The Natchez Trace Parkway ran behind the neighborhood where I
grew up, following the route of old Indian trails from the Cumberland River
around Nashville, Tennessee to the Mississippi River at Natchez. In the 1500s
Spanish conquistadors traveled the trail looking for gold and found the
Mississippi River. In the early 1800s river boat men with the reputation of
being fearless used the Trace to return to their homes in Kentucky and Ohio
after floating barges down to New Orleans. Mississippi was wilderness then:
Indians, highwaymen, wolves, bears, and panthers haunted the boat men's journey.
The parkway is scenic-rolling hills punctuated by farmland and
cutover timber, no houses or businesses. It is closed to commercial vehicles and
has a fifty-mile-per-hour speed limit. Frequent pull-offs allow travelers to
read historical markers without leaving their cars.
At fourteen a friend named Mark and I backpacked seventy miles
down the Trace. We filled our canteens at the house of a man who kenneled his
hounds in junk cars. Our only trouble came when a carload of teenagers decided
to harass us at a rest area. It didn't occur to me to be scared-that's something
that comes with age. We ran off into the woods, and those teenagers didn't get
out of the car. A year later we rode our bicycles two hundred miles to Jackson
where we camped in some woods behind a grocery store, and then two hundred miles
back. I've always wanted to live someplace wild, liked to take chances.
Mark and I hunted, rode motorcycles, chased raccoons with his
hound through the woods at night, and learned to canoe white water on a chilly
river in North Carolina. The white water stuck. I read somewhere that there's
nothing quite like messing around in boats, and that's true. We liked the
challenge of the river, man against nature stuff. Mark and I tried to impress
girls with our adventure stories. We drifted the halls of our high school
quoting Burt Reynolds from Deliverance whispering: "You don't beat
this river," or "Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can
Cliché or not, there is something about rivers, messing around
in boats. Maybe it's being outside, the way water falls over and around
rocks-the sound of it, the isolation, the tired feeling after a good day on the
Mark lives in Arizona now, but we've kept in touch. Mark writes
me letters about western rivers and I tell him about new rivers in Arkansas and
Tennessee. When I visit him out west I paddle a borrowed kayak called a Dancer.
The way the boat responds in moving water, the way your body becomes a part of
the boat is as close to a true dance as I've ever come.
Southern white water rivers flow through tight valleys and often
are controlled by hydroelectric dams. Rainfall is plentiful and the rivers are
runnable year-round as water is released to produce electricity. The typical
southern rapid is drop/pool, usually one to two hundred yards long, ending with
waterfalls followed by quiet pools. Precise maneuvering is required to set up
for the waterfalls. Since the water flow is controlled, the rivers are smaller
than out west, dependably constant.
Western rivers are messy. When the snow melts the rivers fill up
with muddy brown water and the rapids can run anywhere from a quarter to two or
three miles long. The paddling season lasts as long as the snow melt. Water
levels can change dramatically depending on the weather in the mountains fifty
miles away from where you're paddling. When the rivers cut through canyons there
is a phenomenon called "big water." The water can't spread out, so it
stacks up. Maneuverability is no longer a problem, rather, it's trying to remain
upright while plowing through six- to ten-foot standing waves.
I have always had a problem with what are called "eskimo
rolls," the ability to sweep the kayak upright after turning over. My roll
is undependable. It comes and goes. Even though the mechanics of the roll are
simple, there is a mental element that I haven't mastered. As in baseball,
sometimes a batter will do everything right and still go into a hitting slump. I
almost panic when I turn upside down. The kayak is a tight fit; wet suits, life
preservers and paddling jackets make me feel claustrophobic. It's dark, cold,
water goes up my nose, and I don't like the idea of my helmet bouncing off
submerged rocks, or even worse, having to swim from my boat in a rapid. Swimming
is embarrassing as well as dangerous. I don't want friends saying "There
goes Engel again" whenever they have to rescue me.
Southern rivers are easier for me, the water clearer, waves
smaller, not so intimidating as muddy western rivers. Kayakers talk about
confidence, about knowing that you are going to roll up, and that it just
happens. You're not supposed to think, is the idea. They say you have to like
being underwater. My fear of not rolling makes the problem worse and sometimes I
think it would be easier to never kayak again.
Last year I made my third kayaking trip west, where Mark had a
surprise for me. He had gotten us on a trip with four other people, two kayakers
and a raft, down the Colorado River through Westwater Canyon in southern Utah.
The Colorado is the epitome of big water, of any white water in North America.
In high school, Mark and I dreamed about the day we would kayak the Colorado
Westwater Canyon funnels the river from a quarter-mile wide,
about eighteen hundred feet, down to thirty-five feet, for six miles. The walls
are vertical and shiny black, leaving only a patch of sky overhead. The river
was flowing at nine thousand cubic feet per second that week, about seven times
as much water as I cared to be on. At that flow the waves average ten feet high
and something called "funny water" occurs. Random whirlpools are
generated, sometimes in front of your boat, sometimes underneath it. The
whirlpools seem to have minds of their own, laying ambushes for unsuspecting
At Skull Rapid the current slams into a wall. Half the current
splits off and runs down canyon. The other half has hollowed out a cylindrical
hole in the canyon wall fifty feet in diameter, called the Room of Doom. If you
are washed into the room when the river is high, it is impossible to get out.
River runners once reported a herd of fifty or so drowned sheep, spinning around
the Room of Doom like a washing machine. That's where I saw myself, circulating
with god knows what, waiting for late summer when the water level would fall.
Mark and I warmed up on Salt River Canyon in Arizona, a river I
had run half a dozen times without any problem, and my eskimo roll went to hell.
For three days before the trip I read about Westwater and practiced my roll in
the swimming pool, but it still wouldn't come. I tried to unlearn everything I
knew about rolling and start over. It got worse. I talked myself out of
kayaking, found a spot in the raft that would be making the trip. I knew that
the Colorado was no place to swim.
The night before we left for Westwater, Mark and I went to buy
hip braces for his kayak from Bill Carter, an Arizona kayaker famous for his
first descents of isolated mountain rivers and who made extra money selling
equipment and giving lessons. Mark told Bill I had driven two thousand miles and
planned to raft Westwater rather than kayak. He meant well, but it sounded mean
Bill asked what rivers I had run, how I had made out. I told him
about my eskimo roll. Bill said people lose their rolls all the time, and that
it wasn't as bad as I made it out to be. He told me there was a trail around
Skull, and how to recognize it. I decided to try Westwater and walk Skull, but I
didn't sleep well that night, or the following night.
Westwater was everything I thought it would be, and worse. The
water was squirrelly, frantic. For me, strictly survival paddling. I was
determined to stay upright. Even thinking about an eskimo roll, or a swim, was
out of the question. The first big wave was a wall in the middle of the river. I
watched the two kayaks in front of me climb up and up the face of the wave, and
then vanish over the edge as if they had been swallowed. The rest was roller
coaster, until Skull, where I paddled so hard for the bank that I completely
beached my kayak on the rocks. Whole trees were being thrashed around the Room
I carried my boat around the rapid and waited below to help Mark
or the others if they got into trouble. I set my Dancer down in an eddy,
normally the smoothest part of the river, but this one had three-foot waves.
Everyone made it. Mark flipped in Skull and rolled up so quick his hair barely
The rest of Westwater went by too fast, because I didn't start
having fun until Skull was over. I began to enjoy the boat, the way the water
moved, those imposing whirlpools, and when the canyon walls opened up and the
river became placid, I paddled to the raft and drank two quick beers. They
tasted as good as any I'd ever had, and I was glad Mark talked me into kayaking.
I don't want to be one of those people who overestimate their
skills and get into trouble. I had to weigh the reward of seeing the sunlight
playing off the black walls of Westwater Canyon, the pleasure of difficult white
water, against the risk of losing a borrowed kayak, a hundred-and-fifty-dollar
paddle, the cost of a forest service rescue, and possibly my life. Later that
summer I bought a new kayak, my own Dancer. I tried it out on the Bouie River
north of my home, a quiet river with wide sand banks and cypress trees growing
at the edge of the water. I eskimo rolled seven times for luck. Sometimes now I
wonder about Skull and how I would have done, but not too much. Fear can be
Copyright © 1995 Blip Magazine Archive