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.