Some of the best advice I ever got in life came from an old boatman: “The most dangerous thing you can do out here is disrespect the river.”
The year was 1990. We were rafting through the Grand Canyon on a 21-day private permit and hadn’t seen a soul outside our group in many days. We pulled the boats over for lunch and got out to scout the next rapid, Granite. At the water level that day the rapid was rated a Class 9 out of 10.
We scared the hell out of ourselves for nearly an hour trying to figure out the best way to run it. Out of nowhere appeared a 14-foot raft with two tanned, long haired body builders paddling upfront and a shirtless Hulk Hogan seated in the stern frame with oars in hand and a big pirate flag flying behind him.
One of the women in our group screamed above the roar of the rapid:“That’s Fabio up front!”
River raging, we watched in stunned disbelief as they flew right past us, acing the rapid without bothering to scout. Did that just happen? Could Hulk Hogan and Fabio just happen to be on the river the same time as us?
People who choose to drop out of their normal lives and civilization for three weeks on the granddaddy of whitewater trips do so for different reasons. Back then, parties of up to 16 people were allowed on a single noncommercial rafting trip, and not everyone on our trip knew each other before launching from Glen Canyon. For some it was their first time, others were seasoned. Like the canyon itself, personalities revealed themselves layer by layer with each passing day.
One guy, Mark, was just coming off a painful divorce. His wife left him for a rock climber. His ego was badly bruised. For him, the canyon trip was a way to redeem himself by conquering his fears.
There were two big rapids rated Class 10, the first of which was Crystal — a famously technical run where the river narrowed against the canyon wall on the left side, while on mid-right was the legendary Crystal hole. Holes occur where water flows over a rock or ledge into deeper water beneath and then endlessly recirculates, trapping anything that enters. Big holes are to be avoided and giant holes swallow entire boats. Crystal had eaten its share.
The sound of water pouring into the hole was deafening. There is a campsite above the rapid on river-right. An overnighter there meant listening to the endless roar, adding to our anxiety.
What made Crystal so challenging was that navigating the rapid required skirting the left edge of the hole without touching and pushing back out into the middle to avoid a compression wave created by the water flowing against the canyon wall.
Mark was a passenger in Joe’s raft, which was rigged with an oar frame so the assistance of paddlers was unnecessary. Joe was an experienced whitewater dude and a bit of a macho man. Whenever possible he enjoyed being the first boat in our party to go through the rapids to set the course.
Nervous, Mark had been psyching himself up for Crystal. Even as a passenger with no opportunity to control the situation, he was up night after night wearing his headlamp, reading the waterproof guidebook.
Joe, being his usual cocky self, assured Mark that he was riding with the best boatman on the trip. “No problem, dude. Sit back, relax and watch a pro.”
From behind we watched Joe make his entry as planned before he somehow managed to hit the compression wave that forced the raft into the wall and flipped the boat. Both men were in the water and we lost sight of them and the raft. It was the last thing any of us expected.
The rest of our group made our moves successfully. At the bottom where the water pools and flattens we spotted Joe. He was still stunned. A few feet behind him stood Mark, wearing nothing but a wet t-shirt and his life jacket.
They said that about halfway past the edge of the hole, Mark had abruptly stood up, pulled down his shorts and mooned the hole in defiance of fear.
Joe said, “It was so unexpected. I stopped rowing. We ran straight into the compression wave that pushed us into the wall sideways and we flipped bigger than life.”
Both men spent a fair amount of time underwater. The next thing Mark knew he was staring into the face of Hulk Hogan, who fished him out of the water and said, “Dude, that must have been one hell of a swim.”
Joe said he thought he might drown too but popped up just in time to see the Hulk holding Mark, without his shorts, at arm’s length in mid-air before pulling him into the boat. “I thought I might die all over again because I couldn’t catch my breath from laughing.”
Skirting disaster once doesn’t mean you’ll get lucky again. Defying nature is risky business. But if you must, it’s better not to get caught with your pants down.
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