Chuck gaped at the back of Clarence’s helmeted head. “What in God’s name are you saying?”
“I mean, consider the odds,” Clarence yelled back at him.
“You really think—?”
Clarence nodded, his plastic helmet bobbing. “I do. The power—the force—of this first rapid made me realize I needed to say something.”
Chuck grimaced and rowed backward, adding space between the gear boat and the remaining two oar rafts still in sight above the rapid. “Now is not the time, Clarence. In fact, now is the very worst time.”
“Sorry, jefe,” Clarence shouted back. “I just had to say it.”
Chuck gritted his teeth. They were seconds from dropping into the whitewater.
“Plus,” Clarence said, “there’s the penny.”
A tiny object had fallen from Ralph’s supine frame into the sand when Tamara’s guides had removed the professor’s body from his tent. The guides hadn’t noticed the object, but Chuck had. While the guides wrapped Ralph’s body in a plastic tarp, Chuck had retrieved the object from the ground. It turned out to be a dull copper penny. He’d tucked the penny in his pocket and mentioned it to Clarence.
“People carry coins in their pockets all the time,” Chuck hollered over the roar of the rapid. “Especially older people. The penny fell out of Ralph’s pants when the guides moved him, that’s all.”
“You sound awfully sure of yourself.”
“Because I am.”
“Well, I’m not all that sure I agree with—”
“Enough,” Chuck said, cutting Clarence off. “There’s no more time.”
Rapid 1 was a hundred feet ahead. He had to focus on running it—and, in particular, avoiding the hole at its center.
The whitewater in Cataract Canyon formed where flash floods swept boulders into the river from side canyons. The boulders gathered in invisible heaps beneath the surface, roiling the water above.
The least threatening of the canyon’s rapids were those composed solely of standing waves. Because of their constant downstream flow, standing waves offered relatively safe, roller-coaster-like fun, with passengers whooping in delight as rafts reared up and over them.
In contrast, waves known as holes formed in the steepest, toughest rapids. Holes were waves that fell backward upon themselves, creating dangerous pits in the middle of whitewater runs. To enter a hole in a raft was to risk flipping and flinging passengers into the recirculating maw of the depression, where they could be trapped under the overturned boat or sucked deep beneath the surface of the water. Numerous holes lurked in the whitewater stretches of Cataract Canyon. The most treacherous of the canyon’s rapids featured two or more holes, requiring captains to oar their boats back and forth across the river in the midst of the seething whitewater to avoid them.
Rapid 1 was challenging but not necessarily death-defying, rated Class IV on the Class I to V scale of whitewater difficulty. The rapid featured only one hole, but the hole was situated in the center of the river at the base of the entry tongue, making it difficult to avoid.
Ahead, the second and third oar rafts had plunged over the horizon line one behind the other, leaving the gear boat alone in the calm water, fifty feet from the start of the rapid. Chuck pushed forward with his oars once, twice, three times. The sour smell of perspiration rose from his armpits as he shoved the oars hard away from his chest, adding speed to the raft for use as momentum during the upcoming move to avoid the Rapid 1 hole.
As the gear raft crested the horizon line, the rapid’s four-hundred-yard stretch of turbulence came into view. Chuck noted the kayaks and paddle rafts bounding through the boisterous tail waves at the bottom of the rapid a quarter mile downstream. The kayakers peeled off, one to each side of the river, while the paddle rafts coasted into the calm eddy at the end of the whitewater.
Upstream from the kayaks and paddle rafts, the first two oar rafts were successfully below the recirculating hole and coursing through the standing waves in the middle of the rapid. The paddlers at the front corners of each boat dug their paddle blades into the river, while the captains strained at their oars from the seats in the center of the two boats. Behind the guides, the passengers at the rear of the boats lay on their stomachs, clinging to looped straps to remain aboard.
The third and final oar raft floated down the center of the rapid’s entry tongue. Tamara pushed forward with her oars while her front paddlers stroked with their paddles. She had replaced the battered, straw cowboy hat she customarily wore with a plastic helmet. Her paddlers, also temporarily helmeted for the rapid, worked with her to complete the lateral move required to break the boat out of the V-shaped entry tongue before reaching the hole, which lurked at the base of the tongue like a dark, menacing portal to the underworld.
Together, Tamara and her paddlers punched the raft nose-first through the lateral waves and safely away from the hole.
Behind Tamara’s boat, the gear raft began its descent down the smooth Rapid 1 entry tongue. Without paddlers at the front corners of the oversized gear boat, Chuck would have to oar the big raft out of the entry tongue on his own before reaching the hole, while Clarence clung to the cooler in the front well of the boat.
As the speed of the current picked up, Chuck spun the raft until it was perpendicular to the flow of the river. Seated side-ways to the seething hole waiting at the bottom of the tongue, he reached forward with his oars and dropped the blades into the water. He pulled backward, enlisting his shoulder and back muscles to apply more power to the stroke than he could with a forward push.
His first pull on the oars would begin the process of powering the raft sideways across the tongue and away from the recirculating wave. If his attempt to break out of the tongue failed, he would have a few precious seconds to spin the raft forward and strike the hole’s breaking wave head on. The key for all raft captains was to never enter a hole sideways, because the narrower side-to-side width of oval-shaped rafts meant entering in that position increased the odds of flipping exponentially.
Chuck heaved backward on his oars, initiating his first stroke in the center of the rapid’s entry tongue. The oar shafts bowed where they passed through the oarlocks at the sides of the raft, transferring the power of his stroke to the oar blades. The blades began their forward sweep through the water. He strained harder, applying every last bit of his strength to the stroke. In response, the oar shafts bowed another inch—and the right oarlock snapped in two.
The freed oar straightened with a vibrating zing and skittered across the top of the raft’s side thwart. The bronze oarlock’s U-shaped top remained wrapped around the oar, while the bottom half of the oarlock poked from the head of the oar tower at Chuck’s side, its sheered shaft glinting in the sun.
Chuck stared at the spot where, a second ago, his oar had been secured to the oar tower.
Oarlocks were made of soft metal, most commonly bronze, and thereby designed to break when rafts struck immovable objects like rocks or cliff walls. At the same time, however, oarlock shafts were fashioned to withstand many times more force than the strongest human could possibly apply to them with an oar stroke. Yet the gear boat’s right oarlock had failed at Chuck’s pull, leaving the boat—and Chuck and Clarence with it—at the mercy of the rapid.
The raft sped down the center of the tongue, seconds from dropping into the hole. There wasn’t enough time before the boat reached the recirculating wave for Chuck to replace the sheered oarlock, or for him to resecure the loosed oar with a loop of webbing around the oar tower and return the oar to partial service. Instead, he had only the left oar at his disposal.
He let go of the right oar, grabbed the left oar handle with both hands, and pulled, pivoting the raft until it faced downstream. Thirty feet ahead, at the bottom of the entry tongue, the hole’s backward-cresting wave surged into the air, a seething wall of water ten feet high.
Next to Chuck, the unsecured right oar slid off the thwart. When the oar blade dove into the water, the force of the current against the blade pinwheeled the oar’s heavy shaft above the river’s surface. The shaft swung across the front of the boat like a pendulum, and the iron counterweight, bolted below the oar handle, struck the side of Clarence’s helmet a violent blow.
“Clarence!” Chuck cried out, too late.
Clarence collapsed across the cooler, his head cradled in his hands. The raft pivoted around the pinwheeling oar until the big boat once again floated sideways in the current. Chuck dug the left oar into the water and yanked the handle in desperation, but his effort was futile; the raft floated into the hole before he could reorient the boat downstream.
The raft rode sideways up the face of the wave. It slowed to a crawl, then came to a full stop, hanging in space, nearly vertical.
Clarence tumbled off the cooler. His big body slammed into a square, metal storage box strapped to the side of the raft frame. Behind Clarence, Chuck toppled out of the captain’s seat. The handle of the left oar, still secured in its oarlock, struck his ribcage a bruising blow as he fell. He wrapped his arms around the left oar tower and clung to it as water poured over the thwarts, filling the boat from all sides.
Still perpendicular to the current, the raft slid back down the face of the wave into the recirculating hole. Water sluiced over the bow, sweeping Clarence out of the boat. In a flash, he disappeared beneath the surface of the river.
The madly churning water at the base of the wave suctioned the raft’s lower thwart, trapping the boat in the hole, while the collapsing top of the wave shoved the upper thwart so far over that the boat’s massive load of gear hung directly above Chuck’s head.
Before the raft flipped entirely, the water pouring over the side thwarts ripped Chuck’s arms free of the oar tower and swept him out of the boat. He plunged into the swirling center of the hole and beneath the surface of the river.
The water closed over his head, instantly reducing his world to bubbling quiet and murky darkness.
Scott Graham, author of the National Park Mystery Series, also has written five nonfiction books. A former newspaper reporter, magazine editor, radio disk jockey, city councilor and coal-shoveling fireman on the steam-powered Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Graham is an avid outdoorsman and lives with his wife, an emergency physician, in Durango, Colorado.