Badger, Soap Creek, 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 one or two of them turned ugly at low water too). The same was true of another chain further downstream whose links were named after semi-precious stones—Agate, Sapphire, Turquoise, Ruby, Emerald, and Serpentine—and were thus collectively referred to as the Jewels. Grapevine, Zoroaster, Specter, and Granite Park were mostly benign, but each concealed a feature or two—a rock, a standing wave, a reversal—that was more than capable of knocking you into next week. A bright handful, like Sockdolager, Hermit, and Upset were mostly pure fun, but they would flip you in a hot second if you failed to maintain your angle. Hance, Granite, and Horn Creek, were complex and mercurial, while others—almost always Bedrock and invariably Lava Falls—were just plain vicious. And beyond the rapids themselves, the river also concealed a host of other obstacles, wicked spots whose names offered a sufficiently graphic warning of what they would do to you if you let them. The Fangs. Helicopter Eddy. The Green Guillotine. Forever Eddy. The Devil’s Spittoon.
No two of these challenges were alike, and when the crew of the Colorado River boating legend Martin Litton 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 the river, climbed to a vantage on the cliffs that afforded a comprehensive view, and sat down on the rocks to dissect 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. This they would do for hours, watching and waiting as each of them studied the water. Then they would select another vantage that offered a slightly different angle and go through the whole exercise all over again. Finally, they would talk things over exhaustively, and when the talking was over, silence would set in as each boatman retreated into his private space to memorize his run, codifying and rehearsing the sequence of moves so that that he would have something to hang onto when the chaos hit. When each man was satisfied, it was time to return to the boats and give their theories a try.
And so they proceeded in this staccato fashion. Running, stopping to scout, then running a mile or maybe ten, and stopping for another scout. Day after day, week after week, until they had floated 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 their Utah warehouse for repairs, and made the long drive up to Lee’s Ferry to greet another group of clients and start another journey, the same journey, all over again. Down the long length of the summer, past the equinox and deep into autumn, they wove their way through the labyrinth, pausing only for a hiatus in winter before once again rejoining the flow of the Colorado when the snows started to melt the following spring.
In tracing this route, they formed a community unlike any other, a brotherhood of boatmen bound by their love of the canyon, their infatuation with the dories, and above all, by the witchery of whitewater. And somewhere in the midst of this circuit, the river came to lose the bilateral dimensions of a linear highway and was instead transformed into something that more closely resembled an enchanted circle, an endless loop—not unlike the hydraulic jumps whose secrets they strove to unlock—that revolved back upon itself in a continuous swirl of wonder and madness.
To a doryman who applied himself to the art of learning to read whitewater in this manner, each rapid, from the smallest riffle to the biggest hellbender, gradually came to develop a face, a personality, and a range of moods—and the key to unlocking those rapids’ riddles lay in finding one’s line. On any given day, at any given set of conditions that could vary in accordance with the speed and level of the water, the strength and direction of the wind, the angle of the light, plus a host of subtler variables, there was almost always a path through the chaos, a ribbon of relatively smooth downstream current that would enable you to thread the gantlet. Often, this line was extremely narrow, no more than a couple of feet. But if you could tease out its arc and then assemble the proper sequence of moves—skirting a rock here, kissing an eddy fence there—it was sometimes possible to skate through the entire mess as cleanly as a Cooper’s hawk cleaves the leafy canopy of a forest. It required a high degree of precision to pull that off consistently, however. And the challenge was further exacerbated by the unsettling but also thrilling fact that because the medium was fluid and therefore always in flux, the line did not hold. Some days it would shift, occasionally it would dead-end, and every now and then the damn thing would disappear altogether.
This meant that one’s command of whitewater was slippery and elusive, a thing that could come and go without warning. Sometimes it was the river itself that changed: a rapid that seemed benign and forgiving on one trip would turn dark and ugly a month later. Other times, the shift took place inside one’s own head. It was not unusual to nail a difficult stretch of whitewater for a season or two, snapping off one flawless run after another, and then for some unfathomable reason, find that you had lost your mastery. Then you would be consigned to flipping repeatedly or smashing against the rocks time and again until things shifted back into place and your mojo had returned.
One insight they drew from this was that there was only a frog’s hair of difference between a successful run and a complete cock-up, a space that was defined by a few inches of current or a quarter-stroke of an oar. Which side of that gap you were on had an awful lot to do with your skills and your competency and the connection you had cultivated with your boat and the river. But it had even more to do with something you had absolutely no control over whatsoever. When it came to rapids and wooden dories, there was an awful lot of luck involved. The river was a beast that could neither be controlled nor tamed, only run with. And to be allowed to run with the beast, you had to accept and embrace and ultimately find a way of celebrating its inscrutable, ungovernable, glorious wildness.
That didn’t dissuade them, however, from trying to figure out the key to the code. Their days and weeks unfolded, good or bad, in accordance with their skill at discerning those ephemeral lines, and so they discussed them endlessly. Hunched over their coffee in the mornings, gathered around the kitchen at night after the passengers had gone to bed, they compared notes, traded theories, attended to one another’s sermons. They choreographed wavy pieces of performance art in the air with their hands and they scratched out elaborate diagrams in the wet sand with the tips of their fingers. Many of them also kept careful notes, filling up their logbooks with check lists, reminders, resolutions, and curses. Immersed within canyon’s hidden republic of whitewater, they struggled to map out its mysteries so obsessively that it sometimes seemed as if there was nothing else that mattered. At night, the rapids flowed through their dreams.
As their knowledge deepened, growing more intimate and detailed with each passing season, their verbal shorthand began to change to the point where they found themselves speaking a kind of secret language, all but unknowable to the passengers and the rookies, peppered with expressions and nuances that made no sense to people who could only see chaos when they stared into the current. They dorymen knew that on the left side of Hance, there was a partially submerged sleeper, a chunk of Hakatai shale they called Whale Rock, which acted as a kind of hydraulic magnet, almost as if it had its own tractor beam that would pull you onto it and leave you marooned in the middle of the river. They reminded one another that Hermit boasted twelve separate haystacks, the biggest and loveliest of which was the sixth—but you had to hit it “dead-nuts square” or it would flip you end-over-end. They talked about how the left side of Sockdolager featured a pair of staggered crunchers that seemed impossible to split, but if you punched into the first wave slightly off-center with the left side of your bow, its crest would knock you to the right and set you up perfectly for the second. At Upset, they understood that the key to skirting the giant hog trough at the bottom was to get on the inside ridge of the left lateral, and then tell yourself that even though it seemed as if the hand of God himself was about to spear you into the left wall, that invisible ribbon of current would actually whisk you straight through the maelstrom and deliver you—soaked, safe, and happy—into the tail-waves at the bottom.
Because their lives spun around an axis of entropy, rituals and superstitions also arose, and with these things came something that bordered on mysticism. They called the wind “Mr. W” because they believed that naming him out loud would call him down and play havoc with their runs. They carried special charms—heart-shaped stones, girlfriend’s bracelets, clay amulets baked in midnight campfires—and rubbed their surfaces for good luck. And they reminded one another constantly that each encounter carried the potential for both disaster and ecstasy. There were rapids that could hurt you, rapids that could drown you, and rapids that could leave you impotent with rage. There were rapids rich in gradation and texture, and rapids that were existentially wretched in the simplicity of their violence. There were rapids you feared and rapids you hated and rapids you would be a fool to take for granted, even under the most benign conditions imaginable. But on those days of magic and wonder when the tumblers in the lock were oiled and clicking flawlessly, any one of those rapids could also transport you into a dimension of pure, unadulterated joy that had no analogue in any other part of your life.
The taste of that joy was absolutely intoxicating, a kind of drug, and perhaps the most potent part of the charge involved the irrevocability of the moment when you untied your boat, and you and your pards peeled out into the current in a tight and graceful little arc like a formation of miniature fighter jets. For a minute or two you, would find yourself drifting on a flat and glassy cushion of serenity as the current slowly gathered its speed and heft beneath the bottom of your boat, and you drifted toward this thing that waited, invisible, just beyond the horizon line. It was silent during those minutes, the only sounds being the creak of your oarlocks and the dipping of the blades as you made a few tiny micro-adjustments in the hopes of placing your hull squarely on the one tiny patch of current that would insert you through the keyhole in the cosmos. Then in the final seconds, you would start to hear the dull, thunderous roar and you could see the little fistfuls of spray being flung high into the air.
This, perhaps, was the most riveting moment of all, because by now all of your decisions had been made—you had done your homework, looking to find a point of balance between instinct and analysis, listening to the data flowing from your both your brain and your gut, and now you were well and truly committed. This thing you were running down had no brakes, no rewind, no possibility of a do-over. You would ride the surge of your own adrenaline and surf the watery crescendo that was about to explode before you, and you would accept the consequences, good or bad, along with whatever gifts or punishments the river was prepared to dish out. There were lessons in there, insights a man could put into his pocket and take out later, long after he was out of the canyon and away from the river, tiny compass points to steer by during those seasons when the river that was your life turned turbulent and ugly. You could learn things about yourself that you would never learn in civil society. And if you were lucky, you might navigate to a place that would enable you to glimpse, however obliquely, a bit of who you truly were.
There was nothing else quite like it, the way this river could braid terror and rapture so tightly together. And although it wasn’t always possible for Litton’s crew to fear the rapids and love the rapids in the very same instant, sometimes those feelings toggled back and forth with such fury that they generated a charge not unlike the voltaic current that was running through the power cables at the base of the Glen Canyon Dam. Once you had felt that energy coursing through your synapses, you simply had to return to it again and again, chasing the elusive electric butterfly into the vortex.
In this way, whitewater became their elixir and their narcotic. And because they literally lived on the river—riding its back by day, bobbing asleep in their boats upon the eddies at night—they became part of the water itself. It ran down their veins and bored into the chambers of their hearts. It framed their world, it greased their engines, it shaped the subtext of the dialogue they conducted with themselves, with one another, with the gods the worshipped. And out of all of this emerged a connection that bound the dorymen more intimately to the water, the rocks, and the boats they rowed than any of the generations of river runners that had preceded them. As far as they were concerned, anyone in a motor rig or a rubber raft had only run their fingers along the surface of those truths. Even John Wesley Powell himself, they were half-convinced, had barely even touched the magic.