March 05, 2021
Circling the Drain
Words by Brad Meiklejohn
All I could see was white. White foam, white pack, white boat, white hat. The pulsing, boiling eddy had Mike in it somewhere, judging from the white clues.
Mile 217 Rapid is not one of the biggest in the Grand Canyon, but when you are riding in a giant latex condom, it feels like Lava Falls. What had started as a fun loop hike was getting serious.
Forrest McCarthy, and Hyperlite Co-Founder Mike St. Pierre, and I had left our camp at Mile 220 in the early morning for a fifteen-mile up-and-over hike that would bring us back to the river about seven miles upstream. The plan was to travel fast and light, and float back to camp in 22-ounce prototype packrafts.
A spectacular hike with challenging route-finding and technical scrambling got us to the river by late afternoon. The boats would make the next seven miles a breeze and give our feet a break.
Inflating the boats was the first cloud to cross the sun. The Ghost boats kept getting bigger the more air we put into them, resembling trick balloons that you twist into funny shapes. The fabric seemed to have no limits, stretching endlessly but never getting firm like you want your packraft to be.
Eyeing this funny white sausage and the boiling brown Colorado River, I mentally retraced the hike. No, going down the river was the only viable option at this point in the day.
Each to our own boat, we pushed off and spun in the current. The boat seemed to hold my weight. I was floating and moving downstream. I took the risk of breathing again.
We carried past the meat of 217 Rapid and put back in on the towering tail waves. Forrest was ahead, and Mike was behind. But he hadn’t been that far behind. I scanned the river and couldn’t find him. A shout to Forrest, who put his hands up in a question.
I dug into an eddy on river right, puzzled and worried. Something was going round in the river’s left eddy pushing into the cliff wall. A hand there, a hat, shit! That’s Mike, cycling around and around. There wasn’t a thing I could do to help, as walls on both sides and strong current barred me from getting across or upstream. Not a good situation.
Mike finally clawed a handhold onto the wall and yarded himself out of the water, trailing a deflated white trash bag with his white pack still attached. His shouts and hand signals made clear that the f’ing thing had exploded on him and nearly acted as his final sea anchor.
A difficult scramble along the cliffs brought Mike to an eddy I could get to, but the obvious question was “What now?” Forrest had already processed the situation and moved far enough downstream to take himself out of the answer. Two guys were now going to paddle one of the exploding boats.
I like Mike, but now I was forced to love Mike. We spooned gingerly into our only hope, reducing our freeboard to 3”. Ducky Eater, a nothing rapid with fierce eddy lines, loomed ahead.
In fading light, we drifted into the jokes and warmth of camp. It all seemed so amusing now, just another day on the river.
Ambassador Brad Meiklejohn is The Conservation Fund’s Alaska Director and President of the Packrafting Association. Motivated by a sense of urgency for the losses occurring in the natural world, he’s following the legacy of his grandmother who fought for women’s voting rights and a great uncle who stood up against McCarthyism.