This was the problem: Most of the guys and gals I would do river trips with had a serious deficiency: a lack of some specific paddling strokes one should use on a river trip. Most of them especially couldn’t execute my favourite stroke: Paddle on your lap, arms folded, gaze around in awesome wonder, and allow the boat to gently rotate in the current. The Swanie 360° River Revolution, or Swannee River for short.
They were racing snakes. They’d say ‘Let’s Go,’ and then they would actually do that! Weird. Then they’d look back, wait till I eventually caught up and ask, ‘What’s Wrong Swanie?’ I was of course much too polite to reply, ‘Nothing. What’s The Hurry?’ I’m polite that way. What I meant was, ‘I don’t want this day to end.’
And so we would gently bumble downriver. Every few hundred metres they’d wait, or one of them would paddle upstream (more weirdness) back to me and ask ‘What’s Wrong Swanie?’
Weird. Although I must admit, you wouldn’t want me in charge of timing or logistics on a trip!
When the current was swift enough my speed could match theirs. It was the flat water that was tricky. In their defence, they were actually going slowly and enjoying the scenery in awesome wonder. It’s just that their slowly and mine was out of sync!
Watch Luca Sestak (then 14yrs-old) show us how to do the Swannee River:
After a long gap from paddling I decided to relaunch my river paddling career, striking fear into the heart of all contenders.
I would need a boat. Being a cheapskate I searched far and wide, high and low and I found one far and low. In PMB dorp. A certain gentleman in fibreglass, Hugh ‘user-friendly’ Raw had one for sale at a bargain price. His glowing description of the craft made me know this was the boat with which to relaunch – OK, launch – my competitive career in river paddling.
At Hugh’s place he showed me the boat and it did indeed look pristine. I went to pick it up and load it on my kombi’s roofrack, but Hugh held me back with a firm, ‘NO. Let me have that done for you!’ Customer service, I thought. User-friendly. So I watched as he got his two biggest workers to load the boat for me, which they did with ease. Big, strapping lads.
On the way back to Durban the kombi seemed to be struggling. I had to gear down on the hills, never had that before. Strong headwind, I thought.
The boat stayed there till Thursday, the big day. The first day of my relaunched paddling life. The dice on the Umgeni river outside my Club, Kingfisher. And then I understood. Getting the boat down off my roofrack took a Herculean effort. When I plopped it into the water the Umgeni rose two inches.
I can say this: Rands-per-Kg – pound-for-pound – I got the best bargain from Hugh ‘user-friendly’ Raw of that century.
While I was contemplating thus, and thinking I’m loving being back on the water, what kept me away so long, Ernie yelled at me through his megaphone and the water exploded around me. What the hell!? All these fools around me suddenly went berserk, water was flying everywhere. It took a few minutes before calm returned and I was sitting bobbing on the disturbed surface. This tranquility was again ruined by Ernie yelling through that same damned megaphone: ‘Swanie what are you waiting for!?’
Jeesh! I headed off after the flotilla disappearing in the distance and after twenty or thirty strokes it suddenly came to back to me in a blinding flash of realisation: I knew why I had stopped paddling. It’s damned hard work.
I was born in Harrismith in 1955, as was Mom Mary in 1928, and her Mom Annie in 1893. Annie thought “the queen” of that little island left of France was also the queen of South Africa (and for much of her life she was right!).
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 it was Voortrekkerhoogte) in 1979 and in Durban (Hotel Command and Addington Hospital) in 1980.
I 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.
‘Strue!! – 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. Add your memories – and corrections – and corrections of corrections! – in the comments if you were there.
Note: I go back to my posts to add / amend as I remember things and as people mention things, so the posts evolve. I know (and respect) that some bloggers don’t change once they’ve posted, or add a clear note when they do. That’s good, but as this is a personal blog with the aim of one day editing them all into a hazy memoir, this way works for me. So go’n re-look at some posts you’ve enjoyed before and see how I’ve improved over time (!). It’s just as my friend Greg says: ‘The older we get, the better we were.’
Two Springbok paddlers were watching me intently as I nimbly maneuvered my boat through the water. As I got to the gate that they were judging I ducked into an eddy and rested on my paddle, getting my breath back and having a chuckle at how clumsily I had bashed through the last gate.
And this is where it turns nasty. Instead of shouting admiration at my skill and encouragement for me to ‘Keep It Up!’ or something, they bellowed, while hosing themselves: ‘Don’t worry Swanie, we’re not using a stopwatch, we’re using a calendar.”
Put me off my stroke. Kirby and Stewart carry the heavy responsibility of probably ruining a promising international slalom paddling career.
We hired a Lincoln Continental Town Car in Atlanta and put roofracks on. Dave Jones, dentist and US paddling legend and coach, put us up for the night before we headed North. Chris Greeff, SA kayaking legend & trip organiser; Herve de Rauville, kayaking legend; Jurie the SABC cameraman, Steve Fourie, a friend of Chris’. And me.
And off we went to the Ocoee River in Tennessee. Which was completely empty. Not low. Empty.
Then they turned on the tap at twelve noon and we could paddle. The full flow of the Ocoee gets diverted to generate power! How criminal is that!! That it even flows occasionally is only thanks to hard lobbying by paddlers and environmentalists. From around 1913 to 1977 the river was mostly bone dry – all the water diverted to generate power. Now sections of it flow again at certain times.
I’m in orange.
Here’s a description of the short stretch of river we paddled:
The Middle Ocoee
The Middle Ocoee is the portion of whitewater, on this stretch of water, paddlers and rafting enthusiasts, have been paddling for decades. Beginning at Rogers Branch and just over 5 miles long, this class 3-4 section of whitewater is an adrenaline junkies dream, crammed with waves and holes.
Entrance rapid gives you whitewater from the get-go. As soon as you launch onto the middle Ocoee you are in a class 4 rapid, paddling through waves and dropping ledges. It’s a fun and exciting way to begin your trip. Broken Nose begins with a large S-shaped wave. Swirling water behind it will send you to a series of ledges. This is a great place for pictures, so smile.
Next, Slice and Dice: two widely spaced ledges, fun to drop, especially the second ledge. If done correctly, you can get a great surf here “on the fly”.
An interesting and humorous set of rock formations highlights the rapid, Moon Chute. After making your way behind the elephant shaped rock, do some 360’s in front of “sweet-cheeks,” then drop through the chute and over the ledge at the bottom. Double Suck, an appropriately named rapid, where a good-sized ledge drops you into two hydraulics. Paddle hard or you might catch another surf here. Double Trouble, which is more ominous in name than in structure, is a set of three large waves, which will have everybody yelling. This is another great photo spot. You won’t find an easier, more fun rapid.
Next is Flipper (No, it’s not named after the dolphin). Here, a great ledge drop puts you into a diagonal wave. Hit this wave with a right hand angle and enjoy the ride, or angle left to eddy out. Then enjoy one of the best surfs on the river. Table saw was originally named for a giant saw-blade shaped wave in the middle of it. The rock forming the wave was moved during a flood several years ago, making this one of the most exciting rapids on the Middle Ocoee. The big waves in this one will make the boat buck like a bronco.
At Diamond Splitter, point your boat upstream and ferry it between two rocks. Once there get a couple of 360’s in before dropping through the chute and into the hydraulic.
Slingshot is where most of the water in the river is pushed through a narrow space, making a deep channel with a very swift current. To make this one a little more interesting, see how many 360’s you can complete from top to bottom. Cat’s Pajamas start with a couple of good ledges, with nice hydraulics. After those, it will look as though you are paddling toward a big dry rock, but keep going. At the last second, there will be a big splash and you will be pushed clear. Hell’s Hole is the biggest wave on the river. Start this one in the middle of the river, drifting right. Just above the wave, start paddling! When you crest this 7-8 ft. wave, you will drop into a large hydraulic. Stay focused because just downstream are the last two ledges known as
Powerhouse. Drop these ledges just right of center for a great ride.
Once through Powerhouse, collect yourself and take out at Caney Creek.
The dry river when they turn off the taps. Very sad:
Made of Beech, Birch, Cherry and Maple wood, it has a hollow laminated oval shaft, the oval at right angles so each hand has its own correct oval.
The blade is also laminated, then kevlar-clad and teflon-tipped.
Bruce the Moose Clark of Gauteng and Umko paddling fame was waxing lyrical about Struer sprinting paddles and that got me thinking about my Nimbus river paddle from Port Coquitlam in British Columbia. Not a racing paddle, not a flatwater paddle. A wild rivers work of art for slow-boating. See, I have an arrangement with rivers: I bring a boat to keep afloat, a paddle to keep upright. All forward motion must be provided by the current.
I ordered two from our trip leader Cully Erdman before we paddled the Colorado in 1984. Being left feather I didn’t want to risk being stuck up a canyon without a paddle.
Dave ‘Lang Dawid’ Walker is also left feather so he used the second paddle for the twelve days. The river was running high so I didn’t touch a rock the whole 480km way. The only person I heard did touch a rock was Dave in Crystal and the gentleman he is, he immediately came to me to show me the damage: a slight scratch on the kevlar!
Bernie Garcin is holding my paddle in the top picture.
I remember a lovely day, spectacular scenery, an easy river level, quite gentle, good company, lots of laughs, but very little else till near the end when we came to the only rapid we decided not to go ‘down the middle’!
Among us were (as I recall) Doug Retief, Martin Lowenstein, Marlene Boshoff, Pete Zietsman and Bernie Garcin. Around 1983 or 1984 I guess? I wonder who drove our vehicles?
The rapid had a deep slot with the water dropping vertically over a ledge on three sides, a bit like a weir. Did someone call it The Coffin? We decided to take a sneak around it on the right and as I was on river left I started to ferry-glide across but lost my angle and decided ‘Too late, I’ll have to go for it’
I paddled hard and shot down into the slot, shuddered to a halt but then managed to pull away. All turned out alright, but I berated myself for a sloppy ferry-glide! Focus!
Don’t remember much else except a nice cold drink at this trading store on top of the hill. I wonder if anyone took a camera?
Map from paddler celliers kruger; photos from mapio.net – thanks!
Dukandlovu rustic camp was underutilised. Parks Board wanted to increase its use and were looking for new ideas. It was a walk-in or cycle-in rustic camp and they were reluctant to open it up to drive-in access, so wanted to try other ideas first.
Rustic, but splendid, it’s a four hut, eight bed camp with basic kitchen facilities and cold water showers. The widows are openings with roll-down reed blinds which keep about half the wind and none of the mozzies out. The beds had mattresses, but bring your own bedding.
It was doomed. So few people want to rough it! Not ‘nowadays’ – always. Since humans first walked upright the majority have chosen the cushiest of whatever’s available. ‘I prefer roughing it’ has always been the weirdness of a few.
But the rugged few in Parks Board were reluctant to give in too easily, so first they tried us: “Let’s test the feasibility of adding canoeing-in to the access menu!” they said. Robbie Stewart was approached and he took Bernie Garcin and I (and others – who?) to test the waters. Literally. We set off with our plastic kayaks to False Bay, launched them and headed south towards the mouth of the Hluhluwe river on the Western Shores. Right from the outset we could see this wasn’t promising: We touched bottom often. Our draft was mere inches, but the lake was that shallow in places. Great for small worms and other marine creatures and for the wading birds that spear them from above, but not good for paddling. Oh well, we had tried. Not long after this they actually did open it to vehicle access. With a sigh, I’ve no doubt.
After staying a night the rest of the guys went home on the Sunday. I stayed over with Parks Board Rangers Dick Nash and Trevor Strydom. Monday morning I woke, eagerly looking forward to my day of ‘rangering’. What derring-do would we get up to with me as ‘ranger-for-a-day’?
Paperwork at a desk, that’s what. As head ranger, Dick first had a whole bunch of admin to sort out! Not what I’d imagined.
But later we got going on their regular bird count in the wilderness area in the north-east arm of the lake. We set off in their spacious craft with a Hamilton jet propulsion system (an impellor rather than a propellor, it sucks water in the underbelly and spits it out the back). This was fine in clear deep water, but when we nosed up the Mkhuze river we soon sucked up waterweeds and came to a halt. Dick pulled rank and ordered Trevor to jump overboard and remove the weed from under the boat. On the bird count we had seen at least fifty thousand and ten of their distant cousins – crocodiles – so the thought of jumping overboard was not inviting! Anyway, before Trevor could remove his shirt Dick was already under the boat doing it himself. A bit disconcerting when you looked at his hand as he chucked the weed away: He only had two fingers and a thumb. Had a croc taken the other fingers?
Looked like this, but I think this is maybe Kosi?
We got going again in fits and starts and after a few more stops to clear the impeller we turned back to the lake and continued to count birds. And thumb our noses at the crocodiles.
So do go to Dukandlovu, you can drive there now. You wimp.
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 asked, 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 in the gale-force wind that was the 1983 second day.
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 another tied to the rudder cable in my boat; nor could he know 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 earlier. 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.
. . and today – April 2021 – I heard he died, aged only 62. Damn!
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, carefully and ‘kindly’ explains something to you that you already know; usually inflicted on women;
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. Paddled for the USA in K1, C1 and C2 wildwater, US national champ and also coached the USA team. So we were saddled with not one but TWO national paddling champs who are dentists and military men! Myself I personally reckon mixing guns, boats and teeth with beer can only bring trouble . .
From Atlanta we jetted on to Phoenix Arizona. There we hired another lang slap car and took a slow drive to Flagstaff where we got ‘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 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!
Later: 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 50 000 cfs 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 that the trout Felix Unite caught thanked him for rescuing them!
It merged here with the clear water coming out of Lake Powell – seen behind Felix – and from here on we had traditionally red-coloured water – ‘colorado.’
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! Then at last you popped up!’ So then they started calling me Pete Whirlpool. Lots of that muddy water stayed up my snout and I had a few bad sinus headaches but Wendy – Dave Walker’s connection – very kindly stepped in and saved my butt with strong painkillers. Back in Durban a month later I was rushed into theatre for an emergency sinus washout! As Saffeffricans say ‘Ah neely dahd!’ Some Little Colorado River mud was washed down Durban’s St Augustine Hospital’s outlet pipes into the Indian Ocean that day. Probly also had a smattering of Mainstay in it.
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 ‘Wwho 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. The latest view seems to be that the river is around six million years old, and it has exposed rocks up to two billion years old as it carves downwards, aided also by wind erosion.
Then every so often you would 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 of 50 000cfs – that’s about 1650 cumecs, big water. 1984 was a high year. Once you could see where the rapid was, you pulled over and got out to scout it and plot your way through it. It was no use asking Greeff. His stock answer was ‘Down The Middle!’
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! They took one yank with them, just to show him they could . .
At the usual take-out at Diamond Creek before Lake Mead, we stopped for a rest and some team photos. The high water had washed away the road. We had to keep going. Some miles later we hit the dead 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 – there were still a few beers that needed polishing. Our five-raft flotilla was tugged out by a motorboat to another take-out point, Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead miles downstream.
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.
Too soon, it was over.
Drifting downstream, Dave Walker had 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 around the campfire at night when Willem would regale us with tales of his day on the water. ‘Raconteur’ is too mild a word! The word ‘MOERSE’ featured prominently in his epic tales and his long arm would be held high to show you where the crest of the wave sat. And this from a man who bombed ‘blind’ down the Cunene River in 1963.
When? I wanted to knwo when exactly we were on the water to look up the flow on those days, but no-one knew. Now! Aha! I found an old letter (or Sheila did) written just before we flew to Arizona). I think we paddled – near as dammit – from 18 to 30 July 1984.
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.
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 do (sort of) understand the quest for records (sort of), humans always will go for fastest; 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 Day 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. It was roughly as long as the very first trip down the canyon led by John Wesley Powell in 1869, over a hundred years earlier – and 150 years ago now; I wonder if there will ever be trips like that again.