The River's Way

Michael Theroux

© Copyright 2023 by Michael Theroux

Photo by jeffeson Deshommes:
Photo by jeffeson Deshommes at Pexels.

The vermillion dye of a Mae West life jacket manages to stand the most incredible attempts to defeat its vibrancy. After thirty-some-odd trips down the Grand, this one shown like a California poppy … not exactly what I had in mind, attempting to appear the ‘old hand’ on this mid-summer co-ed run. Oh, well. The color wasn’t as bad as the sheer bulk, what with not one, but two preservers strapped about my lean frame. The pillowing of the May West, tied over the top of a Stern’s jacket, produced these humongous bazoombas … that’s a technical river term, where the ‘Mae West’ handle came from in the first place, I’ll wager.
Maybe eight of us had decided to slip off of the hot, silvery pontoons of the snout rig rafts to swim awhile in the Colorado’s perpetual 40+ degree water. 110 registering on Stew’s handy all-purpose thermometer-barometer-thombombeter. The river’s biting cold resulted from the release of the water from the bottom reaches of the Big Dam. This water-way for eons had been accustomed to carrying well-warmed red broth. Today, the sharp frigid slap felt damn good.
Around the 140 river-mile mark the Colorado was maybe 200 yards wide. As the guide book said, it ‘moved with authority’. We assumed our usual linked-arm ‘swim the slick water’ configuration, stretched out in a line across the current to float feet-first around a big smooth curve. One boat, the one we had ridden, hung back behind us; the other went on in front. For a delicious, luxurious time, all was cop esthetic.
If you stand on a cliff and peer down at a stretch of the River, it’s easy to see there are bumps and drops that form patterns of riffles and slick water. Boats and bodies ride those smooth bands and can slide safely through, usually. From the level of an oarsman’s seat, the choices are less obvious, and that’s where the years of river-running skill pay off, correctly interpreting the patterns. But from water level, bobbing along shoulder deep held upright by life vests, everything looks quite different. There is a distinct lack of depth of field, very little perspective to judge scale. Water is supposed to be FLAT and your mind has no problem relaxing onto that one dimension. Nothing to be concerned with - just cool and green, lazy, flat water. But smooth water gets boring, like riding the kiddie slide at your local park. Let’s see if we can liven things up a bit. What a good idea.
From the boat, a rise in the watery horizon indicates a rocky ledge of some dimension: the visual break between this near horizon and the trailing froth of white water roughly classes each bump and informs the oarsman where to guide his raft. I’m used to that angle, but down here from this flat plane, the bump in the middle of the river was merely a ripple followed by some whoop-tee-dos. This bump was very well placed for me, holding my center position in our floating line. OK - break off, a couple kicks against the flow and arm-paddle my way over to line up with that Bump.
It is amazing how large some small-looking thingie can become, once face to face.
I began to ascend, swept up toward the crest of the Bump three or four feet higher than the water’s surface from where my compatriots looked on, as they calmly floated downstream. I have a lasting flash of memory of a very glassy blue-green mountain of rock, fluted and polished by the living water and its constant load of grit. I slipped past, with that rock no more than a couple feet below my precious butt as I quick tucked my feet up reeeeal high. My first glimpse over the back edge showed a serious drop, one that left me just enough time to suck in a massive lung full of air, but not nearly enough time to thoroughly contemplate the utter stupidity of my self-imposed predicament.
Somewhere back in our collective childhood memories are lodged that great ‘Yaa-Hooo!’ that Goofy would always do as he plummeted over Niagara, or down some slope with his skis on backward. I even remember a scene where he was stretched out feet first with his life jacket bunched up under his chin - maybe in a water-skiing episode.
You think of the funniest things, when your own proverbial is on the line. This comic image was lain over my vision of the boiling pit of bubbles about a dozen feet below me. No brag, but it is interesting that there was a total lack of a perfectly logical ‘Oh, crap, I’m dead’ reaction. I was bemused by the colors, the size of those gleaming white-green bubbles and the sense of timelessness that enveloped me. Stunned awe for a moment held this nature-loving adventurer in thrall. Time stretched out, and I ran through what was likely to happen next: I’d plop down into the bubbles, swooshing back up and out probably head-first a few yards downstream. I’d pull my feet back under and in front of me, and continue on my merry way.
Neat, plausible, pleasant. And so very, very wrong.
I went in feet-first with this immense lung-full of air, down maybe six feet over my head with my eyes wide open. I watched a perfect riot of air-bundles wrapped in thin coatings of water, each vying to be the biggest bubble. Contenders were in the three- to four-foot diameter range. But the light … was this crystalline, glowing, shifting swarm of patterns in leaf green, moss green, with occasional brilliant bursts of gold and cream where liquid sunlight sliced in deep.
Ah, OK – it’s time to stop going down, head for the surface, get on with the day. Like a cork, I headed up, gaining momentum to shoot up out of the froth clear past my waist, up and out of the bubbles - in the center of the same confounded hole I had dropped into. I managed to refill my lungs just before face and water got reacquainted. No biggie, we’ll just repeat the routine, this time with a bit more escape effort on my part. But this time, I went in a lot deeper. The river got a good grip on my tight-laced high-top jungle boots as the faster, denser deeper water tried to terribly elongate my legs. The two life jackets had their own idea, and like on poor Goofy, bunched up under my chin and tried to make the top part of me go in the opposite direction. For a glorious moment, buoyancy won out. I quit going down, started going up from oh, maybe fifteen feet below the surface, best guess. It didn’t last.
There are tubular layers rather like a green onion in the center of a river, away from the turbulence of the sidewalls, and each deeper layer is darker green, faster, denser. Mid-current, cold dense ropes of water whip and bend down the funnel of the channel, compressed and hastened by gravity. I counted three distinct bands, each with an eddy-fence of fine bubbles like on the surface, between currents. The water rushes through these tubes trying to reach Earth’s core, pulled by the force of gravity. A layered flood, these concentrated ribbons sought the path of least resistance.
Boaters know the river’s core moves faster and can used this by suspending a ‘sea-anchor’ bucket on a stout rope. That fast core effectively will pull a boat downstream against even a gale-force up-canyon wind.
Right now, my heavy boots were the sea anchor, my stretched body, the rope. I desperately needed to stop the stretch; I snaked my hands down my sides and grabbed the high tops of my boots, pulling like crazy. Right shoulder gave a loud Pop, but the move changed my current-surfing position from feet-down and in front of me to head and life-jackets first, boots trailing. I started to rise, and cut through a thin eddy fence into the next lighter-green current layer.
Up to this point I had little sense of time’s passage, or speed of the river other than that core layers were faster. Now I got a chance to gain perspective: a massive much-darker shape the size of a dump-truck appeared in front, rushed at me and swept past a bit to the left. Brain says: Big Rock! I was flotsam swept along almost at the level of the top of that underwater mountain and the flow over it drove me closer to the surface (instead of head-long into the solid wall).
Blessed bright light infused my watery realm, sunlight making everything sparkle and dance once I passed that huge boulder. And like the up-stream one that had swallowed me down, the river’s surface was significantly lower on the rock-mountain’s downstream reach. I came exploding clear of the surface, flailing and gasping - about twenty feet behind the lead boat.
Scotty gave a pull on one long ash oar, the boat slowed and I came along side. Many hands grabbed, and drug me up over the pontoon’s blisteringly-hot side to safety, while chastisement and amazement burst verbally from the crew in equal amounts and at full volume. I just – laid there - very, very still, replaying in single-frame video what they said was all told, about two to three minutes under water.
I’m still not sure they got anything out of my shocked babbling. I remember repeatedly telling them that the River’s current formed tubular layers, like riding inside a big green snake.

I write incessantly from Northern California. My career has spanned field botanist, environmental health specialist, green energy developer and resource recovery web site editor. I have had a large number of technical, scientific and governmental publications; I am quite new, to publishing my literary efforts, and am shifting from the environmental field to placing my cache of creative writing, a challenge indeed at 72 but much more satisfying.

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