CHAPTER XXI. WHAT CHRISTMAS EVE BROUGHT
This is Emery's account of the "Christmas Rapid."
I will add that the freezing temperature of the water and the struggle for breath in the breaking waves left me exhausted and at the mercy of the river. An eddy drew me out of the centre of the stream when I had given up all hope of any escape from the next rapid. I had seen my brother on the rock below the head of the rapid and knew there was no hope from him. As I was being drawn back into the current, close to the end of the sheer wall on the right, my feet struck bottom on some debris washed down from the cliff. I made three efforts to stand but fell each time, and finally crawled out on my hands and knees. I had the peculiar sensation of seeing a rain-storm descending before my eyes, although I knew no such thing existed; every fibre in my body ached and continued to do so for days afterward; and the moment I would close my eyes to sleep I would see mountainous waves about me and would feel myself being whirled head over heels just as I was in that rapid; but this rapid, strange to say, while exceedingly rough and swift, did not contain any waves that we would have considered large up to this time. In other words, it depended on the circumstances whether it was bad or not. When standing on the shore, picking a channel, it appeared to be a moderately bad rapid, in which a person, aided with life-preservers, should have little difficulty in keeping on top, at least half the time. After my battle, in which, as far as personal effort went, I had lost, and after my providential escape, that one rapid appeared to be the largest of the entire series.
It is difficult to describe the rapids with the foot-rule standard, and give an idea of their power. One unfamiliar with "white water" usually associates a twelve-foot descent or a ten-foot wave with a similar wave on the ocean. There is no comparison. The waters of the ocean rise and fall, the waves travel, the water itself, except in breakers, is comparatively still. In bad rapids the water is whirled through at the rate of ten or twelve miles an hour, in some cases much swifter; the surface is broken by streams shooting up from every submerged rock; the weight of the river is behind it, and the waves, instead of tumbling forward, quite as often break upstream. Such waves, less than six feet high, are often dangers to be shunned. After being overturned in them we learned their tremendous power, a power we would never have associated with any water, before such an experience, short of a waterfall.
There is a certain amount of danger in the canyons, - plenty of it. Still, in most cases, with care and forethought, much of it can be avoided. We think we are safe in saying that half of the parties who have attempted a passage through these canyons have met with fatalities. Most of these have occurred in Cataract Canyon, not because it is any worse than other sections, - certainly no worse than the Grand Canyon, - but because it is easily entered from the quiet, alluring water of the lower Green River. Without a doubt each successful expedition is responsible in a way for others' attempts. In nearly every instance the unfortunate ones have underestimated the danger, and have attempted the passage with inadequate boats, such as Smith had for instance, undecked and without air chambers. Both of these are imperative for safety.
We had the benefit of the experiences of others. In addition, our years of work in the canyons had robbed them of their imaginary dangers, and - while we trust that we are not entirely without imagination - much of their weirdness and glamour with which they are inseparable to the idealist and the impressionist. Each of these upsets could have been avoided by a portage had we desired to make one, but success in other rapids made us a little reckless and ready to take a chance.
Beyond getting our flour wet on the outside, we suffered very little loss to our cargo. We placed the two flour sacks beside the fires each evening, until the wet flour dried to a crust. We continued to use out of the centre of the sacks as though nothing had ever happened.
Bert and I each had a little cough the next morning, but it disappeared by noon. Beyond that, we suffered no great inconvenience from our enforced bath. Sleeping in the open, with plenty of healthful exercise, kept us physically fit.
The cold air and the cold water did not seem to bother the others, but I could not get comfortably warm during this cold snap. Added to this, it took me some time to get over my scare, and I could see all kinds of danger, in rapids, where Emery could see none. I insisted on untying the photographic cases from the boats, and carrying them around a number of rapids before we ran them. It is hardly necessary to say that no upset occurred in these rapids.