July 20, 2014

Rafting down the white water

PART OF MY VACATION this year consisted of a different kind of boating. I floated down a tributary of the Colorado River in a rubber raft with members of my family. And all the way along the four-day trip I wondered at the huge difference the invention of tough inflatable boats has made to this business of running the white-water rapids.

When Col. John Wesley Powell and a party of 10 first explored the Green River nearly 150 years ago, they traveled in three 21-foot boats built of oak and described as “stanch and firm.” The boats were double-ribbed and were built with double sternposts and stems. They were divided into three compartments, two of which, fore and aft, were decked over to form water-tight buoyancy.

A fourth boat, a 16-footer, was made of pine — very light and built for fast rowing. If the cargoes were removed, each of these boats could be carried by four men. And they often were.

Frequently they, and their separate cargoes, were portaged around rapids beset with rocks. It’s difficult now to imagine what a difficult task this was, especially where a path had first to be made along the river bank, over which to carry everything. Three months and 1,000 miles after the expedition started, six emaciated men in two boats emerged from the high, steep-walled canyons. They had survived famine, attacks, mutiny, and some of the most dangerous rapids known to man.

One of their boats was wrecked in a rapid in the Canyon of Lodore, which is where my family and I were rafting. Col. Powell named it Disaster Falls “for the scene of so much peril and loss.” A little farther on, we came to another set of rapids that gave Powell and his men much grief in their wooden boats. This one he named Hell’s Half-Mile.

Now, while I will admit that our passage through those same notorious rapids produced copious flows of adrenalin and even a few souls lost briefly overboard, we did not suffer a fraction of the problems that beset Powell and his little wooden fleet.

Our rafts were 16- or 17-foot rubber dinghies with huge side tubes and self-bailing floors. They were blown up tight and covered with rugged Hypalon fabric. One was powered by volunteer steerage-class paddlers, and the others, carrying the first-class passengers like me, were each manned by a qualified river guide working a large pair of oars with great skill.

Powell’s boats ran into trouble when they were cast broadside-on against rocks by the fast-flowing current, but our rubber ducks simply bounced off most of the big rocks and scraped over the shallow ones.  When occasionally we got stuck, we jumped up and down and bounced her off, to go spinning downstream in slow circles amid the roaring standing waves.

 It was not quite a busman’s holiday for me. Although I have had a fair amount of experience with boats I know nothing about reading the waters of a wild river or how to place a big cumbersome raft in the right position to enter a rapid. I tried rowing a raft in calm water and found it slow, hard work, not something I’d want to do for very long.

Perhaps for smaller groups the other sort of boat used to run rapids would be just as suitable and a lot more manageable. I’m talking about the boat that looks like a dory with cocked-up ends and a large rocker to the keel that must make it easier to turn quickly to point directly downstream. But the lumbering rubber ducks are obviously the mommy vans of travel down the rapids, roomy and reliable, just the ticket to keep the city slickers happily apprehensive but not too scared. If Powell had been able to use these large inflatables he would have experienced a much different trip.

As for the beauty of the 2,000-foot high canyons through which we floated in Colorado and Utah, I can only say it is beyond my powers to convey it. This is truly unspoiled wilderness amid giant rock sculptures that make you gasp as you round every bend. I’m afraid the deep ocean is very boring compared with the rapids of the Canyon of Lodore.

Ø The Exploration of the Colorado and Its Canyons, by John Wesley Powell (Penguin Books)

Today’s Thought
In the wilderness I sense the miracle of life, and behind it our scientific accomplishments fade to trivia.
— Charles A. Lindbergh

“What did the doctor do about your water on the knee?”
“Oh, no problem. He just gave it a tap.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

No comments: