You do not want to go left through Bedrock Rapid in the Grand Canyon. I knew this. Had been warned. Had cringed watching footage of boats that did go left and get chewed up. I knew all about not going left. Take a guess which way I went.
Started out hunky-dory. In position. Rowing my little arms off to keep us right of the humongous boulder, then –– BLAMMO –– stuck my oar on a downstream rock, It heaved me up off my seat and dang near flung me into the Colorado River. My good buddy Todd Kruger used his panther-like reflexes to catch the back of my life jacket and haul me back in.
The oar was now out of its oarlock and we were drifting left. Not great.
Swift action was required so Todd and I scurried to thread the oar back where it belonged. This frenzy of effort was noticed by Anders Pace in the boat ahead of us, which he described later as like watching “a dog on ice.”
Frantic pawing motions went along with his reenactment. Really painted a picture.
So now I’ve got both oars to work with again, but getting right ain’t gonna happen. We’re not going to make it. The few hairs on my body that had not turned snowy white during the previous five seconds did so now.
Then I realize that right or left are not the only options for running Bedrock Rapid. I can’t help but notice we are mere seconds away from smashing into the gigantic rock dividing the channel. Not good.
Rowing school drills into you that if you can’t avoid danger, you must hit it head-on. Turn the boat so your bow encounters the bad thing. Square up. T-bone it.
This increases your odds of bouncing off. A sideways boat flips faster than a long-ways boat. So I cranked the oars, spun the raft, wished I was wearing adult diapers and we rode up a fearsome pillow of water against a monstrously big chunk of stone and, holy smokes, our 18-foot rubber boat jacked up nearly vertical. I thought for certain we’d be pitched over straight backwards. It was a near thing.
Todd went out. Flushed to the left. A vile moment, seeing my pal go in the water and knowing I’d put him there because of a chump mistake. What burns me about this episode and always will is that entering this rapid I had mentally checklisted myself to be mindful not to catch my downstream oar.
It’s Rowing 101. But I still allowed it to happen, and there goes Todd swimming a decidedly unfriendly stretch of river. Not good.
The raft did not tip over. It flushed left. Grant Henarie was also on board. Grant’s a mountaineering guide on Mount Rainier and ski patroller on Mount Hood. No stranger to excitement, which was handy.
The raft rode up on a left-hand boulder, and I thought we’d flip. But, no. Raft flushed right and rode up on that humongous rock, and I thought again for sure we’d flip.
I went into the river at this juncture. Got pulled under. Started to wonder how much air I had left. Got uncomfortable about it, but came up and got a gulp of air.
Heard: “Rombach! Rope!” I got a throwbag from Wallowa County boy Anders Pace. Perfect delivery. Muchas gracias, Ders. And Alex Martin, strong work catching that eddy.
Todd was safe, picked up by another boat. I was safe. And here comes Grant, floating out of the trouble spot just as calm as can be, rethreading the oars back into their oarlocks once again.
Grant had done some fancy footwork after I got ejected. He’d climbed up on the tube of the raft, then stepped onto the giant boulder. Watched the raft rumble around for a while until it settled down and started to leave, then he hopped back onboard. That’s some Fred Astaire-type rafting moves right there.
We finished the trip unscathed –– 21 days on the water. 225 river miles. The Wallowa County crew was Anders and Robin Pace, Alex Martin, Todd and myself. We all guided for Winding Waters River Expeditions with Brian Murphy, the trip leader who drew the Grand Canyon permit.
Thanks, Murphy. Jacey Bell also went along for the first week, then hiked out at Phantom Ranch to get back and run her Range Rider Saloon.
Heckuva trip, that Grand Canyon. If you go, remember to watch that downstream oar.
Jon Rombach used to row boats on Wallowa County rivers for a living but hung up his guiding Chacos and nowadays works for Nez Perce Fisheries in Wallowa County rivers. He writes a column for the Chieftain.