Riding Broncs in Arizona
Lowering myself onto the bright blue pontoon, my legs straddled over the cold, wet rubber. There really wasn’t anywhere for my feet to go below me since the five pontoons were strapped so snugly together. So, I left my feet awkwardly in front of me resting on ropes around the nose of the pontoon. Not wanting to miss whatever the river had to offer us, my husband Bob, my friend Cheryl, and I had all crawled up to the front sitting positions on the J Rig Pontoon boat. This is what we had paid for, heard about back in Wyoming, and fretted about over the last year. Coming to Arizona to ride major rapids on the Colorado River is talked about throughout the country. After all the hype, we wanted to see if the water would live up to its world class reputation.
I fumbled for my rubber gloves stashed in my life jacket. There wasn’t any hurry as we were gliding down the river on our first day of a seven day float trip. The sky was blue, the sun was warm on our backs, and the water was crystal clear and smooth. The forty horsepower outboard motor was enough to move our thirty foot J Rig through the water without disturbing our scenic experience. The quiet of the river was misleading, however. Between the rocking of the boat and the soft rippling of the water moving past us, it was tempting to close my eyes and let my mind drift along too. But there was too much to see; red sandstone, schist, and shale towered above us on both sides. I stretched my neck and twisted my torso back and forth, turning every which way so as not to miss a thing. I had a camera on a cord around my neck and stuffed into my life vest, but I’ve always been afraid of missing the best sights when looking through a viewfinder. Listening to the other eighteen people onboard, we were all busy commenting on the wonders to be seen river level in the Grand Canyon.
My feet dangled above the water as we moved along, occasionally dipping into the cold water. Our two young guides had already talked about how much colder the water would be than we expected, due to the water being released into the river from underneath the upper dam. Releasing the deepest water against the large dam into the river keeps silt from settling in the reservoirs above the dam. Those two boys probably hadn’t had the chilling experience of swimming in glacier fed lakes in Wyoming. . . Living just one hour from Green River Lake, the source of the mighty Colorado River, we were no strangers to frigid liquid water. My water Keens with no socks let the cold water splash across my feet and through my shoes. The water was cold, but the perfect temperature to keep my feet awake and forestall my nodding off.
Our first morning had been filled with loading the rig, packing all our dry bags, tents, and cots, and settling into our future week routine. We patiently listened to safety instructions on how to maneuver on and off the boat, in and out of the water, and around our evening camps.
Excited to finally be on the famed Colorado River and part of the infamous river runner experience, I pulled out my neoprene gloves as we approached our first rapid of the day. House Rock Rapid, rated 4-7 out of a possible 10, was formed when pre-dam floods brought boulders down Rider Canyon into the Colorado River. Rocks and boulders accumulated at the juncture of the two rivers causing the rough, rolling rapids. Bob kiddingly offered rope gripping lessons to his fellow nine pontoon riders. We laughed and half listened to his spiel on broncriders rigging up to ride bucking horses on the rodeo circuit. “Slide your gloved hand under your rigging, fold your fingers over and lock them closed with your thumb. Bring your elbow back and lock your arm into your side. Crank down your hat below your ears, slap your cheeks, and yell “LET ER RIP!””
I laughed as I pulled the stubborn neoprene over my wet hands. Focusing ahead on the upcoming rapid, all thoughts of sites and views on either side of us were forgotten. I tentatively grasped a front rope with my left hand while my right hand fumbled for another rope behind my back. As we got closer and I saw the river actually drop out of sight going into a ten foot drop, I heard the guides yell “Hold on!”
Riding into the rapid, we front riders bent forward with our faces touching the rubber pontoon to allow most of the waves force to go over our backs. A wall of water came at us like liquid bricks from below and between the pontoons we were riding. I was instantly thrown to the right, slipping along the wet rubber. My eyes clenched shut, I never saw Cheryl jettison off the front of the boat. In the seconds it took to reopen my eyes, the wave was done with us, but I was dangling off to the right with both my hands still in a death grip on the ropes. I could see Cheryl was gone as Bob looked back at the guides to signal Cheryl’s inopportune departure. But, the hand signal across his throat to signal a man overboard would involve letting go of the ropes. . . .
The two guides were already in lifesaving mode as they positioned the rig to pick up their first swimmer. Cheryl, on her part, had come up for air only to be pounded by a new wave. Diving under the turbulent water, she tried to head for calmer water on the outside edges of the rapid. Moving clumsily in her waterlogged clothes, shoes, and life vest, Cheryl didn’t mind the surprise sensation of being literally lifted from the water as the rig came alongside. The guides each grabbed a shoulder strap of her vest and brought her out of the water and standing amongst us once again. Sputtering, eyes wide, lips blue, hair plastered to her head, we all cheered and high fived her welcome back.
Once Cheryl was situated wrapped in a blanket and securely seated next to her husband on the boats center, we once again faced the J Rig southwest to head back down the river. The frontal pontoon seating area had been abandoned except for Bob and me. We alone
were left to face whatever next the dear Colorado had in mind for our trip.
On smooth water for the time being, Bob turned to the group huddled in the middle of the boat.
“Let me show you how they ride buckin’ horses in Wyoming. . . .”