Alive Below Crystal - Reflecting on Flipping a Raft in the Colorado River
Two years ago today, I was on day 9 of an 18-day expedition rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon when the raft I was riding in flipped in a major rapid. The flip resulted in me spending time trapped below the raft when a strap or line wrapped around one of my legs. I managed to free myself and make it to the surface. This is my story of surviving a flip in the hole in Crystal Rapid.
I have done this trip several times before, first as a participant and then as the trip organizer and photography guide. The trip is designed for photographers so that we can photograph the locations in the best light possible. I had chartered the trip through a commercial outfitter who would provide the boats, camping gear, kitchen, meals, and a professional crew of river guides. They would take my clients and me on what, for many, is the experience of a lifetime. Our boats consisted of five 18-foot rubber oar boats plus one wooden dory.
Two oar boats, known as "baggage boats," were dedicated to moving our gear, while the remaining boats were for the participants to ride in. The baggage boats are not permitted to carry participants, but crew members like myself often ride them to leave more space available on the other boats.
The first half of the trip started well as we soaked in the peace and solitude of being on the river at the bottom of the canyon. When we weren't on the river or hanging out in camp, we would hike into the side canyons to our photo destinations. These destinations often include beautiful waterfalls, reflecting pools, and Ancestral Puebloan cultural sites.
At night we sit around camp and enjoy the dark night sky. The boatmen tell river stories, we talk about photography, and there's time to enjoy an adult beverage or two.
Seven days into the trip, one of the boatmen rowing a baggage boat, his name is Art, let the trip leader (TL) know he was having a problem with an old shoulder injury. To help give him a bit of a break and allow his shoulder to rest, the TL asked if I would ride in the baggage boat to handle the bow-line and even row when we were on flat water. I jumped at the opportunity as I was eager to learn to row. I had rowed a few times on past trips, but my experience was limited to flat water, meaning I had not rowed a raft in the rapids, but that wasn't a concern as there was no expectation that I would row rapids on this trip.
On day eight of our trip, we entered the Granite Gorge, where the canyon walls begin to narrow, and the geology changes as we enter some of the oldest rock formations in the canyon. These rock formations are known as Vishnu Schist, which has veins of Pink Zoroaster Granite running through it. Here in the gorge, the water also begins to pick up the pace, and there are many large rapids, including Hance Rapid and Horn Creek. It's an incredibly exhilarating ride, and I think everyone in our group thoroughly enjoyed it!
That afternoon we set up camp at Monument Creek and then hiked up the Monument Creek drainage through the slot canyon on a hike lead by John Buggenhagen, one of our river guides who goes by the nickname "Bugs." I can't say enough great things about Bugs; he's a guy that loves the canyon and the river, and he will do almost anything to help us make our photos and have a great time doing it.
The following morning, day 9 of the trip, I led a group on a short hike downstream to photograph Granite Rapid at sunrise. We were blessed with great light, and the river was still running a rich reddish color due to some of the side canyons upstream of us having "flashed" during a thunderstorm the day before.
Before the building of Glen Canyon Dam, the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon ran a reddish-brown color thanks to a high silt content. The dam traps the silt nowadays, and the river now runs much colder and is typically a green color. It was awesome to see the river running as it should, perhaps looking the same way it did when John Wesley Powell led the first known expedition down the river 150 years earlier.
After the sunrise photo session, it was time to grab breakfast and then break camp. Knowing that we had a big day ahead of us, I took the time to double-check my cameras & lenses, along with my other gear, to make sure it was securely packed away in their dry bags. I had recently switched to dry bags made by Watershed, a brand that came highly recommended by all of the river guides I had worked with on previous trips and this one as well. The Watershed bags are unlike many dry bags that zip, snap, or roll. Their dry bags seal shut like a freezer food storage bag — except with a lot more grip and power. Watershed bag closures lock shut to form an airtight and watertight seal that can endure up to 300 feet of underwater pressure.
For this trip, I used a pair of Watershed bags, one for my primary camera system consisting of a Fujifilm GFX 100 medium format mirrorless camera on loan from Fujifilm along with three lenses. The other dry bag was for my backup kit consisting of a Sony a7RIII and a few lenses. I wasn't going to take any chances with cheap or inferior dry bags when it came to protecting my camera gear from the river environment.
After breakfast and packing the boats, we shoved off and began our journey downstream, where we quickly entered Granite Rapid at river mile 93.5 and Hermit Rapid at mile 95. As soon as we were back on flat water, Art asked me to jump on the oars to get some experience rowing the boat. I was excited, but I also knew that we had many rapids coming up, and my time on the oars would be short-lived, at least for today.
As we approached Crystal Rapid at mile 98.5, Art directed me into an eddy on river-right just above the rapid where we would tie off all of the boats so that the boatmen could hike a short distance to "scout" the rapid. Scouting a rapid is an opportunity to watch the river and see what the current is doing. It's common for the boatmen to scout rapids, especially those that are technically challenging. The boatmen encouraged me to tag along so I could learn from the experience, and they were eager to share their knowledge of the river with me even though I wouldn't be rowing the rapid. From our vantage point on a bluff above the river, we took in the fury of the rushing waters in Crystal Rapid.
Crystal contains several huge holes, many capable of capsizing boats large and small, most notably one near the beginning of the rapid on the right side of the river. Further downstream in the rapid is a huge rocky island known as the "Rock Garden" that splits the river channel into two distinct sections. Because of these holes at the top of the rapid and the Rock Garden further downstream, Crystal must be run either to the left or to the right. Both sides of the rapid present unique challenges and subsequent consequences should an error be made. For these reasons, many boatmen consider Crystal the most difficult rapid to run in all of the Grand Canyon.
After scouting the rapid, we made our way back to the boats, where we pulled taught all of the straps securing our dry bags to the boats. We double-checked that we were all wearing our life jackets, known as a "PFD" or Personal Flotation Device, properly and that its straps were pulled tight. One of my rituals is to exhale as much as possible and then have another person pull my PFD straps as tight as possible. The boatman rowing the dory, Patrick Clark, gladly obliged my request and pulled the straps on my PFD tighter than I had ever felt them. My PFD felt like it was giving me a huge bear hug, but I was confident I wouldn't slip out of it.
With everything properly secured and strapped in, we pushed off from shore, and Art began to row towards the rapid. We would be making the "right run" today, meaning we would be hugging the right shore and skirting around the big hole at the top of the rapid. As we approached the rapid, we watched the other boats in front of us begin their runs. Each boat skirted around the hole and continued downstream.
As we entered the rapid, Art pointed the boat's bow at the hole and pulled back on his oars, a common approach to navigating around an obstacle where you point your nose at the danger and pull. On his first pull of the oars, the left blade didn't make it into the water. We gently began to approach the hole. Art quickly pulled a second stroke, but again the left blade never entered the water. Our pace towards the whole hastened. On his third attempt, both the left and right oar blades made it into the water, but this time the river grabbed the left oar and ripped it out of his hand. From my perch, where I was standing in the back of the boat, I watched as the current pulled us into the hole.
The next few moments are a slideshow in my memory. I remember the bow of the boat diving into the hole, and not to sound dramatic, but it appeared as though a great beast was opening its jaws to swallow us whole. The following snapshot in my mind is the boat rolling left, and we were on our side 90 degrees to the water. The last snapshot is of the boat being nearly inverted as we were thrown into the river.
After the boat had flipped, I found myself in an air pocket at the back of the boat where I had been standing only seconds before. I was strangely calm, panic not yet having set in. My immediate thought was, "I need to get out from under this boat." As quickly as that thought entered my consciousness, I discovered a rope or strap wrapped around my right leg. I couldn't see what had ahold of me, but I was hyper-aware that I needed to get free of the entrapment now so that I could get out from under the boat. With that in mind, I was ready to grab the rescue knife attached to my life jacket over my left breast and start slashing, but at that moment, something told me to reach back a grab what is known as the perimeter line or "chicken line," a rope that runs around the outside of the raft.
To get to the chicken line, I had to push myself down out of my air pocket and reach back with my left hand around the rubber tube of the raft. I took a deep breath, pushed, and managed to find the chicken line on the first try. I pulled with all my might while kicking with my legs. I suddenly found myself out from under the boat, clinging to the outside of the upsidedown raft. I managed to take a short breath before the rapid grabbed me and pulled me under again, but I held on with my left hand and eventually came back to the surface. Shear terror now replaced the sense of calm I experienced under the raft.
At some point, I realized that Art was somewhere in the middle of all of this chaos, so I decided to call out his name. The sound of the rapids and crashing waves are so loud that we communicate with hand signals between the boats, so with that in mind, I didn't expect him to hear me yell his name. After only yelling his name once, I was surprised when I heard a somewhat confused response of "Adam?" from Art in reply. I couldn't see Art, but I told him I was hanging onto the back of the boat. He replied that we needed to get to the other side of the boat because the rock garden was coming up. The fear being that one or both of us could be pinned between the raft and the boulders in the rock garden.
I knew I needed to act fast, but the catch was that I was so spun around from having been under the raft that I was confused about what was upstream versus downstream. I was hanging onto the back of the raft, so I had a 50/50 shot at which way was the correct way to go. I chose wrong. I ended up on the downstream side of the raft, and as a result, I hit several rocks in the rock garden. With each hit, I called out with a very pained "F*ck!" leaving Art to keep screaming, "are you o.k.?" I was exhausted and nearly spent at this point. I couldn't answer Art. I just kept screaming "F*ck!" with each hit.
After the rock garden, the rapids subsided, and our raft floated towards an eddy on the right side of the river. Patrick was the first to reach us in his dory. He grabbed the shoulder straps on my life jacket and hauled me into his boat, where I collapsed to the deck and laid there for some time coughing up water. I later learned from Patrick that Art and I were pulled out of the water in what is known as "ABC" eddy, which stands for "Alive Below Crystal." That made me chuckle just a bit.
There were several lessons that I learned from this, and some old ones that were reinforced. The first was that, in retrospect, I probably would have been better off pushing away from the raft and swimming for shore. What you may not know about me is that I'm terrified of water. I love being on the river, but I am not a strong swimmer. I believe my fear of water caused me to hang onto the outside of the raft for so long. The raft felt safe, and I felt safe hanging onto it until we got to the rock garden.
The photographers reading this are probably asking, "what about the camera gear?" I'm happy to report that my Watershed dry bags performed flawlessly. My Sony mirrorless kit was strapped down to the top of the baggage load, which meant that once the boat was upside down, the Sony kit was now at the bottom of the load. The raft was upside down for, I'm guessing, around 20 minutes before we got it flipped back over and right side up. The only thing lost was six rolls of toilet paper, which we believe was most likely due to a dry bag that was not properly sealed.
Looking back on the experience, I realize that someone was looking out for me. I'm truly thankful that my angels were all on duty and working overtime when I went through this experience. I know how lucky I was because I was exhausted and sore at the end of the day, but I only had a single superficial scratch on my shin. I'm also incredibly thankful for the actions of the boatmen who went right into action and were ready to grab us as we came out of the rapid. I will forever be grateful for their actions on that day, and I love each and every one of them.
As for Art, his shoulder didn't fare so well. If you recall from earlier in the story, on his third attempt to get the blade of the left oar into the water, the current grabbed the oar and ripped it from his hand. Art finished out the day rowing the boat but was in incredible pain. At camp that night, Art had a chat with the TL, and they concluded that he could no longer row, leaving us down one boatman.
The TL made a satellite phone call to their office and learned that it would take a replacement boatman three days to hike in and reach our remote location in the canyon. With this in mind, the TL came to me and asked if I would be up for learning to row a raft through the Grand Canyon. I'll share more about this in part II titled "Barely a Boatman."
Joining the "Colorado River Swim Club" is something I had no interest in doing, and I'll be just fine if I can manage to avoid another swim. That said, the reality is that rafting the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon is safe, and accidents on the river are rare.
The question I am asked most often about this experience is, "will I get back on the river for another trip?" My answer is a very enthusiastic "yes!" and I am happy to report that I've already made that trip back in April of 2021. I'll be back for another trip in April of 2022, and Sally and I are already working on putting together a trip in 2023.
It's probably apparent that I love the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. I love making photographs of the canyon from the river and along the river corridor. It's a magical place full of mysterious side canyons, tranquil waterfalls, grand vistas, and beautiful light. In short, it's a photographer's paradise, and I genuinely believe it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should be repeated as often as possible.
P.S. I'll soon being posting part II of this story, titled Barely a Boatman, chronicling my experience in learning to row a raft down river and through the rapids on the last nine days of our expedition. I hope you come back to check it out!
See more of my my photographs from along the Colorado River