“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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Headbanger in Paradise, Part 4

CONTINUED FROM  Headbanger in Paradise, Part 3

 

It was warm where we sat in the day hall, sunlight streaming through the windows onto my assessment sheet.

            “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Frank.”

“Where are you?”

He looked out the bank of steel-framed windows holding yhe world outside in a giant picture frame.

“Valley State Hospital.”

“What day is it?” I asked.

“Wednesday?”

“Right. What’s my name?”

“Shea.”

I smiled, nodding in agreement. “How are you feeling?”

No answer. His forearms rested atop the wheelchair armrests, fingers dangling. He seemed taken in by the giant tulip tree blooms drifting in the courtyard.

I chatted with Frank, other patients, and staff as they drifted into the day hall. Judge Judy ruled the TV in the far corner.

After awhile, Frank said he was cold and sleepy, a common ECT reaction. I wheeled him to his room. He was a little shaky but able to get himself into bed. I covered him with an extra blanket and watched him roll over to face the wall.

“Thank you,” he muttered.

“You’re welcome, Frank.”

This routine went on for a few weeks, one treatment each week, increasing to two treatments, then to three. After four months, Frank was having far fewer instances of violent behavior with only rare episodes of head banging. He slept better. His attitude was much improved. The treatments seemed to be working, with only minor, temporary, memory loss. Some days he would forget having breakfast. A few times, he didn’t remember the ECT treatment at all.

Frank’s parents, far from the norm, came to visit him often. They were amazed at the positive changes in their son’s demeanor. They’d delivered him to us from their foothills home less than six months earlier, after watching his long decline. They were hopeful. I’d seen life changing results in other patients after ECT. It was looking as if Frank really would have a new start in life.

After returning to the unit one day, we were again sitting in the day hall.

“Shea, can I tell you a secret?”

“Sure. Tell me a secret. I may not be able to keep it, though. What is it?”

“During ECT sometimes, I feel really high, like over-the-top stoned. I try to stay there to keep it, but it runs away. I keep trying to get back to it, but I can’t.”

“I haven’t heard that before,” I chuckled.

“Do you think you can get my doctor to give me more drugs to keep it going?”

“Ha, ha. I don’t think so, Frank. It’s just one way you’re responding to the treatment. Do you think, besides the unusual high, you’re improving?”

“When’s the last time I hit someone?”

“A few weeks now.”

“Good,” he said, his blue eyes glistening.

After several more treatments, Frank was showing great progress. No violent outbreaks and no head banging. His depression lifted, he laughed often, and he enjoyed the company of others. His memory loss, though, was becoming serious. In consultation with his doctors and parents, he decided to discontinue ECT.

Just before Christmas, Frank was discharged home. It was a grand gift for him and for all of us who had been part of his success.

He was happy, and I was happy for him.

On a road trip the following summer, I braked for a stoplight while driving through the tiny foothill town of Paradise. I spotted Frank walking in the crosswalk. He was holding hands and laughing with a nice looking woman about his age. He turned his head my way, squinting into the sun behind me.

He couldn’t see through the glare. I’m quite certain he couldn’t make out the big smile on my face.

 

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“Headbanger in Paradise” was originally published in its entirety in Untold Stories: From the Deep Part of the Well. 2016 Redwood Writers Anthology, Roger Lubeck, Editor. September 2016.

If you’d like the entire story in one piece, just ask.