River lore will tell you that for the most seasoned Grand Canyon boaters — the oarsmen and women who have been down the legendary stretch of river enough times to know each bend, alley and obstacle — there are only a handful of the canyon’s dozens of rapids that are mandatory to scout.
When I catch my first glimpse of Hance Rapid, it is immediately apparent why this is one of them.
Hance, on this boiling day in June of 2015, is less a rapid than some kind of gnashing, boat-chomping monster. The rapid lies below a curve in the river where boulders and debris spilled from a tributary have squeezed the waterway into a roiling funnel of fierce hydraulics. The mouth and left side are littered with rocks, the roar is thunderous and spume is tossed helter skelter above laterals, holes and huge whitewater.
Blinking under the heat of the sun, I notice the thick black stripe across the cliff face above the rapid — a basalt intrusion Hance Rapid is famous for. Under this menacing mark, the rapid seems to glower at me. As I walk back to the boat, I regret scouting it. Later, what I would regret far more was what I did next.
I am on day five of my first Grand Canyon rafting trip, and by now, I am fully enchanted by its deep magic. I have wandered into smooth grottoes, shrieked through rapids and sat back in amazement to watch the walls soar ever higher as we sink into the history of the world. I have fallen asleep under a mat of coruscating stars, dug my toes into hot sand at camp, listened to the winding-down song of the canyon wren and slipped into the easy pace of river time. I thought I was coming on this trip to disconnect; instead I find myself connecting — to people, the river and the everyday miracles of the canyon.
I am an inexperienced passenger, and have a healthy fear of the rapids. When I see Hance — the first Class 7-8 rapid boaters must navigate on the river — anxiety floods my limbs. I do not want to swim here, I think.
Back at the boats, I wait in the sun for the rest of the oarsmen to return. Minutes tick by. I have pulled on a neoprene top, and it feels like I’m sitting under a broiler. I dip my legs in the water, try to smooth my breath. Then something glittery in the sand catches my eye. I reach down to pick it up.
It is a rock; a beautiful rock. Cream colored, with fine glimmering facets and purple dots, it fits right into the contour of my hand.
I am an admitted rock nerd, but I have resolved not to take any stones from Grand Canyon, lest I invite bad river karma. But this perfect specimen? Surely I can hold on to it just to get me through Hance. A good luck charm. I’ll give it back before the trip’s up. That’s what I tell myself anyway. Maybe I am lying. I slip it into my little dry bag.
The boatmen return soon after, and it is determined that Collin, who is piloting the raft I’m riding in, will venture first into Hance.
Our journey across the flat eddy to the mouth of the rapid seems to unfold in slow motion. We pick up speed, accelerate across the liminal green tongue and then enter a chaotic, violent box of whitewater. We are engulfed in tremendous forces of water, energy and noise, and I quickly lose track of what is upriver or down as we slam into one wave and then another. It feels like the river is trying to tug the raft in two, fold it in half, swallow it whole.
And then, it spits us out. We are aloft and alive and utterly triumphant as we pull onto shore to wait for our gang. A second boat comes through clean, but the oarsman’s face is not smiling when he pulls up to us.
“Your dad’s stuck on a rock!” Pat yells at Collin.
We scurry up the beach, and find that Collin’s dad, Mike, has managed to pin his 16-foot raft against an enormous boulder at the mouth of the rapid. Plastered to the rock by 18,000 cfs of water, the boat isn’t budging. Mike and his passenger, among the trip’s older participants, are well out of earshot and the boat is too far from shore for any feasible or safe escape route. They have already lost an oar attempting to free themselves. And the sun continues to beat down. This is one humdinger of a pickle.
After about an hour of throwing ropes, searching for escapes and scheming, we run out of options. It’s time to do what we most dread: get out the satellite phone and call the park service. We theorize terrible consequences: fines, chiding, banishment from future trips and worst of all: the chance that our trip will be cut short. But we are plum out of answers.
And the worst part is, it might have been entirely my fault.
What ensues is as surreal as you’d imagine. The unmistakable thwacking of chopper blades beating the sky. The helicopter dipping below the rim, landing in a swirl of hot dust on the beach. The NPS river unit rangers who emerge like Navy Seals, quickly assess the situation and instruct us to move out of the area. We skedaddle down the beach, and watch from afar as a rescuer tied to a longline is hoisted aloft by the helicopter and dropped into the boat. Back and forth it goes, carrying the tiny figures of our tripmates back to dry shore.
When we return to the spot, we find Mike and Perry safe, uninjured and slightly sheepish. They had been marooned on the raft for five hours. Seeing them again is an enormous relief. But the raft? Still haplessly, cursedly stuck.
The rangers explain that the best option is to wait it out a night. With the river flows set to drop and rise with the rhythms of dam releases upriver, there is a possibility the raft can come unlodged.
The next morning, the sun’s hot fingers rouse me awake early. I walk down to the lower camp, and spot the raft, lonesome as ever in the middle of the river. It had shifted position, but not by much.
We have breakfast and are briefed by a ranger who had also camped on the beach. He informs us that the park service will be dealing with emergency rescues first today. When they get a chance, they will return and deploy some more drastic engineering tactics in an attempt to spring the raft loose. Which meant there is nothing to do but wait.
The mood turns glum. We were supposed to meet some friends at Phantom Ranch, and have no way to communicate why we are late. We worry about the fate of the boat, a rental, and if we will have to pay for its loss. And we are anxious about whether we’ll ever get back to our high-flying, laughter-filled journey.
I sit on the beach for a bit, then decide to study my guidebook, and walk to the boat to retrieve it from my little drybag. That’s when I remember the rock.
I contemplate the rock, thinking about the rapid it represents and the events of the last two days. I decide there is something about Hance Rapid that I do not like. If this rapid had a personality, it would be unforgiving and cruel. And there is no part of it I want to carry with me downriver. I dig the rock out and toss it in the sand.
Moments later, I grab my drybag and walk back to Collin’s boat. I am fumbling with the straps when something catches my eye. It is the empty raft, bobbing happily by camp as the current carries it down river.
The chase that ensues is another adventure in itself; after a frantic scramble and furious rowing, Collin and I catch the boat and pull it into a tenuous eddy. Soon, our group has recongregated, and we are floating cheerfully down the river again, overjoyed the incident is over.
I don’t say anything at first, about my crime and subsequent brush with river voodoo. I am ashamed of my misdeed, but I also wonder: Did that really happen? Did Hance actually punish me for stealing a treasure from its shores, or was the whole thing a crazy coincidence?
I believe it was the former. After all, the Grand Canyon giveth; the Grand Canyon taketh away. It’s a maxim we repeated every day of the trip. A mortal like me deigned to take from the river. And the river taketh back.
Plus, if you’ve been down the Grand, it’s hard to deny that there’s something … mystical about that place. Light bends, sounds amplify, focus sharpens and beauty is outsized. It’s a place where it’s easy to believe in bigger powers.
The disaster at Hance Rapid taught me another thing too, a lesson in the futility of trying to hold on to a piece of the magic that can only live within the magnificence of the canyon. In that place, home to both exquisite beauty and harsh cruelty, the enchantment exists in delicate balance.
Photos: Danny Schmidt; Hance Rapid (top) – Chris Ebright