A Raft of Fun
Our intrepid vacationer and his family picked an exciting river in Utah for the wild, wet opening leg of their summer on the road.
By, Jack McCallum for Sports Illustrated July 10, 1989
To true white-water people, we clearly qualify as “dudes,” “turkeys” or, least disparagingly, “river rookies.” But Dee Holladay, who is paddling us down a 58-mile stretch of the Colorado River through Westwater Canyon and Professor Valley on what is perhaps his 200th trip with tourists, is too polite—or too much the business man—for name-calling.
“Everyone who rides with me is a ‘guest”” says Holladay, 52. Fine, but as I watch him pull on two heavy red oars and maneuver a 17-foot raft down the tumultuous river. I feel like a turkey.
It is late morning on the last Tuesday of June, and we are running the first leg of a three-day white-water tip operated by Holiday River Expeditions of Salt Lake City. The start or “put-in,” is at Westwater, Utah, and the “take-our will be near Moab, Utah. The Colorado River here is remarkably clean—by eastern standards, anyway. It is also relatively uncrowded because the Bureau of Land Management regulates the Launching of boats in certain parts of the river. “If it didn’t,” says Dee, “this place would look like Coney Island.”
We have decided to begin our American summer vacation with this relatively adventurous voyage—a not altogether logical decision. As my wife, Donna, points out when we climb into the raft “You realize that if we don’t make it out of here, we’ll miss the rest of the trip.” Our sons, Jamie, 11, and Chris, 9, tend to visualize the experience as a nice long Pirate of the Caribbean Disneyland ride. They will be wrong.
Trailing us are two more rafts, which are guided by Karen Nelson, 28, and Torn Becket, 34. Our flotilla includes 12 other guests in various stages of turkeydom, though none, I imagine, as advanced as ours.
The idea that one just might be flipped out of a raft into savage white water has crossed all the McCallum minds ever since we booked the tip weeks ago. With 12 rapids ahead today, it has pushed tote front of mind. Dee has already told us that none of his guests or guides has died or been seriously hurt on a white-water excursion. And he has confirmed an even more comforting statistic: Only eight of his rafts have tipped in the 20 years he has been in business.
Real white-water experts are no doubt chuckling by now, so let me put our trip into perspective. We chose the Westwater route precisely because Dee considers it his ideal “family tip,” i.e., exciting enough to keep everyone from Grandpa to Junior interested but too tame for adrenaline junkies. On this trip sunburn is a much more formidable hazard than, say, death by drowning—speaking percentages, of course. But any white water is dangerous for neophytes, and we certainly fit that description.
“Anybody ever chicken out before the rapids and start making a scene?” Donna asks Dee as we near the first rapid. He answers, ‘About one in 20 all of a sudden say, ‘What in the hell am I doing out here? Nothing we can do about it, though. They’re always the first ones to say ‘I’m having a blast’ when we’re through safely.” What turkeys.
Sitting in the front of our raft are SI photographer Carl Yarbrough, Jamie and me. In the middle seat is Dee, who does the rowing, and behind him are Donna and Chris. ‘You nervous?’ I ask Jamie. “Why?” he says. I shrug. A moment later he turns to me with a frown. ‘You and Mom wouldn’t take us on anything that was really dangerous, right?” Later, Donna tells me that Chris said almost the same thing.
“After all these years, I guess you don’t get nervous anymore,” I say to Dee. He is not quite as reassuring as I might have hoped. “I never come down here when I’m not nervous,” he says. “Never, right now I’ve got the cottonmouth; I’ve got the nervous feeling in my stomach.” Oh.
The first four rapids are fun but hardly spine-tingling. Then we hit Funnel Falls, which lifts us up and slams us down as gallons of water pour into the raft next comes Surprise, which does the same thing to a much greater degree. My notebook is soaked, and all l can scribble is: “Combination roller coaster-flume ride, only this one’s for real.’
As we paddle toward Skull, said to be the most formidable of the rapids, Dee explains his strategy. ‘You have to stay out of the hole on the right,” he says, “or it’ll send you into the Room of Doom” The Room, a seemingly placid eddy below Skull, is so named for its bewildering current which ensnares all but the most experienced raftsmen. Predictably, our raft whizzes through Skull without a hitch—which is to say we get sopping wet—then races across the top of the trio or three waves for a few exhilarating seconds and comes down with a jolt
At Sock-It-to-Me we fully appreciate the expertise required to run a rapid. Yarbrough, who has been on white-water trips before, wants to move to the very front of the boat and take a picture facing backward “All right,” says Dee, “but get back on the seat the moment I yell.’ We hit Sock-it-Me at full blast, and Carl leans far out of the raft waterproof camera in hand. “Get back now,” says Dee. Carl doesn’t hear him above the roar of the rapids. “Get back” I yell, and Carl does. The raft makes a sweeping turn, kind of like a tilt-a-whirl, and we miss the cliffs on the left by a foot or so. I ask Dee to explain the dynamics of that particular ride, and he says, “When Carl was up at the front he acted like a sea anchor. I needed him to get back to have even weight distribution.” Or? “Or we might’ve hit the rocks.”
An hour or so later, we pull into shore, and, truth be told, I am far more apprehensive about two nights of wilderness camping than I are about running rapids. I find the concept of tent poles, for example as inscrutable as Chinese. While I love the outdoors, I also love indoor plumbing. I ask Jamie if he understands the bathroom system as it was explained by Karen; no mixing of solids and liquids into the single boxed toilet that will serve 19 people. “I’m not going to the bathroom on this tip,’ he says, a pledge to which he holds until I march him to the dreaded box on the morning of the third day.
Fortunately, my wife has a profound understanding of tent poles, and we set ourselves up on a ridge near the river. I do not sleep comfortably, but l can hear the river and the birds and the gentle, slumbering noises of my exhausted family. I conclude that “comfortable’ is a relative term.
Nature does not design its wonders to accommodate vacationing turkeys from the East, and the second day, a 24-mile stretch without rapids, is long arid hard, particularly for the kids. But camp is much better. We set up at a beach that affords a view of the Priest and the Nuns and of Castle Butte, two of the valley’s most spectacular formations,
I make a passable effort with the tent poles. Jamie traps a few lizards. Chris finds a walking stick. Donna, who is usually more of a listener than a talker, makes avid conversation with everyone. We all talk about anything and everything—about the breathtaking scenery, the clear river water, the relentless efficiency of Dee and his guides. How long would it take you to prepare an exquisite dinner for 19? Eight hours? Ten? Our guides jump out of a raft, slap up a table beside a river, fight off bugs and creeping darkness, and have the meal ready in less then an hour. The first night they produce chicken, rice, and coleslaw; the second they serve steak, salmon, au gratin potatoes, and salad—all delicious.
For the conclusion to the trip on Thursday, we float inflatable two-seat kayaks called ducks and drench each other in water fights. Donna and I watch in amazement as Chris, not noted for spontaneity or a sense of adventure, flings himself into the river—he’s wearing a life jacket—in an effort to tip over someone’s duck. As parents, we usually err on the side of caution, and the fact that we let our sons ride in a kayak down a turbulent river can be attributed only to our confidence in the guides.
One final, fairly challenging rapid, White’s Rapid, lies near the end of our trip. Karen, the leader now that Dee has left to join another excursion, doesn’t think Jamie is strong enough to control the duck Peeved, he tosses me the paddle and we switch seats.
We start through the rapid. Karen had cautioned that I should stay left to avoid a dangerous hole on the right, but she did not mean me to be nearly as far left as I am now. I see her waving at me to veer right, I can’t. Our duck begins bouncing off rocks, and I feel a stab of panic as we race towards bigger rock jutting out of the water. The current has us. I can’t avoid a collision. We slam into the rock and perch on it—snared—for a second that seems like a minute. Finally, the current washes us off, and we spin wildly once before I regain control and paddle to the middle of the river.
Donna gives me one of those looks when I pull into shore. I ask Jaime if he was scared. “No,” he says. ‘Why?’ “Because of the rocks we hit on the left,” I say. “Oh, I thought you were trying to hit them,” he says. “I thought you knew what you were doing.”
The kid has a lot to learn.