“Uh oh…I lost my boat!”
I woke from a light doze at 4:00 AM. Drifts of sand had accumulated inside my unzipped sleeping bag and on my sweat-slimed skin. Even in the pre-dawn dark, it was too hot to be in a sleeping bag but too windy to lie uncovered on the beach. Sticky, gritty, groggy, I sat up to take a drink of water and choked: my boat was gone.
“Seldom Seen,” my red, inflatable Achilles dinghy, my transport and lifeline, was no longer grounded on the muddy Lake Powell shoreline where I’d parked it at 8 o’clock the night before. I leapt up, stumbled a few steps upstream, then downstream, and then back to my jumbled bed for my headlamp. This can’t be happening. This definitely can’t be happening. How could I have lost my motorboat?
My job for a respected Utah river outfitter isn’t terribly complicated. I drive boats, trailers, guests, and guides to and from boat ramps. I clean the vans. I change tires and oil. And once a week, I drive the company motorboat thirty miles up Lake Powell, from Hite Marina to Gypsum Canyon, where Cataract Canyon and the Colorado River end, and the silt-choked waters of the reservoir begin. My company has a strict no-motors policy. Guides row 18-foot inflatable rafts down every stretch of river the company sells, come wind, come flat water, come low water, except for the last day of the Cataract Canyon trips, when Seldom Seen and I meet up with the rafts at the top of the reservoir, strap the boats together in an unwieldy flotilla, and use the motor to push the trip down the lake to the takeout. It’s a necessary evil: without the motor, it could take two days or more for the oarsmen to cover the thirty miles of lake water to the Hite ramp. And I had just lost that crucial component.
Shining the weak beam of my headlamp across the sluggish water, I picked my way across the jagged dried mud, barefoot. My shoes? Also on the vanished boat. Scenes of the humiliation and logistical nightmare awaiting me if I didn’t find this boat swam laps in my mind. Brin, Brian, Matt, and Quigley were all expecting to see me at the bottom of Waterhole Rapid at 9 AM. And I wasn’t going to be there. The wind continued to crank upstream, howling through the sharp tamarisk branches, plastering me with a fresh coat of sand. Too dark to search successfully, there was nothing I could do except to go back to my sleeping bag and wait for the sun. I didn’t sleep. Prostrate, panicked, and praying, I waited until 6 AM and the faint blush of dawn on canyon walls, and started the search anew. I brought my life jacket. If I saw even a flash of red downstream, I was swimming for it.
Life jacket unbuckled over my shoulders, I forced my way through the overgrown riparian vegetation, feet and legs scratched and sore, determined to get far enough downstream to spot the boat. Winds were now gusting close to 30 mph upstream. The boat couldn’t possibly have gone far. This is lake! There’s not enough current! Right? After an hour of bushwhacking, hair tangled and full of sticks, I limped back to the beach. Seldom Seen was gone, and I was in so much trouble.
The two hours between when I gave up the search and when the first raft appeared upstream were interminable. I couldn’t read; I couldn’t pace; I could only sit. And wait. When the rafts finally came into view, I could see the oarsmen using their entire bodies, pulling against the strengthening wind, only to be pushed sideways across the water. Slowly, the four boats approached my forlorn position on the beach. I waved. A tiny, pitiful, ohmygodimsosorry wave. “Susan. What’s up?” The trip leader, Brin, yelled across the white-capped water. “The motorboat blew away,” I shouted in a whispering tone of voice. “…WHAT?” I nodded while my body tried to decide if it should puke or cry. The boats pulled onto shore. Brin unloaded gear and passengers, and Matt jumped in so that the two could take turns rowing downstream into the wind to look for the boat. Confused guests milled on the beach. Quigley patted me on the back. “It’ll probably be fine.” I grimaced. Brian said, “well the worst case scenario is that it sunk.” …oh. I hadn’t thought about that. I sank onto Brian’s boat, pulled my legs to my chest, and focused on disappearing.
An hour passed. Eyes and ears keyed downstream, we waited, begging, praying to hear the whine of the 2-stroke Mariner motor. “Was that it?” An airplane. “I think I hear it!” The wind. And then: Is that…? I think… Yes. YES! A red shape appeared around the bend. I breathed for the first time in six hours: Seldom Seen. “We should be careful what we call our boats,” Brian smiled.
We’d gotten the motorboat back, but we weren’t off the reservoir yet. We still had 30 miles to the takeout, and the wind was only getting warmed up. Whitecaps grew into a rolling swell, turning our loosely rigged party barge into a writhing water rodeo ride, but morale was high after the morning’s misadventure. Guests laughed as wind-whipped spray crashed over our rafts. “You guys didn’t tell us there were going to be rapids today, too!”
Gusts skimmed across the water, sculpting iridescent scales on the backs of waves rising three, now four, now five feet high. A dust devil spun furiously in an alcove in the canyon wall, whipping sand and vegetation into an enormous funnel cloud. We rode into the wind, plowing through the froth as wave after wave broke over us, from the front, from the side. Our flotilla started to come apart as straps loosened under the continuous yanking and thrashing. Even with two motors cranking at full speed (one motor on the back of Seldom Seen, and a second on a wooden transom mounted on the back of one of the rafts), I was having difficulty steering. One sustained gust batted us across the surface of the water and I barely missed demolishing the propeller on a submerged rock. “We’ve got to redo this rigging!” I shouted over the howl of the wind echoing off the canyon walls. Another blast pushed us into a rocky ledge while we struggled with straps. Bubbles appeared from below my perch on Seldom’s back tube. “What’s that?” a guest pointed. Reaching an arm into the water, I ran my fingers across the tube and found a two-inch gash vomiting air. The tube sunk under my knee, and in seconds, my sturdy motorboat sagged in the water, a quarter of its air gone. The flaccid back tube floated, useless. “We don’t have time to stop and patch it,” Brin decided. “We’ve got to get off this lake while we still can.” I thought for a minute. “Quigley!” Mike Quigley, a first-year guide, climbed over the boats and aboard my sagging dinghy. I passed him the hand pump from Seldom’s repair kit and shouted instructions. “I’m going to keep one end of the pump plugged into the valve while I drive! You keep feeding air into it! That should keep us stable!”
No longer able to sit on the back tube, I widened my stance on the boat’s heaving floor and braced against the motor’s throttle. The rigging was better now, but the waves were only getting bigger. Brian was running the second motor, clinging to the wooden mount as the motor bucked and roared when bigger waves lifted it completely out of the water. Brin stood on the front boat, scouting the way ahead, rain jacket hood tied over his head. Quigley pumped. The pump’s hose kept popping out of the boat valve, and I repeatedly had to duck down and replace it, all while trying to keep the boats straight and the dangling hose from being shredded by the propeller. The mood among the guests had faded from excitement to grim endurance. “They say this landscape was formed by an inland sea!” I yelled to those guests within earshot. “We’ve arranged this as a demonstration of what that sea might have looked like!” Punchy, overwhelmed, my only recourse was humor.
Narrow Canyon: the home stretch. And the windiest part of the trip on a good day. A shimmering, opaque blue hung across the center of the canyon like a wall where none should be. Brin and I had time to exchange a glance before the wall of airborne water hit us like a thousand hailstones fired from a cannon. I couldn’t keep my eyes open, couldn’t even stand up against the blast. Crouching in the bottom of the motorboat, I kept one hand on the tiller; the other gripped Seldom’s safety line. I steered the boats almost perpendicular to the canyon walls, tacking into the wind, leg muscles screaming with the effort of balancing through the violent swell. Brin told me later that he saw water streaming down the smooth sandstone walls of the canyon; the world was drenched in water.
As the North Wash boat ramp and the company vans materialized ahead of us, everyone sent up a ragged cheer. The guests made a beeline for the waiting vans; the guides and I prepared to load the boats on the trailers. Waves continued to crash over us as we bent in the violently rocking rafts to de-rig coolers and gear. Curved sandstone walls ring what is usually a calm cove next to the ramp. On this day, the wind was blowing directly into the cove. Huge chunks of driftwood smashed against the walls, and dead tamarisk trees rose out of the water, exposed by the falling level of Lake Powell. We loaded one boat, then a second, then came the moment to detach Brian’s raft and Seldom Seen from the flotilla. Matt untied Brian’s boat and flung the bowline toward us just as I fired up my motor, intent on getting out of the cove before my motor was smashed against the wall. The bowline missed Brian’s boat and floated for half a second before wrapping itself tightly around my propeller.
Brian and I fought for ten precious seconds to free the prop as the wind screamed with glee and drove us into the dead trees and looming wall. The second the motor was clear, I started it again, slammed it into forward, and zoomed into the oncoming waves. The boat was empty, with only the weight of the motor and me, sitting on the flat tube, at the back. Seldom Seen crested a six-foot wave and the wind caught the bow as if it were a sail. Time slowed; the boat rose to a vertical tipping point and leaned toward me, on the verge of capsizing, with me underneath it. I howled with outrage and cranked the throttle, driving the nose of the boat forward and somehow restoring a tenuous equilibrium. On shore, Brin, Matt, and Quigley stood with jaws on their chests. I shook my head with disbelief as I steered into the ramp. “Susan, you looked furious!” Brin said. “I was furious!! There was no way this was going to end like that!” Then we heard Quigley say quietly, “Uh oh.”
Following his gaze across the cove, we saw what had become of Brian while I was busy almost flipping Seldom Seen. He’d been blown against the wall, pushed to the far side of the cove, almost back into the open water. His shouts were lost in the tempest, but it was obvious that he was in trouble. His boat had been emptied in preparation for loading it onto a trailer. He still had oars, but no longer had anything in his cockpit against which to brace while he rowed; a thick coating of slick, wet clay on the bottoms of his sandals further reduced his leverage. It was all he could do to stay upright in his boat and keep it square as the waves pummeled him against the wall. If his boat had slipped sideways, it would have flipped. Brin and Matt looked at each other and then at the one remaining boat in the water: the raft with the second motor on it. Moving carefully, they untied the raft and motored through the tumultuous swell to Brian. From our view on the ramp, the scene quickly became absurd, hilarious. The guides’ voices were lost in the wind, but the anguished whine of the motor cut through the gale as Brin applied full throttle in reverse to keep his raft from getting plastered to the wall. Waves repeatedly lifted the motor out of the water, and the whine became a panicked shriek. Matt hung over the front of his raft, trying to grab onto Brian’s boat and attach a tow rope. Waves crashed over his face, and knocked the tow rope from his hands. Finally we saw him grab a handle on Brian’s boat and shout at Brin to “Just GO!” Matt hung on to the two boats for dear life, arms stretched painfully, more than half of his body suspended over the space between the boats like a human tow rope, or a misplaced figurehead, but managed to hang on until both boats were safely at the ramp. “Oh. My. God. Are we done yet?” Brian buried his hands in his hair in exhausted exasperation.
Battered, wind-burned, drenched, we loaded the last boats, strapped them down, and dove into the waiting vans. In the driver’s seat, I closed my eyes before turning the key, gathering myself for the two hour drive back to home base. A hand tapped me on the shoulder from the back seat. I turned to see ten guests staring at me. “You guys…you guys are awesome.” I shrugged, then laughed. And then couldn’t stop laughing. As we pulled out of the ramp parking area, I looked in my rearview mirror at the reservoir. “So long, Powell. See you next week.”