Kristen in a waterfall
Every day on the trip, usually after lunch, we have the option of taking hikes up various side canyons. I’ve taken every one, and they always end up in some spot so beautiful that you don’t want to leave.
After floating down the river a bit we stop at a place called Stone Creek. Today’s optional hike was a long climb to a waterfall at the top of the cliffs.
(2008 NOTE: This next paragraph is full of attitude. It’s how I wrote it twelve years ago, but I’m older and wiser now. That said, I’m leaving it in.)
I hiked back to the bottom, and encountered the National Geographic photographer who was shooting the high water. We were the only two photographers actually in the canyon and on the river during this flood. National Geographic gets so much respect for their photography but the fact is, they pose and set up just about every shot in their cheap rag. I wasn’t about to treat this guy like royalty. Everyone else was. He was on a raft with federal employees. Against park rules, they had a keg on board. He just milled around like a loser, trying to avoid looking anyone in the eye.
(Ouch! For the record, the photographer I encountered is an amazing talent and National Geographic is not a cheap rag. I was an arrogant fool.)
After last night’s drunk howling on the part of the media group, which offended a lot of the Californians, I decided to make some new friends. Karl (21)was on the trip with his sister Kristen (20), and his friend Matt. I hadn’t talked with them very much until today. They were on the other raft and as the only people on the trip their age, they kept to themselves. We started talking and quickly realized we should have done so a lot sooner. We share a lot of the same opinions and observations of the trip. We’ve been annoyed by the all the same people. They tell me how lucky I am that Dan isn’t on my boat. They hate him with a passion.
We end up stopping to camp on a beach with a beautiful overhang. For the first time, the sun isn’t out and it looks like rain. As we get off the boat, people run to the overhang to claim the precious shelter as their own. The rest of us are left with uncovered spots where we’ll get drenched if it rains. Prince is always the first of the two of us off our boat so he always picks our campsite. It’s always the furthest one from the boat, which makes our unloading take a lot longer. Carrying our riverbags, tent, cots, ammo cans, and my camera gear that far is a pain but we always have more privacy than anyone else.
Prince has officially declared me “punch drunk.” My exhaustion has made me continuously giddy, like I am stoned. I guess carrying a backpack full of equipment on every hike had taken more out of me than I thought. As we set up our tent and cots I start to get silly. I’ve been acting silly since yesterday when we were putting up our tent and had the wrong pole on top. We bent the thing to make it fit, laughing hysterically as we ruined the tent. Tonight we made sure not to get the same tent again. Leave tent #F3 for some other sucker.
Waiting for dinner on the beach I was talking with Dan and the TV crew. When the conversation started they had their backs to the overhang, facing me. Behind them I noticed Kristen was changing. She was a beautiful twenty-year-old and was stripping down to her bikini. I wasn’t staring or anything; I just noticed and went back to the conversation. Then the weirdest thing happened. The trio I was talking to, three men over forty, somehow noticed Kristen behind them. They actually began to rotate around. Before I knew it, I was facing the river and the three drooling deviates were facing the young woman taking off her clothes. The conversation took a major detour. Dan started it off with, “Wow, just look at that overhang. It’s just an amazing wonder of nature.” The others agreed. “Just amazing.”
At this point, I looked over my shoulder and saw Kristen was now taking off her bikini and trying to keep herself covered with a towel. And she was obviously aware they were staring at her. Her face had a look of frustration as she crawled into a sleeping bag to ensure none of the creeps would see any skin as she changed her clothes.
I said, “There’s no way she didn’t notice you guys staring at her while she was changing.”
“Hey, that’s her fault,” one of the men said. “She shouldn’t be walking around with her titties hanging out.”
NOTE: I am taking some time off this week. So to keep the posts coming I’m recounting the story of an assignment that took us rafting the Grand Canyon in 1996.
After six days spent running rapids on the raging Colorado River, its waters engorged by a historic man-made flood, we were finally on our way home. I had fifty rolls of film to develop and my reporter (who I will call Prince in this series) had his article to write. It was time to get back to the real world.
We had been completely isolated from the world for a week. Within the high walls of the Grand Canyon we had no news or contact of any kind. No phones, no radio, no television. Kicking off the drive home, we pulled into a brand-new gas station that, when we passed through a week ago, hadn’t even opened yet.
We had no idea what had gone on in the world. And as newsmen we had so many questions. Who won the NCAA basketball tournament? Were the Montana Freemen still holed up surrounded by the FBI? Was Christopher Reeve walking?
Listening to the radio newscast was the strangest thing. It was like we had warped into the future…
“Rescue teams have located the remains of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 32 other Americans after their plane crashed in Bosnia.”
“The man suspected of being the Unabomber remains in custody.”
We were in another world.
I bought a copy of the Arizona Republic and we caught up on the events of the week. But not until reading the wacky tabloid “The Sun” did I realize just how much had happened while we were gone. In huge bold and italic letters, the headline read:
Ten More Commandments Found!
It was an eight-hour drive from Salt Lake City to the Marble Canyon Lodge. Prince, a Tribune reporter, and I drove down in the company 4×4. The assignment was this: The Feds were flooding the Grand Canyon for a week, letting more water through Glen Canyon Dam than had been seen in ten years. We would be rafting those waters. In normal flows, the huge rapids of the Grand Canyon rate a 10 on a 1 to 10 scale of danger. For a flood like this one they broke the scale and were simply labeled “+”. Only seven rafts would be riding the flood. The assignment of a lifetime.
(Reading it now in 2008, this next paragraph sound so dramatic and ridiculous, but I’m leaving it in anyway.)
My wife was worried for my safety. But even worse I would be missing her birthday. We spent our last day together with our infant son. I told her about various insurance policies to cash in on if I didn’t come back alive. I told her to sell all my photography equipment and buy a house, but keep the Leica. Give it to my boy when he’s old enough to appreciate it. We hugged and I was out the door.
The long drive was a chance to talk. Prince is our roving reporter and had just been in Montana covering the government’s standoff with the Freemen (earlier in the year they had sued him for one billion dollars which they insisted be paid in gold minted coins). He had a story for every town we drove through. There was the man building a huge boat in the land-locked middle of nowhere. And as we drove past the few buildings that made up Big Water he told me about the mayor and his five wives. “Someone told me his wives were really just lesbians,” he said. He also had amazing dirt to dish. “So and so is a drunk.” “So and so is loser.” Then a couple hours were filled with laughter as we played some tapes filled with cordless phone calls recorded off a scanner. Stuff like this:
“You know how I cure my colds? Just get wasted, man. The colds just bail!”
“Didn’t I tell you that until you leave your wife don’t call me?!”
“God has let me know a few things that aren’t generally known by Christians. I know some things about the financial system that even they don’t know.”
We finally got to the Lodge and had dinner with our river guides. The rainbow trout was excellent. I retired to my room and took a steaming bath until all the hot water was gone. It would be my last warm water for a week. The next morning we ate breakfast at the lodge. While I had enjoyed the trout last night, they should have cleaned the grill. The pancakes had a serious fish taste. We tipped well anyway— the Tribune was buying.
Today is whitewater day, when we will hit the biggest rapids of the trip. We start with Grapevine Rapid, where one guy is flipped upside down and nearly thrown off the raft by the crashing water. He’s okay, but a bit shaken. The TV crew has him give some quotes for the camera.
“What just happened to you?” the reporter asks.
The guy has to search for words for a minute, but once he gets going it all comes out. “You know, I’m six-foot, six-inches, 260 pounds, and that water just threw me around like I was nothing.”
“Were you scared?”
“You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes? Well, I got all the way to 9th grade. And I went to 9th grade twice!”
You’ve got to give the California men points for chivalry. Whenever we get back on the boat after a hike or lunch break, one guy buttons up his wife’s raincoat and life jacket. But that’s not all. Before he can do that he has to help her get her too-small wetsuit on. This event is one to behold. Their technique is for him to pull the wetsuit up over her pear-shaped figure while she jumps up and down. It usually takes a quite a few jumps.
We’re approaching another rapid and once again, the big boys are in the middle of the boat, quickly trying to put their chapstick and sunscreen away so they can get up to the front of the raft to ride the rapid. But it’s too late. They’re not going to make it.
“Where’s my wife!?” the chivalrous one yells, fearful of her safety without his protection.
“She’s up in the front,” a guide says.
“All alone!?” he asks.
“Don’t worry,” says the guide with his tongue in cheek. “You’ve still got time to go save her.”
We’re approaching Crystal Rapid now. It’s the big one, rated as a “+” on a 1 – 10 danger scale. We beach upriver to scout it out. The high water level has turned the rapid into an roaring white froth. I stare at it for a long time, an awesome display of nature’s power.
Four small rafts went through while we watched from the shore. As they hit the rapid the water engulfed them and they disappeared from sight. You could hear them yelling and screaming over the sound of the rapid. Then they would reappear safe but soaked.
We needed photos of our rafts going through big water, so I would have to miss Crystal and shoot from the shore.
Winger’s raft goes first. I frantically shoot tight shots and then switch to a wide angle as they clear the rapid. Then I see a big splash. There’s a hole just past the rapid that I hadn’t noticed and Winger’s raft just smashed into it. I quickly put my telephoto to my eye and see one of the big boys hanging onto the side of the raft while someone else tries to pull him back in. I click two shots (both out of focus).
The second boat makes it through with no hitches and I walk down to the meeting point. When I get there, Winger’s raft is nowhere to be seen. The crew of the second raft fill me in as I jump on board. Hot Head dislocated his elbow going through Crystal on Winger’s raft. A helicopter was contacted by emergency radio to air-lift him out of the canyon. They’ve gone ahead to the landing zone.
I was able to piece together a bit of the story of Crystal Rapid. The flood water in the canyon on this run made Crystal Rapid into a frothing monster that even had our crazy boatman Winger scared. Setting aside his No Fear attitude, he had actually tried to steer to the right of the hole. Hot Head was on the front tubes. As the raft approached the huge rapid, a passenger next to him said, “I wonder if he’s going to go straight through it.” Hot Head replied, “He’d better go straight through it. That’s what we pay him for!”
It must have been rough being on those front tubes for Crystal. It’s an explosion of water and you’re knocked around like a punching bag. I knew that from my experience on the first day, when my weight was thrown back on my locked arm. Hot Head probably got hurt the same way that I did, though more seriously.
You can imagine the intense pain of a dislocated elbow. Now imagine riding on a bumpy raft through six miles of rapids, trying to keep your elbow from bumping around and pain firing through your body. That’s right, they had to go six miles down river to reach a suitable place for the copter to land.
When we finally caught up to the other boat, the helicopter was waiting on the hill. I jumped off the raft and saw the passengers from Winger’s boat, who I hadn’t seen since before the accident. Some of them were smiling at me, happy that Hot Head got hurt and would no longer be with us.
I ran over to where the medics were wrapping up his arm. He was in serious pain, gritting his teeth. When I put my camera to my eye he put on a face that said, “I can take the pain.”
Dan comes over with his point-and-shoot camera and says to Hot Head, “I hope you don’t mind me doing this!” and fires off a snapshot of the moment. Ever the promoter, Dan continues, saying, “Exciting things sure do happen on these trips!”
Hot Head’s father and brother then stood over him and gave him a religious blessing. I shot three discreet frames of this emotional moment. Tears fell from the father’s eyes as he prayed for his son’s well being.
They started to help him up the hill to the idling chopper, while Dan buzzed about them with his camera, saying, “I don’t know how you feel about me taking pictures. I hope it doesn’t bother you.” I also shot the scene, but from a distance. The blessing was the powerful moment. Anything else was extra.
Now Hot Head is gone. I climb back on Winger’s raft and we only go a little further before setting up camp. It’s pretty obvious that we all need some down time to unwind after the accident. It took a lot out of everyone. The realization that any one of us could be injured or even killed had been a distant thought until today.
Camp was a welcome relief after the traumatic day. After we set up camp, the first thing to come out was the booze. One of the river guides set up a margarita table and the drinks started flowing. After everyone had a little to drink, what was left of the tequila went into the TV reporter’s cup, even though he was holding a liter of whiskey in his other hand. As the only sober observer, I sat back and watched the show.
Dan is the first to lose his senses. He starts talking to Hot Head’s father about the earlier medical evacuation. His enthusiasm was probably lost on the father whose son had just been air-lifted to a hospital. “I told you! Something exciting happens down here every day!”
Then Dan brought up the religious blessing the father had given his son: “Now that Mormon blessing you gave him, that was something. Goddamn! That was a damn special moment. You know, I’ve got a lot of respect for Mormons…”
Once it gets dark the river guides disappear on a full moon-lit hike. Some kids light up a reefer at the river’s edge. Those of us media people find a place to sit and eat/talk. The media circle is where the comedy will be tonight. The TV reporter is drunk and he will be the star performer. I’ll call him TVR for the rest of the post.
TVR starts talking about Hot Head and his brother, “Those two hemorrhoids!” Much time is spent laughing about Hot Head and his injury. At one point the TV cameraman does an imitation of Hot Head’s injured moaning that is so loud I’m sure it was heard by everyone in camp. “AAAGGGGHHHH! My arm!” echoes off the canyon walls. We all laugh hysterically, either at the ridicule or the audacity of the cameraman.
People are pounding the whiskey now. The TV cameraman is gulping down his Diet Caffeine-Free Cokes and everyone is sputtering forth curse-filled spew. The old women huddled around the campfire about twenty feet away keep looking over, glaring with disgust at the drunken display of foul humor.
TVR starts talking about riding Crystal Rapid earlier in the day. “I was talking to that hole as we hit it. I said, ‘Come on you big, @#$%! brown @#$%! hole!’”
Winger walks over, obviously not in the best of spirits. He’s the most experienced guide around, riding huge water with media on board, and a passenger gets seriously injured. It’s clear he’s not himself, and probably second-guessing the way he rode the rapid.
TVR picks up on it and offers him some drink. “You know, Winger, I know enough about whitewater to know that you rode that rapid conservatively and it wasn’t your fault that that hemorrhoid got hurt. I want you to know that you have nothing to worry about in our broadcast. We won’t make you look bad in any way. This kind of thing happens.”
The campfire finally dies down and it’s time for sleep. TVR tries to stand up and nearly topples over. Two of us each grab an arm and start to walk him to his cot. As he is helped out of the circle, Dan is still reclining on a rock where we were all talking. He says, “Don’t fall on me.” Sure enough, TVR falls right on top of Dan, prone like they’re lovers. We all fall to the ground laughing hysterically as Dan yells out, “Get him off of me! Get him off! He’s trying to make love to me!”
TVR is a little upset now. We walk him to his cot and help him, against his wishes, into his sleeping bag. The next morning he’ll be a lot less talkative, a little embarrassed, and he’ll ask Winger for a new sleeping bag. One without puke in it.
This was the day to soak in the beauty of the canyon. After five days floating beneath the immense cliff walls on either side, you almost become immune to the natural spirit of this place. We floated down a peaceful stretch of river to Havisu Canyon, where we stopped for lunch and play. It’s a beautiful place. Pools of blue water and rocks to jump from. I could stay here forever.
The atmosphere in camp that night was good. The trip was coming to an end and everyone was very talkative, reflecting on the adventures we had experienced. Tomorrow was going to be our last day, and it would be a short one. Lava Falls Rapid was the only thing between us and the helicopter ride that would take us out of the canyon.
The TV guys went around and interviewed everyone. My exhaustion was making me really silly. Even worse than last night. When they interviewed me, the TV reporter said, “Put that camera around your neck and hold it in front of you so we know you’re a photographer.” I was out of it. When the show aired a week after the trip, there was a short clip from the interview. I’m bobbing and weaving, not standing still, completely fidgety. Maybe it was just from soaking up the beauty of the canyon.
I got a photo of one guy’s shins, which were now covered with scabs and bruises from the trip. The man had been stumbling over rocks and boulders for a five days now. One more hike and they would probably have to bury him next to the trail.
The river guides wore white dress shirts and black bow ties as they cooked our last supper and announced the after-dinner talent show (which we would be the cast of). The rainbow trout was very tasty.
Searching for an idea for the talent show, Prince wrote a song about the boatmen that we were going to sing. Karl and Matt had other ideas. “Let’s do an imitation ‘People’s Court’ and put Dan on trial for being an ass.”
Their other idea was even more drastic. “I want to go up in front of everybody and say, ‘Dan, would you come up here for a minute?’ and when he comes up in front of everyone, I’ll just go sit down and leave him standing there like the dumb-ass he is.”
So much for the spirit of camaraderie!
When it got dark we all gathered around a bonfire and the talent show began.
A thirty-something couple I haven’t mentioned yet had a bizarre act in the talent show. The only notable thing they had done so far, that I noticed, was to drink Heineken all the time. The wife took center stage while the husband stayed in the crowd. She began to explain that this was their fifth honeymoon together and that they really enjoyed being together. She told us they especially enjoyed acting like teen lovers and having sex all the time, especially in their tent. So during the time they were going to plan their act, he started making moves and they ended up having sex instead. “So that’s why we don’t have an act,” she explained to the entire group.
I don’t remember if anyone clapped or not.
We got up and sang our Prince-penned “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be boatmen” song. Then some of the older ladies on the trip sang love songs to the boatmen. I got the feeling some of them were quite serious, wishing that there would be a midnight visitor to their tent.
In the morning Hot Head and his family were the last ones to break camp and get on the rafts. This would become a recurring event. Every day we would all sit on the rafts waiting for them. I never could figure out what they were doing that made them late.
We started down the river and after a while spotted some researchers with their scientific gear camped on a beach, doing research on the effects of the flood. The TV crew wanted to interview them and so did we. Winger turned our raft toward the shore.
As we got closer I got a better look at our “scientist.” He looked like a serial killer. Shoulder length hair, a madman’s beard, a tie-dyed t-shirt. “I don’t like the looks of this group,” Winger said. As if to confirm his suspicions, the “scientist” walked up to the riverbank, boldly unbuttoned his pants, and began urinating directly in our direction. We decided not to stop.
The day was filled with intermittent rapids. After one series, I notice the California women are putting on lipstick. Not Chapstick or Carmex to protect their lips, but ruby red lipstick. They even have a little round mirror to stare into.
Another habit that I’m noticing is that of the men on my raft. After every rapid they come back to the middle of the boat, getting into their ammo cans and pulling out a camera or putting it back in. Hot Head would get soaking wet on the front of the boat and then come to the back of the raft and comb his hair before going back up to the front to get wet again.
One guy was always too slow to get back up front when the rapids came, and kept blocking our shots of the rapids. Winger had a big squirt gun that he wouldn’t hesitate to use if you blocked his vision. I leaned back and said, “Next time you use that squirt gun, just tap me on the shoulder so I can get a shot.”
Seconds later he yells, “Clear the middle!” and a spray of cold water hits the guy. He gets out of the middle quickly. The TV guy says to Winger, “Thanks for getting that goofy bastard out of my way.”
We’re hitting a lot of little rapids today. It’s good practice for the big ones. I’ve got the Nikonos in my right hand while I hold on with my left. We hit President Harding Rapid. It’s another one of those ones that’s supposed to be nothing. Of course, it’s a lot more than nothing. It’s a real bitch. We drop into a huge hole and right into a wall of water. The entire front half of the boat flies back at me. I go airborne, my feet fly above my head, and I’m holding onto the raft with one hand like I’m a bull rider. I manage to get one shot off, fired with no idea of what I’m getting.
I look down and Prince is dragging the TV reporter back into the boat. He flew off the raft when we hit the wall of water but somehow managed to grab hold of a rope on the side.
In the afternoon we reach the spot where the Little Colorado runs into the Colorado. The Little Colorado is pure turquoise water and very warm. We get out and swim some small rapids. The California women want to wash their hair and become upset when they’re told that for environmental reasons they’re not allowed to use shampoo in the Little Colorado.
Swimming in the warm water with the Nikonos, I end up missing the real show. Getting off the raft, the TV reporter slips off a seat, bounces on the front tubes and flies off the boat, landing on his stomach in three inches of water. Not missing a beat, he looks up and says, “What did the German judge give me?” All his cameraman, could say was, “I wish I would have gotten that on tape.”