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Rafting 4: Dropping Bigly

Canyonlands NP, day 4.

A subdued mood affected us all as the day started, with little conversation as we ate breakfast. We all knew something big awaited us on the river, and that occupied our thoughts. We had more time to contemplate the rapids ahead since the guides had arranged to run the Big Drops with the Holiday boats. With them camped upstream and having to rig their boats, that gave us extra time.

River time.

While methodically packing and unpacking my bags, I noticed another lizard scurry between tufts of dune grass, chased by a second one - and a third lagging behind. I had no chance of getting a photo, but I did notice the tracks their tails had etched in the sand.

Before setting out, Alex reprised the safety talk. "We're not hammering on this to scare you," he insisted. "We focus on safety, and delivering you guys down the river with no mishaps. I'm going to pilot this boat as if my grandma, my mother, and my sister are on board."

"Wow," I responded. "I hope you didn't come from a dysfunctional family." That inspired laughter all around, helping to lighten the pensive mood.

The river called. We donned our wet suits, paddle jackets and helmets and loaded up before Holiday arrived, aiming to shoot the first few rapids. Early on, we would hit Ben Hurt rapids to warm us up for the main attractions. I took a seat in the back of the oarboat, eager to take definitive videos. Here we go!

The early rapids extended the thrills we'd experienced yesterday. Holes, haystacks, big waves crashing over us - and we had barely the time to catch our breath before the next rapid arrived. Being behind Alex powering the raft, I got fewer waves drenching me than Pam and Bryn in front, but several waves still found me.

Once through our warm-up rapids, we slipped into an eddy and waited for the Holiday boats to finally catch up. (With a short mileage day on tap, we had time to spare.) When they arrived, we set out for the Mile-Long Rapids, another long shot of adrenaline cruising down the river.

More thrills, more chilling waves. Now we faced one more delay before the day's - and the trip's - featured attractions: Big Drop Rapids 1, 2, and 3. Owen and Alex, along with the Holiday guides and leaders from NAVTEC rafts, pulled in at a beach choked with logs swept down from upriver. The guides all set out to scout the rapids, the most feared in Cataract Canyon.

While waiting for their return, I checked the last video on the GoPro. Anticipation quickly turned to disappointment. From my seat in the back, the chest mount for the GoPro failed to sit high enough to provide a consistent view over the gear strapped to the raft's midsection. From looking at the small camera screen, I saw river and waves take a back seat to wonderful video of our water cooler bobbing up and down in the frame.

At least I'll always have the memories.

[Once I got the video on my laptop days later, I did manage to salvage a bit over two minutes from the 17 minutes I recorded.

The bright spot - it shows the hard work Alex engaged in, threading through the worst of the waves. I did like the stills I took from the video, of the raging river

confronting us - and the 'action' shot of the wave sacrificing itself on our raft.]

When the guides returned from scouting, I switched back to the J-rig as planned. Time for more dependable video down the Big Drops!

I could see them growing larger and larger as we approached - a truly monstrous stew of waves. Owen maneuvered the boat back and forth, looking for his line through the maelstrom. When he turned into the maw of the monster, a malignant wave formed directly ahead, welcoming us, drowning us.

Woo hoo!

More holes and waves followed, bouncing us over the river's surface, spraying us repeatedly. After each face-full of water caught me gasping for air, the boat would wheel and cut through another wave.

It was over far too soon, the day's excitement spent. We headed for shore, thankful for no rafter overboard (a claim the Holiday crew could not make). We had lunch beside Holiday, then they moved downstream while we set up camp.

Once I dismounted the GoPro and checked the video, everyone crowded around the tiny screen to see. It showed our approach and caught our entrance. It recorded the monstrous first wave - a wave that knocked the camera off vertical on the mount. The rest of the film showed only glimpses of the waves roiling about the boat (and water droplets of other drenchings) while filming the canyon walls.

My confidence with the GoPro sank even further.

We still faced six rapids to fight tomorrow. My GoPro had run out of juice (one fully charged battery got me almost 40 minutes total of video), but Craig's GoPro's battery was at 100%, so I will try for a better outcome with his tomorrow. (He only brought a headmount, which the paddle helmet prevented him from wearing.

Our day's camp resembled a cathedral in the desert. Soaring, forbidding rock walls dwarfed us. Clouds marched across the sky. After a wet chill on the river, temperatures on land kept us toasty warm.

Owen mentioned later that this cathedral was once dozens of feet underwater. "In 1983, when Lake Powell was at full pool, the edge of the lake reached to the Big Drop rapids." Thankfully it hasn't been that full for many years.

With worry over the impending Big Drops removed from our shoulders, the post-float campground recovered its innocence. Conversation flowed as we all recounted various travel stories, or talked of books and movies we needed to read or watch. Raoul the Raven flew in, poking around our campsite or sitting in the tree listening to the interlopers; soon Raoulinda joined him.

One more gourmet meal, of lasagna and salad, filled our stomachs. After eating, Owen pulled out the costume dry-bag, and we tried on various articles from inside. I donned a Warbonnet Princess black-and-pink vest, Craig styled a (too small) sun dress, Owen sported a sequined top, while Alex accented his Hawaiian shirt with a dinner jacket. Nice to engage in frivolity to celebrate surviving the Big Drops.

As the light faded and headlamps came out, I continued reading The Emerald Mile, about the fastest ride down the Grand Canyon. The book talked about Bernard Moitessier, a French sailor who entered the Golden Globe Race in 1968 to become the first man to sail solo around the world without stopping or getting assistance. With victory within reach... he quit:

Moitessier declared that he was "a citizen of the most beautiful nation on earth -- a nation whose laws are harsh yet simple, a nation that never cheats, which is immense and without borders, where life is lived in the present." But perhaps his most provocative discovery was the realization that winning a race had no connection with his true goal, which was to reach a point in space and time that would enable him to bear witness to the beauty and complexity of the natural world -- and to glimpse, however briefly, the sort of person he might become if he permitted himself to cross a kind of international date line of the soul and merge with those things. In the end, he realized, the journey itself was the destination.


Again, I awoke in the wee hours (non-river time) to the stillness of the desert illuminated by countless stars, overlaid by the sound of the river's rushing waters. My head began filling with thoughts of what we'd soon return to: travel plans, to-do lists, people to contact. Instead of surrendering to them, I got up to drink in the desert stillness. Focus on this last day, I told myself. Everything will happen in due time.

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