Satan’s Suckhole: Navigating Whitewater and Bull in the Royal Gorge
When I told Gray that the final drop-off at Shotgun Eddie’s, a 7-foot drop into a fast running current riddled with submerged rocks was a Class IV rapid, he scoffed.
Gray was of the opinion that any river that could be run by inexperienced rafters, many of them unable to paddle in a straight line and a good many of them drunk, could not possibly have rapids comparable to those found in the wild, untamed rivers of the West.
That’s when I told him that rapids are graded by vertical drop. It was the main criteria by which rapids are graded, I said. I insisted upon it. I had no idea why.
I do this. I make declaratory statements with only the thinnest thread of knowledge on subjects I know little about. Usually I do it to add luster to a story I’m telling. I do it almost unconsciously with no malice aforethought and the assertion is usually buttressed by some vague recollection of something I read once. Which means it stands a reasonable chance of being correct.
So when friends like Gray challenge me, saying things like, “You’re full of shit,” my immediate response is “Look it up.”
Taken Down a Notch
This “looking it up” business actually works out well for me because if the person takes me up on it, one of two outcomes occur: 1.) I am proven wrong and in the course of things learn the correct answer, deepening my knowledge on the subject in a dramatic fashion that roots it in my intellect so I can whip it out in the future to bludgeon someone else with, or 2.) I am proven correct, which I like just as much.
The other possibility, and the one that occurs most often, is that the challenger doesn’t have the time or inclination to look it up, which leaves him (and me) uncertain of whether it’s correct. An unintended consequence of this outcome is that if the assertion seems plausible enough it gets passed on.
Thus, I have had the meta-experience of being confronted with my own shaky proclamations. Whereupon I always say in a friendly but firm manner, “That’s bullshit.” And when the person asks me how I know, I say, “Believe me, I know.”
But I don’t know. Until somebody looks it up, I don’t really know. Which is why, after Gray failed to follow through, I went online and looked it up, and I can tell Gray right here and now that he missed an opportunity to take me down a notch.
The grading of rapids has only peripherally to do with vertical drop. It’s more a mix of factors like the number or rocks and the power of the water, the upshot of which is the likelihood of your getting through them without getting seriously injured or killed.
Near Death Experience
The 11 mile stretch of the Arkansas River that runs through the Royal Gorge near Canon City, Colorado features an assortment of Class III, IV and V rapids with menacing sounding names like Sledgehammer, Wall Slammer, Boat Ender and Satan’s Suckhole.
I went there in late May and braved the river with three other fellows and a guide of 20 years experience who hailed originally from Wisconsin. Jimmy had cut his teeth on the Wolf River and was familiar with the final drop-off near Shotgun Eddie’s, which Gray had poo-pooed, and confirmed that it was indeed a nasty a piece of whitewater, although he stopped short of naming its class.
I was keen to communicate the severity of that stretch to Gray for two reasons. First, I knew Gray was familiar with it, so it was a good point of comparison when talking about other rapids, and, second, I nearly killed myself on it. I was thrown out of the boat in the middle of it, falling into a fast moving current that slammed me backwards into a rock.
The worst thing that can happen when you’re floundering around in rapids is to get turned around backwards. Depending on the speed of the water, impacting a rock can be like getting hit with a baseball bat, and if you’re about to get hit by a baseball bat, you prefer to get hit on the soles of your feet, not on your back. When I slammed into that rock it was a horrible shock and for a moment I was convinced I had broken my spine.
Since then, I have made a concerted effort to remain in the boat when rafting. But of course that’s often easier said than done, which is what makes river rafting so scary, and so thrilling.
Learning the Drill
The Arkansas River through the Royal Gorge is a narrow 50-foot wide channel. In the spring it carries an enormous volume of water at terrific speeds down rock strewn chutes impossible to navigate without a knowledgeable guide at the helm.
The first thing that happens as you slide out on the water is the command drill. You learn what “hard-right” and “hard-left” mean (basically paddling like crazy on one side or the other), “all forward” or “all back” (padding in unison to move the boat forward or back) and “over-right” and “over-left” (everybody pile onto one side of the boat to dislodge it from a rock). You also learn what to do when somebody goes overboard.
The guide stands at the helm and shouts these directions over the roar of the river and it’s your job as one of four oarsmen to carry them out. If you work together, acting deftly and with authority you can avoid colliding with rocks, getting caught in eddies, being swamped in backflows or breached. The idea is to slip through narrow passageways, slide over the crowns of submerged boulders, ride over gushing rooster tails, spin away from swirling whirlpools and dig like crazy through tumbling stretches of furious whitewater without mishap.
It’s sort of like getting through a conversation without bullshitting. It’s hard.
Am I Really Just Full of it?
Merriam-Webster defines bullshit as: talking nonsense especially with the intention of deceiving or misleading.
So maybe what I’m doing is not really bullshitting.
First, it’s not “nonsense”. I always work from a solid foundation of facts. When I come up with these assertions, I’m usually employing deductive reasoning. I know this for a fact and I know that for a fact, and if those two facts are true, than this must also be true. Or not.
Second, I am not intentionally misleading or deceiving. Quite often when I make a statement that others decry as bullshit I’m startled to discover they may be right, because when the words leave my mouth I’m as sure as anything they’re correct. So if I’m lying, I’m lying to myself, which is possible, of course. But it does beg the question: Why do I do this?
Sometimes it’s just defensiveness. I’m telling a story, I want to make a point and I want the point to have impact. So I say something compelling. But then when the other party undercuts it, I roll out the bullshit.
Like, for example, Gray and I were trading whitewater rafting stories, and although I have taken on some scary rivers (I’ve even rafted the Colorado through the Grand Canyon) the scariest experience I ever had was smacking into that rock on the Wolf River. So I brought it up and then Gray downplayed it because it was only the Wolf River. Whereupon I declared that some rapids on the Wolf are Class IV’s, especially that drop-off at the end, because of its vertical drop, and he wondered aloud if vertical drop is really how they grade rapids, and I insisted it was, and there you have it.
Look, if I had let him brush it off, the whole story would’ve been ruined. And then I would’ve slammed into that rock for no reason.
We pushed off from the Parkdale Access ramp where the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad hugs the river’s edge as it snakes through the canyon. We floated placidly along, practicing our commands. Then we heard the babble of water over rocks, glimpsed the approaching glimmer and splash, felt the current accelerating and dug in.
The first rapids are, appropriately, El Primero and El Segundo. Class III rapids with enough spunk to get your blood pumping. Here we encountered moderate, irregular waves, easily maneuverable, and saw some menacing rocks, but nothing we couldn’t avoid.
A quarter mile on we came to Pumphouse Rapids, a Class III-IV that featured some powerful but predictable whitewater. Then we came upon Sledgehammer, the first IV-V on this stretch of the river.
To get an idea of the intensity of a Class V rapid consider that there are only six grades of rapids with Class VI being deemed nearly impossible, for teams of experts only, at favorable water levels, after close personal inspection and taking all precautions. A Class V is one notch below that.
Now Jimmy told us to look sharp. My boatmates were Bob, T.J. and Nate. The water bucked and churned. We had to dig hard to avoid being carried into a pair of jagged rocks and strove mightily to fit the boat through a boulder sleeve that fell off precipitously at the end. The front of the boat went down and a huge curl of water surged up over us. But we came through intact, dripping wet and smiling.
Next up were The Narrows, a long Class III-IV consisting of three separate drops, tricky to navigate because the river thins to a 30-foot wide channel. But we made it through. We were working well together. Jimmy was proud of us, and we began to strut and boast.
This tendency to bullshit is not always a good thing. Some people get angry, and then I feel bad about it.
Yet I do have access to this vast store of partially digested information. It’s all rattling around inside my brain. I feel like I ought to be able to use it for something.
I suppose the trick is to avoid introducing it in a way that’s confrontational. I need to navigate the fast moving flow of conversation without running into rocks of skepticism.
If I want to be considerate of my friends and avoid pissing them off, I need to steer clear of Satan’s Suckhole, which for me is my tendency to bullshit.
At Wall Slammer we lost Bob. The boat pitched down a chute and we all leaned back, and then we glanced off a boulder, which sent us into a spin, and the back end collided with a rock, causing a jolt that pitched Bob into the drink. At moments like this your adrenalin spikes. If you act fast, you can grab him and haul him back in, but if you miss your chance, he’ll be carried through the rapids on his own, a human pinball in a wet and wild pinball machine.
The rescue is made all the more harrowing by the fact that you must leave your oars at the worst possible moment, as you are careening down the river at a furious pace, boat bucking, water flying, obstacles looming at every turn. If the boat hits a rock while you’re leaning over to haul him in, two more people are probably going for a swim. Then you’re faced with the awful predicament of more people in the river than in the boat.
Jimmy yelled for T.J. and I to keep paddling as he and Nate grabbed Bob under the arms and hauled him over the gunwale. Bob slithered into the boat and lunged for his oar. We were headed straight for a rock. Jimmy hollered “All back!” and we started paddling in reverse like madmen. That slowed the boat enough to soften the collision. We bumped the rock, spun away from it, and entered the channel backwards.
It’s always a little weird to go backwards down a spillway. Your natural tendency is to turn around and have a look, but you realize that if you hit something while you’re turning around you’ll be off balance and in you’ll go. So you sit looking straight in front of you like a picture of an Indian in a canoe while the boat zooms backwards down the chute. When you finally get turned around again, it’s a great relief, like discovering the bullshit you’ve been peddling is actually true.
The Royal Gorge Bridge
More often than not my stab at the truth is on the mark. Of course this is not something I can feel free to celebrate. If I asserted the fact with confidence in the first place, than the confirmation of its validity is merely corroboration, and one doesn’t pop a cork over corroboration. But if I am proven wrong, my opponent can browbeat me like a sinner. It’s all downside it seems, this bullshitting. So why do I do it?
After Wall Slammer, the river threaded its way between 1,200 foot canyon walls, and high above we could see the Royal Gorge Bridge. At 955 feet up it’s the highest bridge in the United States, and for 70 years until 2001 it was the highest bridge in the world. The bridge wasn’t built for transportation. It was actually built to be a tourist attraction, which makes it sort of a fraud, a piece of window dressing, a bunch of bullshit. Look, it doesn’t really go anywhere.
Yet people seem to like the Royal Gorge Bridge. For years it has been one of the top tourist attractions in Colorado. Which implies that window dressing can be fun, that bullshit can have value in its own right.
The truth is bullshit can add zest to a story, give it life. And if it also turns out to be true more often than not, what’s the harm? Why should we hold back a juicy fact just because it may require further validation? Why not plunge ahead and enjoy it?
We picked our way through the remaining rapids: Boat Eater, Lion’s Head and The Pipeline. You may notice I never mentioned The Devil’s Suckhole. That’s because we never ran it. That particular rapid, although it has by far the best name, was not among the rapids on that stretch.
Of course, I could’ve taken poetic license and thrown it in but then my story wouldn’t be factual, and I would be bullshitting you. And I wouldn’t want to do that.
By the way, the final drop on the Wolf River in Wisconsin, the drop that nearly broke my back, is called Big Smoky Falls and is graded a Class IV. I know this because I looked it up. And that’s no bullshit.
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