I mentioned before that I might be invited along on this Grand Canyon trip because, it being a desert, there’s no TV there. I’m good for a laugh now and again. I mean, I’m a cartoonist. I write humor for a living. I tell stories. I’d like to think that kind of thing has value. I can be counted on to bring out a totally unexpected quip from time to time, and thus add some humor into what might otherwise be a simple drowning.
My father makes regular motorcycle trips with a rotating roster of best buddies. He earned the title ‘A Veritable Outhouse of Information’ early in one of his first long trips. On such long trips, I imagine the other old guys are, at first, happy to have someone along that can offer up anecdotes, aphorisms and at least one interesting fact about whatever’s at hand. I fulfill a similar role when in crowds of people my own age.
Lacking the sort of filters that the normal person has, and having filled my days reading or listening to the sort of stuff that normal people skip over, I can now play a wicked game of Trivial Pursuit, or, returning to the point at last, take the place of a television set. True, I’m a TV tuned to that station that most Nielson Families lie about preferring when recording their preferences, and my on/off knob was torn off and rolled under a sofa years ago. After a week in the canyon, though, I figure I’ll be as welcome as any three random TV commercials.
So now you know why I’m being packed along, we can return to what I’m gonna pack myownself.
I have three kayaks. One of them is for paddling down creeks, one is a tricky little boat for playing in holes and waves, and the other is a more extreme version of the play boat. And they’re all old. Really old. If they were cars, they’d be old enough to kiss goodbye and hand over to your sixteen year old who just earned her driver’s license.
Now, I had to figure out which one of these old boats to take. The idea is that you need a boat that is swift enough that you don’t struggle when trying to paddle flatter water, and big enough that the rapids won’t treat it like a tub toy. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re paddling a kayak with a low, flat stern. That’ll be fine for rivers in the Southeast, where you want to slew around and let that stern slice into a wave. The wave will force the boat to stand on its stern, and you get an entertainingly daring ride out of it. That same stern, if it suddenly has some Western water poured onto it, might leave you staring at the sky at just the time when you’d rather be getting a good look at the crashing, surging, pounding rapid in front of you. Clearly, which boat I was going to carry to the Canyon would take some thought.
Firstly, I went to CreekWeek. CreekWeek is a function of the non-club we paddled with. Once a year, the non-club (there are no officers, no dues, and no weird power structures, just the normal organic societal power structures you get when a BUNCH of alpha personalities hang out together.) meets at a particular state park that’s reasonably close to several rivers and creeks. Recall, also, that we’re mostly from Memphis, where ‘reasonably close’ is measured in hours of drive time.
We set up in ‘the group camp’- a large central building with an industrial kitchen and dining hall en suite surrounded by eight bunkhouses that’ll sleep three dozen people each in a pinch. Groups of people sort of form and disperse, coagulate and shift- like the goop in a lava lamp, or ants in a panic. Finally, these groups decide who they are in a sort of last minute mob rule and head out to paddle rivers and creeks. This year, I spent my Saturday with a group on Clear Creek in a kayak called an RPM (‘Revolutions Per Minute’… the boat is built to spin around on waves.) made by Dagger Boats. In its day, it was a radical design and much praised. Its day has gone by, and I was worried that mine has too.
I was very nervous. After a rapid or two, I realized that I was being too uptight and so I tried to relax. It helped. Old skills reappeared, and I paddled the entire river without injury or unintended exit from the boat. Still, it was a familiar old creek without the hazards that the Colorado River and its unknown perils would throw at me. So I figured that I should, if possible, try to get in another run on Sunday before I headed home. Maybe something totally unexpected.
Feeling like I knew enough to survive, I joined David, Fred, Kathy, and Elmore Holmes (A very extensively paddled boater. This is not, as far as I know, a commentary on his personal life.) on the Little Clear Creek (Not to be mistaken for the Clear Creek, as this one has the word ‘Little’ in its name.) on Sunday.
Supposedly, it was on the way home and supposedly would take us maybe an hour and a half. The guy who recommended the run was the same guy from whom we’d all taken swiftwater rescue classes. We should have known. He was probably looking for anecdotes to use in the next class. He threw us some useful information about the Little Clear rapids. We read the guidebook, and we set off.
Fred… can’t be trusted with GPS equipment, just so you know. We didn’t know, because we were less familiar with GPS use than he is. But it turns out that if you bookmark the wrong place as the ‘Put-in for the Little Clear Creek’ on Saturday, it’s still wrong on Sunday. Who knew?
The guidebook said that we should be able to do this run in 45 minutes with an expert guide along. We didn’t have an expert guide and (don’t try this at home, say the lawyers) we didn’t actually have anyone along who’d been on the creek before. Honestly, I can hardly stand to admit it. It sounds like we must have been brain damaged. We all knew Elmore to be a hugely accomplished paddler, and I suppose our own performances the day before, taken with the beauty of the day, the fresh air, and the large amounts of meat we’d had at dinner the night before combined like some kind of John Denver-grade natural high to make us think that we could make this run without consequence. And therein lies the problem. We did make the run without consequence.
It was wonderful. There were a couple of short falls at that level of water, and some sections that were dangerously overgrown with grasses and overhung with trees. We had some minor trouble in a couple of places. One place in particular stand out in memory. It was a hairpin bend in the creek, with a dropoff in the middle of it. Boats, once abandoned by their paddlers, tended to imitate swizzle sticks against the bank opposite the dropoff. That was a plus, as one alternate thing for the boats to do was to shoot off down the creek without their paddlers. Elmore and Fred negotiated those particular troubles, while David, Kathy and I risked twisted ankles by portaging our boats along the bank instead. There was much cussin’.
There was a LOT more to the run than the useful information our swiftwater rescue teacher had given us. In fact, I’d like to point out here that his quick recon of the run left off about halfway, at the bottom of the largest drop. Having spent an hour and a half getting to that drop, we naturally assumed that we were nearly done. When, an hour and a half after that, we finally rejoined the Clear Creek and, consequently, the take-out, it occurred to me that Swiftwater Teacher Jim had, in the broader scheme of things, lost the last seat on the Grand Canyon trip to… me.
Ah. He was, after all, trying merely to get me injured or killed so that the space would open up. I can’t blame him, but I can resent it like hell.
CreekWeek’s success allowed me to get very complacent about the big upcoming trip. I slacked on research and I slacked on getting a decent boat to paddle. I didn’t think I could spend all sixteen days in my RPM- it was a little uncomfortable for the two days of Creekweek. I had taken my ancient creekboat along to CreekWeek but hadn’t paddled it. I thought, since we’d all promised ourselves that we’d get to the Ocoee and put ourselves through some more paces, that I’d take my ancient creekboat THERE and try it out. I remembered, dimly, thinking it had, years earlier, gotten me down the Ocoee, not to mention the Gauley and the New River.
I supposed it’d be just the thing. It WOULDN’T be just the thing. And therein lies the next chapter.