Corrections or additions?
This article by Bill Potter was prepared for the August 13, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Colorado River: Lessons from a Tough Course
While thousands of Princeton University alumni were
spending a week in early June schmoozing at reunions, a half dozen
Princetonians spent nine days in rubber pontoon boats paddling down
187 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon — and
along the way, running 64 major rapids through water measuring a numbing
50 degrees and with air temperatures hovering between 100 and 110
in the shade.
On their middle-aged legs, these alumni also climbed over sheer rock
wall faces and hiked along dry tributary river beds prone to flash
flooding in search of hidden mountain pools or to view the ruins left
by Anasazi Indians ("ancient ones") or by a Mormon family
that tried to raise cattle in the canyon and lost a son to drowning
in the wild river over a 150 years ago.
At the last minute, I was asked to join this group of 50-something
Princeton explorers — Thomas "Thos" Paine ’76, David Loevner
’76, Loevner’s business partner Dan Harding, Josh Greene ’81, Charles
Stone ’76, and Bill Lockwood ’59. Paine is president of Dana Communications
in Hopewell, Loevner is an investment manager in Somerville, Greene
publishes Wine and Spirits magazine in Manhattan, and Stone is a lighting
consultant whose firm, Fisher Marantz Stone, was responsible for the
World Trade Center memorial illumination. We were joined by two men
who grew up in Princeton but work in New York (Sean Keenan and David
Morgan), three guides, and two women training to be guides.
As for me, I have had a law practice on Nassau Street since 1987 (Potter
and Dickson focuses on energy, environment, and land use) and teach
part-time in the Princeton University politics department.
The paterfamilias of the group, Helmut Weymar (founder of Commodities
Corp., now Goldman Sachs Princeton), had to cancel due to an injured
Achilles tendon, but not before hosting the "Princeton 9"
in a send-off dinner.
When Charles Stone was trying to persuade me to join this over-the-hill
gang, he warned me that, once we start, there would be no turning
back. "Unless they have to `medivac’ you out by helicopter,"
he added, "you have to go all the way." If someone is seriously
injured — and fractures are not so uncommon — you must radio
a passing airliner on an emergency frequency to ask the pilot to call
the National Park Service because cell phones are useless at the bottom
of the Grand Canyon, and hiking out is almost impossible except in
a few locations along the canyon’s 250-mile length.
Why should I leave my family and Nassau Street law practice, missing
my 35th Princeton reunion, to boot — for a trip that sounded at
least as dangerous as it did enticing? Like Billy Crystal in the hit
film "City Slickers," I was ready to refuse this call of nature,
and for all the right reasons. But also as in the movie, my wife intervened.
"Go! Go!" she encouraged me. "You’ll love it."
I wanted to go as much as I dreaded it. Since boyhood I had daydreamed
of "running the river" after reading John Wesley Powell’s
memoir of his 1869 Grand Canyon trip, but that wasn’t reason enough,
not at age 57. I also sensed that I needed to go, and my wife of 24
years sensed it too. I needed relief from a predictable daily routine
that both comforts and confines.
Even though I was in relatively good physical condition — thanks
to a regimen of running, swimming and lifting in preparation for marathon
racing — I felt I needed more. I needed to be challenged by something
unpredictable, by a task that I would have to finish, adapting as
I went, because — as Stone emphasized — once you start, "there’s
no turning back."
When I told him I would go, he gleefully advised me to "leave
a forwarding address with AZRA" — the acronym for Arizona
Rafting Adventure, one of only two paddle-your-way river guide companies
left on the river — "so they know where to ship the body bag!"
A few weeks later — after a buying spree at various outfitters
that surely boosted the local economy a notch — I boarded a morning
plane in Newark for a cramped flight to Las Vegas and the "Princeton
9" caught a "puddle jumper" DeHavilland for the gut-churning
final leg to the Grand Canyon village a mile above the river.
That’s when I had my first "visual" of the Colorado River,
from the window of the DeHavilland. I was surprised that it was so
green, as green as Lake Carnegie. "Why isn’t it red, like the
name implies?" I asked everyone. The answer came back: Because,
when the upper river was dammed in 1963, creating Lake Powell, the
flow of silt was cut from 100 tons per day to less than five tons
of reddish silt. That silt had painted the river red for millennia
and replenished its banks that are now fast eroding.
But this airborne "visual" did nothing to prepare
me for the impact of seeing the river for the first time at "river
level" — which came the next morning after a three-plus hour
hike down from the canyon rim in 100 degree heat. Though it was only
50 feet wide at that point, the Colorado’s green water was rushing
by us at 16,000 cubic feet per second ("cfs") the morning
we reached it.
Eric Christiansen, AZRA’s 34-year-old guide who would lead the trip,
added this explanation: "Imagine 16,000 basketballs going by every
"That’s a lot of basketballs!" I joked, trying to hide my
apprehension about climbing into a 15-foot pontoon raft that would
become my second "home" for the next week of riding rapids
that sometimes wreck life and limb. Like notorious Lava Falls —
which drops 41 feet in 50 yards, throwing up 30-foot walls of water
that have flipped many a boat — including two on Day Eight.
The essence of this "over-the-hill" Outward Bound trip is
best seen by looking at one day on the river. Let’s take Day Eight
— the day we hit Lava Falls, after a week running dozens of tune-up
rapids — and saw a tragedy in the making.
By 5 a.m. I rise from my sleeping bag that I sleep on,
not in, since the air temperature seldom falls below 80 and no mosquitoes
force you into a tent. The adrenalin is already rising because I know
that soon we will be on the river — and hitting more rapids for
testing whatever it is that makes us feel like Francis McComber in
the Hemingway short story, "The Short Happy Life . . ."
We groggily line up for the unisex "john," a metal can with
a sealing lid. In accordance with strict National Park Service (NPS)
rules, whatever we bring in, we take out, including human waste, at
least the solid variety. Learning to sit astride one of these "cans"
is an early test of hardiness.
The sun is still an hour away from running down the red canyon walls
nearly a mile above us when a guide blows the conch shell for the
first time: Coffee is served, made "cowboy style," with fresh
grounds dumped into a pot before boiling water is poured over them.
I give up coffee for the duration.
Now comes the second conch blast: breakfast is served! We gorge on
bacon, eggs, pancakes, canned milk or juice. Then we clean our dishes
as best we can. We are not so jolly this morning pondering the assault
After packing up, we quietly line up bucket-brigade fashion to carry
everything back to the tethered boats — water purifying kits,
bags of spare cloths, Army surplus caisson boxes stuffed with food
and cooking gear, and of course the "honey pots" that pass
Now comes the next test: which boat to ride? There are three pontoon
boats, each captained by one guide. Ed Hasse, safe and steady, was
the senior guide, making his 130th trip the length of the river. Next
in seniority was Jerry Cox, the singing cowboy and trained geologist,
who had run it 97 times. As skilled as they are, that morning I pick
Eric Christiansen. He has run the river "only" 40 times but
he is also the zaniest of the three guides — and I know his jokes
will steady me as we go over Lava.
Next decision: where in the boat to paddle? In the stern rides the
guide, who wields a long paddle to steer the boat with one paddler
sitting on each side of him. I rode stern my first day with Jerry,
but quickly found out I was too big and got in Jerry’s way, knocking
him down once as we plowed over a rapid. I didn’t want to do that
again, especially on Lava day.
The middle was the safest spot, but it was also cramped with supplies
clamped to lines all around the paddler. I never rode middle.
I choose the bow, the stroke position on the right where I could set
the pace and use my size and conditioning to the fullest. The guides
preferred having the biggest paddlers in front to weigh down the bow
so it won’t fold back onto the raft when we hit a huge wave —
and Lava would have the biggest waves of all.
So I leaped at the chance to stroke Eric’s boat for Lava; besides,
no one else seemed to want any part of it. On my left I saw little
Matt, a trainee guide, strapping in. I worried if he could stay in
the boat as we bounced over Lava. I didn’t like the idea of having
to pull him out of the infamous "hole" should we fall over
the ledge. And I worried that he was too small to pull me out.
Now a word about how to paddle a pontoon boat through
Colorado River rapids. These are not the brief spurts of excitement
that pass for rapids on local rivers in the Poconos or Catskills.
Colorado rapids are rated on a 1 to 10 scale. Most of the named rapids
are in the 7 to 9 range, like Specter or Granite or Separation or
so many others. Anything above a 10 is rated too dangerous to run,
according to NPS rules — and Lava was rated a 10 or 10+ at all
Colorado rapids constantly change and new ones are created — after
a thunderstorm sweeps a washout or "debris flow" down a side
canyon at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. Old rapids sprawl downriver
after house-sized boulders wash into the river channel or they can
fade as the river’s powerful erosive forces push boulders into the
familiar "V formation" seen in overhead photos.
As Jerry explained paddling to me on Day One — sometimes with
impatience, since I didn’t seem to get it at first — the only
safe way for a raft to take a big rapid is for each paddler, especially
the stroke, to "lean out over the side of the boat as far as you
can, dig your paddle into that wall of water, and pull as hard as
Now, that’s entirely counter-intuitive. When you see and hear that
wall of water rising above you, every fiber of your being screams
"duck!" into the interior of the boat for safety — and
your every fiber would be wrong. Only by leaning out and plunging
your paddle into that wall of water — which can hit all sides
at the same time — can you steer the boat and prevent it from
flipping or "sandwiching" onto itself.
But the only thing keeping you attached to the boat when you "lean
out" is a foothold sewn to the rubber "deck" of the raft
that seemed made for size 9 feet. My size 14s did not fit. For me
it was more a "toehold" than a "foothold."
On Lava morning, we paddle silently into the main channel
of the river, before Eric tells us to stop. "Now listen to that!"
he grinned — and he didn’t have to say what "that" was.
As we floated forward, gaining speed each second, we heard Lava long
before we reached it. It was the roar of 18-wheeler trucks racing
down the New Jersey Turnpike toward us. The volcano of sound told
us that Lava had well earned its reputation as the nastiest of rapids
on the entire river.
A decade ago, one of the motor powered pontoon boats — 37-foot
long monsters with tourists sitting in straight-ahead chairs like
they’re in a movie theater that have largely replaced paddled pontoons
— had been sucked over Lava’s "ledge" and into the infamous
"hole" at the bottom, where water from two sides crashed into
the swirl generated by the tons of water spilling from behind, and
pushing anything unlucky enough to land inside of it down toward the
recently-discovered underwater caverns that make it so deadly.
No one drowned that day, but several died from hypothermia; they were
left in the calm eddy at the end of Lava Falls for too long, about
40 or 50 minutes. It’s sobering to think that 50-degree water can
kill you on a 100-degree day just like the freezing waters of the
North Atlantic in the dead of an Arctic winter.
Eric ordered us to pull our boat to the left shore, leading all the
boats to tie up alongside us. We climbed over a hill of rocks to have
a long look at what Lava was doing that day — before we made wet
guinea pigs of ourselves. Standing 100 feet above Lava, we stared
down at the "ledge" and the dark "hole" beneath it
— as beautiful as they were frightening.
After Eric and the guides conferred, he explained that we would try
to hug the left bank where we had a narrow passage to make it over
the first and steepest drop. Go too far right and the power of the
river will take us over the "ledge" and into the "hole."
After that, we turn a hard right to avoid an enormous submerged boulder,
before we straighten out and enter the middle channel — where
we will get hit by water from three sides as we shoot over more humps
of crashing water. Overall, we drop 41 feet in 50 yards or so of water
propelled at an estimated 19,000 cfs that day over rocks bigger than
Sporting his customary grin, Eric announced that "We have the
honor of going first!" I expected that. We cheer feebly at the
news. We return to our boats, double check the fit of our life jackets,
dig our feet — or in my case toes — into the deck straps,
and head out, with mouths dry and adrenaline at record highs.
As we paddle out, the river ahead seems to fall off a table; it just
ends in a mid-air line of green water and blue sky. We draw rapidly
closer to the edge, and the roar of water becomes too loud for me
to hear Eric’s commands. I remind Paine sitting behind me to shout
out whatever Eric orders "because I can’t hear a damn word he’s
saying!" Paine nods and pats me on the shoulder.
The next instant I hear Paine shout "Pull hard, turn left!"
and I pull as hard as I can, leaning out so far that I see green water
beneath me, held on by the toes of my right foot which at that moment
could have gripped a tightrope. Now the river has us. As we pick up
speed, I hope we have stayed far enough to the left — a mere two-boats
width — to avoid being sucked over the ledge and into the hole.
Eric does it right, I sigh, as I see us plunge past the ledge and
over the first of Lava’s falls, while the little boat starts to buck
and tilt forward at steepening angles. And then the first of several
walls of water rise up above us before crashing down, this one looming
so high that it blocks out the sky. Now I hear Paine scream at me
"pull hard, all you’ve got!" repeating Eric’s shouts that
I cannot hear. I lean out again and dig my pathetic little paddle
into each mountain of white and green water micro-seconds before it
washes over us.
I look to my left to see how Matt is doing. At that instant he is
lifted into the air. He is "air borne" and I find myself laughing.
He looks like a Road Runner cartoon, spinning legs in thin air —
and still he digs his paddle into the water, with nothing beneath
him but white green water and the boat seemingly far below. In a split
second, Matt is thrown hard against the rubber gunwale, but keeps
paddling, not missing a stroke.
It goes like that for what seemed to be several minutes
of thunder and fury, as we bounce over and around the rocks and water
until — suddenly it is over. We have made it. For a second it
is even quiet, before we start to whoop and holler, and do a ritual
"high five" with our outstretched paddles.
The next moment Eric has instructed us to pull over to watch our comrades
make the same run, ever ready to dash back into the current in case
any boat flips or anyone has to "swim the rapid" after being
thrown out. Back at mile 137 I had volunteered to swim one rapid,
Doris — rated a mere 6 or 7 on the 10 scale — to lose my fear
of being tossed overboard, but it had the opposite effect.
But on Day Eight no one has to swim Lava. Every boat makes it through
— even the two oar-powered supply boats, each one skippered by
a 20-something trainee guide woman — braved Lava without so much
as spilling the "honeypot."
Now this is one happy crew, the Princeton 9 and everyone else we had
joined at Bright Angel trail — including a mother-daughter pair
from Florida, a doctor and his wife from California, a teacher from
Oregon, and two friends from Buffalo who met in a bar. As one, we
climb a steep rock wall for lunch in the shadow of an overhanging
rock, to stare back at Lava while scarfing down sandwiches — and
giggling in our triumph.
But the excitement is far from over. Behind us on the
river is a "private party," not a professionally led set of
boats like our AZRA expedition. We saw them getting ready for Lava,
donning crash helmets and full-body wet suits (we had neither). And
they need them. The first boat does exactly what Eric said it must
not do: it pulls into the main current as if to scout the ledge, and
then finds it impossible to pull back to the left — or to take
the safe passage on the right.
I drop my sandwich as I see the beautiful blue pontoon boat glide,
as if in slow motion, into the middle of the river, bringing it directly
over the ledge, where it pauses (no doubt due to some panicked "back-stroking")
— before it "turns vertical" and falls into the hole,
while several of us shout "they’re going over!"
Then nothing except white water spray and the roar of the rapids for
a few eternally long seconds, until we see the boat emerge, like a
bar of slippery soap flipped away from wet fingers — but with
no one in it.
And right behind them, "like they’re playing follow the leader!"
I hear Jerry say in disgust, comes the next pontoon boat, but this
boat is even less lucky — it flips as it goes over the ledge,
spilling everyone and everything into the hole.
Only the third boat, shepherded by a kayaker, makes it past the ledge
without flipping by turning sharply left to avoid the ledge —
exactly as we had done — before hitting the main rapids below
the first of the falls, and shooting past the remaining rocks.
A moment later we see the first boat flashing past us, one oar missing,
an oar lock bent skyward — with a screaming woman hanging on board.
Before I can exhale, Jerry has jumped down the side of the cliff into
one of our oar boats. I shout after him "do you want some help?"
and he shakes his head no, but Ed was there too and he falls into
Jerry’s boat with him. I shiver at the thought of the dead bodies
in their life jackets picked out of the river at this spot some years
But with a burst of Hulk-like strength Jerry crosses the river and
cuts off the oar boat, helped by the kayaker who pushes it toward
the opposite bank and into the eddy of calm water. Soon they are pulling
people from the river. Two wet and grinning boys shout to us from
the far bank. We cannot hear them over the river’s roar but we know
they are safe — thanks to swift action by Jerry and Ed, and the
So that was Day Eight and Lava Falls. And much the same,
but not so dramatic, could be said of the other eight days and 64
rapids — with funny names like Pipe Springs, Horn Creek, Salt
Creek, and Hermit on Day One. And Boucher, Crystal, Tuna Creek, Agate,
Sapphire, Turquoise, Ruby, Serpentine, Bass, Walterberg, Rancid Tuna,
Blacktail, Deubendorff, Makatamba, Upset, Havasu, and Separation,
to name a few from the other days, followed by the famous — or
infamous — Lava Falls Rapid before we must leave the river, and
head back to Princeton.
What did this experience mean for our gaggle of graying Princeton
alumni and business leaders? What did they take from a wild river
ride at the base of the deepest and longest canyon on the face of
the earth — a mile deep and enclosed by the oldest exposed rock
on the planet, the black Vishnu schist, over 1.4 billion years old
— with an occasional rattle snake to liven the campsite, plus
scorpions, and ruins of so many who had tried and failed to run the
river, or to have stayed and made a living from it?
The night before Lava, we stayed up late, drinking warm wine and trying
to answer that question. For the mother from Florida, it meant reconnecting
with a daughter after her fight with cancer. For the special ed teacher,
it meant something spiritual that she could not articulate.
For me it was a test of growth. I needed to be tested as part of a
team, and to uphold the values of a team — although I barely knew
my team members — even if it meant "leaning out" over
the wild river, and digging my paddle into whatever mountain of water
was coming over me, and no matter how scared I felt, and no matter
how loud was the inner voice telling me to duck for cover.
And there was more.
Again like Billy Crystal, I wanted my smile back — like the new
smile that I beamed to my wife the morning of my return after an aching
"red eye" flight from Phoenix, and the smiles that she and
my 12-year-old son gave to me in return when I bounded, dirty and
bearded, through the front door at 8 a.m., two days after Lava, the
memory and lessons of which I hope to keep with me always.
for information on rates for guided adventures, which range in cost
from $500 to $3,000, and advice on what to bring (cap holders and
insect bite salve) and how to prepare. The nine-day trip described
here costs $2,149. Other Grand Canyon trips, including motor trips
suitable for nonathletes, are offered from $1,440 to $2,925. San Juan
kayaking trips, suitable for families with children and retreat groups,
start at $513.
The website sometimes lists trips that are in need of a certain number
of people to fill out a boat. Thus people can overnight become a member
of a team consisting of people they previously never knew and may
never see again. "The only thing like it," says Potter, "is
Corrections or additions?
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— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.