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!!