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Seldom Seen Susan – Part Two

My weekly “business trip” on Lake Powell to pick up the Holiday River Expeditions Cataract Canyon trip nearly ends in disaster when I wake to find that the company motorboat has blown off the beach where I’m camping. Thanks to a heavy upstream wind, the boat is found, but I’m not off the reservoir yet. Read Part One here.

Mounting winds dogged our red-and-white raft flotilla as it slowly motored the 30 miles down Lake Powell to the boat ramp. Whitecaps grew into a rolling, three-foot swell, turning our loosely rigged party barge into a writhing water rodeo ride, but morale was high after the morning’s misadventure. The guests laughed as wind-whipped spray crashed over the rafts: “You guys didn’t tell us there were going to be rapids today, too!”

Two hours late, but finally safe at the North Wash boat ramp near Hite, Utah, LB, Alex, Vern, Colin, and I emptied the boats, loaded them on trailers, and exchanged a weary round of high-fives: Thank God we made it – and thank God that’s over. And it was: for them. Turn and burn for me: I was going back up the reservoir to meet another group of boats fresh out of Cataract Canyon.

I watched the vans and trailers leave, dust from their tires swirling in the wind. Waves rocked Seldom Seen, my little red motor boat, and crashed over my back as I topped up the air in the tubes and arranged the load of gas cans. Teeth gritted, soaked hair dripping into my eyes, I lost my balance several times and dropped a full gas can on my bare foot before the boat was finally ready to go. The waves, however, had pushed the boat parallel to shore, grounding it and filling it almost to the gunnels with gray Lake “Foul” water. Swearing, I squatted in the water, wedged my shoulder against the side of the boat, and used my whole body as a lever to push the back end of the boat off shore, until my feet slipped out from under me and I fell, scraping my face on my way down. I struggled for another few minutes, fighting the weight of the boat that now resembled a bath tub, fighting the waves that pinned it against shore, before I was forced to give up. The boat wasn’t moving. I tried bailing, but for every liter I tossed over the side, fifty more poured in. God. Damn. It. I had to unload the boat.

Gas cans stacked on shore, my personal gear piled next to it, the boat was still full of water, but light enough to maneuver the motor into deeper water. I leaped aboard, yanked on the pull cord, and threw the motor into reverse. More waves crashed over the transom and into my face, but I was deep enough to execute a quick spin and kick the motor into forward. Seldom Seen has self-draining holes, but they only work if the boat’s under power. I grasped the safety line with one hand, the throttle with the other, and rallied the rubber dinghy out into the towering waves, too frustrated to be terrified. After a couple of death-defying laps, most of the water had drained, and I motored back, wedging the boat in a corner of the ramp, perpendicular to shore. I raced to the pile of gear, grabbed a gas can, ran back, stashed it in the boat, gave the boat another shove to keep it from turning and getting swamped again, raced to grab another gas can, then back to the boat…it took several trips, but finally the boat was loaded, mostly empty of water, and I was roaring out into the fray.

It was a long, rough motor up the reservoir through undiminished waves. A mini-tornado spun furiously in an alcove in the canyon wall, whipping sand and vegetation into an enormous funnel cloud. Back at Gypsum Canyon, where this endless day had begun, I beached the motor boat and moored it to a sand stake buried on the beach. I unloaded the gas tanks, stacked them together on the beach, and tied a second line from the boat’s stern to the cans. Then I laid a tarp in the bottom of the little boat, placed my Therma-Rest and sleeping bag on it, and stretched out on the floor. That boat wasn’t going anywhere without my knowing about it. I was asleep before 8:30 PM.

Crawling out of my nest in the bottom of Seldom Seen the next day, I surveyed the morning and sampled the breeze. Light and calm, it tasted like redemption. Brin, Brian, Matt, and Mike’s four rafts rounded the corner at 9:00 AM sharp, and this time my wave was triumphant. Our boats were rigged together and underway by 9:30. Smooth sailing from here, I thought, and began to breathe again for the first time in 24 hours. Until we rounded a corner four miles downstream and a rogue gust of wind snatched my baseball hat from my head and cast it into the water, where it disappeared immediately. The wind roared back on itself and us like a dragon playing with its helpless prey. The waves began to rise. I looked at the other guides: “Brin, you might want to encourage people to put on some warmer clothes and rain layers. I think things are about to get sporty.”

Gusts skimmed across the water, sculpting iridescent scaly patterns on the backs of waves that rose three feet high, now four, now five feet. We rode into the wind, rising up and over the swells, plowing through the froth as wave after wave broke over us, from the front, from the side. Our flotilla started to come apart as straps loosened under the continued yanking and thrashing. Even with two motors cranking at full speed (one motor on the back of Seldom Seen, and a second on a homemade wooden transom mounted on the back of one of the rafts), I was having difficulty steering. One sustained gust batted us across the surface of the water like a cat’s toy, and I barely missed demolishing the propeller on a submerged rock. “We’ve got to redo this rigging!” I shouted over the howl of the wind echoing off the canyon walls. Another gust pushed us into a rocky ledge while we struggled with straps. Bubbles appeared from below my perch on Seldom’s back tube. “What’s that?” a guest pointed. Reaching an arm into the water, I ran my fingers across the tube and found a two-inch gash vomiting air. The tube sunk under my knee, and in seconds, my sturdy motorboat sagged in the water, a quarter of its air gone. The flaccid back tube floated, useless. “We don’t have time to stop and patch it,” Brin decided. “We’ve got to get the hell off this lake while we still can.” I thought for a minute. “Quigley!” Mike Quigley, a first-year guide, climbed over the boats and aboard my sagging dinghy. I passed him the hand pump from Seldom’s repair kit and shouted instructions. “I’m going to keep one end of the pump plugged into the valve while I drive! You just keep feeding air into it! Hopefully that will keep us more stable!”

No longer able to sit on the back tube, I widened my stance on the boat’s heaving floor and braced against the motor’s throttle as best I could. The rigging was better now, but the waves were only getting bigger, and the wind continued to pelt us with their spray. Brian was running the second motor, clinging to the wooden mount for dear life as the motor bucked and roared when bigger waves lifted it completely out of the water. Brin stood on the front boat, scouting the way ahead, rain jacket hood tied over his head. Quigley pumped. The pump’s air hose kept popping out of the boat valve, and I repeatedly had to duck down and replace it, all while trying to keep the boats straight and the dangling air hose from being shredded by the propeller. Shell-shocked guests sat wrapped in ponchos with their backs to the wind and waves. “They say this landscape was formed by an inland sea!” I yelled to those guests within earshot. “We’ve arranged this as a demonstration of what that sea might have looked like!” Punchy, overwhelmed, my only recourse was humor.

Narrow Canyon: the home stretch. And the windiest part of the trip even on a good day. A shimmering, opaque blue hung across the center of the canyon like a wall where none should be. Brin and I had time to exchange a glance before the wall of airborne water hit us like a thousand hailstones fired from a canon. I couldn’t keep my eyes open, couldn’t even stand up against the blast. I crouched in the bottom of the boat, one hand on the tiller, the other gripping the motor boat’s safety line. I steered the boats almost perpendicular to the canyon walls, tacking into the wind, leg muscles screaming with the effort of balancing through the violent swell. Brin told me later that he could see water streaming down the smooth sandstone walls of the canyon; the whole world was drenched in water.

As the North Wash boat ramp materialized ahead of us, everyone sent up a ragged cheer. Justin was at the ramp waiting for us as we coasted into shore. The guests made a beeline for the vans, and the rest of us prepared the boats to be loaded on the trailers as waves continued to crash over us and onto the ramp. Curved sandstone walls ring what is usually a calm eddy next to the ramp. On this day, the wind was blowing directly into that eddy, making it a wave-wracked death trap. Huge chunks of driftwood smashed against the walls, and dead tamarisk trees rose out of the eddy, exposed as the level of the reservoir fell. We loaded one boat, then a second, then came the moment to detach Brian’s raft and my motorboat from the flotilla. Matt untied Brian and flung the bowline toward the boat just as I fired up my motor, intent on getting out of the eddy before my motor was smashed against the wall. The line floated for half a second before wrapping itself tightly around my propeller.

Brian and I fought for ten precious seconds to free the prop as the wind screamed with glee and drove us into the dead trees and looming wall. The second the motor was clear, I started it again, slammed it into forward, and zoomed into the oncoming waves. The boat was empty, with only the weight of the motor and me, sitting on the flat tube, at the very back. Seldom Seen crested a six-foot wave and the wind caught the bow as if it were a sail. Time slowed; the boat rose to a vertical tipping point and leaned toward me, on the verge of capsizing, with me underneath it. I shouted something, maybe profanity, maybe just a howl of outrage, and cranked the throttle, driving the nose of the boat forward and somehow restoring a tenuous equilibrium. On shore, Brin, Matt, and Justin stood with jaws on their chests. “HOLY SHIT SUSAN WE THOUGHT YOU WERE GONE!” Brin shouted. I shook my head as I landed on the ramp. “Susan, you looked pissed.” “I was pissed! There was no way this was going to end like that!” Then we heard Justin say, quietly, “Uh oh.”

Following his gaze across the Death Eddy, we saw what had become of Brian while I was busy almost flipping Seldom Seen. He’d been blown against the wall, pushed to the far side of the eddy, almost back into the open water. His shouts were lost in the tempest, but it was obvious that he was in trouble. His boat had been emptied in preparation for loading it onto a trailer. He still had oars, but no longer had anything in his cockpit against which to brace while he rowed; a thick coating of slick, wet clay on the bottoms of his sandals further reduced his leverage. It was all he could do to stay upright in his boat and keep it square as the waves pummeled him against the wall. If his boat had slipped sideways, it would have flipped. Justin sprinted to the top of the wall, thinking to offer some encouragement, and almost slipped in himself. Brin and Matt looked at each other and then at the one remaining boat in the water: the raft with the second motor on it. Moving carefully, they untied the raft and motored through the tumultuous swell to Brian. From our view on the ramp, the scene quickly became absurd, hilarious. The guides’ voices were lost in the wind, but the anguished whine of the motor cut through the gale as Brin applied full throttle in reverse to keep his raft from getting plastered to the wall. Waves lifted the motor out of the water, and the whine became a panicked shriek. Matt hung over the front of his raft, trying to grab onto Brian’s boat and attach the two. Waves crashed over his face, and finally we saw him shout at Brin to “Just GO!” He hung on to the two boats for dear life, arms stretched painfully, more than half of his body suspended over the space between the boats like a misplaced figurehead, but Matt managed to hang on until both boats were safely at the ramp. “Oh, my, God. Are we done yet?” Brian buried his hands in his hair in exhausted exasperation.

Battered, wind-burned, drenched, we loaded the last boats, strapped them down, and dove into the waiting vans. I closed my eyes before shifting out of park, gathering myself for the two hour drive back to Green River. A hand tapped me on the shoulder from the back seat. I turned to see ten guests staring at me. “You guys…you guys are awesome.” I shrugged, then laughed. And then couldn’t stop laughing. As we pulled out of the ramp parking area, I looked in my rearview mirror at the reservoir. “So long, Powell. See you next week.”

1 comment to Seldom Seen Susan – Part Two

  • That is funny that you work for Holiday River Expeditions. I have corresponded with them on twitter for a couple of years now. They are awesome. Sounds like an amazing adventure.

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