“Happy Birthday, Fred” Your Sister Meets Westwater Canyon’s Skull Rapid!

“Coffee!” The finest words ever heard after a night’s sleep on the trail.

After a hot breakfast of coffee, eggs, potatoes and sausage, and sides of orange juice and fresh fruit, we headed out from Black Rock 6 camp sometime after 10, on our way to checking in with the Ranger at BLM Westwater Ranger Station, just after passing into Utah.

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

Amphitheater?

In a normal river run this time of year, there might be 5 private boat trips running Westwater as well as 5 commercial trips led by professional experienced guides. The Ranger expressed a bit of surprise we would be taking the trip, as no one had done so in the past several days. The high water and risky water in the canyon were holding people back.

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

Fred’s only been down this canyon a hundred times, either on his raft, or rowing a raft, and more or less, 35 of his trips were on on his birthday. The other guys also know the river like the back of their hand. We were all excited to be running this trip for Fred’s Birthday!

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See the gate in the background? See the swirling water over its banks?

Just past the Ranger Station, the river crosses a fault zone where the Wingate Sandstone is thrust hundreds of feet. That, combined with the 200 million year old Chinle Formation, create the gneisses and schists that squeeze the Colorado into the tight “Granite Canyon of the Grand River”, aka Westwater Canyon.

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

A decent island in low water!

The rock art continues to amaze, and I find myself shaking my head, and sighing, in awe. Goats lounge around on the bank.

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

We sail past several areas known for their rapids. Marble Canyon Rapid, at the mouth of Marble Canyon, marks the point where the channel narrows for the next couple of miles. Lots of broiling and churning water, high swirling waves and changing water holes right in front of the boat.

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

And then we come onto Skull Rapid, also called Whirlpool, Big Whirlpool and Cisco Bend Rapid, the highest rated rapid in Westwater. Especially at high water, which now was about 34,000 cfs. This famous rapid is formed by a series of boulders just above a bend in the river, that drives the water toward a huge rock – the Shock Rock. The boat will either swirl right into an eddy in the Room of Doom, or breaks off to the left downstream. Surging high streams of water rose up to meet us in a perfect storm.

I was sitting and holding onto my seat at center front of the boat, Fred was pulling and working the oars. Before we came to this point in the river, we’d stowed everything and tightly tied them down. The camera in its watertight case, my water bottle, anything that could fly out of the boat. During this trip, I reverted to my previous pair of glasses and had them tightly over my ears in a little string of croakie. I noticed later the time stamp gap between when we stowed the camera and when it was safe to bring it out again.

I wasn’t looking up at the canyon formations, I was looking at all that rushing water, waves like the sea, watching down and ahead, glimpsing at Tommy and Luke in their boat ahead of us.

All of a sudden the boat lurched downward in front of us and I brilliantly pirouetted into the air in a dive up and out of the boat. I spluttered water, opened my eyes and saw that I was just to the right and a little to the rear of where I’d been seating. And I was able to touch the boat! My personal floatation device brought me right to the surface and miracles of miracles, I was facing Fred, who was hovering over me in the boat. On his feet, he’d had to let go of the oars to get me back to where I was supposed to be.

He yelled for me to grab onto the extra oar locked onto the boat – I was grabbing onto anything I could find! Fred was glancing to the left of us at a big wall he didn’t want to crash into. He had hold of my left arm, yelling, “You’re okay! You’re allright!!” He grabbed my life jacket with both hands and swiftly jerked me back into the boat.

“Hurry, get back up there…” he yelled out over the roar of the water. “We have to move!”

I crawled my way back to my seat, gurgling fresh Colorado River water, and held tight to the bow straps while Fred maneuvered us out of the worst of the day’s rapids.

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

Tommy and Luke waiting it out

I later learned that at high water, Skull is rated five and a half to six (highest rating), partly because of the possibility that someone will become a swimmer. Like Fred’s sister.

We all had a good laugh later – more than one – and acknowledged that we were definitely scared to death at the time I took a dive. Luke and Tommy had been watching the entire episode then, ready to grab me up if Fred hadn’t been able to do so. Rhett was upstream watching. I felt like such a dork!

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

Fred told me before we ever got in the river that he had three rules for me:

#1 Stay in the boat.

#2 Stay in the boat.

#3 Stay in the boat.

Instead, I went swimming!

It turned out the river gods didn’t want me at all. My wide-brimmed hat was the only sacrifice that day.

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

Mrs. Butterworth––some call her the pregnant nun

In looking at my pictures for the day, I saw a long gap between the time I stowed the camera and when the water settled down enough to pick it up again. It was definitely Fred’s miracle birthday. Things could have gone so wrong. But they didn’t – and I’d go again if given the chance – you can count on that.

A 21-miler day – we arrived in good speed to Big Horn Camp. The guys set up the kitchen close to the boats, just exactly as it should be. After a few beers and tequila shots, we later ate a hearty fine feast. More red wine out of a plastic bag and chocolate chip cookies for dessert! The desert heat is feeling mighty fine and the skies are in our favor. For now.

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

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Fred’s Birthday River 2019 – Day 2

Hundreds of pictures on my 16g card tell part of the story of my week on the Colorado River as well as millions of years of geologic history tell the story of the Colorado River Basin. I find myself reading more and more about this natural masterpiece, the Colorado River Canyonlands.

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This is just MY stuff. My camera was stowed away in the water resistant case when the rapids were calling, the wide brim hat on my head until it was sacrificed to the river gods. More about that later.

 

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Drawings on the wall…what do you see there? I have my own vision of a face with strung out eyebrows and a big nose. Do you see it?

Our second day on the river continued in Ruby Horsethief Canyon. Quiet water (about 9 miles an hour) interspersed with riffles, eddies and rapids leave me in awe. I’m learning from the guys how the water changes – duh – with the volume of water flowing through the channel basin. They chat about how this or another spot on the river, how it looks different, how they remember the water looking on previous trips. They know their stuff – and that puts me at ease.

 

 

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Do you see a Mama Bear with her thee little cubs on this rock face? Or what?

 

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

Can you see the two animals making a run for it? Or??

 

We covered just about 5 river miles that first day, about an hour and a half.  First day out involved a lot of travel from home to the put-in ramp, so that made for a later start and earlier end to the first day. These rafts are packed with more than a thousand pounds of gear, including water, ice, food, clothing, camp kitchen equipment, cameras, propane tanks, the mandatory river guide map and everything else needed for a 6-day trip. Most of it comes off the boat at night, and back onto the boat in the morning. Mornings, and evenings, are on river time, and never hurried.

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

Little Rubby Ducky followed us everywhere

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

Looking up from the water – I spent a lot of time doing that!

Day two we rafted 13 miles through Ruby Horsethief Canyon, three blissful hours, passing many potential river camps that are washed out with high water, and no eddies at the edge to easily slide into anyway.

The coolness of being on the water was wonderful; I was never chilled. My wide brim hat helped shade my face from the hot sun, tied under my chin to hang on through rapids in the water and gusts of wind.

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

The Guardians??

Today I had my first look at the local big horn sheep, a little family of three. We rolled past miles of black rock formations. These really old Precambrian period rocks started out as limestone and shale, some sandstone, about 1,700 million years ago.

Later on, about 1,400 million years ago, there was a big upswelling of magma. I’m told the “black rocks” in the canyons here are a mix of schist, amphibolite, metamorphic gneiss, and intrusive granite rock. I don’t know what it means, either. Look it up!

I just bought my own fascinating river guide book complete with introductory geologic & geographic lessons, history of the west and the people who populated it.

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

The tamarisk trees along the river’s edge are non-native and detrimental in that they can choke off the rivers. About 15 years ago, tamarisk beetles were introduced to kill those pesky trees – and you can see these dead trees all along the river. The healthy ones are quite pretty with pink flowers. Rangers periodically cut out the dead trees, and quickly pour poison in the roots before the tree closes itself up and grows two more. Cottonwood trees are abundant, their beautiful shimmering leaves catch the eye, and at this time of year, small tufts of cotton float in the air.

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

Our river day ended at Black Rocks 6 camp, west of Moore Canyon, a difficult pull-in at 30,000 csf and our well-trained guides made it with ease.

 

Camp was plenty big for two tents, mine and Luke’s, as the boat owners (Tommy, Fred and Rhett) slept atop their boats that night, and many other nights as well. But not the last night!

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

A view of the river from my hike

We had plenty of time and space in which to roam around and explore!

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

The wildflowers surprised the heck out of me when I zoomed in on them with the camera! So much activity…

Fred's Birthday River Trip 2019

Fragrant juniper bushes with their dark purple berries grace the landscape her. The sun was feeling real good, the company was great, the food plentiful. Rhett’s turn to cook up a yummy London broil, served with two types of potato salad and a box of red wine in a plastic bag. There was an abundance of beer and tequila; we were living large.

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Tonight’s view from my tent home…

After this last picture was taken, long into the night, I woke and crawled out of the tent to gaze at the sky. There she was, the Milky Way – I recognized her and was so excited to see her again. The millions of stars just above this little planet were all I needed to see before laying my body down. ‘Til the next night!