Truths, Lies and Legends in the Big Ditch

Author’s note: Although names and some events have been tampered with, and in certain instances outright fabricated, for dramatic effect (and to protect the guilty) what follows is nonetheless a true story … basically.

Down the towering columns of foam and spray and chaotic boiling eddies, all possibilities looked bleak. It was Upset Rapid. The other kayakers were already at the bottom, undoing sprayskirts and slipping out of cigar-shaped boats to line the shore and eagerly watch my descent.

I took a deep breath as my kayak bobbed up and down in the eddy, deciding after one final inspection that river right looked like the lesser of several evil courses. The more I hesitated, however, the more I doubted my evaluation. Someone cheered from the bottom. Perhaps trying to encourage me but more likely impatient for the impending carnage. The rafters joined the kayakers, lining the bank and watching with wide, greedy eyes.

All of the sudden — my body acting on its own accord — I peeled out toward the drop ahead.

At first, it seemed that my choice to go right had been correct. The bow of my boat bumped easily over a few small waves. I could relax and enjoy a fun but mellow ride to the eddy below. But in that moment — when complacency reared its ugly head — two things happened simultaneously: one of my companions on shore howled in excitement and an unexpected horizon line (a kayaker’s worst nightmare) emerged in front of me.

I reached the event horizon and understood my miscalculation. Directly in front of me the river plummeted ten feet into one of the biggest, gnarliest hydraulics I had ever seen: the infamous hole of Upset Rapid. It accepted me greedily into its maw.

* * *

David Romney, permit holder and trip leader, had waited fourteen years for this trip, but due to a last-minute cancellation I was invited two weeks before launch. It was 2005. The permit system for the Grand Canyon was still based on the infamous waitlist. In theory, all it took to get a permit was a little — okay, maybe a lot — of patience. Today, permits for the Grand are awarded via a lottery system with odds resembling scratch-ticket jackpots. The Grand Canyon, affectionately known in river rat circles as “The Big Ditch,” is the world’s most-coveted whitewater adventure. It was a trip I’d been dreaming about my whole life and I was lucky to finally have the chance to experience it for myself.

The Grand Canyon is the cradle of whitewater paddlesports. Its history is long and illustrious and populated innumerably with colorful characters and enigmatic chapters. From John Wesley Powell’s famous 1869 expedition to Nathan Galloway’s revolutionary decision to turn his boat around so he, as oarman, could see the rapids ahead instead of rowing blindly backwards under the auspices of a “navigator”. The Grand has been the site of some of the most pioneering and influential moments in whitewater history.

The Grand has also witnessed some less-glorious moments. Early pioneers Frank M. Brown and Bert Loper found their end in the tumultuous cataracts. Three members of the Powell’s original expedition hiked out after becoming hopeless facing an unportageable cataract later dubbed Separation Rapid and were never seen again. Glen and Bessie Hyde, newlyweds who decided in 1928 to navigate the canyon for their honeymoon, also mysteriously vanished amongst the canyon’s towering walls. The canyon is vast and so are its secrets.

The legend of the Hydes is one of my favorites in Grand Canyon lore. Although the newly married couple was seen as far downstream as mile 95, and a camera recovered from their gear indicated they might have made it as far as mile 225, neither one of them was ever seen again. Myriad theories have attempted to explain their disappearance, everything from drowning to an un-favorable encounter with local tribes. My favorite theory, however, is that Bessie became disgruntled with Clyde after almost a month in the canyon and put an end to him with the pistol they carried. This dark version of their tale became popular in the 1970s when a mysterious loner on a commercial raft trip claimed one night at camp that she was Bessie Hyde. The woman’s claims were never substantiated and comparisons between photos of the two women cast her story in doubt. Regardless of the truth, the tale of the missing honeymooners has become one of the Grand’s enduring mysteries.

In the 1950s, river exploration in the canyon took a new turn, and visionaries such as the Hatch brothers and Georgie White had the crazy notion that the river corridor might be useful for something other than mere transportation. The primary objective of early Grand Canyon expeditions had been to determine its viability as a route for trade and commerce, but Georgie White and the Hatch brothers cultivated the idea that people might actually enjoy and even pay money to float the Big Ditch. Commercial rafting — and whitewater recreation — had been born.

Although it was the exploits of these early men and women that largely form the tapestry in which Grand Canyon legend has been woven, there is another, lesser known, chapter that could have put an end to it all before it began. In wake of President Eisenhower’s embrace of Roosevelt’s New Deal ideology, a proposal took shape in the early 1950s to dam and harvest the water and kinetic power of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Two dam sites were proposed: one at mile 39.2 in Marble Canyon and one downstream at Bridge Canyon near mile 238. Plans were set, workers mobilized and test bolts drilled into the rock. It was only through efforts from organizations such as the Sierra Club and river stewards like Martin Litton that attempts to flood the Grand Canyon were staunched. Had the project gone forward as intended, the Grand Canyon as we know it would have been drowned and whitewater recreation might never have taken shape.

* * *

Day three of our trip, almost two weeks before my foolhardy charge down Upset Rapid. It was a special morning, one of the few on our 18-day trip sans whitewater. Instead, our day featured a casual float past two of the canyon’s most-famous scenic attractions: a multi-tiered cascade called Vasey’s Paradise that erupts almost magically from the walls of the inner canyon and Redwall Cavern, a gigantic limestone amphitheatre that shelters an expansive beach. Without whitewater to provide excitement, we had devised other means to keep entertained.

The old timers called it Giggle-up. Highly concentrated mushroom tea (genus Psilocybe) diffused in pure fruit juice. As a veteran of many concerts and festivals, I wasn’t a neophyte psychonaut. Still, the potency of the old-timers’ concoction caught even me by surprise.

If psychedelics are good for anything, it’s altering perception. Not just in the fully realized hallucination kind of way that those who have never experienced it for themselves expect, but a complete mood and perspective overhaul that renders the familiar world and all its complexity into a completely different reality. I have often tried to explain a mushroom “trip” to people who have never had the experience as “as close as you can get to being and thinking like someone else.” Nothing changes the way you think and perceive reality more than psychedelics. Am I condoning them? Not really. Just stating an observation.

After consuming the prescribed two mouthfuls of Giggle-up, I snapped on my sprayskirt and launched casually down river, anticipating with some trepidation the onset of the strangeness I knew was now inevitable. It didn’t take long to begin to feel the effects.

My teeth felt strange in my head, like calcium intruders in the gum lining of my mouth. My hearing became amplified and modulated in strange waves of both volume and pitch. Striations of rock on the canyon walls, formed and deposited in orderly layers by hundreds of millions of years, melted actively together and wavered like a flag in a light breeze. Boils of water erupted with terrifying violence, as if Charybdis herself lurked beneath the dark surface, waiting for a meal to unknowingly drift over her mouth.

We reached peak and Vasey’s Paradise simultaneously. Sheets of water spilled from porous sandstone, scattering rolling crystals down the rock ledges to the river below. We stared in awed silence. The age of the canyon, unfathomable in a normal mindset, seemed painfully obvious. It seemed almost as if geologic time had accelerated, and I could witness the canyon crumbling into shape. I could almost watch as a simple yaw in surface flow amplified into a mile-deep gooseneck bend. A million years passed in a moment.

Redwall Cavern was only a mile downstream of Vasey’s Paradise and we beached our kayaks and rafts at its mouth to explore. Peter and I took our guitars to the back of the amphitheatre where the acoustic resonance could rival Carnegie Hall. We took turns pulling marijuana smoke from my glass pipe to take the edge off our maturing mushroom high.

“Powell wrote that 50,000 people could fit in this amphitheatre,” Peter said, putting down his guitar long enough to complete a turn on the pipe. When he strummed again, the overtones and enharmonic modes formed the perfect backdrop for watching our companions toss Frisbees and whack golf balls across the world’s most beautiful sand trap.

“That’s what he said,” I replied, drawing smoke into my lungs, holding it, and releasing slowly. “I think he was full of shit.” I passed the pipe on. I had a vision — not a hallucination — of Powell standing in this very spot, pondering if not exaggerating the scope of this beach. The effects of the mushrooms were just beginning their downslide, but it was easy to envision the silhouettes of our friends as members of Powell’s expedition, not flinging Frisbees but feeding on meager rations and watching their one-armed captain apprehensively, wondering what they had got themselves into and when it would end.

Peter took another turn with the pipe. “Strange, the history of this place. Everything and nothing has changed.”

“When was the first time you came down here?”

“1973.”

“Wow. How many times have you been down?”

“Eight,” he replied without having to think.

“How has it changed?”

Peter leaned his guitar against the side of his camp chair. “Well, we didn’t have groovers in those days. We just dug holes to shit in. There was no such thing as a six-foot ‘playboat’, either. Only four-meter Holoforms. Today there are more hoops, more bureaucracy, more regulations.” And then almost as an after-thought, “But the canyon is basically the same.”

“So the works of nature trump the works of man?”

“Sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes not.” He tried to take another pull on the pipe, discovered it consumed, and tapped the ash into the sand. He retrieved his guitar. “Just look at Glen Canyon.” As his words died in the air, he filled the cavern again with music. Perhaps the pseudo-autism of tryptamines made such thoughts too complex for casual conversation.

I listened to Peter’s melodies and thought of drowned canyons. The treasures of Glen Canyon now lost forever beneath the oily, stagnant surface of Lake Powell. As year after year passed, and the silt dragged down from the decomposing Rocky Mountains came to a premature halt behind Glen Canyon Dam, it was quite simply filling up. Every year the former glory of that lost canyon becomes more and more deeply encased in mud.

Not only had Glen Canyon suffered from this concrete monstrosity, but the Grand Canyon too had been altered. Once glorious beaches, ones that could rival Orange County classics like Newport and Huntington, were deprived of the regenerating silts now filling Glen Canyon and were slowly eroding away. Native fish species that had evolved to thrive in water temperatures that often reached the eighties in mid-summer were not able to survive now in water that rarely climbed above forty-five degrees. The entire ecology of the Grand Canyon has been altered.

Even more disturbing to me, as I sat curling my toes in the sand of Redwall Cavern, was the sudden realization that this very spot, at mile 33, narrowly escaped the same fate. Marble Canyon Dam, proposed for mile 39.3, would have left this very beach under six-hundred feet of stale water.

It is hard to quantify these losses. There is the thousand years of archeological record buried forever at the bottom of Lake Powell. There is also the alteration of two billion years of geology. But on the other hand, Glen Canyon Dam and its companion Hoover at the canyon’s downstream end form two reservoirs, Powell and Meade, that are the lifeblood of the American Southwest. Without them, megalopolises such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas could never exist in such an arid and barren landscape.

Moments later, as I sat lost in thought, group elder and resident know-it-all, Frank, approached us. “Mind if I have a toke?”

“Yeah, sure, man,” Peter said without stopping.

Frank, who had already earned a rather irritating reputation for long pedantic monologues and infuriating debates, sat clumsily in the sand between us. At 62, he was the oldest on the trip, and as such, felt entitled to impose his opinion on everyone else whether he was right or not. I watched him struggle getting the pipe lit, neglecting proper use of the “carb” on the side.

“Frank,” I started. “You have to — ”

He stopped me with a condescending look. “Honestly, Brian. I’ve been doing this twice as long as you’ve been alive.” He smirked and continued to struggle lighting the pipe. “In fact,” he said exhaling the wisp or two of smoke he’d managed to inhale, “I remember the first time I came down in the canyon back in 1967. What year were you born?”

Since we’d been through this before — and I knew he damn well knew my age — I didn’t respond. He handed the pipe back to me and I demonstrated its proper use.

The previous day, Frank had earned the nickname “Frank Loper” by swimming at 24.5 Mile Rapid, the rapid that claimed the life of river pioneer Bert Loper. It had been much welcomed comic relief to see Frank’s raft disappear under the rapid’s monstrous crashing wave only to emerge emptied of its over-loquacious oarman. Frank had resurfaced five feet upstream of his boat, looking like a greased-up weasel and barking directions at his lone remaining passenger for help.  Of course, Frank vigorously fought this new moniker, insisting instead on his preferred nickname “Fish.” Incorporating “Fish” seemed natural, and Frank’s nickname evolved from “Frank Loper” to “Frank Loper Fish” to “Loper Fish” before arriving ultimately at the snide, mildly condescending stasis of “Floper Fish”, by which he was referred for the ensuing two weeks.

“Not a bad spot, eh, Brian?” Frank asked before fumbling with the pipe for the second time.

I laughed mildly. “Not bad? That’s an understatement.”

“This whole beach was underwater in the floods of 1983, did you know that?”

“Oh?” I knew about the high water of 1983. It was the gold-standard run-off by which all others in the Four Corners’ states are measured. I did not know, however, what a river that typically runs between 5,000 and 25,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) would look like with over five times that flow.

“The entire beach, all the way back to the wall.”

Not that I didn’t believe him, but I found it hard to imagine. The very back wall, where we now sat, was at least thirty vertical feet above the current river level, so I asked the first question that comes to mind when you encounter a potentially unreliable source, especially one notorious for posing second-hand material as his own:

“Were you here?”

“Yeah, I was on a trip. We were passed Lava when the helicopters dropped their little messages.”

“Messages?”

“They dropped plastics bags filled with sand with a note inside that said either: ‘Camp high, be cautious’ or ‘The river will be rising to 90,000 cfs. Good luck.’”

“I’ve seen pictures of Crystal Rapid in the flood,” I responded. Indeed, a 2’ x 3’ poster of Crystal during the 1983 flood hangs to this day on the wall of a famous boater hangout on the shores of the San Juan River in Mexican Hat, Utah. The Grand Canyon flood of 1983 was a story every boater worth his chops knew. A new era of big-water boating had, in effect, been born in those few short weeks.

“Fletcher Anderson set the Grand Canyon speed record that year during the peak. He didn’t have a permit so he pirated it by putting in at night. Did the whole canyon from Lee’s Ferry to Pearce Ferry in 49 hours.”

“Damn.”

“He did it in a wildwater racing boat. Can you imagine running the Grand Canyon at 100,000 cfs in a wildwater boat?”

Wildwater racing boats in those days were usually made of fiberglass and were always the standard length of four meters. Compared to today’s plastic designs, which are almost exclusively eight feet or less, a four-meter wildwater boat would have felt like driving a school bus instead of a sports car.

“Fletcher was an impressive dude,” I confirmed.

“Is,” Frank corrected.

Fletcher Anderson is one of the colorful figures of later Grand Canyon river lore. The 1982 guidebook “Rivers of the Southwest: A Boater’s Guide to the Rivers of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona” that he co-authored with his then-wife Ann Hopkinson is considered a classic among “old-school” boaters, a designation which I increasingly find myself on the cusp. Fletcher became famous in the 1960s and 1970s pioneering whitewater runs such as Gore Canyon on the Colorado downstream of Kremling, CO that wouldn’t become mainstream until the 1990s or later. When they entered these places they had no digital guidebook to not only tell but show them what to expect.

On Grand Canyon trips, Fletcher was infamous for arriving at Lee’s Ferry to put-in, having been held responsible for a portion of the food for the entire group, with nothing but a giant bag of GORP and half-dozen cases of beer. Here was a simple but extraordinary man who epitomized the boater of the era.

As it turned out, less than four months after our trip, Fletcher’s fearlessness finally got the better of him when he crashed his mini-plane into the Snake River in Wyoming. The Aspen Times reported it this way: “Anderson’s plane went into the Snake River after clipping a river gauging wire, which caused it to flip and crash into the water.” Though there were no witnesses, it is curious what Fletcher was doing close enough to the water that such an accident could occur. Not long after his tragic death, some of his best friends released a blog post/eulogy that stated, among other things, “Fletcher lived the life of an intellectual, kayak dirtbag, using that term with utmost affection.” The legend of Fletcher Anderson and what he contributed to the river lore of the 20th century is hard to explain. In the same blog post, those that knew him best concluded: “I guess I was not all that surprised to hear that Fletcher had fallen from the sky again. Newspaper reports say investigations are ongoing as to why his plane was low enough to the river to crash into the gauging station cable. Given Fletcher’s love of the river, I suspect I know. We’ll miss you Fletcher!”

The Grand Canyon has been the cradle for the river culture of the American Southwest. Characters like Fletcher Anderson continue to color the recent chapters of its history, and new pages are being written everyday. Even stories that are not well known are no less important to those whom they involved.

“You know,” I said at last, breaking a lengthy silence, “they say that 100,000 cfs would have only been an average peak run-off before the dam. It used to get up to 250,000 cfs or higher.”

Frank gave me a blank look. Either the addition of the reefer to whatever Giggle Up he consumed had tipped him over the edge or he had no interest in facts that aren’t his in origin.

Only a few minutes later, lunch was ready on the beach, and we stood around the camp table greedily waiting for our turn at the food. Conversation drifted among the other boaters as we settled in to eat, but I felt contemplative and anti-social and instead found a shady corner inside the cavern. The Grand Canyon is an overwhelming place, and I felt small. But sitting there on that beach in the cool desert shade it was hard to imagine a place more peaceful and more serene.

* * *

To one that has never experienced what it is like to be at the mercy of a hydraulic the size of Upset Rapid, it is a difficult sensation to describe. Almost immediately upon impact, I felt the bow of my kayak lift forcefully and flip over my head back into the hole. The world was filled with blackness and deep, growling white noise. There is a menacing quality to crashing water; the violence of it a clear articulation that this is no place hospitable to the living. You feel as if you are in the hands of a vicious, malevolent giant, whipping you around with unpredictable ferocity. Seconds stretch into eons.

I tumbled around out of control in Upset Hole for what video later confirmed was less than five seconds. When it finally let go and my boat drifted to calmer water, I felt like I’d survived a war. I rolled up and paddled casually to the eddy as if I had dropped into the hole on purpose.

Peter came running over with the camera still held in his hands. “Nice, man!” he exclaimed, offering me an enthusiastic high five.

“Wooo-hoooo!” I cheered and threw my still-shaking hands into the air. Few moments in life are as exhilarating as surviving a Grand Canyon rapid.

* * *

There is more lost beneath the stagnant waters of a reservoir than just geologic and archeological record. The Grand is a place of dreams and a place of legends. It is a place that has been the cradle for a corner of humanity. All of the young children who peer down into its depths from the stone buildings of the South Rim have felt it. The adults too, anxiously pulling these same young children away from handrails, feel the inexorable draw of the canyon. It’s almost as if the place were alive and the sound of the hollow wind tracing the cliffs were the many voices of the people and animals who’d left as much impact on this place as it had left on them. The Grand is a place of stories.

On the last night of our trip, we camped five miles from the takeout on the Hualapai Indian Reservation at Diamond Creek (river mile 226). Knowing that we were at the end of a life-transforming 18-day journey, there was an elevated level of emotion and excitement. We clustered around the hissing fire, consuming what beer we had left. David emerged carrying an ornate stick as the night wore on and thoughts of sleeping bags and Paco Pads had begun filling our exhausted heads. Totems such as hemp necklaces and prayer flags had been attached to it.

“Everyone,” he said. As we quieted down and sipped beers we watched our trip leader in wonder. “Thank you all for being with me here on my birthday trip. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it has been.” Murmurs of approval greeted this. “I thought for our last night, we could do something special.” He thrust his stick in front of him triumphantly as if he expected us to understand its significance. When all he met was blank, confused stares, he continued. “I thought we cold pass this talking stick around. When it comes to us, we have to tell a story from the trip.”

This was met with chuckles and excitement. “I’ll go first.”

We circled the fire on our last night, each holding everyone else rapt while we spun small legends of river heroism, wit and near-catastrophe. As the stick drew nearer, my mind shuffled through an array of possible stories worth telling: one of our many sidehikes such as Havasu Creek, or Elves Chasm, or Deer Creek. My run down Lava Falls, the most-famous rapid in the world. Perhaps I could even talk about mushrooms and Redwall Cavern.

At last the talking stick was placed in my hand. I looked around the fire at fifteen pairs of eyes focusing in on me, waiting patiently for my story to begin. I took a deep breath.

“Down the towering columns of foam and spray and chaotic boiling eddies, all possibilities looked bleak. It was Upset Rapid … ”

Brian Wright is a lifelong kayaker and outdoor enthusiast. He has degrees in writing and literature from Colorado Mesa University and currently resides in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Works Cited

“Fletcher Anderson — Great Memories.” Home Performance Video. Web. 12 May 2011. http://www.thecalloftheriver.com/node/111.

Gaskill, David L., and Gudy Gaskill. Peaceful Canyon, Golden River: a Photographic Journey through Fabled Glen Canyon. Golden, CO: Colorado Mountain Club, 2002. Print.

“How Do Dams Impose Values on the Colorado River or Any Other River’s Uses? A Case Study.” Siry’s Ecology Homepage. Rollins College. Web. http://web.rollins.edu/~jsiry/gccbase.html.

Rink, Glenn. “Life at the Marble Canyon Damsites.” Grand Canyon River Guides Website. Grand Canyon River Guides. Web. 12 May 2011. http://www.gcrg.org/bqr/10-2/mcd.html.

Speech: “What’s This About Flooding Out the Grand Canyon?” The University of Arizona University Libraries. Web. 12 May 2011. http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/udall/speeches/floodgc.html.

 

6 thoughts on “Truths, Lies and Legends in the Big Ditch”

  1. Anonymous: 1978 The big sneak; a record passage (illegal as hell) through the Grand Canyon (illustrations by Gary Barnard). Mountain Gazette, 6(9)(June)(no. 70):8-13. [River running.]

    Hmm, I thought Fletcher ran his speed trip much earlier than 1983.

    1. This is what I was told by good friends of Fletcher’s as noted in the text. Since there have been a comment or two about this fact being inaccurate, I assume you are correct. I would add, however, that I posed the information as conversation in the piece not as fact, as that is how it came to me. It was not intended to be taken as fact. Thank you for reading and for your comment.

  2. Nice story, Brian. Just a few notes, if you will: the speed record set in 1983 was not Fletcher, but three dory boatmen. See: http://www.gcrg.org/bqr/11-1/kenton.html but better to read the wonderful, full story “Speed” by Lew Stieger in Crista Sadler’s book, “There’s This River”. Also, you might be interested in viewing my video of the ’83 flood (including footage of Redwall under water), which I”ll show again at the end of this month at the Grand Canyon River Guide’s Seminar for the 30th anniversary of the 1983 flood: https://vimeo.com/home/myvideos/page:2/sort:date/format:video

    You might also be interested in the pioneer Grand Canyon river trips for folks with disabilities, in my list of videos on Vimeo. Cheers, Jeffe

  3. A couple more bits of important Canyon history, though maybe not necessary for the purposes of this article:

    1/ Buzz Holmstrom made the first solo run down the Green and Colorado Rivers through Grand Canyon (52 days) in 1937; the next year Amos Burg accompanied Holmstrom in an attempt to recreate the 1937 voyage on film. Burg became the first person to take an inflatable raft (Charlie) through Grand Canyon, arguably opening the way for the commercial rafting that was to follow.

    2/During the ’83 highwater, three dory boatmen (Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve Reynolds) ran from Lees Ferry to Grand Wash Cliffs (Grand Canyon National Park boundary) in Grua’s dory in 36 hours, 38 minutes, 29 seconds.

    In all these adventures (or stunts depending on your p.o.v.) I suppose it depends on the craft involved and what you are measuring.

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