“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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“Bye Grandma! We’ll miss you!”

Leaving New York, after a short sweet visit with Erin, Chris, Jack, Molly and Ryan, Melissa and little Mac was a bit sad, tinged with so much happiness. I couldn’t get Erin’s first words out of my mind when I arrived a few days earlier in Port Jeff to visit. “I’m so excited to have my hippie Aunt Kathy here!”

Amtrak New York City to Niagara Falls – another beautiful segment on another hot summer day. Take time to overlook the trash, junkyards, industrial zones of American commerce and other eyesores. Doesn’t’ matter which city or country. The #281 (train talk) follows the Hudson River and other water ways much of the journey. No, I don’t know all their names. I can tell you that its incredibly easy for me to sit and watch the scenery go by all day long. Every other look up is a reason to focus my camera, noting the spot on the window that’s the cleanest, with little or no glare to mess up my shot. I try to catch the little things, the curve of the hillside, angles of a barn and a fleeting waterfowl when lucky.

As the heat index went up outside, our train car started heating up on the inside. I don’t know if I mentioned before, but the air conditioning on the trains is usually too much for this Cali girl. It’s COLD in the coach and usually colder in the snack and observation and bar cars. Layered fashionista. In a summer of sandals and flipflops, most of my time is in sneakers and socks.

The car I was seated in started heating up as a result of some malfunction or other. Some fancy piece of equipment I don’t remember the name of. As the car ahead of mine slowly emptied passengers to their destinations along the way, the conductor announced that anyone in our car who wanted to, could move ahead to the next car that was cooler. Most everyone got up – it was rush hour – grabbing their cameras, blankets, electronics and pillows. I got up and moved from a cramped aisle seat with practically no view, to a window seat AND an aisle. Warm, plenty of room to stretch out and no more “it’s too hot” whiners in the wind. 

The real fun began when I arrived in Niagara Falls. The plan was to meet up with Bob and Donna, my new, and amazing Couchsurfing friends. They live in Niagara Falls, Canada. As an aside, all my Couchsurfing friends have proven to be amazing. 

Anyway, I called Bob and told him I was at the Amtrak train station. I could hear the Falls in the distance – sounded like the roar of the ocean. “We’re right here – we don’t see you!” I was looking around and didn’t see them either. One of us eventually asked what side of the border I was on. Laughing ensued. I didn’t know there was an Amtrak feeder station in Niagara Falls CANADA (where they thought I was). I was at the main station in Niagara Falls USA.

No problem, says Bob, just catch a cab over and we’ll meet you on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge. Okay, I say. The last cab-van was just pulling away from the station as the sun was setting. 

I sprinted over to the cabby and asked if there was room to join in the ride. He asked where I wanted to go. Inside was family of our – two kids, 8 and 10-ish, Mom and Dad. The mom told me in her fine Australian voice to jump in. As we’re driving to the bridge, the driver asks where we’re staying. Whoops. I didn’t know the address of where I was staying and the border people always ask that. I just knew I was meeting up with Bob and Donna. 

The Mom next to me pipes up – “Grandma! You’re staying with us.” My new family and I are laughing and Dad chimes in with the Hotel name to the driver, saying to his wife, “Jumping right to Grandma is a little rough, isn’t it?” I told him that was exactly the right thing! We were all cracking up. I told them how excited I was to be spending my vacation with them and hoped they’d gotten me a suite of my own. More laughter. After crossing the border and retrieving my passport from the driver, I hopped out and waited for the driver to get my suitcase from the luggage area. The kids in the back seat yelled out, “Bye Grandma, we’ll miss you!”

The driver made out on that 5-minute ride. $25 US dollars from me and another $45 Canadian from my family on their way to the hotel. Never to be seen again.

Bob and Donna and I, through a series of brief phone calls, finally met up and were immediately best of friends. It was Sunday – Canada Day! The three of us chatted it up making our way to the Falls that were lit up in the dark night with red and blue hues  to wait for even more excitement. The roads and sidewalks and lawns of the park were packed with revelers. Noisy and wonderful. Fireworks started out on the American side of the Falls and soon enough were echoed by the Canadians.

What a fine welcome to Canada! So much more to come!