It wasn’t a harrowing climb up crumbly shale that did me in. It wasn’t an unforeseen crevasse. It wasn’t an animal attack. For the sake of the story, I wish it had been. Nope, it was a makeshift slip ’n’ slide.
I was a raft guide on Utah’s Green River. For two years, I’d rowed clients 86 miles down 63 rapids in Desolation Canyon every week. I knew the course from Sand Wash to Swasey’s Landing by heart. I could do it with my eyes closed. On one trip in June, 2004, we set up camp at Three Canyon, 46 miles from the put-in. It’s a one-in-a-million campsite: sheltered by three redrock walls, views downcanyon to a river bend, a sandy beach, and a gentle eddy to splash in. We had kids on this trip, so I decided to transform the inflatable kayaks into a slip ’n’ slide that deposited the kiddos into the river. I turned the boats over, lined them up end to end, threw a bucket of water on, and, boom, best raft guide ever.
Most of my passengers tried it out and most were even lapping it, but, as luck would have it, it was me who hand-planted on the compacted sand as I jumped on for my fourth turn. I thought I had just jammed it, but by nightfall, it had swollen to the size of a barrel cactus. I couldn’t even hold an oar.
But Desolation Canyon is not the place where you want a rescue. Where we were, it was too narrow for a bird to land and we were more than a mile deep, deeper than the Grand Canyon. So I had to spend the night (in pain), before making a 3-mile hike back upstream, where there are no trails, to reach an old ranch, where there was enough space for aircraft to land.
After a mile of following the beach, I reached an impassable section of the river near Snap Canyon Rapid. Since there was no shoreline, I had to scale the canyon walls—with one hand—to pass. I was feeling loopy, likely a combination of stress, pain, and sleep-deprivation. If I slipped, I’d plummet some 50 feet down to a rocky rapid. But I had to go: I still had 2 miles to go and a plane to catch.
I made it across just in time to see the plane (only paying guests got the heli) do a flyby. The pilot landed safely (with a replacement guide to row my boat the rest of the trip) and whisked me off to Moab. I don’t remember the flight at all—I passed out from the pain—but I know that I’m a one-and-done slip ’n’ slide conductor. In fact, they’re now banned because of me.
–As told to Maren Horjus