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Adventures In Dinosaur National Monument

I digress!

All at once the canyon rose high over head. Within minutes I was a few folds deep in a 3,000 foot canyon with walls 125 yards apart. Voices echoed. The river was mild green and fairly cold. This was my first trip down Dinosaur National Monument and I had prepared all spring so I was capable of captaining a boat on this classic western white water run.

At mile 2.7, Winnie's Grotto marks the start of the white water. The guidebook says it is a small wave train on the right hand side. No big deal. I was the fourth boat of seven. The kayakers were already through Winnie's when I saw it. I lined up just like everyone and took the wave train straight on. Within seconds, six foot waves were coming right up the bow (front) of the boat.

I sat up attentively and my eyes got fairly big. For a small wave train it was bigger than I thought.

44 miles to go and already that was the biggest rapid I have ever rowed. The next one came a half mile deeper and that became the biggest rapid I have ever done. They started coming every half mile or so, and each one was bigger than the last.

At mile marker 6.7, we encountered Upper Disaster Falls, the famous spot where General William Ashley made the first descent and lost one of his four ships, the "No Name". The quote from Ashley's trip is, "she swings around and is carried down at a rapid rate, broadside on, for a few yards, when striking amidship on another rock with great force, she is broken quite in two and the men are thrown into the river".

This class III rapid is immediately followed by Lower Disaster Falls, another class III affair. By the time we hit the Disaster rapids, I was confident. My skills soared as I encountered them one after another and this gave me confidence. I sliced through these two named rapids with no problems at all. My confidence soared again.

I had trained all spring by reading classic technique and river safety books. I read about all sorts of rescue rigs and rope tricks. Two of the books in particular scared me rather seriously. With little chance to practice in the Winter, I developed a distorted perspective, regarding what to expect. When we launched at Ladore Boat Ramp on July 1st, I was quite scared. I thought I knew what I was doing, but I was not sure.

After Disaster Falls, I started to feel comfortable enough to look around a bit. The cliffs were magnificent. They were every inch as tall as 3,000 feet and the river sliced through them in an ominous way. They were intimidating but beautiful.

It was right there that I realized I had a hot rod boat. It was described as "The Ferrari of the waterways" by some fly fishing guides that use it. I was beginning to see why. It handled like a dream, easily changing directions and staying under control as the waves pounded against the two hulls. All the other boats were quite a bit bigger and much higher off the water. As I rowed down the river, people would run up and down the bank, trying to get a look at it. It was cool!

So I thought I would go play a little. Why not? I got this cool boat and I can go all over the river checking it out. The first thing I did, was make a move to river left. Directly in front of me was a group of small rocks. It looked okay. The current carried me right into it. I noticed that there was a small lip and when I floated up to it, it was bigger than I thought. I still went forward.

My boat went up over the small group of rocks and slid down current of them. The fall was about one foot, maybe more. As soon as 70% of my boat was back in the water, all hell broke loose. My boat was violently slammed back against the same rocks I just rode over. A nasty little reversal formed directly downstream of the rocks and my boat was stuck in between two currents. One current was pouring over the rocks, down on top of me and the other current was pushing me against the rocks. The port side oar was ripped put of my hand as the boat slammed against the rocks. That side of the boat was being sucked down and the starboard side hull (right hand) was coming up. I threw all my weight against the starboard hull in an effort to keep it from flipping over and throwing me off the boat.

Just then the whole boat swung 180 degrees around and slammed into the rocks again. The hydraulic had kicked the boat out slightly and then caught it again in the seam where the two currents met. I really was not sure what to do.

It seemed better to be facing this way, but water was now pouring over the starboard hull which was being sucked down. I looked around and the kayakers were lining up in a rescue position. One of the other captains was blowing his whistle, I could barely hear it. From what I could see, people had concerned looks on their faces. Then the rapid kicked again and I found myself pulling away from it. The front of the boat was still caught in the seam and the reversal was sucking my boat back into the seam against the rocks. With my stern (back) end pointing downstream and away from this mess, I was in perfect position to row hard and pull away from the death trap. I pulled with everything I had, but I noticed my efficiency was not as high as I would have liked.

Slam, I hit the rocks again in the original position as when I entered. The boat has done a complete 360 degree turn and I was being sucked under much deeper than before. I again climbed up on the higher pontoon to keep the boat from flipping. I knew what was coming and I did not want any part of it. I had no idea of how I was going to get out of this!

Just about then, the rapid kicked again in what was now becoming predictable. My boat swung another 180 degrees and I was facing the other way again. Each time I hit the rocks, the force violently ripped the oars out of my hands. I could only use one at a time. I rowed the one free oar in a desperate attempt to get some control back. Then the rapid kicked again and I had another chance to break free of this treacherous spot.

I kicked free again in the same hopeful manner as before. This time I dug even deeper with the oars and I managed to pull free from the flow of the reversal. I rowed very hard. My starboard oar was twisted up and I could not use it well. Two kayakers rode over to me and escorted me to the shore. I was shaking from head to toe. My good friend who invited me on this adventure, was one of the kayakers who rode with me. He looked over to me as I rowed to shore and he said, "it probably doesn't even have a name." His words struck me like a hammer. I knew all too well how powerful that hydraulic was, and I was lucky to have escaped. For a long time, I wished it had not happened. Now I regard it as one of my defining moments on the river. It was a valuable experience that allows me to develop deeper insight as to what exactly happens in those violent situations.

When I look back, I am now quite a bit better and much more aware of the environment. I am not scared to run rivers, although I do pay close attention. All of the work in training led up to experiences that were far in excess of what I thought they would be. It was and still is overwhelming.

What does this have to do with guitar? I dunno.

Maybe it is the fact that learning different things is the same. The exact variables of each endeavor are different, but the process of learning is the same. Put in the work first and get the reward later. Maybe it is to follow your heart and do the things that are dear to you as a person. It is a good example that preparation is necessary. You can't expect to be able to just walk up to a guitar and play a song and have everybody clap. You have to prepare for it. And when it does happen, it will probably be far in excess of what you thought it would be.

Maybe it is the fact that I was just awarded another permit to run the Yampa, the sister canyon on the other side of the park. This one is 77 miles long and contains the biggest rapid in the park.

I have had the chance to learn several things at deep levels. As I continue to practice my crafts as a guitarist, a rower, a naturalist and a Landscape Architect, I realize how all these different skills and knowledge bases are very similar. I notice that when I learn something new in any of these areas, the process of learning and applying is the same. When I use appropriate methodologies in any of these applications, I will get the same predictable results.

None of this is brain surgery, it can be done by most people that are willing to show up and take a chance or two. One noticeable difference in the learning process is when fear is present. When learning to row in class III rapids or skiing directly above big cliffs, fear is usually present and must be managed. This element is not encountered playing guitar unless you are going to perform in front of a crowd. Then the similarities show up again.

If I would have just read all those books and not taken my boat out, I wouldn't know. I would not have taken all this knowledge and applied it. I would not have breathed life into these issues. I would not have risked anything and I would not have received any rewards either. I would not be aware that there are places where you can be in between these magnificent towering cliffs.

I would have just read a few good books!