In September of 2014 I paddled a kayak solo down 52 miles of the Green River through Utah’s Cayonlands National Park. With no rapids it is said to be America’s finest flatwater river trip. It is a typically safe journey of calming serenity, quiet, and beauty. It is light on worries and heavy on relaxation. And, it almost took my life. This story is a testament to the old adage that bad things can happen when we least expect it.
There is no terror like the realization that you are about to die.
I have made the classic fatal sequence of those who drown: panic then exhaustion. The current has me pinned to the middle of the broad river. My futile attempts to swim to shore against swirling waters have expended my aerobic capacity, rendering me unable to continue treading water. My legs and arms are becoming dead weights. Gasping for air, heart thumping wildly, the muddy water splashes against my chin. If I could stand I would collapse in complete exhaustion. But, there is nothing to stand on, nothing to grab hold of, nobody there to throw me a life line. I’m about to go under. Just like that, I’m finished.
Day One on the River
The Green River. It is a river of Western American history and legends. It was a life artery for the Ancients. It was the main trunk of a vast matrix of territory for fur trapping mountain men. It was the legendary route of crazy one-armed explorer John Wesley Powel. It ran central through the philosophical minds of Everett Ruess and Edward Abby. Today, I push my sit-on-top kayak into the muddy river at Mineral Bottom, the last put-in upriver from Canyonlands National Park. From here the river twists quietly and smoothly for its final 52 miles to its confluence with the Colorado. This lowest stretch of the big Green River is said to be America’s greatest flatwater river trip.
The late morning sun feels hard on my shoulders. It is near 100 degrees this early September day. But, the river water cools as I dangle my hands into the liquid mud and use the paddle to splash my back. I’m gliding on a wide tan-colored flatwater. The lazy current is only perceptible by glancing at slowly passing willows on the shore. I float at walking speed. Red and tan banded cliffs rise a few hundred feet on both sides in brilliant clarity and texture under a perfect dome of blue. No clouds and no wind. Leisurely paddle strokes here and there serve only to keep my kayak pointed downriver. I find I’m smiling a lot as I head into the Canyonlands.
I establish a rhythm of slow steady paddling over the next few hours as the river wanders its way towards and then into Canyonlands National Park. The air remains still and hot with no shade. The water is flat, cool and muddy. While paddling close to a willow-lined shore a beaver slips into the water and circles my kayak. It doesn’t seem pleased with my presence and as I drift away from it, it gives the water a solid slap with its tail.
After a long easterly stretch the river takes a swing towards the south and I enter an area where low sandstone cliffs drop straight into the water. The sun is now low enough to cast some shade over the edges of the river beneath these walls. I seek out the shade and drift close enough to the rocks to reach out and touch them, at times floating under stone overhangs a foot over my head. The landscape feels immense. This is the big West of canyon and cloud, rock and sun, river and big sky. I feel euphoric.
Before the trip I was told about the sudden gusts in Canyonlads that tend to scatter tents and canoes without warning, and, sure enough, the dead calm is broken by a wind out of nowhere. In a matter of minutes my hypnotic drift down a glossy river becomes a struggle against wind and wave. I start looking for a campsite.
As luck would have it, the obvious campsites around Bonita Bend are already occupied and I have to keep pushing forward, battling headwinds and side winds depending on the direction of the river. I push down a long stretch where one cannot easily stop much less camp, with impenetrable willow on the left and impenetrable tamarisk on the right. Finally, with the sun below the west canyon rim and with tired shoulders, I spot a low sandbar island. The canyon seems to reward me for my hard work, for just as abruptly as it roared to life the wind stops. I pull the kayak completely up onto the sandbar, look around, and know that I have finally found my campsite for the night, 22 miles from my starting point and deep in the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park.
The Sandbar and a Cat
It turns out to be a great campsite in the middle of the river–my own desert island. As I’m getting unloaded I keep hearing disturbances on the river surface. I remember that I packed a spool of fishing line and some hooks. Curious, I tie on a hook and a hunk of smelly salami, tie off about 30 feet of line to the boat and heave the salami out into the river. Thinking it unlikely that I’ll catch anything I quickly forget about it and get back to my camp chores.
Minutes later I hear a slight ping and look up to see a taught line being pulled slowly this way and that. I jump over, grab the line and start pulling it in, hand over hand. Flopping onto my island is a 14-inch catfish, whiskers, spines and everything. I briefly consider keeping it for dinner. But, compared to the ground beef I brought for burgers, this slimy cat doesn’t seem all that appetizing. I manage to de-hook it without getting stung and toss it back into its muddy domain. I soon dine on two scrumptious cheeseburgers cooked on a cast iron pan over my stove complemented by some fresh diced watermelon and a cold beer—yes you can take “stuff” on a river trip.
I decide not to use the tent tonight opting instead for a starry ceiling. By the time I crawl into my bag, the moon is up, the stars are out, and the desert crickets are making sweet music. I clap my hands and hear two echoes, left then right, in the canyon. The river is quiet except for those catfish.
Day Two on the River
The morning is exquisite: perfect air, perfect scenery, perfect solitude. A heron is feeding at the head of my island as I cook a breakfast of eggs and pancakes. The upper canyon rim is illuminated to a glowing red in a band of sunshine making its way slowly down the rock face to the river. Knowing how far downriver I made it yesterday I feel no pressure to move fast today.
But, move I must, so I finally debark from my wonderful sandbar island and begin day two on the river. The canyon country tightens up a bit more to the river today. Rock walls become closer and taller and yet the river maintains its slow hypnotic pace. I paddle less this morning and drift more.
By midday the calm is broken and that headwind kicks up again, earlier than yesterday. Before I know it I’m facing down two foot rollers. The flow of the river seems to be almost stopped by the wind and I’m forced to paddle fairly rigorously to keep moving. I come to a sandbar on river left and stop for some lunch and rest.
The wind is relentless and kicks up plumes of sand into my cheese and salami. Desk-sized blocks of sand break from the bank and crash into the water like calving ice burgs. A party of five, two canoes and three kayaks, drift into view like ghosts. They battle the wind with stubborn nonchalance, content to kick back and simply bob in the waves when the wind is especially stiff.
I decide to push back into the river to make a run for the next bend and hopefully calmer conditions. I’m not as patient as the party of five and I have a lighter craft, so I paddle hard and cut through the gusts. Finally, I round a 90-degree bend to the left. The orientation of the canyon changes and the wind dwindles to a few blustery breezes. I stop again on a nice rock to rest in some afternoon shade provided by sandstone cliffs to river right.
By mid-afternoon I’ve found my campsite. It’s a big beautiful beach on the outside of a long left bend in the river. The western canyon wall is close, draping a nice early shade over the beach to cut the hard sun. It’s a great spot, but large enough to accommodate quite a few people. I realize that river etiquette requires me to offer the use of this place to any later parties coming down the river. As I wander up and down my beach like a contented Robinson Crusoe I hope I will not have to share it.
The Beach and Padre
My hopes of solitude are in doubt when a group of four men come around the bend. They are paddling a contraption of two canoes with a platform fastened between them. On the platform is an enormous pile of camping gear. Shirtless, burley, and gruff-voiced, these look to be the saltiest group of guys on the Green. I can see that they are scouting my beach with envy.
Reluctantly I wave and call out to them with welcoming words. I’ve done my part, now the decision is theirs. They decide to stay. As they climb ashore, one-by-one, the last man off the boat catches my attention. He looks ancient as he waddles up to shake my hand. He’s tall, well over six feet, but somewhat hunched. Shirtless with a good sized sagging spare tire around the middle, he has leathery skin the red-brown color of the Wingate sandstone of the canyon. His hair is a close-cropped helmet of thick blond-gray like the Navaho Sandstone that caps the Wingate. He looks like the canyon itself as he walks forward like a giant teetering weeble wobble.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” he says, and then offers to share their liquor which is apparently of great abundance. I don’t quite know what to think of this odd bunch. At the moment I’m not thrilled that they are here. What was a quiet canyon is now filled with profanity-infused banter and I lament the loss of solitude. But, as I cook and eat my dinner, they start to seem less like prison escapees and a bit more like regular folks. I finish my dinner, grab my can of beer and saunter over. I’m welcomed into the crew with great enthusiasm.
“So, where are you all from?” I break the ice.
“Albuquerque and Phoenix,” they say in unison. “How ‘bout you?”
Nods all around.
“You guys been down this river before?” I ask, genuinely curious.
“Well,” starts the second oldest guy in the group. “This would be my sixth trip down personally. Padre here’s been down a few times.” He motions over to the old red guy. “Padre, how many times does this make for you?” he asks with a smirk.
Padre stares at me for a moment, his large rugged head cocked a bit to the side, then says, “well, this would be number eighty for me,” he says, matter of fact.
I believe he must be joking. “Eighty?!” I say this as I look around to the other guys in the group for confirmation. They all nod with reverence.
“Yeah, well,” says Padre. “That’s over a span of about 40 years.”
I’m amazed. Here must be a true river legend of the Canyonlands. Fascinated I lay into old Padre with question after question. He’s a retired math teacher originally from Detroit. In the 1950’s his family took a six-week car camping trip out West when the American past time of car camping was not yet a past time. They car camped right up underneath one of the big arches in what was then seldom-visited Arches National Monument. It was there that they were greeted by park ranger Edward Abbey himself when Desert Solitaire was but a few passing thoughts in that brilliant man’s mind.
Like many young men from the East who see the West for the first time, he was hooked. It was so expansive and bright, so beautiful and invigorating. It was during that trip that he stood on the rim in what would later become Canyonlands National Park, looked down into the chasms and envisioned himself floating right down that winding canyon river.
He didn’t do it on that trip, but he made it back out West permanently fifteen or so years later, bought a seven dollar inflatable raft from K-Mart and floated himself right into the Green River. There were no jet boat pick-ups at the confluence in those days, and very few other people on the river. When he reached the confluence several days later, he deflated his raft, packed it up and hiked right out of the canyons many miles to the nearest ranger station. From there he hitchhiked back up to the town of Green River.
He loved the experience so much that he kept coming back and started bringing people with him. One time after completing the 52 miles down the river from Mineral Bottom, he turned his canoe around and paddled the 52 miles all the way back up the river. He has explored and knows intimately just about every side canyon and every bend in the river. His tales are conveyed with understatement and nostalgia, like a great adventurer who knows he can never capture in words the experiences he holds in his heart: “See that next little side canyon down there?” he says, pointing down the river. “I call that one the ‘candylands’ because of the bright colors and texture of the rocks. Hard to get to. I’ve only ever seen one other set of boot prints in there.” His voice trails a bit as he stares down river toward his candylands.
As the night settles in and the stars appear I now feel fortunate to have shared my beautiful river beach with these humble and friendly legends of the Green River. Padre invites me back for coffee in the morning as I say goodnight and I shuffle happily up to my end of the beach. I lay awake for hours that night watching the moon traverse across the sky between the canyon rims, and the stars twinkle brightly. Something about Padre’s story makes me especially proud of my country this night. What a beautiful life! What a beautiful place this is! What a beautiful country I live in! This is freedom. This is the America that I love.
Day 3 on the River
“Padre, you couldn’t wait for Doug to get downriver before doing that?”
I hear this as I paddle on from the beach and see Padre sitting on the “gruber” (portable toilet) with some reading material. I hold in my laughter as Padre mumbles something to feign surprise. I wave goodbye to my friends and point my kayak down the river.
In four miles I come to a sweeping left curve in the river where Jasper Canyon comes in from the right. Just as Padre described last night, on the downstream side of the mouth of Jasper are some large rocks to tie up to. I hop out and get situated, swapping my water shoes for my hiking boots, and head up into the side canyon.
I never see the ancient Anasazi granary that is supposed to be near the mouth of the canyon as I continue on an intermittent hikers trail into a tightening dry gorge. Nearly a mile up, I finally clamber over some ledges, around some freshwater pools and into an astounding amphitheater. The bottom of the amphitheater contains a small clear pool of water with a sandy beach. Above me is a 500-foot circular overhang cliff with water drops drifting down from the lip. I scamper up ledges and get underneath the overhang and behind the drip-waterfall. Looking straight up I’m entertained by watching single drops of water on seven-second free falls.
Back on the river now the remainder of the afternoon is calm with glassy water and sublime canyon scenery. I play leapfrog with the five person crew I saw yesterday in the wind and, for a while, enjoy the bluegrass tunes I hear coming from one of their kayaks.
The river makes big turns here, first to the left, then to the right and then to the left again. But, it’s always quiet and calm with that gentle drift through the canyon walls. The days have become progressively more enjoyable and I have a hard time believing it when I realize I’m within three or four miles of the confluence and I’ve put nearly 50 river miles behind me.
Today, my campsite reveals itself easily. On the inside edge of a sharp right bend in the river a great big sandy beach and raised dune sparkles in the sunlight. This is the place for my third and what I expect to be a final glorious night on the river in Canyonlands.
The Dune and Calamity
I walk aimlessly for a while along the broad white-sand beach and up onto the sand dune. The canyon is especially tight here as the river makes a near 180-degree doubling back and the close canyon walls curve with the river that formed them. I notice next to my beach there is a broad and shallow eddie swirling around. Although the sky has gotten somewhat cloudy, it’s still mid-afternoon and warm. I decide then to do something I’ve been contemplating for most of the day—get in that water and cool off.
With no shirt or shoes, and my life vest sitting on my boat, I wade into the eddie finding knee deep water out 20 feet from the bank. I’m not here to swim. I simply want to get down into that cool shallow water and drift on my back in that giant shallow whirlpool. I lower myself into the eddie. The cool water on the back of my head is sublimely refreshing. I relax immediately as I float on my back, looking up to those reddish canyon rims. I let my arms hang and my fingers find the sandy riverbed. Drifting. Slowly drifting, I feel the current pulling me back to shore. The bottom drops away from the reach of my fingers, yet I linger in my float like a log adrift by the bank. Or so I think. I finally turn upwards to stand, but that sandy bottom isn’t there. Suddenly, I’m treading deep water and drifting away from my beach in the main river current.
Within minutes I’m in a fight for my life. I’m heaving for air after foolishly panicking and repeatedly trying to swim up-current towards the beach only to be dragged farther into the middle of the river. The slow current is like a giant’s thumb casually pushing me away the more I try to push back. I used to have a recurring dream as a child—just when I needed to get away from some monstrous threat, my legs would turn to jelly and I couldn’t move. It’s remarkable how similar it felt as the fatigue turned my legs and arms into nearly useless branches of heavy flesh. My nightmare is real now and my tormenting monster is the big muddy river who’s got me in a death grip. I’m a hundred feet from either bank and the river feels a hundred feet deep. The terror is profound as I realize that I’m about to die.
When facing death one inevitably also faces family. My smiling three-year-old daughter appears vividly in my mind, and I hear the sweetest words in that sweetest little voice: “I love you Daddy.” A flood of emotions engulfs me like the river I’m trapped in… Extreme guilt… Crushing sadness… Anger at myself for doing this to my family. How could I do this to them?! I can’t do this to them.
I hear another voice, my voice. “Stop fighting it.” The fight or flight instinct is powerful, but usually counter-productive in drowning situations. Overcoming the natural urge to fight or flee is difficult. I’ve often wondered if I could stand my ground when facing a charging grizzly. It requires the slow moving logical mind to overpower the rapid instinct to simply react to whatever is about to kill you. But, turning this table is often the difference between life and death. “Relax… get on your back.” I say this aloud, but my voice seems detached from my body.
I listen to that voice and just lean back and belly up. I extend my arms out wide and arch my back… and just float. My chest is heaving as I struggle to catch my breath. I focus on the sky, the canyon rim. I recover, just enough. Just in time.
My mind continues to grasp onto logic and beat back the instinctive urge to panic. This allows me to reason and I predict that the current will drift me over to the far bank. If I just float the river will discard me gently on that opposite shoreline.
Perhaps a minute or two go by and I finally turn my head towards the bank (opposite my beach) expecting it to be just a few feet away. Instead, I see something devastating: I’m still pinned into the middle of the big river. Panic returns as I realize the current alone will not get me to the side. I turn and try to do a side-stroke. But, this quickly brings me back to full exhaustion.
A second wave of terror thunders over me. The river seems immense and I’m an insignificant piece of waterlogged flotsam about to drift silently under the surface to eternal darkness. I see a vision of bleached white bones like driftwood on a winter sandbar—my bones, picked clean by ravens. But, I snap out of this defeatism again. My mind returns to my little girl and my beautiful wife. I can’t leave them. I float again on my back, heaving for air, concentrating on staying afloat. Once again, I begin to find calm. The fear is there, lurking. But, I keep that beast at bay. I begin to say aloud, over and over, “I’m gonna make it… I’m gonna make it.” I force myself to believe it. I visualize reaching solid ground again. Anger returns, not at myself this time, but an anger of defiance and determination and a refusal to quit. I call the river a bastard. “Fuck you, river!” Somehow this helps. With renewed energy, I commence an angled backstroke, but I pace myself this time with slow steady strokes, letting the current work with me, angling toward the bank.
It feels like an eternity, reaching that bank. But, every time I look I’m just a little closer, and each time, I gain confidence that I will make it out of this. When the bank is finally within a few feet I turn from my backstroke and jolt into a spasm of a side stroke, and with one last exertion of energy I strike the rising river bed with my left hand. Salvation.
I claw my way up onto a steep muddy bank, and only then do I realize how extraordinarily exhausted I still am. I do nothing for ten minutes but lay there on that bank, my legs still in the water and my torso draped along the slope like an evolutionary fish emerging from the sea onto land for the first time.
Finally, my breath and heart rate slow. I don’t know what to think of this ordeal. I’m extremely relieved, a little bit proud of the fight in me, and a little bit angry with myself. Soul searching begins. “Why do I go into the backcountry alone?” I ask myself. “How could I be so selfish?” I make an immediate life decision right there on that bank. I will no longer go solo on big trips into the backcountry.
A Creature of the Night
It’s about 4:00 in the afternoon. I sit on my steep muddy bank of salvation looking across and up the river to my kayak and all my stuff. Attempting to swim back across is unthinkable. I find myself boxed in by two cliffs, one upriver and one down, that drop straight into the water. Between these cliffs, where I am, is a steep slope covered in a nasty tangle of thorny bushes, loose rocks and quite possibly home to a rattlesnake or two and a few scorpions. At the top of this slope, about 30 feet above the river and behind me, the sheer face of the canyon rises hundreds of feet straight up. My only way out will have to be by boat rescue. The question is: will that rescue come this afternoon, or tomorrow morning?
I begin to assess my situation. I have no shirt. No shoes. No supplies. Nothing. The sky is still cloudy and looks to be darkening. If it starts to rain at night, life-threatening hypothermia is a high probability without clothing or shelter. I begin very carefully making my way up the bank, upriver. I come to a sandstone ledge about eight feet above the river, 30 feet long and about two to three feet wide. I walk along this bench and consider it to be a possible site for a bivouac. It is flat and dry with relatively easy access to the river should I become severely dehydrated.
But, my immediate need is to find a sheltered place in case it rains. My best chance of finding natural shelter would be up along the base of the cliff behind me. I climb the steep slope in my bare feet dangerously clawing and pulling my way up through spikey vegetation on loose dirt. One slip could make my dilemma infinitely more serious. I manage to make my way up to the base of the cliff. There is a level shelf at the base, about two feet wide. I see a dead tamarisk growing from the edge of the shelf with a thick tangle of branches that reach the canyon wall. This forms a dense tunnel about five feet long and five feet high with a level bottom. Straight above, maybe 30 feet, is a six-foot rock overhang. This place looks like it would stay fairly dry in a rainstorm, and I consider this to be a lucky break given the limitations of my current habitat.
Having found my emergency shelter I pass through the tunnel where, on the other side, I find a nice flat sitting rock next to a large prickly pear cactus. This gives me a great view upriver. I estimate it’s about 5:00 pm now. No boaters have come and my confidence in seeing another party before dark is waning. Still, I wait there, expectantly, on that rock. My attitude is stoic as I mentally prepare for a long and chilly night. But, I wish I had a shirt at least.
The thick clouds are dissipating and the late afternoon sun bursts through, just above the high canyon labyrinth. I now believe that I’m likely in for a clear night, a positive development. My biggest survival concern turns now from the possibility of rain to dehydration as I’m already terribly thirsty. I find that I’m constantly assessing risk and probabilities. Once it is dark it will be nearly impossible to make it back down the slope to the river without a fall and likely injury. I feel I must eliminate that risk and allow myself safe emergency access to river water. So, with reluctance, I decide that I must return to the sandstone ledge that is not sheltered, but nearer to the river. Drinking the river water, sediment and all, is a last resort, but I want the option.
Before I make my treacherous descent back down the slippery slope, I take a closer look at that healthy prickly pear cactus growing to my right. They are edible if you can defeat the layers of spikey armor. Of course, I have no knife. But, all around me are rocks that have been cleaved off the canyon wall into sharp edges. Carefully and very slowly I manage to peal off the skin, spines, and stickers from one whole side of a plump lobe and scoop out the watery inside. It’s lime green on the inside and looks rather appetizing, but is almost tasteless. I eat as much of the juicy inside as I can reasonably scoop away, receiving valuable, if little, hydration. It’s a gift from the desert that lifts my spirits as I prepare for the night.
Now back down on my ledge, as dusk deepens, I am oddly calm and unworried. There is little fear, but some loneliness, and some sadness. I want to be at home with my family, but I know it will do me no good to feel sorry for myself, so I push those feelings away. Mostly, though, I’m happy to be alive. I know I will make it through this night.
Finally, as the stars begin to appear, I take a seat on my ledge. The canyon, in this sharp river bend, is like a colossal auditorium and I pretend I’m in the best seat in the house as the lights turn down for the show. I stare across the river over to my kayak where I can still make out the outline of my cooler. In that cooler are cold water, sparkling juice and beer. I feel like the Greek mythological king Tantalus whose punishment in Hades was to stand in cool waste deep water beneath a glorious fruit tree. For eternity every time he bends to have a drink the water drains away. Every time he reaches up to pick fruit the branches rise up, just out of grasp. That tantalizing cooler is so close, yet a world away.
Just as night falls, a waxing gibbous moon appears over the rock wall behind me and illuminates the canyon. Reflecting off of the canyon rocks, the moonlight is amazingly lucid. I feel I can see nearly as well as I could during the daytime. Still warm, I find I’m actually enjoying the peace and beauty of the canyon in the moonlight. I look up at that moon and recall something I often tell my daughter: The moon is made of cheese and there’s a man up there in that moon. He smiles down at us and makes the night peaceful. There is wisdom in folklore like this. It gives me comfort this night.
The chills start earlier than I expect. The moon is now well up over the canyon and the bottom star of the Big Dipper has disappeared behind the north rim. I estimate it’s only 11:00 pm and I’m concerned that I’m already getting cold. I have no clothes to put on, no shelter to crawl into, nor tools to build fire. The only thing I can do is exercise, but it’s too dangerous to move my feet from my ledge.
I stand up and begin doing upper body calisthenics with my feet planted firmly. It’s a cruel dilemma: I must move to keep warm, but the more I exercise the more my body craves hydration. I would give anything for a blended iced peach smoothie or a hot chai latte.
The calisthenics keep me warm, but I also use them to calculate the passage of time. I swing my arms in estimated one-second intervals—five sets of 60 for five minutes and then switch to a different movement for variety. After 15 or 20 minutes, my body is warm enough for 5 to 10 minutes of rest before shivers return and I start the process all over again.
My mind remains remarkably strong and positive. At times I even enjoy the experience. It’s fantastically elemental–just me and the big night wilderness. I feel strange. The moonlit canyon is otherworldly and I feel as if I’m a grotesque alien creature perched on a ledge on some other planet. I imagine that a night canoeist would be terrified upon spotting a moonlit beast on this ledge moving in bizarre ritualistic motions.
Three more hours and the moon is now nearing the opposite rim. The Big Dipper has long since disappeared and I now have a new constellation to track, the Teapot, which has made a grand entrance over the east wall directly above me. I’ve told myself throughout the night that the early morning hours will be the real test. They will be the darkest, coldest and weariest hours. But, it’s through those cold and dark hours that daylight and warmth will come again.
As expected, the canyon gradually darkens. A broad glow from the moon behind the canyon rim persists for a while, but by about 3:00 am the canyon turns inky black. With the departure of the moon comes the full splendor of the galaxy. The Milky Way is a silk tapestry spread between the cliffs, and I’m sure there is a star visible in that awesome sky for every living soul on Earth. I’ve never seen a starry night as brilliant as this one.
I must be especially careful now. When I sit or awkwardly lay down on my ledge I begin to doze off. But, I can’t allow this. It would be too easy to slumber and fall forward or roll sideways right off the ledge, break a bone on the way down, and find myself immersed in that river, putting my life in danger. I must stay awake and stay warm, so my un-ending calisthenics routine continues. In the darkness I sometimes get a sense of vertigo. Without the moonlight the sky and the canyon walls are equally black, the rock discernible only by the absence of stars. Below me, no distinction can be made between black land and black water and the river seems a bottomless abyss, its presence betrayed only by the occasional catfish in the night. I feel suspended in space on this ledge and often must sit down just to avoid dizziness and the risk of staggering off the ledge into the river.
The sand dune on the other side near my kayak begins to come alive. Huge chunks of sand begin to break from the dune and crash into the water. This new event must have something to do with air temperature change and it often startles me. The random “ker-PLAAAASSSHHHH!” in the darkness is unnerving, and it happens with such frequency that I begin to wonder if my kayak and all my stuff have been cleaved away from the land and lost into the river.
The amount of time I can rest between exercising is shortening as the shivers start in more quickly. Worse, though, is the sleepiness. After 4:00 a.m. I am desperately tired. Each time I sit or lay on my back on that cold rock I immediately start to drift away but I force myself awake. The calisthenics have become as much about staying awake as they are about staying warm. I start to hallucinate. A startling fluorescent green hummingbird appears and floats around my vision, its wings flapping in slow motion. He comes and goes. Stars begin to move–the teakettle shape-shifts into a weird spinning carnival top. Feint flashes of light flicker over the west canyon wall.
Wait. The flashes of light are real. Lightning. It’s very distant, but it must be lightning. The cloud bank that rolled over in the afternoon must have built up over the La Sals to the east or perhaps even the San Juans in Colorado a hundred miles away. I’m not worried about rain, but I am amazed at what this world can reveal when we see it without the filter of modern life.
I finally estimate the time at 5:45 am and I know the dawn is near. The dawn is, psychologically, the most important milestone of this ordeal and I gaze across the sky expectantly for that first sign of light.
Minutes go by and I look up to see my teakettle, but I notice that I can no longer see the Milky Way. And is that a bluish hue over the canyon to the south? More minutes, I estimate the time at just a bit after 6:00 am. Yes, the blue is getting bluer. Stars are fewer. It’s dawn at last! I have estimated the arrival of dawn almost to the minute.
I feel great relief that day is at hand. Yet it’s the coldest part of the day and I’m now constantly shivering. Through the night I kept my focus relentlessly on the present. Now I can sense my ordeal is nearing its end and yet it’s still so far away. Extreme thirst finally makes its arrival. Surprisingly, it did not bother me much during the night, but suddenly the need for water becomes intense. I try to suppress the thirst and focus on the brightening canyon.
After another half hour or so I determine it’s now light enough to safely move from my three foot wide perch that I’ve been on for more than ten hours. The half-light and my weariness play tricks on me. I keep hearing a woman’s voice upriver around the bend, but it’s not real. At one point I’m sure I spot a canoe with two people in it rounding that bend close to the cliff wall. It even moves like a canoe, but then it melts into the folds of the rock and I realize there’s nobody there. But, as the canyon gradually enlightens, the familiarity of my amphitheater begins to return. I see the first rays of sunshine alight the highest pinnacles to the west—rock turning from gray to flaming red.
A man’s voice. Is it real this time? There it is again. Yes, someone is finally coming. Moments later the sight I’ve been waiting over 16 hours for comes drifting around the bend.
I wait for the single canoe with two men to get a little closer before calmly alerting them for help. I feel as though I’m acting in a Monte Python comedy skit. I calmly wave both arms above my head and oddly say “hello!” They wave back and then I say, “could you please swing by here and give me a lift?” They turn towards my bank just downstream from me and paddle easily up the back-current along the shore until I can reach the edge of their boat.
“Did you spend all night over here?” asks the younger man incredulously.
“I sure did,” I say. “I’m so glad to see you guys. I just need a quick lift back to the other side.”
The older guy in back hands me a cold bottle of water and says, “hop on the cooler here.” I hop on awkwardly, open the bottle and take a sublime taste of that beautiful life-giving fluid. We cross the swirl in the river where I nearly drowned and the canoe spins and dips. “Wow, that’s a strange current,” says the man in back. “No kidding,” I think to myself.
At the other side, I hop out onto that wonderful beach and shake the hands of my rescuers, thanking them two more times before they’re on their way again. I look back to that far bank and that ledge 300 feet or so across the river where I had spent more than 16 hours stranded. There is no crazy jubilation or mental collapse, just a calm sense of relief. I’m no longer Tantalus as I reach into that cooler, ice all melted now, but the water inside ice cold, and bring out my last carbonated juice. I’ve never tasted anything so beautifully refreshing in my life.
I don’t have too much time. It’s pick up day and I still have to paddle to the confluence by 10:00 am to be ready for Tex’s Riverways and their jet boat to take me up the Colorado River to Moab. I quickly pack up my gear and eat two cliff bars.
Once on the water, I make a point to relax and enjoy the final stretch. The brilliant blue color of the sky seems a bit more brilliant today, and the red in the canyon rock a little more special. Before long I see it. The river curves right and across that broad bend is a huge sand bar with a bunch of people straight ahead. Another river, about equal in size to the Green and just as muddy, gently merges from the left. The great Colorado. I paddle out into what is now the Colorado River below the confluence and straight over to the lower end of the big sand bar. I tie up next to a pair of canoeists who are sitting on camp chairs waiting for the pick-up.
“How was your trip?” they ask.
“Well… I made it,” I say with a great big smile.
It’s time for that last beer as I sit on the grassy bank with my new friends waiting for our boat. I look across the Colorado straight up the Green. The river curves and disappears into the ancient walls of the canyon. I know I left a piece of my soul there in that labyrinth. Those calm waters will run deep.