The song of a canyon wren echoes across the gorge as they float over the calm pool of water gathered for a quarter-mile above the rapid—the great canyon above trapping them in a cascade of massive rock terraces. Gripping the rear sweep, she feels for the myriad of eddies and whorls that could send them adrift. It’s important to keep the boat straight; no mistakes this time. She knows what she has to do.
This must be the one they were warned about. They scouted it—they should be lining it. They had flipped in a much smaller rapid near the start of their journey. ‘A lesson,’ he had called it. Ahead of them, a roaring line of froth stretches from bank to bank, disappearing over the tongue of a recent debris flow that had come down the side canyon on the left. She wonders what lesson they should have learned.
“If you’re gonna run it, stay to the right,” they said, “between the wall and the big hole.” Their rim-bound outfitters had been full of advice…most of it wise, she reckoned, but it was second-or-more-hand knowledge. Only a handful of river rats had ever completed the journey. They saw how nervous she was. But did they know why? Sure. The river scares the hell out of her. Why shouldn’t it? She has no business being here.
The boat slips neatly onto a lick of smooth water entering the rapid; on the left, a seething hole of back-churning froth—to the right, an imposing wall of black lava with a jumble of rocks at the base, their edges cut sharp by ages of spring floods. He is in front of her standing at the forward sweep, his feet in leather straps fastened to the deck. He leans to brace for the first wave.
She lets go of the sweep bar and grabs the paddle which is usually lashed, now unlashed, on the rear deck. "We're drifting!" he yells without looking back. She swings the paddle around with all of her might. He is heaving on the forward sweep and shouting more orders. "Left…!"
The paddle strikes him just below his right ear, stopping dead with the satisfying firmness that she had been imagining for days. She doesn't so much hear his skull crack as feel it ricochet back down the handle. He goes down instantly; faster than the wave which immediately crashes onto the boat as they plunge into the maelstrom.
The impact knocks her off her feet and she falls into the back of the boat, dropping the paddle. Another wave crashes over them as she frantically grabs for something to hold onto. The sweep bar swings above and she latches onto it with her elbow. Jamming her feet into a corner she gets some leverage and pins herself in. It seems the boat is still facing down river but she can't be sure. The boat lifts upward and she hears the ugly sound of a boulder scrapping across the bottom. Holding the sweep firm she feels it bite into the current. The back end swings around and drops sickeningly as the river pulls them off the rocky pivot. Just when it seems she would be drown, an immense crest of water propels them skyward. The boat pirouettes in mid air and lands askew, the front end slamming down in a tremendous splash. As if for good measure a final wave washes over them. The boat is swamped, nearly submerged but upright. She pulls herself up to her knees and leans on the rear bulkhead coughing and catching her breath.
She is afraid to look, but she must. He’s still there, floating, face down. One leg is grotesquely twisted as it goes under the water, his foot still in the makeshift stirrup. He looks dead. She startles as his arm seems to reach out. The boat drifting through a riffle animates his body but there is no will to its movement. She lets him bob like a soaked cork. It will take a while to bail out this much water.
Later that day, their boat settles gently against a sandy bank after drifting into a large eddy just above a small rapid. She had collapsed into a dreamless slumber after bailing the boat. On waking, she climbs out of the boat, ties up to shore and surveys her new world—a world with no obligations and no insane quests in search of fame and fortune. She lays down on the beach and sleeps some more.