"The life you save may be your own" - Flannery O'Connor
Drive east out of the San Francisco Bay Area toward the Sierras and it’s not long before the crush of humanity gives way to the roll of the California earth: golden grasslands peppered with blue oaks. The towns get smaller: Knight’s Ferry, Chinese Camp, Big Oak Flat, Casa Loma.
From there, the Lumsden Road—built by the Lumsden brothers in the 1890s to harness water for mining—descends the Tuolumne canyon. The road is all dirt and turns but eventually delivers one to the Tuolumne River. While the river has a tortured history, here it is clear and wild, officially “Wild and Scenic.”
Of course, early in the last century it was wilder and more scenic. Then came the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which, with the associated firestorm, destroyed the city’s water system. Before long, however, the city had purchased water rights to the Tuolumne and, by 1923, despite the strenuous objections of John Muir and the fledgling Sierra Club, had constructed the O’Shaughnessy Dam at the cost of $100 million and the lives of 67 men and one woman. The resulting Hetch Hetchy Reservoir buried a huge chunk of Yosemite National Park. That notwithstanding, the dam and 160 miles of gravity-fed aqueduct now deliver clean water to 2.7 million people in the Bay Area. Eighty-three miles of river remain.
As a commercial whitewater guide in the 1980s, I missed a lot of that context. The “T” as we called it, was simply a great place to guide. It was a two- or three-day trip with nonstop class IV whitewater running through a pristine canyon. That’s not to say it wasn’t intimidating. As guides, we were nervous most of the time—come low or high water.
It began with the 6-mile drive down the precipitous Lumsden road in a truck overloaded with gear and guides. On rainy, muddy drives to put-in, it was always a question as to who got to stand on the back bumper and who had to be in the cab. The thought was that when the truck started sliding off the road and down to oblivion one could, from the back bumper, make some sort of Superman leap to safety. Fortunately, we never had to test the theory.
Other guides, from other outfitting companies, seemed not to be nervous in the least. Often we arrived at put-in early in the morning to find the crew of a particular competing outfitter rigging their boats. They were stringy, tough looking guys with tattoos, always smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey. The Rolling Stones blasted from their truck speakers. They seemed as cool as could be.
I worked for an outfitter that went by the name Echo, which, unlike the other outfitters’ names, wasn’t an acronym and didn’t really mean anything. Nonetheless, we ran great trips; the guests generally loved the experience. But the thing with running the Tuolumne was that no matter how great the trip was going, it somehow felt like disaster was always a couple of oar strokes away. The river is technical, fast, and full of decision points. We were all good boatmen and women at that point, but, as we were fond of saying, shit happens.
So, I was a bit uneasy when Dudley and Marian, John and Mildred (not their real names)—all in their late 60s—climbed in my oar boat at put-in one day. I could see immediately that Dudley was a stern fellow, Marian as sweet as my grandmother. I didn’t get a bead on John and Mildred, except to know they were older and frailer than I would have liked.
There is no warm-up on the Tuolumne. Within yards of the put-in is Rock Garden, which is exactly that but with a couple thousand cubic feet per second of water streaming through—basically a big sieve. There is a clean line right of center that runs halfway down the rapid, at which point a boatman must make a deft move left to a different channel.
As it turned out with my four sexagenarians, I wasn’t so deft and perched the thousand-pound raft on the rock I was planning to miss. Then I was in and out of the boat, pulling on oars, heaving raft tubes back and forth. More than once, standing knee-deep in the river, I faltered on the slick rocks below, nearly slipping downstream and leaving my charges behind. My four guests eyed me stoically.
The next series of rapids went as smoothly as they ever do: Nemesis, Sunderland’s Chute, Hackamack, Phil’s Folly, Stern. The mood in the boat, however, was a little less than sanguine. Sour might be the word. I knew what Dudley was thinking: What in the hell are we doing here? This river is bigger and scarier than they said, and this guide is not as big and strong as he should be.
Dudley was right.
Then there was Evangelist. Drifting above the drop, I stood to see the rapid in its entirety. Below, one of our other guides, Tom Montgomery, was tied up in an eddy on the left waiting for me to come through. As I picked my line, I gave him a nod.
There are a thousand stories about Tom Montgomery. I’m pretty sure all of them are true. He didn’t smoke or drink, didn’t eat meat, believed in God, was fitter than anyone I’ve ever known, and was, of course, good looking with sharp blue eyes and a quick smile. One story was that as a rescue kayaker on Chile’s Bio-Bio River (before it was dammed), Tom had been slammed into a rock wall in a rapid called Milky Way. Trapped in a crevice underwater with two broken legs, Tom somehow wriggled his way out and swam to safety.
Then there was his stint in the Marines. He and a high school friend had enlisted because they “thought it would be fun.” It didn’t turn out to be that much fun. Nonetheless, Tom didn’t become your average Marine. After numerous physical tests and competitions, he was recognized as the fittest Marine in the entire Marine Corp.: Mr. Physical Fitness. Such distinctions don’t go unnoticed in the military; before long a colonel summoned Tom to his office and offered him an appointment to Annapolis. As it happened, Tom didn’t want a career in the military, so said thank you, but no, and that he would serve out his enlistment and go home to Missouri.
It was not the answer the colonel wanted to hear. There was shouting; things were thrown. Marines didn’t refuse appointments to Annapolis. Those who did were transferred to a station in the Mojave Desert where miscreants were otherwise taught a lesson. And to that end, a particularly sadistic sergeant subjected Tom all day every day to miles of running, pushups, sit-ups, verbal lashings—in 100-degree weather. Tom took it for a while. Then he snapped.
Being a Missouri boy, he knew a thing or two about snakes. When he happened upon a baby rattler in the desert one day, he scooped it. He then secreted away the sergeant’s canteen, put the snake inside, and replaced the canteen in the sergeant’s quarters.
The next day the sergeant pulled Tom aside: “Don’t screw with me; I won’t screw with you.” Tom finished his enlistment without incident.
Evangelist is a sweeping right-hand turn with, among other things, a granite boulder at the apex of the turn splitting the river in two. A guy can make either channel, but he’s got to choose. The water moves fast there.
Thinking back on it, I know it was just a second of hesitation. Maybe less. How long does it take to form a fleeting thought, ponder two sides of a decision?
As our raft rode up on to the Evangelist rock, the current flooded in, spun us sideways, then folded the 16-foot oar boat back on the rock like so much Saran Wrap. It happened in seconds.
“Where is my wife?” Dudley screamed.
Guides are taught that when shit happens, the first thing to do is count passengers. And to Dudley’s point, there were just two of them in the boat now.
A wrapped oar boat in the middle of a rapid is its own kind of chaos. Oars are swinging around, the rapid is loud, guests scream, coolers and food boxes are flooded, gear floats away. As do people. Looking downstream, I could see frail John bobbing along. But Marian?
I scanned the rapid left to right, upstream, downstream. I scrambled over the load, peering over the tubes and around the gnarled boulder we were pinned to. Then I looked down into the water. Six inches below, in the current slamming the raft, I could see the top of Marian’s cropped silver hair. With Dudley gripping the back of my lifejacket, I moved gingerly headfirst into the current. I could feel Marian’s shoulders there—slippery and cold—then her armpits. I heaved on her lifejacket. She didn’t move. Was she holding on to the raft somehow? It seemed impossible. I pulled on her again. And again. Then again. Over and over. Had it been a minute? Ninety seconds? More? I’m not sure, but I do know that there was a moment when the future compressed into a millisecond of thought, one that still pains me: It’s done. I can’t move her. She is dying. She will die. This moment will create ruin.
When I looked up from the water, I saw Tom scrambling over the rocks on shore. Across the channel of whitewater, he was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t make it out. What he couldn’t tell me I could see. Fierceness. Certitude. Belief. Strength. Whatever else drives a man like that. And here he was offering it up to me. It was like a bolt of lightning showing me a way back to the world.
I went into the water again, this time feeling a spare oar deep underwater. This is what was pinning Marian against the raft and rock. And for the first and only time in 30 years of guiding, I pulled the Buck knife from the sheath on my lifejacket and cut the 10-foot oar loose. Dudley and I pulled Marian from the current. She was cold and pale and alive.
After that trip, I never saw Marian again. Tom Montgomery and I stayed in touch off and on over the years. We ended up living in the same small town, the place he died in 2003, of colon cancer. He was 40.
I don’t really know what Marian or Tom thought of what we had been through. Tom and I never talked about it. I wish we had.
What I do know is that we aren’t half the people we become without a rare few who happen to wander into our lives at the right time. It might be for a moment or a lifetime. You won’t know. You can’t predict who is going to change your life, or at what instant. And the rub is, if you’re not careful, those moments can pass you by.