Mar 242020
 

The Tale of the Colorado River Croc
(or, How I’ll Never Forget the Line Through Lava Falls)

I could start this story in the traditional way, with “Once upon a time” or “Long ago, in a faraway land.” But I’m a river guide in training. I’ve learned to start all river stories with “NO SHIT! This really happened!”

So: NO SHIT! This really happened!

There I was, just another speck of sand clinging to a thirty-five-foot motorized boat at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I wasn’t alone. The boatman, Lars, and the swamper, Josh, were in charge of the eight-day operation, both guides from the commercial outfit I had hired, Hatch River Expeditions.

I was on board as the photography guide and instructor. I had convinced fifteen unsuspecting guests to join me on a private charter called “the Grand Canyon Rafting Photography Retreat.” “It’s such a cool trip,” I had said to lure them in. When Lars motored us into our overnight camp around river mile 159—159 miles into our 188-mile trip—it was 108 degrees Fahrenheit. “That is cool,” I told them. “I mean, compared to yesterday’s 113. . .”

In the shadow of a thousand-foot cliff, Lars shooed us off his boat, and onto a series of long, narrow, stair-stepped ledges made of grey Tapeats Sandstone. Our camp for the night. The place didn’t have a name. It was a wide spot in the canyon just big enough to fit a kitchen, a groover, sleeping cots organized in two rows on rock shelves stacked like bleachers, and a yard-sale assortment of clothes and camera gear. After we unpacked the boat, Lars pointed out the high-water line, which doubled as the “don’t-camp-below-here-or-you’ll-die” line. Four of us took three steps back. A voice from the back suggested we name this prime riverside property “Lars’s Ledges” (which wasn’t to be confused with The Ledges, a formal camp upstream near river mile 152). We were all living like Lars now, like real river guides: living on the edge by living on the ledge.

PHOTO: Camping on Lars’s Ledges. Photo courtesy of Jacque Miniuk.

The late afternoon sun started tracing the backbones of ocotillo-lined ridgelines and spotlighting distant serrated spires. A sign from the river gods to commence the Ritual of Noctis. Change into camp clothes (a fancy term for pajamas you’ve worn for six nights straight). Set up cot. Wash hands. Eat. Clean dishes. Brush teeth. Check under cot for rattlesnakes. Pour sand out of shoes. Then, as the sliver of sky overhead sings its soothing lullaby from cobalt to navy to purple to black, fall asleep.

As I neared the end of this evening’s ceremony, I wasn’t tired. Neither were the guides. Josh invited me to join him and Lars for a rendezvous on the boat where they slept. This was my fourth trip with Lars, my second with Josh, but I still felt like I had been summoned to the popular kids’ table at a high school cafeteria.

I bounced across the unloaded S-rig, feeling my way in the dark by memory around the oblong-shaped doughnut and the long, torpedo-like tubes attached on either side like outrigger pontoons. I found a perch on top of a metal food box in the back of the boat. I took my shoes off, my cyan-colored Crocs, and set them next to me. My feet dangled inside the floorless raft, where I could hear, but not see, the Colorado River rushing beneath me.

Earlier versions of these “baloney boats” had sealed floors and thus were not self-bailing. Assistant crewmembers used buckets to remove water from the boats so they wouldn’t sink in the rapids. These lucky individuals were known as “swampers.” Even though the Grand Canyon Expeditions founder Ron Smith had ripped out the center floor of the doughnut years ago—a design known now as the self-bailing “S-rig”—the term “swamper” lives on. Before you ever think of becoming a head boatman, you have to do time as the swamper, at the beck and call of the boatman. On this trip, in addition to leading the photography activities, I was the swamper to the swamper. I was doing double time.

“Wanna beer, swamper?” Josh asked me. Lars didn’t drink.

“Is the pope Catholic?” I said, turning toward the sound of his voice.

He opened the cooler.

CLUNK!

“What was that?” Josh asked.

I had no idea. I couldn’t see anything other than a faint V-shaped silhouette of the canyon walls and stars sparkling overhead. I turned on my headlamp.

“Where’s my shoe?” I spotted my left Croc on the food box beside me, but not my right. “I think that was my shoe.”

“That shoe is gone,” Josh said, handing me a cold one.

“If you fell in here without a life vest, you’d die,” Lars said from across the boat. His 280-plus trips down the river had worn him into a realist. “Maybe you’d resurface ten days later downstream like dead bodies do. Probably after Lava Falls somewhere. Or maybe you’d just stay in the river. Yeah, that shoe is gone.”

I took a long swig of beer. Josh did the same. I shrugged and said, “It could have been worse. It could have been the beer.”

“The first rule of being a river guide is to keep your shoes on your feet,” Lars said. “If you step on a stick and it goes through your foot, or you get even a simple infection, you’re getting helicoptered out. Trip’s over. What are you going to say to your clients then?”

My shoulders fell. I had passed all previous swamper training exams, which had included tying tidy taut-line hitches, grilling Texas toast without burning it, digging up band-aids in the first aid kit, discouraging clients from making oven mitts around their hands with toilet paper, and pushing wet—and hopefully clean—butts over rocky steps in narrow side canyons. I was failing this quiz, though. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a river guide after all. Or maybe I’d find my way. One thing was sure: I wasn’t about to sit and wait for the other shoe to drop to find out. I picked up my left Croc and put it back on.

“I have Chacos with me,” I said sheepishly. I didn’t dare tell Lars that I referred to those sandals as the Death Shoes, wearing my Crocs whenever I could. I had dime-sized blisters bubbling on the outside of both heels. I also had shoe-bite scrapes across my metatarsals from the straps rubbing into the top of my feet. I’d never feel thankful to be off a river, but I was glad I would suffer in the Death Shoes for only another thirty-six hours.

Several more rounds of banter and beers passed, and finally conversation tapered off. Josh gave me a piggy-back partway back to my camp on the lower ledges. I hopped on one foot the rest of the way, too independent and too damn stubborn to let a higher-up carry me any farther. While I sat cross-legged on my canvas cot, I slid my left shoe into my dry bag so I wouldn’t lose it. Although I didn’t know what I’d do with a single shoe. Be half a river guide?

Sleep came easily. Waking came sudden. In the middle of the night, a thunderous boom jolted me upright in bed. The river, twenty feet from my feet, sounded different. She no longer mumbled by. She raged and roared and thrashed. Trees snapped like toothpicks. Boulders smashed against boulders. The hardened sandstone underneath me shuddered. I flashed my headlamp toward the channel. The opaque green water had turned to blood. The river had flash-flooded, returning to her true self. This was what she looked like before 1963, when the Glen Canyon Dam upstream stripped the stream of sediment and changed the color of her waters. In Spanish, “colorado” means “colored red.”

I laughed aloud. I had no hope of getting my shoe back now. If it hadn’t drowned in Lava, the sudden torrent had chewed it into oblivion. I fell back asleep trusting Lars knew where the high water line was.

PHOTO: Lars cooking up breakfast in the morning after the flash flood. Note the change in the color of the water from the photo above. Photo courtesy of Jacque Miniuk.

We woke on the seventh day, yet there was no rest from all the work to be done. The river was flowing gently again, as if the flood never happened, but the most violent rapid in the Grand Canyon, Lava Falls, waited downstream. Water there tumbles over ancient basalt rocks scattered across the riverbed, dropping 37 feet in height in about 750 feet in distance around holes deep enough to swallow a two-story house. To the outside world, it’s a waterfall. To the rafting community, it’s a bucking class 10 rapid. Or a test of survival. We’d face our fate in twenty-one miles.

We loaded the boat and chased reflections of cliffs and light between the narrow, near-vertical walls of the canyon for the rest of the morning. From my seat near the back of the boat, I wrapped my feet toe to ankle in athletic tape before slipping into my Death Shoes. Our guests dipped their sarongs and bandanas and hats in the fifty-one-degree water to stay cool. The river stained everything red.

The overnight flood gave us something new to do as we floated: sort through river booty. River booty is like pirates’ booty, except it’s the Colorado River that plunders the goods. The most highly-sought after treasure? An unopened beer chilled by the river herself.

We spied a brim of a hat, half of a chewed-up bailing sponge, even a torn-up captain’s chair, all floating by. I pointed to another object bobbing off in the distance. “Lars, what is that? Is that a beaver or a river otter or a . . . ?”

“No. That there is the elusive Grand Canyon gator, the rarest species of alligator in all the world,” Lars said. The rounded head with a long snout swam closer to us.

“Lars! That’s a piece of wood,” I said, rolling my eyes.

“How do you know when a river guide is lying?” Josh said. He didn’t wait for a response. “His lips are moving.”

“That joke is older than Vishnu Schist,” I groaned, referring to the billion-year-old rock exposed in the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon.

“Don’t take that schist for granite, swamper,” Josh said. Zoroaster Granite, which is equally as old, criss-crosses the Vishnu Schist formation.

We stretched our legs on a short hike into National Canyon, a narrow side canyon, then continued floating downstream. We pulled into a sandy beach around river mile 168. “Lunchtime!” Lars yelled from the back. “Colleen, tie us off.”

PHOTO: Our group of river rafters at lunch at mile 168 before hitting Lava Falls. Note the tutu (while wearing the Death Shoes).

Another swamper pop quiz! I grabbed a two-foot long sand anchor, then tiptoed along the right boat tube, careful not to fall in. I unraveled the rope at the front of the boat, then marched twenty or so feet up the beach. After pushing the metal spike into the soft sand, I tied a well-dressed knot.

I was well-dressed too, and feeling it. I was wearing my lucky tutu. For Lava.

Lars inspected my work, kicking the three inches protruding out of the sand. “The first rule of being a river guide is to make sure you’ve pounded the sand anchor all the way into the sand. Otherwise the boat will drift downriver. Trip’s over. Then what will you say to your clients?”

“I thought the first rule was to keep shoes on my feet,” I said, pressing down on the anchor with the ball of my foot.

“That is the first rule.”

“Then this would be the second?”

“No. It’s also the first,” Lars bounded onto the boat.

“Let me guess. All the rules for being a river guide are first?”

“You’re catching on quick there, swamper.”

“How is that even possible? If all the rules are first, then none of them are,” I said, taking an armful of food from him to set up on the beach.

“Law of the river.”

“Created by who?”

“Me.”

“Oh right. I forgot. Lars’s Law.”

For lunch, our group smashed peanut M&M’s into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, devoured our twenty-seventh tube of Pringles, and slunk from one patch of shade to another as the sun cast shadows of willow and tamarisk across the shore. We didn’t linger. Lava loomed twelve miles ahead.

After a bouncy ride through Fern Glen Rapid, a class 2, Lars cut the motor, looked at me, and asked, “How do you approach Lava?”

I had studied many historical explanations in the Great Library of Almighty River Knowledge—the internet—of how to run Lava. Seven days of river time, withdrawn from technology, had turned my brain to mush. I couldn’t remember.

“Very carefully?” I said, laughing. When I saw he wasn’t joking, I straightened up.

“Follow the bubble line?” The easiest way through a rapid usually entails following the bubble line through its smooth V-shaped tongue.

“You’ll drop over the Ledge Hole and die,” Lars said. “Do you go left or right of the bubble line?”

I had a fifty-fifty chance. “Um. Left?”

“You die.”

I winced. I hadn’t kept count of all the ways I could have died on this river so far, but I was starting to wonder if talking with Lars was dangerous to my health.

“Then right!”

“Hug the right side to avoid the Ledge Hole,” Lars said. “But stay left so you don’t get sucked into the Pourover.”

Maneuvering a boat, especially one of this size, between the Ledge Hole and the Pourover requires a surgeon’s precision. The Ledge Hole, on the left, spans almost half the river. The Pourover, on the right, also tumbles over a ledge but closer to shore. Between the two sits the Hump Wave, a feisty lateral wave that rafters fear–until they see the next wave.

“Then get ready for two more big hits,” Lars said. “First, the V-Wave. Don’t get turned around there, otherwise you’ll end up in the Corner Pocket on the right. Then, T up for Big Kahuna.”

First, the V-Wave. Its two lateral waves form the open jaws of a laughing hyena lying on its side. The teeth of the two waves devour boats that aren’t angled right. Then the hyena laughs. The alternative is to take a spin in Corner Pocket, where the swirling current holds rafts hostage and shreds them against Cheese-Grater Rock. It’d take a boat as long to get out of Corner Pocket as it would a dead body to resurface there. Maybe longer. And likely in worse condition.

Then it’s Big Kahuna. It’s a magician, all right. It makes rafts disappear. Boats spill into a trough so deep they vanish from view. Seconds later, they crash into a ten-foot standing wave. If your boat hasn’t folded into a taco once you hit what feels like a slab of concrete, then it stays submerged underwater as long as it takes to plow through the crest. Lucky rafters resurface eventually. Smart ones bring a snorkel.

Lars revved the engine and off we went to meet our doom. From a quarter mile away, the roar of Lava echoed through the canyon. Soon after, the bubbling cauldron came into view, foaming and cackling. We made the requisite offerings to the river. We circled around Vulcan’s Throne. Looked up at the small arch on river right, the canyon’s Eye of Horus. Tightened down straps, life vests, butt cheeks.

“It might get a little splashy.” Lars said, which is code for “Hang on. We might die.”

He led us into the maw to the right of the bubble line and executed the plan to perfection. In eighteen seconds, it was over: just like that, we were through Lava Falls. The Ritual of Aqua commenced. Hooting and hollering. Exaggerating the size of Big Kahuna. Cleaning fish out of our ears. Our boat had busted a tube strap in the V-Wave, but Lars blamed that on me wearing a tutu.

We spent a few minutes watching other boats take their turn down Lava, then turned to putt-putt downstream to our final camp at Whitmore Wash. After a mile or two, excitement melted into melancholy. No one is ever ready for a river trip to end.

“Hey, look! There’s a shoe over there,” someone yelled from the front of the raft, someone obviously still on river booty duty.

“Lars! THAT’S MY SHOE! I mean…” I changed my voice to mimic his. “That there is the elusive Colorado River Croc, the rarest species of crocodile in all the world.”

Lars circled around the eddy but couldn’t fit our boat’s big nose into the small gap between fallen boulders. He pulled into a longer eddy thirty feet downstream. Josh disembarked, then bushwhacked through tamarisk and rocks, jumping over at least two sleeping rattlesnakes, maybe three, to rescue my Croc with a fishing net. Back on board, he handed it to me and said, “Don’t lose this again.”

(VIDEO: Josh rescuing the Colorado River Croc: https://youtu.be/cw-S9p8Y0mo)

“My shoe made it through Lava all by itself!” I turned to Lars. “A successful solo run. On its first try!”

“I bet it stayed to the right of the bubble line,” Lars said, grinning.

“Of course it did. It’s my right shoe!”

My clients stood quiet on the tubes looking at me, Josh, Lars, each other, me. One piped up, “So . . . how’d you lose your shoe?”

Before I could answer, Lars chimed in. “Did you know 87% of incidents in the Grand Canyon occur on shore? Of those, 96% involve alcohol.” He paused. “But 99% of statistics about river incidents are made up on the spot.”

“But, Lars, this isn’t a Croc of shit,” I said, waving my shoe in the air. “Remember, I’m a river guide in training. I have to end all river stories with ‘It’s all true.’”

This story originated from my participation in the Fishtrap Outpost writing workshop on the Snake River with Craig Childs. Much gratitude to the Outdoor Writers Association of America for granting me the prestigious 2019 John Madson Fellowship award, which provided financial support to enable me to experience the magic of Hells Canyon for the first time while honing my outdoor writing skills.

Nov 082019
 

“Meet Me in the Middle” from Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains, TN || Prints available! Click on photo to order yours!

While my buddy, Tim Mead, and I photographed in Cades Cove on a recent visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a number of visitors passing us by in cars stuck their heads out the window and asked us, “What are you photographing?”

When we answered with “the fall colors and fog,” “trees,” and “the woods,” their shoulders dropped in disappointment. “Oh. So no bears?”

“No. Just. Pretty. Trees.”

After several rounds of this, we tired of letting people down. Tim suggested we come up with a new response. So we did.

When the next car asked us the standard question, we yelled in unison, “A wolverine!”

The gent leaned out of the window credulously. “A wolverine?”

Tim said while pointing at me, “Yes, a Michigan Wolverine!”

The guy rolled his eyes, shook his head, and laughed as he drove away. It was true! I graduated from the University of Michigan, which makes me a Michigan Wolverine. Go Blue!

I originally called this photograph “Meet Me in the Middle,” but maybe it’s more appropriate to title it, “Just Pretty Trees.” Or “Look! A Wolverine!”

Overturned

 Posted by at 6:14 PM  Inspiration, Travelogue
Dec 092018
 

After a quick lunch stop on the fifth day, my second alone, on my Lake Mead trip, I started paddling around the tip of the unnamed island in Bonelli Bay. I knew as soon as I rounded the corner, I’d be out of the headwind. I looked down at the ribbons of water streaming from the nose of my stand-up paddleboard (SUP) and noticed my tripod head, which was resting on its side near the front of my board, was dragging in the water.

I didn’t want anything slowing me down. I kneeled down and leaned over my knee-high pile of dry bags to straighten it out. In doing so, I shifted all of my board’s weight to the front. It was a rookie mistake. I was tired and obviously not thinking straight.

In a split second, my heavy food bag rolled into the lake with a “THUNK,” my board tilted to the left, and I grabbed the right edge of the board in a desperate attempt to stay on. (I’m terrified of water when I can’t see the bottom.) “Fuck!”

I fell butt-first into the lake. My SUP flipped upside-down. Everything went underwater. Everything, that is, except my paddle and food bag, which wasn’t strapped in like everything else for some reason. Both started floating away in the rolling waves. I started treading water, bobbing in my life jacket and clinging to my board. I pushed as hard as I could to get my board to flip, but with the heavy load attached to it now submerged, it barely moved. “Fuck!”

I took a deep breath and tried again. My board teetered on its side at a 45-degree angle while my gear dragged on the water’s surface. I quickly shoved a couple of my bags against the board, which turned it right-side up. One-by-one, I repositioned the rest of my gear into their original position. With the board stabilized, I swam a few yards away to chase down my food and paddle. Although I had packed an extra one, I didn’t want to be up shit creek (lake?) without a paddle. Or dinner for that matter.

PHOTO: The beach I swam to after my capsize. My camp for the evening is in the distance just to the left of center.

When I attempted to reach across my board to get back on, the weight of the gear tipped and the board rocked onto its side again. I quickly let go and fell back into the water to keep my SUP from overturning again. Instead of wasting energy trying to self-rescue, I decided to swim to shore, which was only about 50 yards away.

After pulling my SUP onto the graveled beach, I waded back into the shallow water and washed my hair. I mean, I was already wet, why not? I repacked and steadied my gear, turning my tripod head so it would no longer drag. Then I stripped off all my clothes, laid back into my skirt, and started sobbing. Everything—the emotional weight of my unexpected capsize and recent life struggles—went underwater.

After drying out and regaining my composure, I started paddling across Bonelli Bay as if the event never happened. I didn’t have any room on my board to carry fear with me. Or self-pity. And no one was coming by to listen to me whine. I hadn’t seen a boat in 24 hours. There was no escaping it, I was completely alone.

No more than a half-hour later, my brand new two-bladed paddle snapped in half without warning. I almost fell in again, but in the open waters of Virgin Basin. Up shit creek (lake?) with a broken paddle now, I decided to sit down in my “loveseat” for the remainder of the crossing, about two miles.

PHOTO: The only “whine” I got that night came from this box. And you see how well it survived it’s time in the water during my capsize.

I eventually hobbled into a spacious camp in an east-facing wash close to the mouth of the Narrows. I set up my tent, changed into PJs, and taped the ends of my broken paddle to avoid more carbon fiber splinters. (I had three already.) As I boiled water for dinner, I sat back into my camp chair and reflected on the day’s unexpected events. Now safe and relaxed, I fell apart again. I asked aloud, “Why in the hell do you do things like this? Why do you need to paddle across Lake Mead? Why can’t you just be content sitting at home in a bathtub eating bonbons?” I didn’t have an answer, let alone a good one.

I fumbled to open my freeze-dried dinner, and it slipped out of my chilled hands. My knees caught it upside down. I noticed typing on the bottom of the Mountain House® package, something I had never seen before in my almost twenty-one years of outdoor experiences eating freeze-dried food.

But the universe’s had an answer. Its response was printed on the bottom of my Chicken and Mashed Potatoes dinner: “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us. ~Anonymous”

The Outdoor Writers Association of America awarded this blog Third Place in the “Outdoor Fun & Adventure” category in the 2019 Excellence in Craft awards.

PHOTO: The glorious view from my tent as the setting sun cast the Earth’s shadow above Bonelli Peak across the Virgin Basin on Lake Mead.

Deliciousness

 Posted by at 11:25 AM  Inspiration, Travelogue
Nov 152018
 
Deliciousness

“Deliciousness,” from Lake Mead National Recreation Area, on the Arizona-Nevada border || Prints available–click on photo to order yours!

I wanted to spend time with an old friend of mine, the Colorado River, on my stand-up paddleboard (SUP) in a place I had only been once before, Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border. I had spent much of the last year planning and training, and the last month watching and waiting for a window of favorable weather conditions. On November 1, I got it.

For the first three days, my friend and I had ideal conditions for paddling: virtually no wind and a few clouds here and there to keep the sun from baking us. Easy going! On the fourth day, which was also my first day on my own, though, things changed…

Despite a bullying headwind for about five miles, I ended up paddling hard and long, almost 12 miles. When I found a good camp for the night, it was completely overcast. Even though I was tired, I still went exploring as the day came to a close. After all, I had never seen this foreign landscape before.

Right after the sun went down, all of a sudden, BOOM! The sky exploded. It was off the hook!

I thought, “How delicious! How delicious this sunset; how delicious this chance to be in such a magnificent place; how delicious to feel SO alive right now! And how delicious brownies would be right about now!!!” The photo above resulted. (So did two pans of brownies when I returned home…)

After nine days–two of which I spent in camp on high wind delay–I paddled just over 60 miles from South Cove to Kingman Wash. I finished last Friday morning. It was likely one of the first crossings of Lake Mead (the largest reservoir in the United States) by a woman on a SUP. Regardless, it was definitely a grand adventure!

One where I learned more about the tenacity of the Colorado River as it’s transformed (once again) from a river to a reservoir. I witnessed indescribable beauty in the land and lake. I tested my outdoor skills through high winds, equipment failures (broken sunglasses, paddle, and tent poles), and an accidental capsize 50 yards from shore. But most importantly, I listened to the wisdom of the river.

The journey reiterated the life lessons I have learned since 2015, when my life took an unexpected left-hand turn and I attempted paddle across Lake Powell—a trip I took to cope with my struggles with loss, one that, like life, didn’t quite go according to plan. My friend, the river, reminded me to keep going with the flow. And always keep your paddle all in.

More photos, stories, and thoughts to come…stay tuned…

CM on CR_Lake Mead

From the first day, about two to three hours after we started (aka, before the headwinds, LOL). I’m standing on the sand bar created by the Colorado River meeting Lake Mead. Photo courtesy Scott Lefler.

Aug 292018
 

Some people who read my last post about our stand-up paddleboarding experience on Snowhole Rapid on the Lower Salmon River in Idaho asked if I had any videos of other rapids from the river. I do!

Here’s one of my rides down a fun and splashy class II rapid called Packers Creek Rapids. It was the first rapid out of the Killer Goat Camp on the morning of day 2 of our “SUP Experience” rafting trip with OARS. Save for touching my hands to the board for a few seconds after that gnarly wave around 1:00, I stayed standing up the whole run! It was so fun!

(LINK: https://youtu.be/iHJUPD90ueA)

I hope that, in sharing the “Keep Paddling” story and this video, it helps inspire you to try something new and wild. As Neale Diamond Walsch said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Thanks for reading and viewing!

Keep Paddling

 Posted by at 7:00 AM  Travelogue
Aug 282018
 
In the Pink

PHOTO CAPTION: “In the Pink,” from our Day 2 camp on the Lower Salmon River, ID while on the recent OARS “SUP Experience” river trip || Prints available! Click on photo to order yours.

“Do you see the line?” asked Liam, our guide and stand-up paddleboard (SUP) instructor.

Liam and I, along with my friend, Scott, stood on the basalt boulders high above Snowhole—the Lower Salmon River’s only class IV rapid—surveying the landscape. The sun poked through ominous clouds tinted yellow by the smoke of distant wildfires. The steep jagged cliffs of Snowhole Canyon constricted one of the last undammed, free-flowing rivers remaining in the United States into a fury of agitated water tumbling over and around house-sized rocks before disappearing around the bend. We couldn’t portage (carry our boards overland) around the rapid. We had to go through it. I stared into the froth looking for a path.

I saw not one, but two lines. The first, a pale green tongue on the far side of the river falling into a trail of white spray followed by a train of successive five-foot waves, each foaming at the mouth, each looking like it was hungry for paddlers. The second, the last line of a friend’s recent email offering well-intended advice flashing through my head, “…Snowhole—load your boards up in the raft for that one!”

PHOTO CAPTION: At our put-in, Pine Bar. The stand-up paddleboards we borrowed are on the far right and behind the boats.

We were two days into a four-day “SUP Experience” with OARS, a company specializing in river rafting trips, where Scott and I were learning how to SUP through whitewater rapids on a 61-mile trip (from Pine Bar on the Lower Salmon River to Heller Bar on the Snake River). Since falling in love with paddleboarding in 2013, my previous SUP experience included exclusively flatwater, rivers and lakes. Except when feisty winds kicked up. (Lake Powell, I’m looking at you.) And that one time in April 2015 when I thought I was going for a nonchalant outing with a guide on the Colorado River in Moab, UT, to celebrate my 40th birthday and ended up running three class I-II rapids (and falling the last one). But all in all, I’d been on a board enough times to stop counting how many days. This was Scott’s 10th day on a board.

Thus far, on this trip, we had uneventfully but enthusiastically navigated the river’s class I and class II rapids, even a class III rapid called “Bodacious Bounce,” mostly while standing, sometimes while kneeling. A mere twenty minutes earlier, though, I had taken an involuntary swim in Half-and-Half, a class III rapid named as such because, according to our guides, “Half the time you make it, half the time you don’t.”

I had entered the first big drop on Half-and-Half standing up, but fell in the water when the third wave in dumped me sideways. I managed to get back on my SUP and started paddling again from my knees, but the river’s current pushed me toward a big hole the guides had suggested we try to avoid. I panicked. I rocked up the crest of the towering wave. It bullied the nose of my board backward. The hole sucked me in. I stopped paddling for some reason. I met the river face first.

Underwater, my board hit my helmet. At least I know which way is up, I thought. My arms flailed. I couldn’t find the surface. When I did, I gasped for air, then the current dragged me under again before I could finish inhaling.

I could hear Liam yelling, “Grab your board!” I couldn’t find it among the darkness and bubbles. I resurfaced.

“Grab my board!” I could see his board but couldn’t reach it. I went under again.

“Swim hard left!” Liam said. I spun my left arm while trying to keep myself afloat with my paddle clutched in my right hand.

Eddy out in front of that beach just ahead, I thought. Swim harder! Come on, swim harder!

“Swim hard right!” he said.

Swim hard right? But the beach is only five or six feet away, I thought. I should trust him. He could see the big picture. I couldn’t. I switched the paddle into my left hand and swam hard right.

The graveled shore disappeared. The current pushed me downstream toward a chiseled basalt wall to the left. “Turn your feet downriver!” Liam said.

I rolled over like an otter and smashed into a wave. And into another and another. A rugged rock jutted out of the cliff in front of me. I could get trapped here, I thought. I kicked as hard as I could against the boulder and spun backward into an eddy.

Liam stood on top of his board in the flatwater at the end of the wave train, bumping his fist on top of his helmet. At the start of the trip, the guides told us if we did not return this “all OK” signal, they would assume we had broken a femur, or worse. I pulled my hand out of the water and bumped the top of my helmet. All OK.

Scott pushed my board, which he had rescued mid-rapid, in front of me. I mounted my SUP and coughed uncontrollably. I had made it down Half-and-Half, and I had learned my lesson. Don’t ever enter a rapid timidly. And don’t ever stop paddling.

PHOTO CAPTION: Our guide and instructor, Liam (middle), and Scott (right) converse on a stretch of flatwater on the Lower Salmon River, ID

Now, at river mile 23.4, I pointed at Snowhole, tentatively tracing the air with my finger. “I think I see the line,” I said to Liam and Scott.

“On this one, you gotta hit the line perfect,” Liam said. “Start a little right, and build up momentum as you go straight down the tongue. Then paddle hard left to miss the rock. The next waves are HUGE and you’re gonna hit them hard, so hit the deck [drop to your knees on the board] if you haven’t already, and keep paddling through them. Whatever you do, don’t stop paddling.”

As we scouted the river’s drop, three private rafts ran Snowhole. Each took a slightly different line—left of the tongue, right of the tongue, and straight down the middle. Each tipped precariously onto its side when approaching the pyramid-shaped rock, then recovered, and disappeared over the long drop, then reappeared, and bucked wildly through the splashy wave train. Each stayed upright.

“What if I run into that rock?” I asked

“I’ve tried running a raft straight into that rock,” Liam said, “Can’t do it. The current pushes you away from it, pushes you left, whether you like it or not.”

“What if I paddle too hard to the left?”

“You don’t want to do that. You’ll end up behind that next rock and hit a massive hole. Yeah… don’t do that.”

“What happens if I don’t hit the line perfectly?”

“You’ll go for a swim. But it’s way shorter than Half-and-Half,” Liam smiled.

“Is there another rapid after this like there was after Half-and-Half?”

“No, it’s just flatwater. We’ll have plenty of time to get you.”

How comforting, I thought.

“I’m gonna do it,” Scott said without any hesitation. “Are you gonna to do it?”

“I don’t think so,” I put my hands on my hips. Half-and-Half had exhausted and humbled me. I was cold, and I didn’t feel like swimming through another rapid. I had an easy out: I could hitch a ride through it on one of our group’s rafts.“I just don’t think it’s worth it.”

“I think you got this,” Liam grinned. “And you’ll be totally stoked when you get through it.”

He said “when” not “if.” Semantics are important to writers just as clients surviving is important to guides.

“When do I need to decide?” I asked.

“Let’s grab lunch first,” Liam said.

While we ate chicken curry salad wraps, we watched several more rafts stay upright through a short harrowing run. I visualized the run over and over. Start right, paddle hard left, but not too hard, then keep paddling. Seemed simple enough.

Ladybugs clung to my white shirt. A good omen, I thought. Maybe I could do this. After all, I didn’t come here to sit on a boat. I came here to learn how to paddleboard rapids.

Another half-hour passed. No one asked me again whether I intended to run the rapid on my paddleboard. And I’m not sure I ever came to a formal decision. When lunch concluded, everyone in the group returned to their respective vessels. I got back on my board.

“You ready?” Liam asked while bending his knees on his SUP. I didn’t respond. It didn’t matter if I was ready or not, this was happening. I gave myself a short pep talk. You got this. It’s just water. Hit the line perfectly. Keep paddling.

As we crossed the river to position ourselves to start a little to the right, Liam looked back at Scott and me, and said with a smirk, “We’re gonna kill this.”

Liam disappeared into the waves. I dropped to my knees. The silky smooth tongue pulled me into a curled wave. Paddle. Then another, a bigger one. Paddle. Then another over my head. Paddle. Paddle. Rock on the right. Paddle, paddle, paddle! Hole on the left. Paddlepaddlepaddlepaddlepaddle!

I plunged over a ledge and came face-to-face with the biggest wave I’ve ever seen on a SUP. I stabbed my paddle into it, jabbing at it as if I were slaying a mythical beast with a sword. I kept swinging, wave after wave, until the rapid fizzled out.

I pulled into the eddy where Liam and two of our OARS rafts waited. I looked back at the rapid. Scott was in the water, clinging to the side of his board. He bumped his fist on top of his helmet and joined us in the eddy. I turned to Liam. He pumped his fist in the air victoriously. “That was sick!”

I raised my paddle over my head and yelled, “Whoohoo!”

I had spent almost an hour paralyzed by fear, and in less than 30 seconds, it was over. I don’t know if I hit the line perfectly or not, but I had just stayed on top of my paddleboard through Snowhole. Liam was right. I was totally stoked.

Downstream, I faced another wave, but this time in the river of life. When we returned to civilization two days later at the conclusion of our trip, I received a text from my parents indicating my 16 and a half year old cat had taken a turn for the worse. Cancer. It had eaten through his left jawbone which had erupted into an abscess in his mouth. The doctor confirmed there was nothing I could do to save him or provide a quality life. Although I never thought I could bring myself to euthanize a pet, I made the difficult choice to end Nolan’s suffering. He flatlined in my arms listening to “Sunrise” by Norah Jones, his favorite song, and with me looking into his eyes repeating with a smile, “Mama loves you. Thank you for sharing this life with me.”

When I read the line, “Learn the basics of stand-up paddleboarding, reading whitewater, & river safety” in the OARS description on their website prior to our trip, I never imagined we would face a class IV rapid, let alone run it on a SUP. In doing so, though, I learned that when a river—whether “The River of No Return” (as early explorers called the Salmon) or the river of life—drops you to your knees, don’t ever enter a rapid tentatively. And don’t ever stop paddling.

—————————————————

Authors Note: My GoPro died after being submerged in Half-in-Half with me so I sadly have no footage of our run through Snowhole. Should you wish to see an example of what the rapid looks like, though, these two Youtube videos (taken by by people not on our trip) will give you a pretty good idea of the conditions: https://youtu.be/2-e8kakcf94 and https://youtu.be/tS1piA2yvTc. If you’d like to see what it’s like to SUP on a class II rapid on the Lower Salmon River, visit http://youcansleepwhenyouredead.com/wordpress/suping-on-packers-creek-rapids. Packers Creek Rapid was our warm-up on the morning we ran Half-and-Half and Snowhole, so my Go Pro was working then…

The Outdoor Writers Association of America awarded this blog First Place in the “Outdoor Fun & Adventure” category in the 2019 Excellence in Craft awards.

PHOTO CAPTION: One of our guides, Sean, serenades us in camp after sunset on Day 2 of our river trip with OARS on the Lower Salmon River, ID.

Sep 142017
 

Earlier this week, while camping in northern Arizona, I had the fortunate chance to witness the birth of an evening primrose flower as it slowly unfurled from its green bud at dusk. We watched a first bloom for almost 45 minutes; a second one nearby took less than 7 minutes to open. It was one of the most beautiful natural events I’ve ever seen.

If you’d like to see it too, check out the video I just posted of the second bloom at 2x real time speed (so it’s about 3 minutes long):

Enjoy!

Aug 252017
 

Last Monday, unlike millions of people, I was not in the path of totality for the highly anticipated solar eclipse. Instead, I found myself sitting alone by choice (well, save for the seagulls) in my favorite place, the Raven’s Nest in Acadia National Park, Maine, where forecasters estimated the moon would only cover the sun at 50-60% at its peak.

I had no intentions of photographing the solar eclipse, wanting instead to soak in the entire experience as it happened in the place where my own path had led me. There were few noticeable changes in the seagulls squawking, the outgoing tide splashing, or the gentle sea breeze stroking the pines when the moon started making its move on the sun. In fact, if you didn’t get the memo about the eclipse or didn’t have those goofy-looking special magic glasses–things the Wabanaki Indians (natives living on this land for an estimated 12,000 years) obviously lacked–you might not have known something different in the universe was even happening. Until just before the peak.

Ready for the solar eclipse on the Schoodic Peninsula’s western shore in Acadia National Park, Maine

At about 2:30 p.m. EDT, the wind held its breath. The waves stilled, settling one-foot swells into a sheet of navy blue-stained glass. The normally sherbet-colored granite cliffs suddenly turned silver. Only the seagulls ongoing squeals indicated that time, life, the movement of the Earth had not momentarily stopped.

As if to simply prove to myself that I could still move, I stood up to make a photograph with my telephoto lens through my eclipse glasses. Mind completely blown. I then decided to make a picture about every five minutes from that point on. The above is what resulted, a composite of 16 images from just before peak to conclusion. I know it doesn’t show the prized totality, the Baily’s beads effect (the “Diamond ring”), or differ than all the other partial eclipse photos ever recorded. But I howled joyfully like a coyote after every frame, and for me, that’s all that matters.

The next day, I repeated this moment on Raven’s Nest at sunset. Seagulls chattered, the cobbled clapped in the outgoing tide, the sea breeze stroked evergreen branches. I peered (through my protective glasses, of course) at the now naked sun, shining in its full glory. The waxing crescent moon now smiling, smugly almost, as if it was proud of itself for the commotion it had caused the day before. I wondered how many other people of the millions who experienced the eclipse yesterday had bothered to sit and enjoy today’s ephemeral moments? I felt so grateful that I have the freedom to taste, enjoy, and appreciate the natural world essentially any time I wish. Others, through circumstance or choice, are not so fortunate.

Sarah Gilman wrote an eloquent essay recently, which summed up my sentiments perfectly: “How would we come to understand our world if we learned to turn this attention on its everyday wonders? What would we save from our own ravenous appetites? If hordes of people pulled off the highway randomly to stare at an old growth Douglas fir, if they did it to watch the way a stream carves through a canyon, or even the way a swarm of flirting gnats become a galaxy when lit by a sunbeam?”

YES, THIS!!

Read the full piece, “Lessons in the moon’s shadows,” here: http://www.hcn.org/articles/essay-people-places-lessons-from-the-eclipse.

There’s big hype for the next solar eclipse throughout Maine, for on April 8, 2024, the path of totality will split the state in half.  In a place where I already spend two to three months a year, I have a feeling I know where I’ll be then. Maybe I’ll photograph it. Maybe I won’t. I’ll decide how to celebrate yet another fleeting moment, as I did on Monday and all days, precisely when it happens.

And that, I think, is living life, not just a single moment, in the path of its totality.

Jun 162016
 

“Of Glory and Beauty” || Cliffs along the Colorado River near mile 54 (just south of Nankoweap ruins) soak up the day’s last light in the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA (Prints available – click on photo to order yours!)

My mom and I recently had the fortunate chance to spend eight days rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon for the first time while on a private trip with 14 dear and new friends with Hatch River Expeditions.  Commonly used words to describe the trip like “epic,” “best trip of my life,” and “life-changing” all fall short of how I feel about my time in the canyon’s warm (literally and figuratively!!) embrace.  I’m not exaggerating when I say it was so far beyond epic!  I loved it so much, I’ve already booked another trip down for May 2017!

I have 4000+ images and ~128GB of GoPro video footage to sort through, plus pages and pages of notes I scribbled in my journal, from our trip so more pics and stories are sure to follow as I start to shake the sand out of everything.

However, to give you a taste of how exhilarating–and at times, downright hilarious–our trip was, I put together this three-minute video of our run through the famous Lava Falls, the river’s most difficult rapid (albeit short).  It’s rated a Class 10 on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the most difficult and dangerous.

In the short clip, Wendy Gunn, her son Troy, and I are riding in the “bathtub” (the front of the motorized raft), so we had front-row seats as the action unfolded.  Boy, did we get a mouthful!  And man, did we have a blast!

Take a peek at the video below to experience (and for those who have been down the river, perhaps re-live your ride) Lava Falls without getting wet like we did!

(Note: we spewed a few expletives during the ride, so you may not want to play this at full volume at work…)

Feb 242016
 
The Night Conceals and Reveals

“The Night Conceals and Reveals” || A faint winter Milky Way appears above the illuminated shoreline (painted with a flashlight affectionately referred to as “Big Bertha”) along the western side of the Schoodic Peninsula, Acadia National Park, Maine, USA (Prints available – click on photo to order yours!)

The setting sun unfurls a silky sheet of sparkling black satin across the evening sky. Within the opaque darkness, my rental car’s headlights illuminate slivers of Acadia National Park’s Schoodic Peninsula’s pristine landscape. Though momentarily blind to its beauty due to my late arrival from Arizona, I distinctly know what I am missing. Over countless visits—thanks to serving three stints as an Acadia Artist-in-Residence, leading numerous photography workshops, and enjoying personal time—since November 2009, I have come to know these surroundings as well as a doting mother knows her own child.

I pull off at the paved pullout immediately to the south of the historic bridge over Mosquito Harbor and step anxiously into the moonless night. I peacefully close my eyes (though it makes no difference) and quietly eavesdrop on nature’s concealed conversations. The air instantly fills with familiarity. Andante splashes against the granite shoreline sing of a flooding incoming high tide. The crackling crunch beneath my feet suggest seagulls eagerly dropped mussels like bombs against the asphalt to break open their tasty treat earlier in the day. The gentle breeze reveals a salty scent of fresh life precariously balanced with musty death on the delicate knifelike edge of land and sea.

I return to my vehicle to continue reuniting with old friends. Along the way, I wave to the granite outcroppings shaped like cupcakes and now isolated by the high waters. I wink at the Winter Harbor Lighthouse and think to myself, “We have so many stories to catch up on.” I slow my speed while passing by my favorite winter photography spot, West Pond Cove. I hear the waves slurping against the rocky coast. I grin deviously and declare, “Just wait until you ice over. I have big plans for you, me, and my camera then.”

After I park in the vacant lot at Schoodic Point and turn my headlamp on, I excitedly bolt to the boulders frosted with winter’s thin icing. Despite being bundled in all the warm clothes I own, I still shiver, sending the warm desert blood pulsing through my veins to my chilled fingers and toes. With a fervent tingle in my gut, I knock at the wind and announce gregariously, “It’s me! I’m back!”

Wasting no time, Poseidon answers, emerging from the sea as majestically as the rising moon breaks free from the low-lying clouds hugging the horizon. Ignoring the unyielding granite cliffs separating me from his ocean home, his soft fingers curl around the rocks and tickle my soul, spinning me in a joyous pirouette. We waltz together for a few minutes, and though the hushed music never stops playing, I pause to offer an overly dramatic balletic bow in reverence.

Then the silence speaks the words a long-lost lover longs to hear: “Welcome home. I’ve missed you.”