The ex-surfer in me relished the adventure: six days straight of dancing with the Colorado River, at times a slow waltz, at times a passionate tango and at times a violent slam dance. It’s a beautiful, exhilarating romance. And here, deep within the Grand Canyon’s impossibly beautiful colored layers, all my senses were flooded with the majesty of God’s genius.
Our tour group camped on the river shore each night, the weather so perfect we slept without tents, often atop our sleeping bags. At some point each night the moon would make its way toward the canyon’s narrow opening, first lighting up the walls of the canyon as if a blueish daybreak were on its way. Then the moon would appear directly overhead in the early morning hours, so bright that we would be startled awake, startled at the juxtaposition of power, beauty, majesty and glory. This surely was what heaven must be like.
Each morning we would break camp with a remarkable breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, toast and fruit. Then we would load the boats, tying everything securely in its place and anticipating the raging moments just as eagerly as the periodic slack waters. The 95-degree sun would dry the 65-degree water that had drenched us moments before. As we traveled downriver, the canyon walls climbed ever higher, revealing new layers with new colors.
The water was low that year, exposing rocks and shoreline that even our seasoned river guides had never navigated. Some of the more notorious rapids were so worrisome that the guides would stop the boats, scurry up the rock walls near the rapids and debate the best (and sometimes only) technique for navigating the churning white water. Those of us who eavesdropped heard phrases like, “but look at that boulder in the middle there” and “I don’t know, this looks impossible.”
The typical rating system for white water has a scale of one to six. Six is the most dangerous. On the Colorado, the ratings go to 10. A 10 rating at the Grand Canyon is the worst of the sixes elsewhere. By the sixth day, we had successfully navigated three sets of rapids rated at 10 and a number of rapids rated eight or higher. But on that day, we arrived at the worst of the 10s. Still, we were excited about this latest challenge. Our guides stopped us and plotted their strategy from the rock walls bordering the river.
Finally, we climbed aboard our boats. Our team was in the smallest boat, the paddle boat, the most unstable of all. We had been handpicked by our guide because in the prior five days we had exhibited the most cohesion. Other teams were in larger, more stable boats. Our team numbered seven, including our guide, Lara, a powerful ex-gymnast who, we were convinced, could scale the vertical canyon walls with her fingertips.
We wore thin flotation jackets. Each of us held a single-sided plastic oar. We sat high on the edge of the inflatable raft, three on each side. Lara was centered at the rear, using her oar as a rudder. No one was strapped in. The only restraint was whatever leverage we could create with the toes of one foot tucked under piles of fixed gear. No helmets.
As we floated toward the steep downhill rapids, Lara listed all the contingencies. She had to yell to be heard above the roar of the river. “If I say ‘hard reverse,’ we can’t have a moment’s delay. Everyone needs to listen to me and stay calm. We’ll be headed straight for a large boulder in the middle of the river, and just before we get there we’ll slide off to the left. I don’t want to get too close to the rock because there’s a whirlpool on the other side. Let’s practice a few strokes. Hard right! Good. Hard left! Perfect. Now hard reverse! Okay, let’s straighten it out.”
We could see the top of the rapids and nothing else because the descent was so steep. Fifty feet from the top of the drop-off, Lara screamed, “Everyone select a strap to grab if I yell ‘hold on!’ and if I say that, do nothing else but grab it!” We’d never heard that instruction before.
As we hit the top of the rapids, the front of the inflatable folded over the ledge. I thought we were stopped on a rock. Then we went hurtling down a steep incline directly toward a huge boulder. “HARD REVERSE!” I paddled twice in reverse. “HARD LEFT!” Three more strokes. The raft listed steeply away from the rock, twisting sideways. Lara’s voice exploded, “HARD FORWARD!” just as my side of the raft lifted out of the water, nearly vertical now. A 6-foot wave of water crashed into the low side of the boat. Without warning, the vertical raft slammed back to the water. We were heading for the steep edge of the whirlpool.
Another wave lifted my side of the raft. Again my oar lost contact with the water, leaving me waving at air. Just as suddenly, the entire raft fell the other way, with my side now the lowest side tumbling down the wall of water into the whirlpool. A wave of water smashed me from behind. I was airborne, heading straight for the vortex of the whirlpool. I heard Lara shout “HANG ON!” as I plunged into the water. The last thing I saw was Lara falling in just behind me. I had the briefest moment to realize that if she had fallen out, the boat was in serious trouble.
I was pulled underwater, spinning as if in a washing machine. I bounced off rocks and quickly lost sense of where the surface was. I didn’t know how deep I was. I didn’t know where the raft was. All I knew was that if I didn’t surface soon, I would black out from lack of air. And I remembered one of the first rules they taught us: If you end up in the river, do not extend your legs because if your foot gets caught between the rocks on the bottom, the flow of water can keep you permanently under the surface. So I stayed in a ball, spinning out of control in the whirlpool.
Realizing I had no remaining oxygen in my lungs, I thought I had nothing to lose by breaking the rule. I extended one leg, hoping it would reduce the spinning and let me at least see the surface. Nearly immediately, I was propelled out of the whirlpool and downriver. I saw the surface and reached for it, my head finally finding daylight. Trying to take a deep breath, I was hit by another wave. I got a mouthful of water and was sent under once again.
I worried about rocks. I worried about getting my foot caught on the bottom. I worried about where I would get some air in the next second before passing out. Worst of all, it struck me that Wendy, my wife, might be in trouble. I needed to get to the surface and stay there. Now.
I emerged once again and, exhausted, decided to lie flat on my back with my feet downriver. I had no energy to do anything else. I was hurtling down the river between all the half-submerged rocks in a state of semiconsciousness.
Then I heard the screaming. One of our boats was already downriver, hugging the bordering rock wall. I could barely hear someone yelling above the growl of the river, “Swim! Swim! Over here!” When I raised my head I saw them, waiting against the wall off to my side, just above the next set of perilous rapids. If I didn’t make it to that raft, I would have to endure an entire rapids once again. I knew I could not survive that. I tried to swim, but the current was still pushing me directly toward the mouth of the next rapids. The raft had been pushed out into the current to try to intercept me, but I knew I would miss them. I thrashed harder.
The raft was nearer now, but I slipped past it and all the outstretched arms. Then someone extended a belt. I reached for it in one last desperate lunge, my fingers grabbing a small purchase. Everyone in the raft pulled on the belt and finally seized my arms and pulled me in. I landed with a splash in the bottom of the water-filled raft. Just as suddenly, we hit the next set of rapids.
At the bottom of the rapids, the river was calm. We were the first boat through, and I kept looking for the paddle boat to see if my team was safe. When the paddle boat shot through those rapids, the first thing I saw was everyone hunched over in utter exhaustion. I counted the backs. Everyone was there, including my wife and Lara, who had grabbed a strap with her trailing hand even as she struck the water. Her hand was badly gashed, but she was able to stick with her boat. My wife stood and yelled across the river, “We don’t have enough life insurance for this!” Then I noticed that she and the rest of the team were crying with relief.
I had some enormous bruises and a gash on my thigh from bouncing off the rocks but no permanent damage. It turns out I had been in the frigid, raging river for more than three minutes and underwater for most of that time.
At our camp that night, I found Mick, the river guide of the boat that rescued me, standing alone in the dark. He was a gruff man who only tolerated people because it allowed him to be with his true love, the river. I extended my hand and thanked him for saving my life. He stared at me for a moment, then said matter-of-factly, “You were never in danger.”
The rest of that evening, everyone else showered me with compassion and concern. The event was the one truly unifying moment of the trip, and the connections we forged endure to this day, despite our various geographic locations and vocations.
The next day was our last. I had a newfound respect for the power of the river and how fragile we are. To my surprise, I also discovered that more than the overwhelming glory and majesty of one of God’s most imposing and impressive works of creation, it is the spirit, power and finesse of mankind that endures as his most complex and compelling work.
Steve Kelley, a partner in a Seattle law firm, specializes in corporate and securities law.