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Seldom Seen Susan: Part One

I woke from a light doze at 4:00 AM. Drifts of sand had accumulated inside my unzipped sleeping bag and on my sweat-slimed skin. Even in the pre-dawn dark, it was still too hot to be in a sleeping bag but too windy to lie uncovered on the beach. Sticky, gritty, sleepless, I sat up to take a drink of water and choked: my boat was gone.

“Seldom Seen”, my red, inflatable Achilles dinghy, my transport and lifeline, was no longer grounded on the muddy Lake Powell shoreline where I’d parked it at 8 o’clock the night before. I leapt up, stumbled a few steps upstream, then downstream, and then back to my jumbled bed for my headlamp. This can’t be happening. This definitely can’t be happening. How could I have lost my motorboat?

My job for Holiday River Expeditions isn’t terribly complicated. I drive boats and trailers and guests and guides to and from boat ramps. I clean and service the vans. I change tires and troubleshoot fuses. And once a week, I drive the company motorboat thirty miles up Reservoir Powell, from Hite Marina to Gypsum Canyon, where Cataract Canyon and the Colorado River end, and the dead, silt-choked waters of Lake Powell begin. Susan Munroe, Travel Writer: July &emdash; I love my job Holiday, in contrast to nearly all other commercial outfitters in southern Utah, has a strict no-motors policy. Holiday guides row 18-foot inflatable rafts down every stretch of river the company sells, come wind, come flat water, come low water, except for the last day of the Cataract Canyon trips, when Seldom Seen and I meet up with the rafts at the top of the lake, strap the boats together in a unwieldy flotilla, and use the motor to push the entire trip down the lake to the takeout. It’s a necessary evil: without the motor, it could take two days or more for the oarsmen to cover the thirty miles of lake water to the Hite ramp. And I had just lost that one crucial component.

4:15 AM: Shining the weak beam of my headlamp across the sluggish water, I picked my way across the jagged dried mud, barefoot. My shoes? Also on the vanished boat. Scenes of the humiliation – and logistical nightmare – awaiting me if I didn’t find this boat swam laps in my mind. LB, Alex, Vern, and Colin were all expecting to see me at the bottom of Waterhole Rapid at 9 AM. And I wasn’t going to be there. The wind continued to crank upstream, howling through the sharp tamarisk branches, plastering me with a fresh coat of sand. Too dark to search successfully, there was nothing I could do except go back to my sleeping bag and wait for the sun. I didn’t sleep. There was no way I was going to fall back asleep. Prostrate, panicked, and praying, I somehow made it to 6 AM and the faint blush of dawn on canyon walls, and started the search anew. This time, I brought my life jacket. If I saw even a flash of red downstream, I was freaking swimming for it.

Life jacket unbuckled over my shoulders, I forced my way through the overgrown riparian vegetation, feet and legs scratched and sore, determined to get far enough downstream to spot the boat. Winds were now gusting close to 30 mph upstream. The boat couldn’t possibly have gone far. This is lake! There’s not enough current for the boat to drift that far! Right? Right? After an hour of bushwhacking, hair tangled and full of sticks, I limped back to the beach. Seldom Seen was gone, and I was in so much trouble.

The two hours between when I gave up the search and when the first red and white boat appeared around the bend upstream were interminable. I couldn’t read; I couldn’t pace; I could only sit. And wait. The waiting was the hardest part. When the boats finally came into view, I could see the oarsmen using their entire bodies, pulling against the strengthening wind, only to be pushed sideways, skimming over the top of the water as like chess pieces slid across a board. Slowly, slowly, the four boats approached my forlorn position on the beach. I waved. A tiny, pitiful, ohmygodimsosorry wave. “Susan. What’s up?” LB yelled across the white-capped water. “The boat blew away,” I shouted in a whispering tone of voice. “…WHAT?” I nodded while my body tried to decide if it should puke or cry. The boats pulled onto shore. LB started unloading gear and passengers, and Alex jumped in so that the two could take turns rowing downstream into the wind to look for the boat. Confused guests milled on the beach. Colin patted me on the back. “It’ll probably be fine.” I grimaced. Vern said, “Well. The worst case scenario is that it sunk.” …oh. I hadn’t thought about that. I sank onto Vern’s boat, pulled my legs to my chest, and focused on disappearing.

10:45 AM: Eyes and ears keyed downstream, waiting, begging, praying to hear the whine of the 2-stroke Mariner motor. “Was that it?” An airplane. “I think I hear it!” The wind. And then: Is that…? I think… Yes. YES! A red shape appeared around the bend. I breathed for the first time in six hours: Seldom Seen. “We should be careful what we call our boats,” Vern smiled.

And then. We still had to travel 30 miles to the takeout. And I had to turn around and go back up to Gypsum Canyon that same afternoon to meet another trip that would be coming off the next day. We’d gotten the boat back, but we weren’t off the reservoir yet.

In Part Two of the Seldom Seen Susan Saga, our flotilla will encounter five-foot waves, swamped boats, popped tubes, walls of wind-whipped water, a near-flip, and a daring high-seas rescue!

Stay close…and in the meantime, check out the pictures from the rest of the rafting season!

7 comments to Seldom Seen Susan: Part One

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