The first rule of rafting is to stay in the boat. The second rule of rafting is to stay in the boat. The third rule of rafting is to get back in the boat.
That’s a fun little way to start off your safety talk on the Daily, but your passengers probably won’t care to listen to the rest of it, since they’ll be ready to float and hear you interpret the sights along the fourteen miles of the Colorado River. The way you translate the landscape will cause them to give a negative review on TripAdvisor or slap onto their car the white-text-on-black-background bumper sticker: New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, Moab.
They’ll immediately ask about two things: the color and the shape of the rocks. Say the mnemonic, “Every Naughty Kid Wants Chocolate Milk & Cookies.” Explain that the Entrada covers the Navajo—both visible at Arches with the sandstone capping the mudstone—while the Kayenta lays horizontal over the vertical Wingate with the blackened desert varnish, then the green paleontological bone yard of Chinele, and finally the dark rock of the Moenkopi caps the soft Culter formation from sliding away. Still, water cracks and wind sands away these layers.
As you easily row, your passengers won’t be wrong to question whether the confluences with Onion and Professor Creeks are really, actually white water rapids. These will feel more like sloshy riffles, some churning with foamy peaks. This is a great time to distract them from the less adventuresome part of the ride and point out more of the landscape’s peculiarities. Mention the salt seeps from the alkaline soils, which make the water sudsy. However, note that the white seeps on the sandstone usually come from calcium carbonate like limestone caves that drip to form stalactites and stalagmites. Here, the red soils come from the iron-rich rocks like blood penetrating air, the living land. The green rocks aren’t oxidized like copper, though; these colorings characterize decomposition of organic matter, buried death.
As you round the corner, it’s wise not to spoil the ride by mentioning the soft pornography filmed a while ago at Sorrel Ranch, but use their riverside restaurant as a signal that you will land river right for lunch. Remind passengers that the ravens are crafty enough to entertain with barrel rolls and croaks for food. Passengers should not allow themselves to be tricked in giving anything away.
On shore say, “Pants down and skirts up” for where men and women should add their pee to the river because downstream Phoenix needs it. Ignore any of the passing local men firehosing off the bow of their boats or women clinging on with both hands to the line roping through the D-rings of their boats and squatting to arc a stream.
Before getting back in the boat you can take a moment to teach your passengers something that they will recall whenever they see moving water again. Remember that this controlled half-day river trip might be the most thrilling experience in their lives. Ask if anyone can tell you what C.F.S. stands for. Some retired science teacher might pipe up, “Cubic feet per second” or some amateur boater will say, “The flow of the water.” And that’s all correct; but do they know what it means? Here the river won’t be flowing much more than ten thousand cubic feet per second, but each of those units could contain a basketball-size space of water rushing by one foot every second. Give your passengers a moment to imagine thousands of basketballs dribbling down the canyon.
After everyone is in the boat again and you float to the penultimate rapid named Rocky. You think that it should swap names with White’s rapid, which is the final rapid that actually has a boulder stuck mid-stream and creates a sucking hole. Rocky’s obstruction-created rapids are not an experience for you, but avoidances. You find your way by going around these threats, not through them.
The river is a daily changing puzzle, not always with all the pieces included. Its water has become familiar, but will never become fully known to you. You have given yourself instructions on how to read the river, but the river will continue to write its story long after your raft gets lapped by its tongue along Salt Wash and then spit up onto Take Out Beach.
BIO: Chris Wiewiora earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University and a Whitewater River Crew Permit from Utah State Parks. His essays also have been published in Sport Literate as well as anthologized in Best American Sports Writing. Read more at www.chriswiewiora.com
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