the boulder which the capsized boat was pinned against. When my life jacket brought me to the surface again everything was a blur as, engulfed in tumbling, crashing water, I flashed by partially submerged boulders on both sides.

When I was underneath the boat I thought I was going to die, now that I was back on the surface I thought I might live. Although I was in desperate straits as the rushing current propelled me down the rapids at a reckless speed, at least I could breathe again so long as I didn’t get hung up on a rock and become trapped underwater again.

I plunged downstream past impediments marked by water boiling over their surfaces. I recall thinking that I had to save myself now, because my surviving this solo trip down the rapids was the best thing I could do now to help the two crew members I was leaving behind.

I know what you are supposed to do if you get thrown into a rapids. Get on your back, point your legs downstream and use your feet to fend off any rocks that you encounter. You have to trust your life jacket to save you and watch out that you don’t smash your head on any rocks.

I fought to bring my feet underneath me and point them downstream as I rolled over onto my back. I had never been in an element with this kind of power and omnipotent force before.

I was too upright in the roiling water and fighting the current too hard with my arms and this caused me to suck in water and start to cough. I forced myself to relax and lay back fully as I hurtled downstream. Clasping my hands across my vest and tucking my arms in tightly, I raised my head slightly and focused on looking down the length of my body to watch for approaching hazards.

Below me, water gushed around an obstacle just below the surface and I used my feet to skip over a submerged rock as I roared over it. Ahead of me, the current was taking me directly into a huge boulder standing upright in the river just like the rock which our boat had crashed into. I kicked mightily the instant I struck this towering edifice and careened off of it down river again.

Down I sped amidst the swollen eddies and crashing pinwheels of water for maybe a quarter of a mile. Suddenly I was discharged from this rockbound channel into calmer waters below.

As the gentler current of the river took over for the congested, frenetic rush of the rapids, I rolled over and did a slow sidestroke to the left bank. Grabbing at willow saplings on the shore as I passed by them, my quaking muscles barely allowed me to hoist myself onto dry land. I had survived.

I stood up and checked myself over while my chest heaved from exhaustion. Although wet, cold and bedraggled, I was uninjured.

I was by myself, almost half a mile below where I’d gone into the river. I hurried upstream along the bank to alert my other crew members that I was okay.

Above me were a capsized boat and two persons probably in need of assistance. It turned out that their situation was indeed desperate. (Right: My overturned boat trapped against the rock by the current. After being dumped into the water by the boat's sudden capsizing, I "came up" underneath the boat in the passenger well just past where the end of the red-tipped oar is barely sticking out from under the boat. There was no "air pocket" down there. After two futile attempts to get out from under the boat on the "upriver" side, I dove down below the boat in desperation and the strong current swept me out behind the back of the boat, where the lashed luggage is visible in the water, and sucked me down the rapids. Notice the other stuck boat behind our boat.)

I didn’t know that a second boat was caught in the middle of the rapids as well.

Monday, May 17, 2010

In the blink of an eye...

Stateline Rapids, the three-quarter mile long robust Class IV+ rapids with its mandatory scout on both banks and its dangerously low water flow, was behind us. It had almost claimed our biggest boat but we were past it now and the guidebook promised us smooth sailing for the rest of the trip. (Right: After G skippered the 4-person paddle boat down the lower Stateline Rapids on the third morning, we thought we were home free.)

We were ready for a little relaxation. The hump past the impassable diversion dam the first day of the river trip and the drama that consumed the second day and the morning of the third day at the diabolical rapids had sapped our spirit of adventure and we were all looking forward to smooth, unruffled sailing down a gentle, sun-dappled river in the last half of the trip.

The weather was cooperating as the sky continued to be brilliantly blue and cloud-free, promising us no rain. The days were sunny and warm and the nights were cold but clear, affording anyone who looked up a spectacular display of stars.

We sipped an occasional beer and lounged on the boats as they moved lazily downriver at a leisurely pace. We reminesced about the good old times when we were freshmen and oh-so young in coed Sewell Hall at the University of Colorado in Boulder forty years ago.

Jy, who knew as little about oaring a boat down the remote, fast-moving Dolores River as I did, took over the helm from G, to give him a much appreciated break. We bounced our way down one small rapids with Jy at the oars, a fun little escapade of the boat first being pushed (better visibility) and then pulled (more power and control but you're going backwards) by Jy's oars as the current caught us and spun us around, We all laughed and carefully pointed out hidden rocks to the busy driver.

After a lunch of sandwiches on the bank of the river, Jy continued to row and we heard the increasing noise of another approaching rapids. Its entrance looked all right, with not too much water in turmoil down there, so we sailed on into it without scouting it out first.

We immediately got into trouble. Once we were sucked into the vortex of the thing, the inexperienced Jy pretty much lost control of the boat. Looming in our path was a big standing rock in the river which Jy narrowly missed crashing into as G yelled directions at him. The current spun us around backwards and we traversed alongside a line of barely submerged rocks across the stream while approaching another tall, broad free standing rock behind us.

G screamed, "Jy, don't hit that rock!" Easier said than done in the powerful rushing water. Now we were right next to the towering rock going backwards and the current pushed us right into it broadside.

Things happened in the blink of an eye next. The wall of water seeking a way downstream slammed us sideways into the rock. I was on the upstream side of the boat with G on the seat next to me and Jy behind me. The downstream side of the boat rode slightly up the broad face of the rock as the current tried to shove us downstream. This caused a torrent of water to immediately start flooding into my side of the boat which had been lowered ever so slightly by the dynamics of being pinned against the rock. The frigid river water cascaded into the raft with shocking swiftness.

In these circumstances everyone should climb onto the high (rising) side of the boat so that the added weight will bring that side back down and raise the lowered side. It was a maneuver we had never practised and for which there was absolutely no time now.

I thought, "Hey, the river is pouring in... ." In a flash the boat flipped over.

I was in the water fighting against the terrific current to rise to the surface. I had my life jacket on, which gave me buoyancy.

I rose in the water but never made it to the surface. I "came up" in a cold, dark watery place, underneath the overturned boat.

It was quiet under there but there was definitely no air pocket down there. I could feel the fury of the current all around my body, driving me back towards the rock face behind me.

I remember thinking that I had about one minute to get out from under this boat or I was going to die. I could feel the clock ticking.

The very death I had feared most, death by drowning, which was the very reason for my unease over this Bucket Trip in the first place, the overwhelming fear I thought I had defeated by travelling down Stateline Rapids, was confronting me. My 58 years had brought me to this one spot under the boat on this "insignificant" rapids in Utah and now I thought I was going to die alone, right here and right now.

I was determined to try to live though. I grabbed onto some rigging and clawed my way across the underside of the boat against the current to try to emerge from under the boat on the upstream side. I didn't want to be pushed back against the rock face behind me and get pinned there by the mighty water flow.

When I got to the air-filled bulbous rubber pontoon which encircles the boat, there was nothing to grab onto and the rushing current pushed me back. I tried again with the same result.

I was acutely aware of my single lungful of air. I figured that having failed twice at my efforts to escape, I had time for one more attempt at salvation before I blacked out. I felt myself weakening.

A rule on the river for anyone in the water is to stay with the boat. Besides the obvious risk of drowning, the water is dangerous because you can crash into all kinds of things while being propelled by the current.

It was time to leave the boat if I could, despite my fear of getting pinned underwater against the rock behind me. Holding fast to the rigging under the boat, I pushed off downwards and backwards into the current.

A moment later I popped out to the surface behind the boat, into light and air but in the midst of a raging torrent of cascading water. I grabbed a mouthful of air and was immediately thrust under the surface again by the force of the water. Now thoughts of death were replaced in my mind by thoughts of survival as I hurtled down a very powerful, rock-strewn quarter mile of rapids at warp speed.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Stateline Rapids, the next morning

We woke up on the 3d day of our Colorado Dolores River Bucket Trip the next morning with a new determination. We ate breakfast, and made lunch sandwiches, and everyone was raring to go.

The 2 boatmen and T and B took the paddle boat down the lower Stateline Rapids with no problems. The 2 women on that boat walked.

C, always game, wanted to ride an oar boat down the lower rapids. The boatmen, returning from downriver to take their oar boats the rest of the way down Stateline Rapids, wanted only men for crew, because men are stronger and unafraid to act.

That's just the way it is in remote Utah (we'd crossed the stateline) where miscues on the river can cost you your life. The two boatmen, having faced danger in the middle of the rapids the day before, could assert their will. (Jy and G bring our boat through the lower Stateline Rapids. Photo by B.)

My boat left under G's guidance with G oaring and Jy paddling. G chose a good line down the lower rapids and made it through without incident.

J allowed C to ride with us through the dangerous rapids, although only I had a paddle to help him as he oared. It's the strength thing, although C apparently has no fear of danger. And there was a woman walking down the rapids from T's boat who would put all us manly men to shame in a pinch, as you'll see. Did I already tell you that A qualified for Boston?

I'm glad C was in the boat because it was a rough ride through the lower rapids and at one point, as I bounced around the boat as we jostled over rocks and spun around In the current, I was knocked into her and she righted me so I could stick my paddle into the water again and help J out some more.

So now the Stateline Rapids was (were?) behind us. We were home free! (Left: Home Free! Oh really? Photo by B.)

Really? Four hours later I was alone in a cold, dark place contemplating my maker.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dolores River Trip, Stateline Rapids

It was mid-afternoon of the second day of our 37 mile, five-day rafting trip down the remote Dolores River in Colorado, we had gone 9 miles so far, and trouble was definitely upon us. Our two most experienced boatmen were currently under extreme duress in the river and our largest boat was stuck, hung up on a rock and pressed into immobility there by the powerful current, in the middle of raging Stateline Rapids. (Right: Houston we have a problem. Photo by B.)

The two boatmen, J and G, and I had brought the smallest boat down part of the rapids to a portage point a half hour earlier. Buoyed by this success at navigating the ferocious Stateline Rapids, Jy offered to accompany G and J when they took the second of our three boats down the rapids.

I would be the third crew member on the last trip, as one other man was all the crew that G and J wanted to accompany them on the oar boats when they traversed the dangerous rapids. The seven of us landlubber crew members lined the shore alongside the upper rapids and watched as J brought his boat down.

We all shouted and gave a hurrah as the heavily-laden raft came shooting down the rapids. Jy and G were paddling for all they were worth up front and J was rowing furiously from the back with his long oars.

Round and round the boat spun as the flat rubber bottom struck submerged rocks and forged over them. Waves of spray from the roiling water broke over the boat.

Then our huzzahs died away as the boat spun into a little maelstrom of swirling water and got hung up and pinned on a rock in the middle of the upper channel. With the river current roaring past on both sides, the boat turned broadside and was held fast against a large rock outcropping while water poured into the upriver side of the boat. J’s oars were useless in this tight space and the little paddles were ineffective.

All hell broke loose on the boat. G climbed onto the slippery rock and started working the boat back and forth with his hands and feet, pushing and shoving. I was dearly afraid for him, worried that the heavy boat might slip a little and pin him between the boat and the rock. He could drown in those circumstances. (Left: The 3 boatmen worked desperately in the middle of the raging river. Photo by B).

Jy started bailing furiously with a 5-gallon water bucket. As G clambered about the partially submerged rock, Jy dashed him full in the face with a bucketful of cold river water as he desperately sought to keep the boat from filling with water. It would have been funny to us observers if the situation wasn’t so deadly serious.

J pulled on his oars and tried to get leverage to turn the boat in the confined space. The raft was hemmed in by rocks and held fast by the powerful current. He snagged an oar on a rock and it was wrenched from his hand and went downstream. We never saw it again.

We stood on the shore gaping at the spectacle, unable to help them in the least. The current was too powerful for anyone to wade out to them and it was too far to throw a rope. The three men were on their own.

Seconds turned into minutes and then a quarter hour passed, then half an hour. The current was holding them fast. At times, all three crew members were on the slimy rock in the raging river, pushing on the boat. It seemed to be moving slightly.

T tried to wade out towards them but it was too dangerous. The third boat was still upstream and could be used to assist them but it was likely that it would just sweep on by. If it got caught in the same place it would just add more dimension to the disaster.

The boat had stopped taking in water though, so the situation seemed to be improving. The sum knowledge of what to do was already out there with J and G, the two boatmen who had vast experience on rivers. The rest of us were helpless spectators, reduced to wringing our hands in an agony of inaction. We sat down to watch the three men work in the middle of the river, hoping that none would slip and get swept away by the rapids.

T was ready to put the paddle boat in the river if that happened, I am sure, and I would have gone with him in any rescue attempt. Half of that boat’s paddles were with the oar boat, though. There was no prospect of rowing upstream to their assistance.

Finally, after about forty minutes, the large boat slowly swung about and started moving again. There was great consternation on the rock as all three men scrambled to get situated in the boat before it broke free. Suddenly the boat went plunging down the rapids again with all three men paddling furiously.

J did a masterful job of steering with one oar and suddenly they were free of the upper part of the rapids, in a small, relatively calm part of water that separated the upper and lower parts. They paddled to a small beach, where we met them. The men were cold, wet and clearly exhausted. (Right: Free. Free at last. Photo by B.)

The boat seemed to be alright, and J was for taking it the rest of the way down the rapids and continuing on once we portaged the first boat downriver and brought the third boat down. He wanted to put Stateline behind us before nightfall.

T pressed the contrary point, suggesting that we camp right there and tackle the lower rapids on the morrow, after bringing the third boat down to this beach, of course. J acquiesced to this and J, G and I trudged upriver to the third boat to bring it down.

Watching the large boat get hung up in the middle of the rapids had scared the crap out of me. But what are you gonna do? J and G were tired and needed help and if the next boat got stuck, I could be a strong pair of helping, albeit untutored, hands. I trusted G to bring his boat down safely as he said he could and would.

And G did just that. We shoved off and J and I paddled for all we were worth while G steered and pulled with his two oars. We had an "uneventful" trip. There was plenty of water that crashed over the bow and we scraped over many rocks and swirled around a couple of times but we made it down clean. Although G looked cool in his helmsman’s chair, he cursed like a salty sailor the whole trip down. I remember being tossed around a lot. (Left: G guides us down the upper rapids to the campsite. Photo by B.)

By the time we landed, the landlubbers had portaged the smallest boat to the beach and we set up camp. We cooked spaghetti for dinner and slept away from the river by the gently babbling diversion stream. My perennially sore ankle was hurting from the day's exertion and the shallow chute of frigid flowing river water provided a perfect ice bath to dip my injured foot into.

Tomorrow we still had to pass though the lower half of Stateline Rapids, a dangerous task in itself. After that, though, the way would be in the clear with nothing further downstream but a couple of gentle rapids, we thought.

That wishful thought would instill in us a sense of complacency that almost had a fatal result the following day.

Friday, May 14, 2010

3d Bucket Trip Day 2.

Day two on the river got underway at noon, after we ate a breakfast of eggs and hash browns, packed up our campsite, manhandled the three boots up the steep, muddy bank, carried them 50 yards down the shoreline past the unnavigable diversion dam, put them back into the water and lashed all of our stuff onto them. Seven miles ahead was the supposed highlight of our trip, the three-quarter-mile long Stateline Rapids, rated a solid Class IV+.

The guide book said it was a mandatory scout location, walking the river from both banks. After we navigated Stateline, the book said, the rest of our 37-mile trip would be easy, with only a couple of Class II rapids downstream from there. (Left: The Southwest desert was starting to bloom. Photo by B.)

That was reassuring because everyone was nervous about Stateline. Us greenhorns were afraid the water would be too tall and fast and we might not make it, and the river men were afraid the water would be too shallow and slow and we might not make it.

It was assumed the women would walk down Stateline on the shore. The men were quietly querying each other as to what we would do.

It was known that J and G, our two expert river men, were intending to take each of the three boats down the long rapids, in turn. Would any of the other five men accompany them?

I have already stated that I had felt an unease about this Bucket Trip from the start, fearing that the Dolores river trip might be a wee bit unsafe. My disquietude, especially in light of the somber, serious discussion of Stateline Rapids in the guidebook, had been occupying my mind and I had put my finger on what was bothering me.

I had decided that the worst fear I had in this life was of dying by drowning, and I was facing my fears now. Actually, unbeknownst to me, I was a full day away from confronting this fear head-on.

Towering cliffs closed in upon the river on both sides as we made our way down stream. By mid-afternoon, we heard the roar of Stateline Rapids and could see the agitated water ahead. (Left: High cliffs crowded in upon us on the river. Photo by B.)

We put in on the west bank and walked down a dirt road that allowed us a view of the long expanse of rapids. The upper rapids were especially ferocious, and since from the left bank we couldn’t see the entire length of the preferred passageway down the right-hand side of the river, we rowed across the river and repeated our scout on foot on the other side.

The cautious captain of the 4-person boat decided to portage. Three-quarters of a mile is a long way to portage.

The long boiling rapid, with equally forbidding looking upper and lower parts, had gotten the attention of all of us. One of my trip mates said he wasn’t going down that tumultuous rock-strewn chute on the raft and that I shouldn't think that I had to, either.

That sounded comforting. Let G and J take the boats down the rapids, and we’d watch from the bank and help out somehow if they got into trouble.

But I couldn’t do that. I offered to crew with G and J as they prepared to shove off, and the three of us put the smallest boat, the 4-person paddle boat, into the river so we could paddle it partway down the rapids to a portage point mostly through the upper rapids. (Right: Wrestling a boat down the upper Stateline Rapids. Photo by B.)

Everyone watched from shore as G and I, following J’s commands, tore frantically into the river with our paddles as the boat spun round in the wild current and bounced off rocks like we were in a pinball arcade. My heart was in my throat as we hurtled down the rapids and then safely made calmer water in a diversion channel and paddled to the shore at a portage point.

The two bigger, less maneuverable oar boats waited upstream. Jy took his turn at crewing alongside G, and under J’s command, the largest boat put into the river and came down the rapids while we all watched from shore.

We had thought our problems at the diversion dam the evening before had been tough. The trip’s troubles were about to begin.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

3d Bucket Trip Day 1

The first day on the river was very short and very hard. We didn’t get on the water until 5:30 in the afternoon of Monday, May 3d, and then we only went three miles down river.

It took forever to get organized at J’s house in Montrose, to gather all the equipment and drive to the put-in place on the Dolores River at Gateway in Colorado. The day before, our hosts had ferried cars around so that there were vehicles were waiting for us at the take-out spot in Utah, four hours away by road. (Right: The Dolores River in Colorado.)

Everyone had a lot of stuff, packed into waterproof bags. I had two duffel-bag sized drybags myself.

Lashed into the boats were three 70-pound metal bins of refrigerated food, dry foodstuffs and liquids, plus four 20-gallon jerrycans of potable water weighing about 80 pounds each. There also were several large metal boxes containing kitchen items, a fold-up table, chairs, propane tanks, stoves, charcoal, tarps, the latrine and various other sundry stuff.

Everything had to be rigged onto the boat so it would stay no matter what. There is a saying on the river that came to be proven absolutely true on our trip: Dress to swim and rig to flip.

(Left: The boat I rode in with Jy, middle, captained by G, who oared from the back. The life vest I was wearing absolutely saved my life. Photo by B.) There are some descriptive terms on the river that also came to be proven true. The way was "bony" which meant there were a lot of the rocks exposed above the surface which made for a difficult passage, and the water was "skinny," meaning it was shallow and likely to hang up a boat.

There is a dam upriver of our put-in spot, and our two river men were dissatisfied with its release, reckoning the purposeful discharge from the dam was barely sufficient for us to progress downstream. The river flow was 1200 cfs, or cubic feet per second, and they wished it had been 2,000 cfs at least.

More water means less danger, apparently, because less rocks are exposed. This was all pretty esoteric to me.

Down river we went in the late afternoon, the leaky rubber pontoon boats taking on water constantly and losing air continuously. The boats were so laden, overladen, with all the gear and everyone’s stuff that they rode low in the water.

For an hour the trip was idyllic. The three boats paddled and oared on a broad calm river through a wide canyon with high hills and towering cliffs defining the nearby horizons.

Then we approached what the guidebook said was a difficult Class III rapids at a diversion dam. I didn’t know what a diversion dam was but a far off din of roaring water down river that steadily grew to thundering definition garnered my attention.

The river was calm though, because we were in the pooled up backwater of the diversion dam. Finally we could see a tiny line of leaping foam running across the broad water horizon, signifying the trouble spot.

We put in to shore and got out of boats to take a look. The sight was astonishing. (Left: The Diversion Dam. Photo by B.)

In Colorado, ranchers own the bottom of the rivers which run through their property and hence, they can indiscriminately disrupt the water flow of the river. Here the rancher had bulldozed huge boulders across the river during the summer, when the river flow is minimal, and created a diversion wall for the water so that it would flow into an artificial channel the rancher cut into one bank leading into his fields.

The two Coloradans explained that by partially diverting the river, the rancher thus saved the cost of electricity that running a pump from the river would entail. The problem was that the diversion dam made the river impassable at that point for our three small boats.

From the bank beside the artificial dam, we watched the water pouring over the obstacle in a tremendous torrent, hence the roar, and falling three feet or more into a series of holes in the water below the dam. There were jagged rocks strewn about everywhere on any potential landing points amidst the tortured water underneath the dam.

The two river men, who had never been on this stretch of river before, saw the obstacle as a problem to be solved, getting the boats over that dam. They discussed using this or that tongue of water flowing over and past the dam to shoot over the barrier rocks, and then the quick actions that would be necessary upon hitting the boiling water in the boulder field below the dam.

The leader of the paddle boat, T, nixed that talk entirely. "Portage," he said simply.

It was 7 o’clock and we needed to set up camp soon. If disaster overtook a boat at the dam site, it could be dark before we could effect a rescue for the boat and its occupants.

The vote was to unload the boats above the dam, cart (portage) the contents and the boats below the obstacle, and re-enter the water after rigging the boats again.

This is humping! It’s a lot of work, especially with a full load of crap such as we had.

The beauty in T’s suggestion was that we would have to unload the boats anyway, to make camp. Why not do it there, camp, and proceed below the hindrance on the morrow.

The two river men took it as a bit of a defeat, I think, saying they had never portaged before, but they bowed to the popular will. The banks were steep and also muddy and sucked at our shoes and caused us to slip and slide as we unloaded the three boats.

We cooked a dinner of bratwurst sausages in the dark and slept under the stars beside the deafening diversion dam on a ranch road running alongside the man-made water-bearing channel. We didn’t know if the land was public or private, but I suspect we were trespassing. (Left: Looking back at the diversion dam as we left the next day. Photo by B.)

The night was very clear and very cold, just at the freezing point. We had gone just three miles and I was worn out already.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

3d Bucket Trip Precursor

The Bucket Trips: In 1970, I entered the University of Colorado and was assigned to the first co-ed dormitory there, Sewell Hall. With the Vietnam War raging and the Haight-Ashbury District flowering, revolutionary sentiment and the smell of cannabis hung in the air.

I met a wonderful group of matriculating students there who became lifelong friends. We spent many hours riding Enduro motorcycles through the canyons surrounding Boulder and hiking in the nearby foothills.

During the day we attended some classes on campus and at night we imbibed 3.2 Coors beer at the Sink or saw performers like Country Joe McDonald and Leon Russell at Tulagis on the Hill.

Country Joe McDonald - I Feel Like Im Fixin To Die

Rab MySpace Video

Two years ago the Bucket Trips got started when Swell Hall alumni C organized a reunion for ten of us on a week-long professional rafting trip of two boats and twenty-eight persons down the Grand Canyon. Tragically, one person who wasn’t part of our group died during that trip of a heart attack.

Last year we sailed for a week in the Florida Keys. This year J and G, brothers who live in Colorado, organized a rafting trip in Gateway Canyon on the Dolores River for ten persons on two 3-person oar boats and one 4-person paddle boat.

In the run-up leading to the early-May trip, a sense of uneasiness developed among some trip members, myself included. It was going to be a grueling trip in a wilderness area with some significant rapids.

I called up one of the organizers and asked, only half-jokingly, if anyone was going to die on this trip. My friend laughed and said no, but added that we all better be in shape for it.

C wasn’t going on this trip but he loaned J and G some river equipment and one of the boats. He told G, in all seriousness, not to get anyone killed on the trip because he would regret it for the rest of his life.

The Gateway Canyon stretch of the Dolores River starts at Gateway, Colorado, on the western slope about 45 miles west of Grand Junction. It is 37 river miles from the put-in at Gateway to the take-out at Dewey Bridge on the Colorado River in Utah. (Right: The Dolores River is, well, beautiful.)

There are no roads near the river for most of the way except for dirt trails that service ranch vehicles. There’s no cell phone service either, and we didn’t encounter any other boats.

It’s remote. We were on our own with no ability to call 911.

I flew out to Denver on Saturday, May 1st and drove to Durango that night to visit my octogenarian uncle who lives there with his daughter, my cousin. I visit him once a year as he is the only relative I have left who is of the World War II generation as all of the rest have passed on.

Since I was too cheap to pay $25 to check a bag on the airlines, I went to Walmart when I arrived and bought a sleeping bag for $9, good down to 45 degrees, and a sleeping mat for camping out under the stars for four nights. I brought along a tarp and some rope with which to fashion a tent in case it rained.

My visit with my uncle went well and then on Sunday I drove through a snowstorm to Montrose where J lives. We were leaving from there to go to the river to put in the next day.

Everyone else was already at J’s house, six other men, B, G, H, J, Jy, T, all Swell Hall residents in the seventies, and three women. A was T’s wife and a Boston Qualifier, Ju was B’s S.O. and C was the sister of both H and Jy.

Everyone except for C, who was in her sixties, was in their fifties. G and J were veteran river men and would oar two boats and T would direct the paddle boat with the two couples in it.

Except for G and J, and maybe T, who is generally an excellent waterman, we were all inexperienced, if not novices, at river rafting. Except for the Grand Canyon trip, where we went through several Class V rapids in a motorized boat, I have been along as a paying, paddling passenger on at least a dozen day rafting trips through some Class II and III rapids.

I have been instructed several times on what to do if you fall into a rapids. To the best of my memory, I have never been told what to do if you get trapped under a capsized boat in a rapids.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Baseball footprints

Aboard the plane going to Kansas City on my Field of Dreams trip, I got to talking with the passenger beside me, V, who grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City. We discussed my quest to see a game at every big-league ballpark. I asked him about Municipal Stadium in Kansas City, the long-demolished home of the Kansas City Athletics and the first home of the expansion Kansas City Royals. Before that it was a prime venue for the Monarchs, a premiere franchise in the Negro Baseball League in segregated America.

I told V I was going to Brooklyn and 20th, the site of the razed stadium, to walk around the footprint of the old structure. He grew concerned and claimed, correctly, that it is in an economically depressed area. That was his euphemism for-It’s in a black neighborhood.

He asked me who I would tour the site with. Just me, I replied.

I did it in many cities, I said. For instance, last summer when I was visiting both major league ballparks in Texas, in Houston I walked around the perimeter of the abandoned Astrodome, the home of the Astros before they moved to Minute Maid Park in 1999. I also perambulated one corner of the parking lot where I supposed the old Colt Stadium used to be, a temporary wooden structure which housed the team, then known as the Houston Colt 45s, before the Astrodome was completed in 1964. (Right: Colt Stadium with the Astrodome being built next door.)

Claiming I wouldn’t be safe at that location, V made me swear that I would stay in my car when I toured the area. I lied when I made the promise, and the next day I spent a lovely two hours tramping around that neighborhood, now a single-family housing development on a little level plateau in the hilly part of Kansas City. The people I encountered were hospitable and accommodating, and frequently inquired in response to my questions whether I was from Minnesota. You see, the Royals were playing the Twins that weekend, and everyone had me pegged for an out-of-towner.

After I completed my walkabout in the area of the old ballpark, I went to Kauffman Stadium to watch the Royals beat the Twins in 12 innings in a pelting rain. It was a cold and miserable four and a half hours, but the Field of Dreams quest is not all open air and sunshine.

I didn’t care too much for Kauffman Stadium, plunked down as it is next to Interstate 70, miles from downtown. As I huddled under the eaves of the stadium trying to stay dry, I found myself fascinated by the juxtaposition of the glacially-paced baseball game unfolding in the foreground at three innings per hour while a never ending stream of whining vehicles raced by in the background at a mile a minute.

Before I left town, I sampled burnt-end barbecue sandwiches at both Arthur Bryant’s and Gates’, two famous local culinary establishments. The fare at Gates' was hotter and caused my face to stream with perspiration, while that at Arthur Bryant’s was sweeter and less sweat-inducing. Both meals were very different from each other and very delicious.

Next up for me was the third annual Bucket Trip in a week’s time with my old college buddies. This year we were rafting down the Dolores River in Colorado, and I was inexplicably experiencing unease about the impending trip.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Field of Dreams

Three weekends ago I flew to Kansas City on my annual Field of Dreams trip and saw a big-league game in Kauffman Stadium there. The Royals hosted the Twins.

It was the 38th ballpark I have seen a major-league baseball game in. There are only 30 major league teams but I have seen games at some stadiums that have been demolished, like the Polo Grounds in NYC and Griffith Stadium in DC. (Right: The Polo Grounds in Manhattan.)

I have six stadiums left to go to complete my list, although the number keeps growing as new stadiums are built. Two brand new ballparks opened last year in NYC, a new stadium was unveiled this year in Minneapolis, and one is under construction in Miami.

I keep an actual list, with notes, of my visits. It has asterisks for special circumstances.

For instance, in 1979 I saw a minor league game at Mile High Stadium in Denver, and the Colorado Rockies played at Mile High Stadium for two years when they were created in the nineties. But I didn’t see a major league game at Mile High Stadium, which has since been torn down, and the Rockies now play at nearby Coors Field, where I saw a game in 2001.

So Mile High Stadium isn’t on my list of 38 stadiums, although it has a special mention of my minor league experience there, set off by an asterisk following the Coors Field entry. It’s complicated.

Here’s a personal life asterisk. Seeing a game at Coors Field was the last time I attended an event with all three of my sons.

Every summer I go see a game at one or more of the ballparks where I’ve never been. It’s my "discipline."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A happy Mother's Day.

The cute blond two-year old was babbling and banging his plastic cup on the table at the restaurant where my friend and I were having brunch this morning. My friend was glaring daggers at the toddler's parents who were sitting unconcernedly next to him.

It's Mother's Day you know. My friend is not a mother.

"It's only a baby," I said to her about the noise machine two tables over. Trying to distract her, I asked her how her blintzes were.

"They could give that baby something soft to play with, or take it outside," she said. "Oh, so you got out of a bad predicament on the river and now you're going to be 'happy' for the rest of your life?"

"Maybe," I answered.

A lot has happened in the past two weeks. Three weekends ago I went to Kansas City on this year's Field of Dreams trip and saw the Kansas City Royals play the Minnesota Twins twice at Kauffman Stadium. It's the thirty-eighth ballpark I've seen a major league baseball game in, leaving six stadiums remaining on my checklist. I sampled some authentic KC barbecue while I was there.

Last week I went to Colorado for my third annual Bucket Trip with my college freshmen dorm mates. The theme of these trips seems to be water.

Two years ago we rafted down the Grand Canyon for seven days and six nights with professional river guides. It was the trip of a lifetime.

Last year we spent a week on three boats sailing the Florida Keys. What a trip.

This year we rafted for five days and four nights on the Dolores River on the western slope, starting in Colorado and finishing in Utah. Ten people went down the river on three boats.

I don't think I'm being overly-dramatic when I say I had a near-death experience on the trip. In an incredibly fast sequence, I suddenly found myself alone in a cold, dark place with maybe a minute to live. Obviously I'm still here; it wasn't my time yet.

But I saw how it could be. It didn't freak me out then but it's become a major head-trip since I got back. I arrived home last night and and I have never been so glad to return from a trip.

Already I'm calling my memory of that stark moment on the river "my cold dark place." It puts life in perspective.

Everyone finished the Dolores River trip safely. Stay tuned.