Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: The Unseen River

Apr 2, 2018

Navigating the rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is a big responsibility, especially when you’ve got a boat full of passengers … especially when those passengers are visually impaired. In this month’s Canyon Commentary, Scott Thybony recalls one of his final trips as a river guide. It was one of the most epic and memorable runs he ever made.

Mile 232 Rapid on the Colorado River
Credit Doug Nering

The plan was to spend several days running 15 miles of whitewater in the Lower Gorge of Grand Canyon, followed by a long float across Lake Mead. While the rapids don’t match the big drops upriver, they get your attention. Especially if you’re blind. On one of my final trips as a guide, we took a party of blind men and women down the Colorado River.

Each blind passenger had a sighted companion, and while all were legally blind a few could see patches of light and shadow. I was confident the trip could be done safely, but knew if anything went wrong the whole undertaking would appear reckless. And things went wrong from the start. One of the vehicles, an overloaded pickup, broke down twice on the way to the put-in. The delay forced us to bivouac at the mouth of Diamond Creek.

Our drivers worked fast to unload the gear as a storm cloud edged over the outer rim. They soon started back up the road to Peach Springs, a rough 24 miles away. The vehicles had almost reached safety, I later learned, when the drivers rounded a bend and suddenly stopped. An eight-foot wall of water tore across the road in front and curved back, cutting the road behind them. They gunned the vans up a slope as high as possible, but the pickup stalled. Unable to restart it the driver ran for high ground a moment before the floodwaters swept the truck downstream.

The same flash flood was now approaching us at the river. Only a few sprinkles of rain had fallen at camp, but as a precaution I walked down to the creek after dark for a final check. The flow appeared normal but a gust of wind carried a heavy clay scent. Then came a low, visceral rumbling followed by the rushing sound that wind makes moving through faraway pines. Except there were no trees. I looked upstream and saw a dark mass surging around the bend. The canyon was flashing.

Running back I warned the other boatmen, and we got the passengers moving to higher ground. A hollow roar came from the creek, together with the clacking of rock against rock as boulders rolled and bumbled. A blind man, stubbornly independent, had put so much effort into setting up camp he was determined not to abandon it. “To hell with it,” he said, “I’m not moving.” But he had no choice. The rising water soon washed over the place he had been sleeping. In less than an hour the flood crested, and we got everyone settled in again. The river with its rapids still lay ahead.

Next morning the most seriously impaired were assigned to the safer boats rowed by experienced guides. The rest would help paddle the rafts. We shoved off, and as soon as the boats turned into the current they dropped into the first rapid. I wasn’t sure how the blind paddlers were going to handle it, but they were naturals. They listened to instructions carefully and never clenched at the wrong moment, being unable to see the waves looming ahead.

We now approached Mile 232, the most serious rapid below Diamond. The main current sweeps toward a massive standing wave at the head of the rapid, followed by a wave train leading straight toward the Fangs, a cluster of jagged rocks. After scouting the rapid, the boatmen pushed into the current one by one, letting it draw them forward. An oar-powered boat took the lead to be in position below to snatch anyone who washed out of the paddle rafts.

Totally blind, Max sat up front in the first boat for the full effect, ready for anything. She was the oldest passenger on the trip, somewhere in her seventies, and her enthusiasm inspired everyone. Or almost everyone. A young man, who not only couldn’t see but couldn’t hear, sat stiffly on the same boat and kept a tight trip on the baggage strap. The boatman set up to take the standing wave head on, but just as the bow shot upward, the wave suddenly exploded back, flipping it end-over-end.

We quickly made our run and reached the capsized boat. To let the two blind swimmers know in what direction to swim, we kept shouting. But the man, caught in the swirly current and unable to hear, thrashed about disoriented. To my surprise his sightless eyes were wide open with fear. As another boatman dragged him in, Max swam to us. She was excited and smiling when we fished her out. “That was great!” she said. “I’ve been preparing for two years, imagining how it would be. I would have been disappointed if we hadn’t flipped.”

Our party passed through the remaining rapids without further incident and made camp. Night soon closed in leaving only the sound of the dark river flowing past.