The Longest 45 Minutes

The Crippled Craft
The crippled craft
© Clyde Nicely
My second trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in July 1992 was extra special because my two sons, Ben and Matt, were able to come along. My friend Sam had gotten us an invitation to the trip.

It was a good group of boating companions. Jim, the permit holder, Sam and Larry had worked together in their youth as smoke jumpers fighting forest fires. Listening to their stories was fun. If only half of the stories were true, they’d had some adventures! And these folks loved good food; the meals were outstanding!

We were having a great time. We stopped at Phantom Ranch for the obligatory mailing of the postcard and eating of the ice cream. Then into the Inner Gorge to run Horn Creek Rapid. We camped at Salt Creek in order to give us a full day to run the rest of the “biggies” in the Inner Gorge. We had guests for dinner that evening. Joe and Walt were resting in the shade when we pulled into camp, waiting for the cool of late evening to continue their backpack.

Draining water out of the tube.
Draining water out of the tube
© Clyde Nicely

An early start the next morning put us into Granite Rapid right away, then Hermit and Boucher. Fun runs, big water, exciting. It was with much anticipation that we stopped to scout Crystal. Its reputation rivaled that of Lava Falls for difficulty.

Flows in the Canyon are often described as “tides”. Water released from Glen Canyon Dam varies with power demands. In the summer, as air conditioners in the Southwest start cranking up for the day, more water goes through the penstocks to spin the generators. These surges travel downstream and can boost or lower a rapid’s power.
 
Four years earlier, in June, Crystal had been anticlimactic. We’d hit it at low flow and running it was a piece of cake. The only memorable thing about it was Arthur hauling the IK back up to run it a second time. He managed to dead center the big hole at the top! He flushed right out but the boat did some spectacular hydrobatics for the better part of a minute.
 
Drying out the inside of the tube.
Drying out the inside of the tube in preparation for gluing
© Clyde Nicel
Well, this time Crystal was the raging monster of its legend. We looked long and hard at it. The left looked nasty but the right lateral was so strong we feared if we didn’t break through it, we’d be surfed sideways into the big upper hole. We elected to run the tongue to the left of the upper hole. Jim went first and then Ben, Matt and I followed. We stayed straight and things went well until a big wave hit us from the left and blew me right out of the boat. As I surged past the stern I grabbed the cargo net. Matt looked back and yelled, “Dad’s out!” Before Ben had to jump back to take over, I was able to scramble back to the oars in time to crash through the rest of the waves and pull to the left of the lower rocks.
 
We pulled ashore at river right, below where Jim had landed. We were bailing, laughing and comparing stories when we saw Sam’s raft approaching us…and Sam was the only one in the boat. We saw a swimmer upstream of him, in a red PFD, so that had to be Joyce. Jim, Sylvia and Jan were rescuing her. Where was Larry?
 
Sam pulled in by us with disturbing news. Larry and Joyce had been flushed out of the raft. She floated away from the boat but Larry was holding on. When the boat slammed into the rock wall on river left, Larry was between the boat and the rock. Sam said, “There was a horrible crunch and then I didn’t see Larry. I’m afraid he may have been crushed between the boat and the rock.”

Applying the inside patch.
Applying the inside patch, a tricky operation in the best of conditions
© Clyde Nicely
Rial and Jason landed river left below us and started trying to work their way back upstream along the steep, rocky bank. As we talked, I became aware of the condition of Sam’s big Havasu. The right rear chamber was deflated. We tried to pump it up and found the boat had struck the rock with such force it had opened a right-angle tear, about 6” on a side. If Larry was there when it hit…
We were a solemn bunch as we watched Rial and Jason’s slow progress. Sam’s distress was most acute. He and Larry had been friends for many years. It was a full 45 minutes before we got the high sign that Larry had been spotted making his way along the shore. The yellow color of his PFD showed up readily on the water but blended in with the rocks of the Canyon, delaying spotting him.
When we got back together, Larry filled us in on what happened. When he saw the boat was going to hit the wall, he pushed himself under the water and let the raft pass over him. After the collision, when the raft had swirled downstream, he got to the left bank and started working his way over the rugged terrain.

With Larry safe and our spirits brightened, we turned to the problem of Sam’s boat. Tuna Creek Rapid (a 6 on the 1-10 Grand Canyon scale) was less than a half-mile downstream and we knew we had to fix it before then.

Preparing the outside patch.
Preparing for the outside patch
© Clyde Nicely
We climbed up the canyon with binoculars to look for a repair spot and saw what looked like a possibility on river left. Ben and Matt took our raft across and Sam and I doubled up on the oars to move the crippled Havasu.

  
We unloaded the big boat and got as much water out of the chamber as we could. Patches inside and out put us back in business. We were loaded up and back on the water by five. Camps are scarce in that area, we ended up running another 11 miles and a bunch of mid-size rapids before we found one. Supper of chop suey and bread got served in the dark.

No late songfest or bull session that night, we were ready to hit the sleeping pads. Quite a day – lots of big whitewater, excitement and drama…and the longest 45 minutes of my boating life.

Clyde Nicely
NRS Customer Service &
e-Newsletter Editor