Time Passing in the Canyon

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An Award Winner! 9/22/12

*****

Last night in the year 1540, Hernando de Alarcon, along with twelve sailors and two Indian guides, turned their two ocean oriented long boats southward on the Colorado River. They were attempting to navigate through the Grand Canyon in supply loaded boats after an unsuccessful attempt to deliver those supplies to Francisco Coronado and his land trekking explorers in the north.  A sudden thunder and lightning storm swelled the river and caused the destruction of one boat, the loss of its cargo, and the death of four sailors.

 The survivors of the destroyed boat joined the members of the second boat and all safely floated to the river’s inlet in the Gulf of California and rejoined their Spanish sailing ship.

 The sailors brought a tale back home with them. It was officially recorded as a side note in the margins of their map of the river, but spread to the public as a sea tale told at the docks and in the pubs by the returning explorers, a yarn that surely grew on the voyage home, and in the telling.

 The sailors told of meeting a young couple that was travelling on the Red River (Colorado River) in a boat that undulated on the water like a serpent. The couple wore strange clothes and footwear and carried their food in marvelous containers. In the bag the couple lost, there was a device that held a beam of light, another which brought things closer to the eye when you looked through it. There was a small vial that made fire when it was struck, and a metal blade so sharp it cut a man when he touched it.

 The tale goes on to say, the sailors witnessed the overturning of their strange boat and how the two survived the cascade down the rain swollen rapids. It told about recovering the couples lost paddles, food supply, and strange contraptions.

 Not knowing whether or not these two were the children of Gods or Gods themselves, the party returned the articles to them as a favor and out of respect. The extremely superstitious Spanish sailors found that appeasing the Gods ensured a safer voyage home. There would still be storms and monsters on the sea blocking their voyage home, they didn’t need problems with other peoples Gods.

 *****

“Marsha!” I yelled as loud as I could while choking on the water running out of the corner of my mouth.

I could feel and hear the gravel rolling against the side of my face. It sounded like glass marbles grinding on each other. The small waves caused by the rapids were slowly rolling my body forward and back again parallel against the gravel bar I had come to rest against.

I had not drowned, but the river was treating me as if I had. I began to command limp muscles to contract, which caused my legs to lift my trunk first. This drove my face deeper into the gravel triggering my arms to start working. I had pain down deep inside, and my skin burned while, at the same time, I could feel the cold water.

I remember shouting, “Marsha”.

My adrenalin kicking in, I attempted to stand so I could look for her. The rounded gravel gave way, and I collapsed back down to one knee. Learning, I tried again, compensated for the poor footing, and succeeded in standing up!

“Elliot, I’m over here!” The voice said.

I was facing the wrong direction, and with the roar of the whitewater, plus the echo in the canyon, I found the source of the voice, not by sound, but by motion. She had a hold on the raft by the external safety line that threaded all the way around the raft. Her other hand was attempting to wave while wrapped around a snag downstream from me. We were, fortunately, on the same side of the river!

Now that I knew she was alive, my priorities changed slightly. I took stock of myself. My ribs hurt a little; there were some red, skinned patches on my arms and a thigh. I had left some of my hide on the rocks at the bottom of that rapid.

My shirt was torn, and I was missing a water moccasin. I didn’t think anything was broken.

I began to move downstream toward Marsha.

 *****

Our adventure had started out nicely, driving the distance between L.A. and Flagstaff in two days. We were slowed by rain most of the trip, but the skies cleared as we reached Flagstaff. The rain stayed north of our end of the river the following day, which helped the preparation for our trip down the Colorado River easier.

 This was not our first trip down the river. We’d rafted with a large group in 2010 and a smaller group 2011. This year, we decided to do things differently.  Today was our third anniversary. We thought it would be romantic if we travelled by ourselves.

The outfitter at Marble Canyon told us, he would pick us up at the bottom in three days, and with a little warning about the water surge from the rain up north the night before, he smiled and told us to enjoy ourselves. He told us, this late in the season, we should have the river all to ourselves.

We launched, waved to our outfitter, and then didn’t say a word for the next fifteen minutes. The only sounds left to us after that time were canyon sounds, the gurgling of the water as it was pushed away from the raft, a low rumble off in the distance, and the slight rush of the water as it passed around rocks and boulders.  It was now us and the river. We felt like pioneers as the canyon seemed to take us back in time.

Marsha spoke first. She said she could see someone on the shore ahead. The river’s natural currents took us close enough to see men in trapper’s skins and fur hats. There were two dressed as Indians. All stopped what they were doing and watched as we drifted silently by. I nervously lifted a hand in the air but did not wave. It was a tentative greeting at least. One on the bank did the same.

So much for our alone time!

Around noon, we stopped for a shore lunch. Every meal was neatly wrapped, compartmentalized, and waterproof.  This first stop was simple fare, rye crackers with goober jam, red eye made with filtered river water, and raisins. It was perfect and fast. We had a moment to sit still, lean back on a rock next to each other and take in the scene.

That wooden river boat passed by, four men pulling oars, four or five riding and a rudder man standing tall in the stern, all looking our way.

 *****

 I struggled in the current a bit getting over to Marsha.

The surge from the rainstorm had caught up with us, sweeping us into a boil of water. It pulled the bow of the raft under, and it filled with water, and then tipped over. I fell out and was swept away, but Marsha held on.  A food and equipment rucksack and the paddles were lost.

We had the spare, collapsible, emergency paddle in the pouch of the raft, and we still had the bag with the map, so with these, we knew we could make it through to our next layover and some rest.

With the current and steering with the one paddle, we carefully floated for the next hour and a half. We had to stay on the right side of the river, to find the campsite.

Marsha spotted it first, a pillar of smoke ahead. The sun was about to disappear behind the Grand Canyon’s steep banks. When that happens, twilight lasts about two minutes, and it gets cold quickly.

The smoke was right where our campsite should be. We landed and pulled our raft up on the sand. There was not a sound. We’d both expected to find our riverboat friends there, but there was no one.

The pillar of smoke hung directly over a freshly made stack of wood in the stone fire ring. As we walked up to the circle, I put my hand to the wood stack and found it cold.

There, next to the fire ring was our rucksack, my moccasin, and the two paddles.

In the quiet of this moment, we heard someone yell across the water, from down river as we watched two torchlights disappearing into the black night.

“Dormir a bien esta noche jóvenes dioses! (Sleep well tonight young Gods!)

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About Ronald D. Drobeck

I've read, learned, been discriminated against, patronized, lied to, laughed at, laughed with, and ignored. I'm not a minority, not tall, not good looking, not skinny, not hairy, and can see 10 miles, but not two feet. I've been a paperboy, college student, licensed nursing home administrator, professional musician (swing drummer), duck and goose hunter, fisherman, conservationist, Eagle scout, camp counselor, canoeing instructor, lifeguard, comedian, restaurant owner, licensed exterminator, insurance agent, warehouse manager, carpenter, conservative, father of 4, baseball coach, husband, worrier, writer, embryo gardener, and nice guy.

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