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  • Writer's pictureKatja

Rafting the Grand Canyon: Bedrock

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Trigger warning: this is not a feel-good story. The outcome is positive (we survived) but the experience was terrifying. At different points during the nightmare run of Bedrock, we each thought someone else was dead. Several loved ones who have heard the full account have been bothered by it, and this warning is for them and others who may be negatively impacted by reading about Steve’s swim and my near-miss at Bedrock Rapid. Stop now and move on to the next post for more adventures and joyful river moments if you think this may negatively effect you.

Also... this post includes several instances of the uncensored word "f$!k". Please skip it if the f-word offends you.

Day Nine (July 23rd)

Bedrock rapid from above, and the tip of the rock island of Bedrock. Images courtesy of River Runners for Wilderness.

A description of Bedrock Rapids from the WesternRiver website:

The only rapid in the Grand Canyon caused by the actual river bed. An enormous chunk of hardened metamorphic and igneous rock splits the current in two. The best run is on the right side, which requires adept and precise handling to bring a craft around the rock and into calm water. The left side is an unforgiving place, as the river pinballs through a narrow rock studded channel.

As recorded in my journal:

Approaching Bedrock, the guys again decided not to scout. The is a halo-habit I’ve cringed at a few times now but have learned to deal with by studying the guidebook extra carefully and talking through routes with Steve. I can’t speak to what went wrong for us, but when we went in, the current began exploding us towards the rock in the center of the river.
We struck the rock island with the left side of the raft. The oar was sucked under and pulled Steve from the boat. I heard him yell and watched him catapult backward into the air towards the rock wall. He struck, then disappeared under water in the narrow gap between the raft and the unforgiving stone.
I was also thrown towards the rock and felt the water sucking at me, but I had one hand wound into the tail of a strap and spun around onto my stomach. I kicked hard with my feet and got purchase on something hard, maybe the rock or the submerged oar or part of the frame, I don’t know. I dug my fingers into a strap on the sleeping pad that had been my seat moments before and hauled myself onto the tilted raft like I was climbing up a slide. My weight shift seemed to right things and instead of slowly cartwheeling into the rock with me underneath, the raft fell down flat onto the boiling water. I screamed for Steve and looked over the side of the raft but he was gone. I felt the deepest dread in my gut. I didn’t know where he was but I knew I’d be next if so didn’t act; the raft would not stay upright in this turbulence for long.
I heard two things in the next instant. One was a voice in my head saying “oars!” The other was the sound and shockwaves of something large colliding into the bottom of the raft. Everything around and under me shuddered and I sensed the boat was going to flip. I threw myself over the center and into the rower’s seat-Steve’s seat-and I screamed for him in terror, suspecting it was his body that had hit the raft from underneath which meant that he was still underwater and close to drowning, if he hadn’t already.

I would later learn that I was correct—Steve had hit the underside of the raft as the current cycled him in the darkness over and over. He recounted feeling strangely calm, and wondering if it was all over since there was only dark around him and he wasn’t surfacing.

I sat down and grabbed the upstream oar with both my hands as the downstream oar was stuck in the water, wedged deeply against the rock. I dug the free oar into the water as hard as I could and the movement somehow freed The Swan from the suction that had glued her in place on the boiling water. My desperate push on the single oar spun the raft free of the rock and the surging current grabbed me and threw me down the left channel. I had a moment to realize how much trouble I was in; one does not run the left side of Bedrock. Well, I had no say in the matter at this point, but my fear of what was coming was nothing compared to the terror I felt as I again looked desperately for my raft partner and did not see him. It crossed my mind for an instant that I would do anything to get him back into the raft, even if it meant being tossed into the current myself. But he was nowhere to be seen and I gripped the oars hard in my hands and screamed.
What I later learned is that by getting to the oar and pushing the raft free of Bedrock, the motion served as a sort-of uncorking of the violent Maytag cycle that was trapping Steve beneath the undercut rock and the boat in rounds. The turbulence that was holding Steve down suddenly broke the surface now that the raft was out of the way, and he shot up directly behind me for a life-giving instant of air before he was swept under and down the left channel. I saw none of this. To me, he was gone.
Back in the raft, I heard the inner-voice again, “OARS!” I let go with one hand and wrestled the submerged oar back into the oarlock and finally processed the danger I was in as the roaring eddy wall on river left drowned out every other sound in existence. Ahead of me was a cascading pile of brown water and I pulled once and then again on both oars, desperate to get away. I careened backwards and screamed Steve’s name, part of me certain that at this point he was dead. Everything moved so fast. I didn’t see where I was going but I kept digging the oars in. As long as I was rowing, I told myself, I had a chance of surviving. I had no route, no navigator, no plan—just harnessing my terror to power through one stroke after another.
Some wave or hole must have caught me because suddenly I was spinning. I spun from facing river left to upstream to the right side of the left channel—staring directly at the rock that had grabbed me once and was racing towards me again. The waves smashed the side of the raft into the rock wall and the same downstream oar smashed between the rock and the raft and took a dive down into the darkness. In hindsight, it’s a blessing that I wasn’t able to hold onto the oar, because I would have been catapulted out by the force just like Steve had been.
My back was downstream, the left side of the raft pinning up against Bedrock’s enormous stone center, and I felt the waves railing me against the rock over and over. My terror turned into blind rage and I began screaming.
“Fuck you! No, you fucking river! No! Give me back my fucking oar!“
I pulled hard with my right oar and grabbed for the visible tip of the left oar, wrenching as much of it upwards as I could and hitting it over and over against the rock wall as I pulled with all my might on the right.
"Fuck you, you fucking river, I don't wan to die, let me off this fucking rock! Fucking let me go!”
Somehow in my rage-fueled jostling, I gained a foot of space from the rock and got the left oar free. I dropped the right one for a moment and hauled the left oar into the oarlock then plunged the two oars into the waves as hard as I could, pushing back from the wall with the biggest oar pulls I could manage.
As the boat ricocheted off the rock and spun me into the waves like a floating rubber pinball in a game made in hell, I caught a glimpse of something white two boat lengths from me. Steve! I screamed for him and the oars became extensions of my body as adrenaline surged and I pulled for my life, knowing only that where my partner went, I would follow.

Now that I am free of the rock, I am sure you have many questions. What had happened to Steve? Where were the other boats? How long did all of this take? To the latter, I think it all went down in less than two minutes, but it felt like an eternity. As for the others, here is the information I learned over many following conversations:

John had gone down first in his dory and had a successful right-side run. He eddied out along the shore to be a safety boat for the two rafts. Max entered the rapid next and was caught by the violent current that swept him into the center mass of Bedrock. His boat hit the rock wall just below where ours did, but the current spun him off and he made it through the right channel as well. I saw what happened to Max and was shouting for Steve to go further right to avoid the rock, but the current propelled us directly into the top point of Bedrock, a place notorious for pinning and flipping rafts.

Down below, Max turned and looked for us. When he didn’t see The Swan careening down the waves, he knew something was wrong and began rowing hard towards Bedrock's rocky center, using the upstream eddy currents to help him. At the same time, John realized we were missing, and began ferrying across the lower current where he planned to tie off the dory, climb up the rock island, and somehow get to us where he knew we must be pinned. Both John and Max assumed we had hit the rock (as we had) and the raft had flipped (thankfully, it hadn't) with us trapped beneath it or thrown out into the rapid.

Max recounted seeing Steve in his white helmet and green lifejacket floating out of the left channel right around this time. He began rowing as hard as he could against the current to get to Steve. His eyes scanned the water and there was no sign of me anywhere. For Max, this meant one of two things had happened: I was pinned by the raft up against the rock and was seriously injured or worse, or I had also gone into the water but had not surfaced which by this point meant I had drowned. There was nothing else he could do except row for Steve and then attempt to rescue or recover me. Neither would be a good day. I cannot imagine what Max was feeling in those moments.

As for me, I was so tunnel-visioned on the top of Steve's head that I had no idea if I was still in a rapid or not. I was still out of Max's sight but quickly came into view. Apparently my presence alone in an upright raft was the last thing in the world Max expected to see.

As I rowed with all my might towards Steve, I came out from the channel and could see Max and Logan in The Hydra rowing against the current towards him. I shouted to Steve, asking if he was alright. He managed to raise an arm up and tap his helmet with his hand, the river sign for “I’m alright.” I followed his heading past the tip of the island and noticed the waves were smaller and the deafening roar was gone. I could hear myself half-sobbing half-gasping as I continued to row with everything I had left.
In the second raft, Max was getting across the current below me and Steve seemed to be floating towards them. He appeared to look between the two boats to see where to go, and Max took charge, yelling “Steve, come to me! Katja, get to shore!” I nodded and rowed like a possessed machine and powered my way to the left shore as I kept my eyes glued to my raft partner and saw him safely pulled from the water into Max’s boat.
I careened into shore and almost knocked myself over from the force as I hit the sand. I stumbled onto the small beach to tie off the end of the raft and as Max’s boat landed, I started shaking hard as the adrenaline dump began to recede. Steve had to tell me several times that he was okay as I scrambled up to him and pulled him into an enormous hug. He felt so cold to the touch, probably from the soaked clothing be wore, but I did not want to let go. We stood there in each other’s arms, shaking from the cold water and fading terror. He was alive. So was I. Our embrace was one of reunion, yes, but more-so it was the only way to confirm that we were both there, that we were both alive, and that neither of us had lost the other.

Steve told me that he had thought I had gone in too, and he had wondered if I had made it. When he surfaced, his head was filled with images of our pinned boat torn to shreds, one or both of us broken if not dead, and his fear had come on strong the moment he broke the surface and didn’t know where I was. For several terrible moments, we had both believed the other had drowned.

Once I was certain he was intact, I stumbled back to the beach, pulled the drag bag off of The Swan, and drank the best can of beer that I have ever tasted. Through it all, I did not cry. From how deeply sick I felt for the rest of the day, I almost wish I had. Perhaps the tears would have carried the agony out of my body and back into the river. Instead, it all stayed with me and is now a part of me. I feel calm but also jumpy. And even as I write this, I cannot stand the idea of Steve being out of my sight for more than a moment. I just need that reassurance that we made it through and he is still here. I've lived the nightmare of loss before and it is blurring the lines of what was then and what is now.

Another monsoon storm hit us as we made camp that night, so bad that for a while we all took shelter under the stone ledges, preferring the risk of lightening hitting the rocks over being exposed to the wind and rain and cascading mud we watched careen down across the canyon. Even though it was a big, scary storm, I found myself enjoying the warmth of the rocks and giggling at the silliness of our group piled up together, wrapped in tarps and tent covers. Suddenly, it felt amazing to simply be alive.

We ate boiled hotdogs straight from the pot for dinner in the cold rain that night and it felt like a feast, then went to bed as soon as we were fed. There was no question as to if I’d have my tent to myself; the idea of being away from the group or my partner sent me into overdrive assembling the tent and supplemental tarp for extra space as it dumped rain on us. Steve and I were both exhausted and kept enough space between us to not jostle each other while in close quarters, but I know I wouldn’t have slept at all if I hadn’t been able to wake up in the night and confirm that he was still there. I don’t remember dreaming, but I remember sitting upright in my sleeping bag twice: once with gasp and a desperate grab at the tent wall to confirm that I was on dry land and safe (I think I was dreaming about drowning), and the second time with a choked-back scream in my throat and my eyes desperately scanning the darkness until I saw the shadow of Steve sleeping a few feet away, at which point I could breathe again and settle back into an exhausted sleep. Thankfully, that was the only occurrence of nightmares on the trip that I am aware of.

The sunrise the next morning looked different: extra beautiful and full of promise. I sat on a rock by the river in the early morning brushing my hair and praying quietly in thanksgiving for being alive, and in awe of how much I sensed I had forever changed. Then I noticed Steve, standing down the beach and gazing at the rising sun, too. I wondered if he was praying the same things I was. I imagine so. Bedrock brought us face to face with our mortality and has forever changed us. I like to think that somehow, it has been for the better, but only time will tell.

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