True Tale of the Fastest Boat Ride Through the Grand Canyon (Ever)

Apr 12, 2013

True Tale of the Fastest Boat Ride Through the Grand Canyon (Ever)

Photo: John Blaustein

A sneak peek at Kevin Fedarko’s new book, The Emerald Mile—The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History through the Heart of the Grand Canyon

All the river-running advice in the world cannot adequately prepare a person for his first encounter with truly gigantic whitewater: the ferocity of the noise and turbulence; the fugues of competing currents, all colliding together and snapping like the tail end of a whip, or diving straight to the bottom of the river where, inside the Grand Canyon, they can scour out holes that reach depths of up to seventy feet. To a casual observer, the combined picture is one of absolute insanity: a raging mess of tangled lines, studded with rocks, drenched with spray that flies in every direction.

Each rapid, however, possesses architecture of its own, and a skilled boatman is often able to scan and trace the layout as clearly as an electrician can interpret a circuit drawing. And this was the task to which Litton and his crew would have to apply themselves if they were to have any hope of learning to thread the chainlinked sequence of maelstroms at the bottom of the canyon consistently and safely, time after time.

By the 1990s, all of these monster rapids had been exhaustively surveyed, mapped, and ranked according to a rather complicated scale, unique to the Grand Canyon. In the early days, however, the maps were crude and the rankings had not yet been refined. But everybody agreed that there were roughly thirty rapids that were more than capable of smashing your boat, ending your career, or killing you.

House Rock, Unkar, and Dubendorff could all get you into serious trouble at low water. A couple of the Roaring Twenties, a series of ten back-to-back rapids between Mile 20 and Mile 29, could be especially nasty at high water (although some of them turned ugly at low water too). Grapevine, Zoroaster, and Specter were mostly benign, but each concealed one or two features—a rock, a standing wave, a reversal—that was more than capable of knocking you into next week. A bright handful, like Sockdolager and Hermit and Upset, were mostly pure fun—but they would flip you in a hot second if you failed to maintain your angle. Hance and Granite and Horn Creek were complex and mercurial and therefore always dangerous. Still others—almost always Bedrock and invariably Lava Falls—were just plain vicious.

Grand Canyon rapids

Photo: John Blaustein

No two of these challenges were alike, and when Litton’s crew came to realize that the linchpin to good boatmanship lay in cultivating a fluency at reading water, they all became devoted scholars of current. The bulk of these studies took place when they anchored their boats at the top of a nasty stretch of river, climbed to a vantage point on the cliffs that afforded a comprehensive view, and sat on the rocks dissecting the rapid with their eyeballs. At irregular intervals, one of them would stand up, pad back to their anchorage point, gather up a handful of driftwood pieces, and start tossing them into the current. As the sticks hurtled downstream, the veil that concealed the complex matrix of whitewater was pulled back and they were able to take apart the features piece by piece, mapping them out in their minds. They would do this for hours, watching and observing as each of them pieced together a plan. Then they would select another vantage that offered a slightly different angle and go through the whole exercise all over again. When each of them was satisfied, it was time to return to the boats and give their theories a try.

And so they proceeded in this staccato fashion—stopping, scouting, and running, then pausing for another scout—day after day, week after week, until they had punched through the Grand Wash cliffs and emerged onto the slackwater of Lake Mead. Then they pulled the dories from the water, hauled them back to Hurricane for repairs, and made the long drive back to Lee’s Ferry to greet another group of clients and repeat the same journey. All through the spring, down the length of summer and deep into the fall, they completed this great mandala, pausing only for a hiatus in winter before once again rejoining the flow of the Colorado. And somewhere in the midst of this circuit, the river itself came to seem less like a linear highway and was instead transformed into something that resembled an enchanted circle—an endless loop that, not unlike the hydraulic jumps whose secrets they strove to unlock, revolved back upon itself in a continuous swirl of wonder and madness.

Want to keep reading? Pre-order The Emerald Mile from Amazon (available May 7, 2013).

 

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Kevin Fedarko
Kevin Fedarko spent 13 years as a staff writer at Time Magazine and a senior editor at Outside before turning to freelance work in 2003. Since then, his stories have taken him to northern Alaska, the Horn of Africa, and across the Himalayas from Nepal to Afghanistan. When not on assignment or rowing a baggage boat in the Grand Canyon, Kevin can be found at his home in northern New Mexico.