Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dirty and Devilish

Words and Photos by Greg

A couple weekends ago I headed into Utah with Mike. Target: the Dirty Devil River.

At dusk we parked Mike's van and met up with three other guys. We loaded up bikes, then started pedaling pavement up a nearly empty highway through a dark canyon. Stars outlined canyon walls. Frogs trilled from hidden water. Our tires buzzed softly on the road. We followed bright planets to the west, chatting as we rode, as twenty five miles passed beneath us and hours slipped by. Down a dirt road in the dark we camped, sleeping bags in the sand, bikes beside us.

Morning, up with the sun, breakfasts cooked, bikes packed. We rode into the morning light along a sandy road. A dry wash. A dry year. The wash deepened into a small canyon. We rode when it was rocky and pushed when the sand was too deep. Spring water appeared then vanished again. The canyon narrowed to a towered corridor then opened up to wide views filled with mesas and empty spaces.

At midday we arrived at the river. The Dirty Devil. As dirty as advertised. Silty. And shallow. But just deep enough for our small rafts. We transformed. Rafts unbuckled from bikes and inflated. Bikes broken down and buckled onto rafts. One more rider/floater joined us, as planned, and soon six of us were floating in dirty water under hot blue skies.

The challenge of the afternoon was to find the flow. Wide sandbars crossed the sluggish river, but somewhere under the opaque water there was almost always a channel deep enough to float. One paddler might ground out, but others behind, alerted, would try a different path and float past. Often we could scoot and lurch and paddle-pole over the bar to the deeper water. Sometimes we'd merely step out into ankle-deep water and drag the raft a short way. But most of the time we floated.

Afternoon winds kicked up, tracing in and out of the curving canyon. At times we were blown backward as fast a we could paddle. At other times we paddled in the calm shelter of sandstone walls. Sometimes quiet calm would fill with the sound of an approaching gust, and in a moment we'd be propelled forward by a frenzied tailwind, or punished backward or into one of the narrow walls. Once, the wind caught under a raft and flipped it over. Our companion tipped under, head down, then swam out. Wet but safe, he dumped water from his raft, righted it, and we paddled onward, more wary of the gusts.

The wind added another moment of drama to my day. We stopped on the riverside for a rest and a stretch. I dragged my boat out of the water onto a sandy bank and fiddled with some of my gear. I started to walk away. A gust of wind flipped the end of my raft toward the water. A black shape flew through the air from the end of the raft and landed in the river with a kerplop. In an instant I realized two things. One, I'd foolishly left my camera on top of my raft and it was now in the river. Two, the camera was dead, but the memory card was worth saving. I immediately threw the raft back onshore and jumped to where the camera had splashed, hands grasping. The dirty water was only a foot deep, but surprisingly, my fingers closed on nothing. Where? The current! I turned and leapt downriver into deeper water, arms in to my armpits, feeling in a frenzy along the smooth sand bottom. Nothing. Nothing. Then my left pinkie brushed against something that wasn't sand and I grasped, grasped, then grabbed on to the familiar shape of my camera, hauling it out of the river with a splash, then high above my head as it dripped silty water back into the river and down my arm.

The whole event may have lasted eight seconds. But a very long eight seconds. I pried open the soggy camera's battery door which was nearly locked shut with grit and pulled out the battery. Then pulled out the memory card, cleaned it, dried it and filed it away. While I did, I wondered at the strange mix of thoughts going on in my head. A sense of loss and disappointment over the demise of a very enjoyable and useful tool. A sense of disgust at being foolish enough to leave my camera unprotected on a small raft next to a dirty river on a windy day. And a surprisingly satisfying sense of victory and triumph for having been able to pull it back out of the river.

I find that I want to draw some kind a parallel to a wider view of my life. Where small things that I can accomplish in a moment or a day give me a sense that I'm doing well. While the larger parts of my life are more suspect, and I'm less able to discern a sense that I'm moving in a positive direction. Perhaps, even, that I am not. I want to draw this parallel, but I'm not sure it really exists.

We paddled our way on down the river as the afternoon slipped toward evening, then pulled out at a sandstone bank. We camped on a low sandy step at the bottom of a staircase of colorful, textured cliffs. I scrambled up the lowest, a rough crumbling rock that was darkly purple. Above was a hard white stone, the top of it strewn here and there with nearly black chunks of petrified wood. From the top of the white stone I could look down to where the river turned back upon itself, a thin, low wall of stone only a few dozen feet thick after a mile of curving loop. Above, more cliffs, golden, slopes of crumbling rock, and the high red cliffs of the rim. Above those, blue sky.

Sand blew into our dinners, into sleeping bags, into bodily orifices, but no one was really clean enough to care. The night was warm and filled with stars before a late moon rose. I slept well, with the padded black hulk of my camera as a pillow.

We were paddling again when the sun came over the canyon rim and hit the river. We'd somehow camped at a dividing line between two moods of the river. They day before we'd struggled to find the deeper channel in the slow flow. But this second day, the river had narrowed and was a little faster and we had to put our attention to not bouncing off the walls. Turn after turn, the flow would ram straight into the solid rock of the canyon and a narrow channel of current would slide along the wall. The current was usually just slightly more narrow than a packraft with a dipping paddle on that side. But if we didn't hug the wall and keep to the current, an eddy would suck the raft out of the flow and stop our progress.

Wind dove into the winding canyon again, spraying sand over the water and either stopping our progress, pushing us along, shoving us into walls, or laying in wait around the next bend. But we were now warned, hunkered tightly, and no one blew over.

I'm used to traveling with a camera in my hand. I like the way I look at things when I can photograph them, the attention I pay to light, texture, composition, beauty. I like to think that a camera is a tool that I use to sharpen my perception of things that go on around me that I might not notice otherwise. But I had been set free of the need to try to capture the sense of this place. I was free to turn my eye the un-photographable sense of the canyon, the river, the float. Free to turn my mind to other thoughts.

I drifted happily with the flow of the river. Thoughts came. Thoughts went. The immediacy of paddling into a sand-filled gust of wind. The lazy wanderings and questions of eye and mind. Could that high cliff be seen from the Island In The Sky on a clear day? What would this canyon look like during a flash flood? Are we traveling in the same water we were in yesterday? How much river slipped past us as we slept? The questions were happy being questions with no real need to have answers.

Near the middle of the day we came upon the river's one and only rapid. The water entered a narrow sluice, picked up some speed, then smashed straight into a wall where it gushed and boiled and turned left. We watched from the top of a low cliff as the de facto leader of our group, a man known as Doom, paddled in. He slipped down the tongue of the sluice, paddled a hard left and cut the corner, missing the roiling boil, and came into the clear below. Seemed easy enough.

I ran back and got in my boat and began to paddle. The guy ahead of me didn't do as well as Doom. He smashed right into the wall, but then floated free and beyond. I was a little nervous, jumpy, and ready to take the clear line like Doom had. But first I stopped to wait as a tumbleweed almost as big as my boat floated through the rapid, tumbling against the wall, then floating on. I followed, paddled what I thought was a hard left, but I too smashed up against the wall. I floated free, too, but not until I'd flipped over, swum out of the boat, and was kicking hard for the edge of the little river.

I dragged the raft out. Gear bags and bike were still happily attached. I dumped out the water and righted my boat. Then watched everyone else smash into the wall, too. But luckily no one else flipped. I was getting back in and starting to float onward when I realized that I'd forgotten to strap down one piece of equipment: my glasses. They were missing.

We paddled on through what looked like a slightly fuzzier canyon. As we went, walls of dry silt began to seal off the river from the greater canyon. They rose higher and higher as we splashed through a trough that cut through silt that had been deposited when this portion of the river had been lost under Glenn Canyon Reservoir. Often the river was walled on one side by a steep or undercut stone cliff and on the other by a stack of silt. And where silt met water, there was a "transitional zone" that wasn't wet enough to paddle, but wasn't solid enough to stand on. A quivering quicksand muck that sucked down feet and stuck to the bottoms of boats.

When we passed under a high arcing steel bridge it was already evening. The river's twists and turns spilled into wide plain of mud/water, the current fringe-zone of the silted reservoir. The river had cut a channel deep enough to paddle and we floated on as the day dimmed. Then a quick turn and a mucky paddle to a crevice of rock where we dragged muddy boats, gear and bikes up some slickrock to the place where we'd left our cars two nights before. Rafts were folded and loaded. Paddles stowed. Muddy clothes changed for clean. Goodbyes were said. Promises made. Then we drove off, into the night toward home.

My glasses are still there somewhere. Probably drifting along under the water. Two prescriptionized eyes, looking around, free of the constraints of my turning head. Perhaps looking at decades-worth of silt that has sifted to the bottom of a "lake". Perhaps wondering why we thought it was a good idea to stop a river's flow. Perhaps wondering if there is a clear way into the future. If there is a way to lose something and be set free.

1 comment:

  1. Best I can tell, it's the moments that matter.

    Those that've convinced ourselves we can control the 'larger' parts of our lives are either in denial or just bad liars.