Hance Rapid at Mile 76.5 stands sentinel at the Colorado river’s entry into the Granite Gorge. The river drops 30 feet as it passes through a natural constriction formed by the Red Canyon. The dark dike cutting through the red Hakatai Shale is one of the most photographed features in the Canyon.
I found out more about the man the rapid was named after:
John Hance (1840 – January 8, 1919) is thought to be the first non-native resident of the Grand Canyon.
He opened the first tourist trail in the canyon before the canyon was a national park, giving tours of the canyon after his ca.1866 attempts at mining asbestos failed. “Captain” John Hance was said to be one of the Grand Canyon’s most colorful characters, and one early visitor declared that “To see the canyon only and not to see Captain John Hance, is to miss half the show.”
Hance delighted in telling canyon stories to visitors, favoring the whopper of a tale over mere facts. With a straight face, Hance told travelers how he had dug the canyon himself, piling the excavated earth down near Flagstaff (thus ‘explaining’ those mysterious then-unexplained dirt piles).
John Hance died in 1919, the year the Grand Canyon became a National Park, and was the first person buried in what would become the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery.
(from wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, and archive.org)
In May 1891 one Charley Greenlaw wrote this in John Hance’s guestbook:
I can cheerfully say that this, the Grand Canon of the Colorado River, is the grandest sight of my life. As I noticed in this little book of Capt. John Hance, a great many people say indescribable. I can say nothing more. It is beyond reason to think of describing it in any way. You must see it to appreciate it. A grand sight of this kind and so few people know of it. By accident I formed the acquaintance of two ladies en route to the Grand Canon. I joined them. We have enjoyed our trip; the stage ride from Flagstaff to the Grand Canon is grand. Good horses, competent and accommodating drivers. I have seen the Yosemite, have visited California several different times, in fact seen all the principal points of interest in the United States, but the most wonderful, awe-inspiring piece of Nature’s own work is this, the Grand Canon of the Colorado River.
Another entry by J. Curtis Wasson told of the twelve hour stage coach journey after alighting from the Santa Fe Railroad Company’s train:
From Flagstaff at 7 o’clock a.m. our stage and six goes out.
Arriving at Little Springs Station, where a new relay of six horses is added, we make haste until the half-way station is reached, passing through a fine unbroken forest of Pinus ponderosa, quaking aspen, balsam fir, and spruce. The open forest, the waving grasses, the gorgeously colored mountain flowers, the occasional chirp of the forest songsters, the ice-cold springs traversing our smooth compact road, the peaks, clear-cut and massive, towering up nearly 14,000 feet into the blue above, the low rumbling of our great Concord stage, the sound of two dozen hoofs, the sharp crack of the driver’s whip, the clear, bracing atmosphere, every breath of which seems to stimulate, the indescribably beautiful Painted Desert outstretching for a hundred miles to our right.
One fain would linger on scenes like these but we have arrived at Cedar Station, and after partaking of a very refreshing luncheon we are given a new relay of horses and hasten over the desert portion of our ride to Moqui Station, where another relay is provided, which takes us to the hotel at the rim of the Grand canon, where we arrive at 7 o’clock p.m.
Leaving our Concord stage, giving our grips to the porter, not even waiting for “facial ablutions”, we hasten across the yard and up to the rim of the canon, when, looking over — the Chasm of the Creator, the Gulf of God, the Erosion of the Ages, that Erosive Entity, that Awful Abyss, lies in all its awfulness before us, — awful, yet grand; appalling, yet attractive; awe inspiring, yet fascinating in its greetings.
This story will be fuzzy in parts because of the long passage of time. But although some details may be slightly different, ‘strue. So I must tell the tale before those last few grey cells that hold the memory get blitzed by the box wine.
It was on the Berg River Canoe Marathon that Christof Heyns came to tell me was pulling out of the race. Why!? I said, dismayed. He’d fallen out in the frigid flooded Berg river and lost his glasses. Couldn’t see past his nose, so it was way too dangerous to carry on in the mid-winter Cape cold and the flooding brown water.
Hell, no, I said, I’ve got a spare pair, you can use mine.
He rolled his eyes and smiled sadly at my ignorance. His eyes were very special, his glasses were very thick and there was no way just any arb specs would do, he mansplained patiently. In his defence, he didn’t know I was an optometrist, that I was wearing contact lenses, that I had a spare pair of specs in my luggage and one tied to the rudder cable in my boat, or that I had a very good idea of what his prescription was from seeing his glasses on his nose both on this race and on a Tugela trip we had been on together. I knew about his eyes better than he knew about my soul (he might have known a bit about that as his Dad was a very belangrike dominee in the Much Deformed Church – top dog, in fact).
So I said, trust me swaer and went and fetched my spares. He put them on and was amazed. I can see! he shouted like I was Jesus who had just restored his sight. I know, I said.
So he wore the glasses and finished the race and I said keep them till we next meet.
Many months later I saw an article in the SA Canews, the paddling magazine, titled: “My Broer se Bril”. Christof wrote the story of how he had lost hope when some arb oke said “Here, try mine” and he could see! And he could finish the race.
He ended off by saying “Actually they were so good I’m wearing them to this day”. Ja, you bugger, I know, I thought. I could have written an article “How a dominee’s son appropriated my bril”, but I didn’t. I’m way too kind! In his defence, we haven’t seen each other since that race.
belangrike dominee – important churchman; flock leader; the lord is my shepherd, I am a sheep;
swaer – bro;
my broer se bril – my brother’s spectacles;
mansplain – when a man laboriously explains something you already know; usually inflicted on women;
Lee’s Ferry on the right bank of the Colorado River, just above the mouth of the Paria River, at an elevation of 3,170 feet asl is the site of the start for most river trips through the Grand Canyon.
Originally called Lonely Dell by Mormon church-man with 19 wives and 67 children John D Lee, who established the ferry in 1872, it provided the only access across more than 300 miles of river for many years. Actually one of Lee’s 19 wives, Emma ran the ferry for a number of years while he was on the lam – hiding from the law for his leading part in the wicked 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre.
The massacre near St George, Utah involved a group of emigrants known as the Fancher Party trekking west from Arkansas who were camped at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah preparing for their final push across the Mohave Desert when they were attacked by a group of Mormon Militia who disguised themselves as Native Americans so as to cowardly deflect blame for the attack.
It was a time of great tension between Mormons and the rest of the United States, and the massacred party was most likely attacked because they were not Mormons.
After an initial siege, the treacherous Lee approached the emigrants saying he’d negotiated safe passage for them with protection from their supposed Native American attackers if they surrendered their weapons. The group agreed, whereupon the militia proceeded to kill all but the children under 8 years of age.
One hundred and twenty men, women and children died that day. For almost two decades, the incident was covered up, but in 1874, Lee was brought to trial. Never denying his complicity in the massacre, Lee did insist – probably correctly – that he was acting on orders from high up in the church. He was the only one of about fifty men involved in the massacre to be brought to book. He was convicted and executed by firing squad in 1877.
His widow Emma Lee sold the ferry in 1879 for 100 milk cows to the Mormon Church who continued to operate it until 1910 when it was taken over by Coconino County, Arizona. The ferry stayed mostly in use until 1929 when the Navajo Bridge was completed. Ironically, the ferry was used to ship much of the material to build the bridge that put it out of business.
1984: There was only one bridge when we crossed to the right – or ‘north’ (rivers only have left or right banks – think about it) – bank of the river. It was completed in 1929. A larger parallel second bridge was added in 1995. The bridge we crossed is now used for pedestrian sight-seeing.
That’s what Jacques de Rauville told my business partner when he heard I was going to do the 1983 Berg River Canoe Marathon. He had come across me one evening on the Bay and I’d asked which way to go, it being my first time out there and the lights and the reflections were confusing. “Follow me” said Jacques, and off he went, but within 50m I was 49m behind him. He waited and told me “Left at the third green buoy” or whatever he said. When he passed me again on his way back and I obviously hadn’t made enough headway, he thought whatever he thought that made him tell his optometrist Mike Lello “tell him not to attempt the Berg”.
Jacques was right, but luckily for me Chris Logan got hold of me and took me for a marathon training session on the ‘Toti lagoon one day which got my mind around sitting on a hard seat for hours on end, numbing both my bum and my mind. Chris was a great taskmaster. We stopped only once – for lunch (chocolate and a coke, it was early Noakes, not Banting Noakes). Before Chris, my training method entailed using the first half of a race for training, then hanging in grimly in the second half till the finish. Between races, I would focus on recovery, mainly using cold beer and couch methodology.
We set off for Cape Town in my white 2,0l GL Cortina, me and Bernie Garcin the paddlers and sister Sheila and mom Mary to drive the car while we paddled.
The night before the first day in Paarl they pointed out a shed where we could sleep. Cold hard concrete floor. Winter in the Cape. Luckily I had brought along a brand-new inflatable mattress and an electric pump that plugged into my white 2,0l GL Cortina’s cigarette lighter socket. So I plugged in and went for a beer. *BANG* I heard in the background as we stood around talking shit and comparing paddling styles. I wondered vaguely what that was. A few more beers later we retired to sleep and I thought “So that ‘s what that bang was” – a huge rip in my now-useless brand-new no-longer-inflatable mattress, and the little pump still purring and pumping air uselessly into the atmosphere. So I slept on the concrete, good practice for a chill that was going to enter my bones and then my marrow over the next four days.
The first day was cold, windy and miserable, but the second day on the ’83 Berg made it seem like a balmy breeze. That second day was one of the longest days of my life! As the vrou cries it was the shortest day – those Cape nutters call 49km a short day – but a howling gale and horizontal freezing rain driving right into your teeth made it last forever. Icy waves continuously sloshing over the cockpit rim onto your splashcover. It was the day Gerrie died – Gerrie Rossouw, the first paddler ever to drown on an official race day. I saw him, right near the back of the field where I was and looking even colder than me. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket. It wasn’t macho to wear a life jacket and I admit that I wore my T-shirt over mine to make it less conspicuous and I told myself I was wearing it mainly as a windbreaker. Fools that we were. Kids: Never paddle without a life jacket.
I saw Gerrie’s boat nose-down with the rudder waving in the wind, caught in the flooded trees and I wondered where he was, as both banks were far away and not easy to reach being tree-lined and the trees underwater. Very worrying, but no way I could do anything heroic in that freezing strong current, so I paddled on to hear that night that he was missing. His body was only found days later.
That night a bunch of paddlers pulled out. Fuck this they said with infinite good sense. Standing in the rain with water pouring down his impressive moustache my mate Greg Jamfomf Bennett made a pact with the elements: He would paddle the next day IF – and only if – the day dawned bright, sunny and windless. He was actually saying fuck this I’m going home to Durban where ‘winter’ is just an amusing joke not a serious thing like it is here. He and Allie were then rescued and taken out of the rain to a farmer’s luxury home where about six of them were each given their own room and bathroom! Bloody unfair luxury, giving them an advantage and allowing them to beat me in the race!
After devouring a whole chicken each, washed down with KWV wine and sherry supplied by the sponsors, us poor nogschleppers climbed up into the loft on the riverbank and slept on the hard floor. Here I have to confess Greyling Viljoen also slept ini the loft and he won the race, which weakens my tale of hardship somewhat.
We braced ourselves for the third – and longest – day . . . . Which turned into the easiest day as the wind had died and the sun shone brightly on us, making for a really pleasant day which seemed half as long, even though it was 70km compared to that LO-ONG second day. Before the start Capies were seen writhing on the ground, gasping, unable to breathe. They usually breathe by simply facing into the wind and don’t have diaphragm muscles. So a windless day is an unknown phenomenon to those weirdos. At the start about ten Kingfisher paddlers bunched together in our black T-shirts: Allie Peter, Jacques de Rauville, Herve de Rauville, Bernie Garcin, Dave Gillmer, who else? Greg Bennett was also there, to his own amazement. I hopped on to their wave and within 50m I was 49m behind. I watched the flock of black T-shirts disappear into the distance. I was used to that.
By the fourth day I was getting fit. I was building up a head of steam and could have become a threat to the leaders. I could now paddle for quite a while without resting on my paddle and admiring the scenery. I paddled with – OK, behind, on her wave – a lady paddler for a while, focused for once. Busting for a leak, I didn’t want to lose the tug, so eventually let go and relieved myself in my boat. Aah! Bliss! But never again! I had to stop to empty the boat before the finish anyway (the smell! Must be the sherry) so no point in not stopping to have a leak.
Not that there will be a next time! Charlie’s Rule of Certifiability states quite clearly “Doing the Berg More Than Once Is Certifiable”. And while Charles Mason may have done 50 Umkos he has done only one Berg.
Greyling Viljoen won the race in 16hrs 7mins; I took 24hrs 24mins and probably 24 seconds; 225 maniacs finished the race; I was cold deep into my marrow.
The freezing finish at Velddrif at last!
The Velddrift Hotel bed that night was bliss with all my clothes on and the bedclothes from both beds piled on top of me. In Cape Town the next day I bought clothes I couldn’t wear again until I went skiing in Austria years later. Brrrr!! Yussis! Nooit! The Berg joins quite high up on my list of ‘Stupid Things I’ve Done’. Top of which is the Comrades Marathon as it’s the only ‘Stupid Thing I’ve Done and Not Even Finished’
Some interesting stats and numbers for the Berg River Canoe Marathon.
241km from Paarl to Velddrif. Four days of approx 62, 46, 74 and 60km.
46 300 – The estimated number of paddle strokes required to complete the Berg
I thought ours was a really high-water Berg. At 19cumecs it was the 7th highest of the 21 Bergs up to then. But since then the river has often been higher and 1983 is now only the 21st highest of 55 races. The very first race in 1962 was a staggering 342 cumecs! Liewe bliksem! The lowest in 1978 was a mere 1.44 cumecs.
Only twice – in 1965 and 1967 – was the overall winning time more than 21 hours (I took 24hrs, but its OK, I didn’t win). The fastest overall time: 13hrs 20mins.
Five paddlers have completed 40 or more Bergs. Giel van Deventer – Berg Historian, who compiled these facts – has finished the race 45 times! In the book on the Umko canoe marathon I wrote in a draft which I sent to him “the Berg, over 200km long” and he hastened to write to me saying “Pete, it’s 241km long, don’t get it wrong”. I changed it to 241km.
One of the toughest years was 1971, only 49% of starters finished – the lowest percentage so far. The oldest finisher of the Berg, Jannie Malherbe was 74 when he did that crazy thing in 2014. He made Ian Myers seem like a spring chicken.
1 401 – The number of paddlers who have completed one Berg only.
2 939 – The number of paddlers who came back for at least one more – maniacs!
Andy Birkett won the Berg in 2016. He makes no bones about the fact that the gruelling race takes its toll, even on well conditioned paddlers. “Flip, it was tough!” he recalls. “It was cold, putting on beanies and two or three hallies and long pants when you are busy paddling. But that is all part of it”. He speaks of how one needs to discreetly tuck in behind the experienced local elite racers, particularly on the earlier sections of the course where local knowledge through the tree blocks and small channels is important.
Tshwane – Famous for the protection of its inebriates.
of the self-guided car
Few people know that Pretoria Boys High, Audi and Elon Musk were secretly piloting a new self-driving car in Tshwane when their test pilot, one PH Brauer, Esq, pulled out of the program for reasons unknown, although rumour has it his wife gave him a thick ear one evening after golf. Details are sketchy, as is the test pilot, a Pretoria Boys High old boy. A PHB from PBH you could say. Some of the project’s left-over funds were spent re-building a school wall.
So that didn’t really work out.
of the amphibious canoe
OK, that didn’t work so well either, but at least there was no ongeluk thanks to the presence of two more responsible parties and the same long-suffering wife who took over the wheel of a high-powered vehicle at a crucial point when the inebriated one on the roofrack, one PH Brauer, Esq, thought paddling the Dusi was as easy as running Comrades.
Home of the original toilet bowl airbag
This field project took place outside Tshwane city limits in rural Yeoville. It also didn’t really work so well as the protective airbag failed to deploy until after the teeth of the main character in the act, one PH Brauer, Esq, had already chipped the porcelain. Work is continuing on developing a more robust alcohol fume sensor that triggers the bag. It seems the original sensor was simply overwhelmed by the overload and went phhht.t.t. and instead of inflating the bag it caused deflation in more areas than one.
of Gullible Stromberg Suckers
Although handicapped by the absence of any alcohol consumption, this project went surprisingly well, when the sucker in question, one PH Brauer, Esq, paid a premium price for a piece of inert plastic to attach to his car’s sparkplug cable. Or windscreen wiper cable. The resulting marginal improvement in performance from sat to so-so was enough to impress another Tshwane deskundige into believing the scam. Both were so taken in they gave the old pale blue Cortina its first service and wax.
Interesting place, Tshwane, ancestral home of the australopithecine Tshwanepoels.
ongeluk – smash; prang; crash; motor vehicle accident
1984 was one of the
very few years since 1960 that Colorado river water from the Grand
Canyon actually reached the sea. High snow melt pushed it past the
point where golf courses and old-age homes drain it of all its water
and so – at last! – the waters of the Colorado reached the beautiful
estuary at Baja California and flowed into the Sea of Cortez again!
Unknown to many, 1984
was also the ONLY year Mexicans would have been able to taste
Mainstay cane spirits, distilled from South African sugar cane, mixed
into that Colorado river water. Well, recycled Mainstay and river
water, as the Mainstay that reached the sea had first passed through
the kidneys of a mad bunch of South Africans that Chris Greeff had
assembled to paddle through the famous American Canyon.
That’s because we were on the river sponsored by Mainstay Cane Spirits and South African Airways. The ‘Mainstay’ we drank was actually an SAA Boeing 747’s supply of tot bottles of whisky, brandy, gin, vodka, rum – and Mainstay cane spirits. We decanted all the little bottles we could find into two two-litre plastic bottles to help the stewardesses on board with their end-of-Atlantic-crossing stock-take. We had resolved to drink the plane dry but man, they carry a lot of hooch on those big babies. Maybe in case they end up with all 350 passengers happening to be as thirsty as paddlers are? Here we are in Atlanta with the loot. Note the Mainstay sticker on one bottle held by our host Dave Jones, a paddler himself, for the US C2 team (I think so – check with Chris):
From Atlanta we jetted on to Phoenix Arizona. There we hired another lang slap car and took a slow drive to Flagstaff here we gout ‘outfitted’ with kit for the trip. Fifteen canoeists from South Africa joined our guide Cully Erdman and his delightful partner JoJo on a trip down the Grand Canyon from Lee’s Ferry to the take-out on Lake Mead three hundred miles downstream. We were accompanied by one other paddler, an Argentine José who was ticking off his bucket list, having climbed Everest. Five rubber inflatable rafts carried the food and the ‘Mainstay’ and hundreds of beers, plus a motley assortment of tag-along raft passengers from America and South Africa. Talking of motley: Us paddlers ranged from capable rough water paddlers to flatwater sprinters to happy trippers to complete novices. Some had Springbok colours, others had a lot of cheek.
Outfitting was also needed for supplies and Greeff put himself in charge of catering for the liquid refreshments. He was good at maths back in Parys se hoerskool so he did some sums: Seventeen kayakers plus some rafters times 12 days times 10 beers each is, lessee . . . OK, and then for after breakfast we’ll need . . .
Apparently the yanks thought he’d grossly over-catered and they were worried about how they were going to carry the left-over beer out of the canyon at the end. That’s if the rafts stayed afloat. Well, ons sal sien . .
Some twists in the tale: My boyhood kayaking heroes had been the van Riet brothers, Willem and Roelof, who won the Dusi three times just as I was first learning about the race ca 1970. As I started to participate in the race in 1972 Graeme Pope-Ellis won the first of his eventual fifteen Dusi wins. Both Willem and Graeme were with us on this trip, along with other paddling legends I had met in my recent entry into the world of canoeing. Having ‘paddled lonely‘ from 1970 to 1982, I was now rubbing shoulders with legends!
Me & Willem
Pope, Herve, Wendy, Chris
Another twist: In the year I first saw the Colorado river after walking/running down the Bright Angel trail from the South Rim to the Colorado’s swiftly-flowing clear green water, 1973, Willem had launched a boat at Lee’s Ferry, done an eskimo roll and come up with ice in his hair, causing him to postpone his trip. Now he was back, eleven years later – in the summer! And so was I.
The trip was put together by yet another iconic paddler Chris Greeff, winner of more kayak races than I’d had breakfasts. One of the craziest races he won was the Arctic Canoe Race on the border between Finland and Sweden. About 500km of good pool and drop rapids in cold water. When he arrived at the start with his sleek flatwater racing kayak the other paddlers and the officials looked at their wider, slower, more stable canoes and thought ‘Ha! he intends portaging around all the rapids!’ They had heard of the Dusi and how mad South Africans run with kayaks on their heads, so they amended the rules: Every rapid avoided would incur a stiff time penalty. You portage, you pay! Chris grinned and agreed enthusiastically with their ruling: He was no Dusi runner and he had no intention of getting out of his boat!
On the trip, our American kayak and raft guides kept asking us about the sponsors stickers we had attached to kayaks and rafts. SAA they understood, South African Airways, but what was this “Mainstay” stuff? Ooh! You’ll see! was all we’d say. At ___ rapid on Day __ around the camp fire we hauled out our two-litre bottles filled with a suspicious amber liquid. THIS we said, was that famous stuff!
The first thing about Mainstay, we told them, was its medicinal properties. Toekoe had turned blue from too much swimming, but after a slug of Mainstay he got his colour back as the before and after pictures clearly show:
As more Mainstay was swallowed, hilarity and a bit of insanity ensued. I have a picture frozen in my mind of Willem sprinting past me, running nimbly across the pontoons of a raft and launching himself in the darkness into the swift current of the Colorado running at 50 000cfs shouting Yee-ha!! – A bit like this, but at night:
Besides this fortified and fortifying SAA loot Greeff had also arranged for beers on the trip. John Lee tells the story:
I recall how our Yankee rafting crew were somewhat taken aback at the rather large drinks order they received prior to the departure from Lees Ferry! Despite the huge stocks, somewhere downstream in the depths of the Grand Canyon, to their utter disbelief, the only liquid left was the raging Colorado River. Stocks had run dry .
There were some thirsty, desperate river runners in camp. We were way upstream from the next available beer at Phantom Ranch’s shop on the high rim.
Desperate times call for desperate measures …….
Some of us (hello Felix!) resorted to performing like trained seals, executing dashing eskimo rolls for passing J-Rigs, and being rewarded with frosties for our efforts!
One Captain (PF) Christiaan Lodewikus Greeff called quietly for volunteers, and assembled a raiding party – could also call them ‘SEALs’, one was a parabat – to address the situation. This unbeknown to our unsuspecting, law-abiding river crew .
In the dead of night, wearing beanies, faces blackened, they slid silently into the icy waters of the flooded Colorado River and headed into an upstream eddy towards the distant sounds of happy laughter from a neighbouring campsite .
Reaching tethered rafts, they found the holy Grand Canyon grail . . . multiple nets strung from the rafts, laden with tins of sunset amber liquid.
Their return to our camp was triumphant.
I cannot recall the composition of that courageous group. Suffice it to say, that I am certain that it included one Lieutenant-Colonel A Gordon-Peter (SAB with bar).
The reaction of our guides, later, was somewhat different!
Mules heavily laden with liquor were later cajoled down the treacherous track from Phantom Ranch, and our evenings were once again fueled with fun, laughter and Willie’s moerse yarns!
In closing, who will ever forget that wonderful mirage in the middle of the shimmering Lake Mead – a very naked, very tall and statuesque blonde River Goddess on a drifting raft ………………… or was it ?
Well, I dunno – but there was one naked lady that I do know of: JoJo posed butt naked for a stealthily-taken pic on George’s camera. What a sport, she removed her bikini top and bottom for the gentlemen doing research on just how much trouble George would get into with his wife back home.
Lee plans his arguments for the court cases sure to follow: YaRonna these were just Merry Pranksters, M’Lord . . .
At the confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado the Little was flooding and massively silt-laden. We stopped on a skinny sandbank and had mud fights and mud rolls. The muddy water from the flooding Little Colorado was so thick the trout Felix Unite caught looked sadly lethargic. It merged here with the clear water coming out of Lake Powell and from here on we had traditionally red-coloured water – “colorado” in Latin. I fell out just downstream and got some of that muddy water up my snout. Back in Durban a month later I had to have an emergency sinus washout! As Saffeffricans say ‘Ah neely dahd!’
Somewhere downstream from here I got sucked under by a big whirlpool that formed under my boat that I couldn’t escape. As I went down I set up to roll but stayed down until I thought ‘I’m outa here’ and bailed. Up on the surface the guys told a more dramatic tale: ‘Swanie you disappeared for AGES! Then your boat popped up; then your paddle popped up and still there was no you! The at last you popped up!’ So then they started calling me Pete Whirlpool.
Lunch on a small sandbank – Five rafts, seventeen kayaks squeeze on:
Soaking up some warmth: Graeme & Wendy Pope-Ellis; Wendy Walwyn; John Lee; Cully Erdman; Me; Willem van Riet; Jannie Claassens; Herve de Rauville in red cap.
Hikes up the side-canyons:
Map reading. I had a lovely large-scale map of the river through the canyon showing all the rapids. We would pore over it, going over the day and plotting our tomorrow. Here Jannie Claassens stands left, Swys du Plessis is prominent in red shorts, I am just visible behind him, Dave Walker wears a cap, Willem van Riet sports a ducktail probly cos of his last swim, Herve de Rauville kneels like a good Catholic, Allie Peter lying down in the background cursing his shoulder, Chris Greeff in the Mainstay cap ponders his next move, Bernie The Jet Garcin has a beer in his hand and a sock in his speedo, Wendy Walwyn is planning her first eskimo roll soon, and Cully Erdman in blue shorts thinks who ARE these okes and where was that huge rapid Willem is talking about!?
Happy daze drifting in the current, lying back gazing up at the cliffs and watching the waterline as century after millenium of geological lines rose up out of the water and each day rose higher and higher above us. Willem the geologist would explain some of it to us.
Then you’d sit up and listen intently. Then peer ahead with a stretched neck and drift in a quickening current as the roar of the next rapid grew in the canyon air. The river was running at an estimated high 50 000cfs – that’s about 1650 cumecs, big water. Once you could see where it was, you pulled over and got out to scout it and plot your way through it.
For days before Lava
the bullshit build-up built up: ‘Rain? That’s not rain! That’s the
mist from LAVA FALLS!’
Arriving at Lava we hopped out and checked it out, butterflies no longer flying in formation. After scouting carefully most of us went left; a few went right. One – Ryan – went snorkeling straight into the big hole and got chomped, rinsed and spat out. His blue helmet can be seen in the picture if you have a magnifying glass.
And then typical ladies: As we strutted and boasted of derring-do they quietly commandeered one of the rafts and rowed it ladies-only down Lava!
At the usual take-out at Diamond Creek before Lake Mead the high water had washed away the road. We had to keep going. Miles later we hit the calm waters of Lake Mead. The river ran out of push, tamed by a damn dam. Paddling was over for most of us! We piled our kayaks onto the rafts and lay on them as our five-raft flotilla was tugged out by a motorboat to another take-out point, Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead miles downstream.
Except of course there was now no longer any ‘stream’ – we were on flat water. Greeff and a few other crazies – including Wendy Walwyn – you know, the types who weren’t issued with handbrakes, brains or limits, paddled the whole flat water way! Holy shit! I drank beer lying on a raft, gazing at the blue Arizona sky.
Drifting downstream, Dave Walker led the singing:
The canyon burro is a mournful bloke He very seldom gets a poke But when he DOES . . . He LETS it soak As he revels in the joys of forni- CA-TION!
and (to the tune of He Ain’t Heavy):
Hy’s nie Swaar nie
Hy’s my Swaer . a . a . aer
We went down the Canyon twice
I always say we did the Canyon twice. Once we would bomb down in our kayaks, crashing through the exhilarating big water; The second time was much hairier, with bigger rapids, higher water and far more danger: That was when Willem would regale us with tales of his day on the water around the campfire at night. ‘Raconteur’ is too mild a word! The word ‘MOERSE’ featured prominently in his epic tales. And this from a man who bombed ‘blind’ down the Cunene River in 1963.
Postscript: While we were paddling Chris spoke of attempting to beat the record for the fastest non-stop descent of the Canyon – the 277 mile stretch we had just done from Lee’s Ferry to our eventual take-out at Pearce Ferry.
Only a handful of boaters have been crazy enough to undertake such a mission. After all, doing it non-stop means having to shoot Lava Falls at night! The Riggs brothers made what could be considered the first speed run in 1951 when they rowed a cataract-style wooden boat through the canyon in 53 hours; Fletcher Anderson, a pioneering Southwestern boater, made a 49-hour solo kayak descent in the late 1970s; and then in 1983, just a year before our leisure trip, Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve Reynolds completed a now-legendary run on a flood of 70,000 cfs in a wooden dory named the Emerald Mile. Their record of 36 hours and 38 minutes was the time to beat.
Nothing came of it – it would have been a very expensive undertaking from South Africa for an obscure record only the small expedition kayaking fraternity would have known of and anyway, why do it? But the record is ever-present in some people’s minds. In January 2016 the record was beaten twice. First by ‘Team Beer’: Ben Luck, Matt and Nate Klemas and Ryan Casey in three Pyranha Speeders and a Perception Wavehopper, boats much like the ones we used.
Then three days later by Ben Orkin, paddling solo in a composite Epic 18X sea kayak, a boat much lighter than the models Team Beer had used and with a metre longer waterline. He reduced the time to 34 hours and 2 minutes. The Emerald Mile’s record, which had stood for over three decades, had been broken twice in three days.
I understand the quest for records (sort of), but for me, floating down in awesome wonder is really the way to do it.
Before the river became crowded and the park service slapped restrictions on trip lengths, private boatmen in the ’70s vied at slow-boating, or making a trip last as long as possible. The crowning glory of slow-boating has gone down in river history as the Hundred Days Trip. Legendary boatman Regan Dale and his extended family floated away from Lees Ferry and spent a whopping 103 days in the canyon. They hiked every side canyon, spent as long as a week in favorite camps like Nankoweap and Granite Park, baked their own bread and wallowed in the vast silence of stone cathedrals broken only by the rustle of the river. The moon waxed and waned three times while they were there. There will never be another trip like that.
I attended the plaaslike schools in Harrismith till 1972. A year in the USA in 1973 as a Rotary exchange student in Apache Oklahoma. Studied optometry in Joburg 1974 – 1977. Worked in Hillbrow and Welkom in 1978. Army (Potch and Roberts Heights, now Thaba Tshwane, in between Voortrekkerhoogte) in 1979 and in Durban (Hotel Command and Addington Hospital) in 1980. Stayed in Durban, paddled a few rivers, and then got married in 1988. About then this blog’s era ends and my Life With Aitch started. Post-marriage tales and child-rearing catastrophes are told in Bewilderbeast Droppings.
These random, un-chronological and personal memories are true of course. But if you know anything about human memory you’ll know that with one man’s memory comes: Pinch of Salt. Names have been left unchanged to embarrass the friends who led me (happily!) astray. If I haven’t offended anyone – yet – it’s not for lack of trying . .
Hastily-scribbled, these posts could do with help. They’re usually based on remembered conversations, not written notes. Add your memories – and corrections – and corrections of corrections! – in the comments if you were there.