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.