An Exciting Adventure in Crystal Rapid During the Historic High Water Levels
By AzRA Guest Steve Franck
When one thinks of 1984, they may think of George Orwell’s “futuristic” book. I think of rafting down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I’ve done this 14-day trip with AzRA three times in paddle boats. My second trip was in 1984. That year (and 1983), there was record high water. The Colorado River usually flows at a rate of 5,000 – 12,000 cubic feet per second (CFS). For those two years, it was over 97,000 CFS. Paddling down the river, we never had to work in the “calm” sections because the river flowed so quickly. The normal beach campgrounds were all underwater but our guides found some “innovating” places to put in for each night. The rapids, while some were washed out, were spectacular. After rafting for six days and going through rapids like Unkar, Nevills, Hance and Sockdolager, our crews got pretty good at maneuvering through the big water. When we got to Phantom Ranch (mile 88), a bunch of our crew left to hike out while a new set of passengers joined us. Then we hit the really big rapids, like Horn Creek, Granite and Hermit.
One of the new passengers insisted that he was an experienced paddler and took the front-left position of our boat. I don’t think he had ever experienced white water quite like what we were going through. Head Guide, Martha Clark, was steering and I was paddling just to her right. We scouted Crystal Rapid (mile 98) and it was huge! Crystal is normally one of the biggest and longest of the rapids on the river and it was even bigger and longer. A couple of the standing waves looked to be 20 or 30 feet high! Martha picked our path and off we went. As we went down the tongue to the bottom of the first standing wave, all hell broke loose. As I paddled, I could see a wave come from the left and heading straight toward the new guy.
When rafting white water, much like swimming in ocean surf, you must throw yourself into the wave. It is contrary to what your mind wants you to do. One must put his/her head down and dig into the water to just hold on and to keep the boat going forward instead of turning from the wave. As I paddled, I could see this wave approaching and the new guy, instead of leaning into it, fell back into the boat away from the wave. In an instant, the boat slightly turned to the right side and lifted up. With that, the water and the wind flipped the boat like a leaf in a windstorm. Before I could process it, I was deep under the rushing brown water.
I had no sensation of how deep I was (three feet or thirty) but knew I was going tremendously fast as I flailed my arms and legs. I knew my life vest would pop me up and only had to hold my breath until the river let me go. I was strangely calm as I started to run out of air. I counted to thirty in my head. Still no air. Then I thought that I could make it to another count of thirty. Still no air! This happened several times until I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. But it still took a while! Then I popped up, still in the grips of the rapid. I only had an instant to gulp a big breath of air and see the boat flying down from a 20-foot wave. Besides the big gulp of air, I got my hands up as the overturned boat landed on top of me. Luckily, an air-filled tube and not something metal hit me.
I was again pushed under water with only that one gulp of air. Again, I went a long time before I popped up. When under this second time, I thought that if I held my breath long enough the first time, I could hold it long enough this second time. I wasn’t going to drown after going through that first part! It still seemed to take forever. I finally popped up as we exited the main rapid, although the water was still flowing quite fast. I felt that the worst was over. The boat was in front of me, still upside down, by only five feet or so. I looked around. My brother was only a few feet away with a dazed look on his face. He had been hit by something on the boat and had gotten a concussion. Close to him was our head guide, Martha Clark. She had blood streaming down her face from a gash above her eye. Seeing her blood made me very worried that someone else may have been badly injured.
Two guys had already climbed on top of the overturned boat as it rushed through the water. I got on and we got everyone else on (seven of us). Another boat pulled up next to us and we got three people transferred to that “rescue” boat. Before others could get off, we entered Little Crystal rapid that wasn’t little at all due to the high water. The four of us hung on to the two straps that wrapped around the bottom of the boat. While we couldn’t steer it, we used our shifting weight to muddle through it, calling out to lean left or right. At one point in the rough rapid, we came up upon a large boulder on the right side of the river. The raft went almost vertical and we high-sided it and it slid back down. We joked later that if we had leaned the other way, we could have flipped the boat back over. After that, we hit calmer water and were able to pull over.
My brother had the concussion that gave him a headache for three days. Martha had the gash over her eye that one of the two doctors on the trip closed with a butterfly bandage. I’m sure she has a nice scar to remind her of that experience. Other than that, no one was injured. The boat suffered a tear in one of the pontoons. We all pulled over at the first available spot, a rock area that was unsuitable for camping. Our guides expertly repaired the boat and we put back in to the water.
With the high water and as the day got late, we couldn’t find a place to camp until we got to Elves Chasm (mile 116). That is not a place overnight camping is usually allowed but we did so as an emergency.
I can’t say enough about the expertise and leadership of the AzRA guides. Martha Clark in particular was one tough lady that gave us all a feeling that she could handle any emergency. Her knowledge and skills on and off the river made us comfortable that we could overcome whatever the canyon threw at us. I’m going on another GC river trip with AzRA in April 2021 and know it will have its own brand of adventure, although probably not quite as dangerous as that high water trip. I would love to think that Martha could lead that trip. She’s in her sixties now (I’m in my 70s!) and probably retired but I have a feeling she could easily handle it.
While that experience in 1984 was life-threatening and gave us all new respect for the river’s white water, it was something that will stick with me for the rest of my life. It, along with several other experiences, made it the trip of a lifetime! Of course, this next trip in April 2021 will be another trip of a lifetime!!
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Wow what a fabulous recount of a very exciting AZRA trip. It was like I was with you the whole way. I did an AZRA trip in 1995, it was the most amazing experience of my life.
Have a fantastic trip next year!
Fellow adventurer from Perth Western Australia
Such a great story, right, Denise! We enjoyed it so much we wanted to share it. Thanks for your comment!
Denise, thanks for your comments. My excitement for next year’s trip is growing! Hearing from you reminds me of the international flavor of this GC adventure. On all three of my trips, we had at least one international passenger. On one 14-day trip, I went with another good buddy. A German guy hooked up with the two of us and then the three of us spent the whole trip, hiking, paddling on the same boat, eating together and just hanging out. We didn’t speak German and he did’t speak English but we became great friends. While I’ve never been to Australia, one of my best friends (a Brit), has family down under. Australia rocks! I wish you were going with us next April 22!!
I was on a paddle trip with Martha Clark( head guide) in or around 1984( your company). She was a grizzled, strong fiercely independent and experienced guide. She commanded respect. On one section of our trip she asked about four of us if we wanted to do a day hike. There was some exposure getting up to the top. Plus, when we got there, she said she miscalculated the amount of daylight we had left. We had to descend down a chimney in the rock to cut down on the amount of time to get back to camp. Three point contact all the way down and she went first. She told us to watch where she put her hands and feet. I think it was around 100 feet down. Epic day that was. We also a guide called “Drifter” He was from New Jersey, he had worked for the post office. He legally changed his name to Drifter. He was hard of hearing and wore hearing aids. We knew we were coming up to a challenging set of rapids, when Drifter would take out his earring aids and put them in a pill bottle. Another guide ” Brian” would put on his running shoes. I asked him why and he said, in case he had to walk out of the canyon. I will never forget that trip. Martha especially. She could have been a outfitter from the 19th century. She lived and breathed the river. I have since married and my wife might be interested in doing the river again. But, I think I will have to book the “bus” which is the larger motor powered boats as I don’t think she could handle the action and the size of the waves in a all paddle boat. So true what your guest Steve Frank wrote. I was in the front of the boat( I will never forget the ” L” and “R” on the front of the boat just in case we forgot which side of the boat was on, when the lead guide would be yelling instructions going through the rapids) and I would have to attack the waves with my paddle. Stick the wave and use your body( feet in the stirrups on the floor of the raft). I broke my paddle one day as I was back paddling and Martha kept yelling at me to paddle. The roar of the water kept my answer from her, and instead, I just held up my paddle, and she could see it was broken in two. Our boat started to go in circles, but we made it through. None of our boats flipped on this trip. Many guests went into the river but we had practiced going down a class 3 at the start of the trip. We knew that if we ended up in the river, the boat was still going to be beside us. Great memories! Thanks! Stephen from Victoria BC Canada
What great stories, Stephen! Thank you so much for sharing! There are sure some epic adventures you get while rafting in Grand Canyon. So exhilarating and beautiful!
OMG I was on this trip with you in 1984. Yes, Martha’s raft flipped just as you described. My wife and I were on another raft and watched the whole thing. It will was amazing how they righted the raft afterwards, with almost all of the gear intact because it had been tied down securely.
I was on that trip and it never leaves my mind. Incredible life experience. Only down part is that you will never top that vacation. Have gone back several times as well. After that upset I was in Gary’s raft right behind Marth’s and saw it go up that wave and it looked like there was another boat length above it and then it flipped. Gary never to use a foul word did manage an “oh ….. We gathered at the large eddy that your boat brought in and I recall giving oranges and comforting the crew of that boat. A lady by the name of Gloria was also on that raft. Gloria has come up in other ad venture books I have written.
Steve that was a great narrative of that event of an incredible journey.
Upon arriving home everything was so boring.
Henrietta (and Bob)
Thanks for responding to my blog. I told AzRA about this trip when I reserved our spots for this year’s trip and they asked me to write it. That alone brought back great memories – of course, I was only 35 then! I just got back from my last 14-day trip. It was my fourth trip but I hadn’t been since 1990. I’m 71 now and an older friend (76) asked me to go with him. I looked at this trip as my last expedition adventure. It was wonderful! I was unable to do some of the things I wanted to do because of my physical limitations (2 metal knees and 2 metal shoulders), but I struggled through most of the hikes and it was a great last hurrah before my wife relegates me to being a tourist. This last trip didn’t have the thrills and hiking and … of that 1984 trip (what trip could?!), but it had its’ own brand of adventure. I’m so happy I went this one last time. AzRA is great!
Great account of that historic time. Every trip with AZRA Is a trip of a lifetime.
i can so relate to your story about crystal – i was on a 15-day filming, oarboat, & paddle trip labor day 1986, doing film for grand canyon natural history association – so azra pulled in all its best old guides at the time. a friend with me had lots of experience on california rapids (not even close to big water) but i had never rafted at all before then, a complete novice altho not afraid of water (i thought!). i was just the other day trying to explain the whole crystal experience to a new friend, how all the guides got together to scout it first, and all started nodding & shaking hands – my friend said “they were just thinking how fun it’d be”, but i knew they knew enough to be nervous & very respectful of crystal’s power. the 80-something father of the film-maker, who had run the river long before the glen canyon dam was built, decided to walk around crystal… anyway, my rafting friend & i were in martha clark’s oarboat, i saw she was heading straight for the middle line. finally that image i saw then, of me in the aft seat & my friend in front, with the boat almost vertical so my friend was almost straight above me, will be engraved forever in my memory. it was a perfect ride, no problems altho i can’t remember anything right after that? (it turned out i was the only “near-dump” of the trip, when earlier a big wave slapped the side of our oarboat at the time, & flipped me right out of the boat – but luckily i had been holding onto the lifeline on the side of renny russell’s raft & never let go! he finally got me back into the boat…) lots of big moments, but thankfully only great ones!