Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sawyers in the Canyon


The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon is a white water challenge of a lifetime – particularly when rowing a wood boat with 9’ oars.  In April 2012, a team of river runners from 3 countries and 5 western states attempted to run every rapid in that 285 mile stretch in hand-made wood dories built as exact replica’s of the boats that ran the Colorado 50 years ago.

I built one of those boats – the 1962 Portola – and Sawyer built the oars.

Badger Rapid - Photo by Dave Mortenson
“Badger”, at mile mark 8, is the first rapid of significance with a 15’ drop and a rating of 5 on a 10 point scale.  After scouting this rapid, I carefully slid the Portola into the line at the top and crashed through the first drop.  As I dug the left oar deep in the water to make a turn – it stuck hard and I was almost yanked completely out of my seat by the power of the river on the oar.  I let go and it sprung through the oarlock and was beyond my reach in a second.  Grabbing one of the spare oars, I slipped it into the oarlock and finished the rapid.  Sawyers float, so we picked up my un-tethered oar in the pool at the bottom of the rapid.  Welcome to the Big Water of the Colorado…. that rapid was a great “learning experience” and taught me some valuable lessons I would apply the rest of the trip.

Soap Creek Rapid - Photo by Dave Mortenson
I made a few adjustments to my boat and to my rowing style but still lost oars to the power of the river in Soap Creek, Hermit, and Lava (I got pretty good at re-loading a spare oar under pressure and pounding back the tines of my brass oar-locks by the side of the river).

Lava Rapid - Photo by Dave Mortenson
Twenty days and 230 river miles later we faced one of the last difficult rapids of the trip called 231 Rapid – with a 10’ drop and a rating of 5.  I had a passenger in the boat for this one – Elmira Freeman was cinched up tight in her yellow life jacket on my front passenger bench.  This would be the whitewater ride of her life.  We hit the first lateral wave in the drop and it hit back with a huge wave of 47 degree water barreling over the right quarter section of the bow.  The wall of water caught Elmira directly in the shoulders and face with a force that knocked her completely off the bench and washed her right out of the boat into the fast moving water of the Colorado.  One second she was sitting there upright holding onto the splash guard – the next second she was in the turbulent water clinging to the side rail and kicking her legs to stay afloat.  It happened in a blink.

Greg and Elmira - Photo by Dave Mortenson

I let go of the oars, jumped in the front seat where Elmira had been and made a lunge to grab the back of her life jacket.  With a firm grip on the PFD, I leaned back with a hard pull and she slid over the rail and back into the boat as quickly as she had washed out – helped by the fact that the Portola was tilted to within an inch of the water by our combined weight on one side.

Jumping back to the oars, we had two new problems – we were now missing the right oar and the boat was going sideways through the middle of the rapid.  Downriver I could see two big boulders guarding the exit of 231… no way will the Portola fit through this slot going sideways.  If either boulder is hit, the little wooden boat will be damaged badly at this speed - perhaps permanently. By now, I had deployed spare oars so many times in mid-rapid that it was a reflex… I grabbed the right spare and slid it into place as the boat sped sideways toward the boulders below. 

Upest Rapid - Photo by Dave Mortenson
“Sideways” had turned into “diagonal” as the back end of the Portola was starting to take the downriver lead.  With two oars in place, I only had enough time for one strong pull before the exit and I cranked hard on the upriver oar with all the strength I had to turn the boat in the direction the river was taking her… stern first.  The boat responded instantly and we straightened out and slid right between the boulders “threading” the exit of 231 rapid “boat backwards” – a couple of feet to spare between each boulder.

We spun the boat around at the bottom of the pool and sat there collecting ourselves for a minute.  So many things happened in that 20 seconds that I had a hard time processing it all.  Elmira was a great sport and suggested I might want to add passenger handles to that splashguard.  If I would’ve had them on board, I’d have added them on the spot… Killer Fang Falls was a mile downriver with a 12’ drop and a rating of 5 on a 10 scale.  I took the spare oar out of the oarlock, fished the tethered 9’ Sawyer from the river, re-inserted it, and we headed down the Colorado – bow first in the Portola.


by Greg Hatten