Souls + Water contributor Leland Davis is a well rounded guy. From his home base in North Carolina, he paddles, guides, blogs, creates videos, does graphic design, travels, pens guidebooks and even writes fiction. His new novel, Precipice, is available for purchase online now at Amazon.com. If you enjoy river running and a good page-turner, you’ll love this book.
In this exclusive excerpt, kayaker Chip Wilson discusses a mysterious mission with a group of former Navy SEALs who, for reasons he does not yet understand, require his whitewater expertise.
Sutherland spoke quietly so that his voice wouldn’t carry to the other tables. “Before we begin, I need to insist that you keep what we’re about to discuss completely confidential. We’re willing to pay you twice what we offered, but it’s imperative that you don’t speak about this with anyone, not even your coworkers or river friends.”
Chip blinked in a moment of surprise. This wasn’t what he had expected. Now they were getting all cloak-and-dagger about an adventure race? They were definitely taking this thing too seriously. “Yeah, OK,” he shrugged. He would play along, especially if it meant more cash.
They paused for a moment as a waitress brought food for Harris and Chip. It seemed that Sutherland was sticking with coffee. Chip figured him for the type who ate a bran muffin at 6 AM.
The older man reached down into a briefcase next to his chair and extracted his laptop. He placed it on the table in front of him, opened it, and powered it up. He pulled his glasses from a pocket and put them on while Chip and Harris attacked potatoes and eggs. Sutherland waited patiently for the computer to boot then entered a password to gain access to the encrypted hard drive. He slid his finger across the trackpad and then tapped and tapped again, pulling up the same satellite imagery that he had looked at with Harris the week before. There it was: the green jungle with a ribbon of white meandering through it, the cliff walls, waterfall, and pool. He beckoned for Chip to scoot his chair around where he could see, conscious of keeping the screen hidden from everyone else in the room.
Sutherland pointed a slender finger at the screen. “We need to get our team down the river here, and then stop right here.” He indicated the point just above the white smudge entering the pool.
Chip was instantly intrigued. This was his kind of river: remote, steep, and obviously littered with waterfalls. His heart rate increased just looking at it. He immediately saw the problem. “How big is that falls?”
Sutherland zoomed in for a better view. “We think it’s about sixty feet.”
Chip tried to play it cool and hide his growing excitement. The landing of the drop looked clean. He had kayaked off a couple of waterfalls that tall—one in British Columbia and another in Chile. The idea of being the first person to run a new falls as beautiful as this one instantly had him wondering where it was and how he could talk his way into going along. He crammed a forkful of fried potatoes into his mouth to hide his excitement and peered harder at the screen while he chewed.
Then he noticed the quality of the image. Chip had spent countless hours scouting for new rivers using Google Earth—popular free software that accessed satellite imagery of most of the globe. The picture was never this detailed, though. He could make out individual rocks in the river, and individual branches on the overhanging trees. Where did they get this data? Something was wrong here: Navy SEALs, a mysterious grey-haired gentleman, high-resolution satellite imagery, and a promise of silence? He sat up straighter in his chair, got control of his racing heart, and noisily swallowed the mouthful of food. He took a deep breath and leaned in to look more closely at the screen, both frightened and fascinated by the possibilities.
Sutherland registered Chip’s change in manner. This kid was smart—too smart for the prepared cover story. He hadn’t had high hopes for that anyway, counting more on paying him to keep his mouth shut. If they were indeed going to recruit this young man for the mission, they would have to tell him what this was all about at some point. He didn’t like how loose they were playing this; but on a hurry-up, proof-of-concept mission with limited resources, it was the best that they could do. He hoped they weren’t making a terrible mistake. He’d have to trust Harris’ judgment.
“It would help to know generally where this is, what time of year the photos were taken, and when you’re planning to go,” Chip said cautiously. He was now extremely wary of asking too many questions, but also burning with curiosity about this mysterious and alluring canyon. Besides, he would have to know in order to give an accurate answer.
Sutherland’s and Harris’ eyes met across the table. Harris raised his eyebrows. He was starting to get the picture of the complexity of what they were trying to accomplish and was grateful that they were learning more from Chip’s experience before diving in.
“Just tell us if it can be done, please,” Sutherland said sternly, turning has gaze back toward Chip.
“At the water level shown in this picture, no. At lower water it might be possible to stop, although that eddy is still gonna be really small for a raft. Overall, I’d say the water looks too high for running the river at all when these pictures were taken.” It was the best answer Chip could give based on the information.
“What about in a kayak?” Harris prodded.
“I could probably catch that eddy, especially at lower water.” Chip used ‘I’ instead of ‘you’ in a subconscious indication that he would like the chance to try.
“Then could you throw us a rope?”
“If there was an anchor in the rock, maybe I could rope you in before you went over the falls.” This was starting to sound crazy, but he’d realized on the river just over a week ago that ordinary rules didn’t apply to these SEALs. Chip looked more closely at the picture, noticing the thatched roofs on the canyon rim for the first time. Until now, he had been so excited that he’d only focused on the river. “Would it be possible to get down to the river from these buildings ahead of time to set an anchor?”
The question led to a ten second void of awkward silence as Harris looked inquiringly at Sutherland. The older man stared at the vaulted ceiling and refused to meet his gaze. Then Sutherland sighed, removed his glasses, and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He placed the glasses carefully on the table next to the computer. This was even trickier than he’d anticipated. His eyes finally met Harris’, and he nodded in acquiescence.
Harris gave Chip a serious look. This would be easier one operator to another, without a filter. He was now sure that they not only needed the kid’s advice, they needed his experience and skills on this mission. No more dissembling. He leaned in and spoke quietly. “The objective is to reach those buildings. For reasons we won’t go into, the river is the only way we can access them. You’re saying that the water level is a consideration—we understand that. We knew we were looking for enough water in the river to float a raft, but we hadn’t considered the possibility that there might be too much. That buys us a little time, but we expect the water to begin dropping soon. What we need to know is: at the correct water level, could you catch that eddy, set an anchor in the rock wall, and then rope us over before we went over the falls?”
“Yeah,” Chip nodded with quiet confidence. His mind was racing trying to figure out what this was all about. It didn’t feel real. Was he actually being asked by a Navy SEAL if he could help tackle a mysterious river canyon? He looked at the satellite picture on the screen again and saw not only a river, but the adventure of a lifetime. He continued, “If you’re serious about this, you’ll need more training than what we did on the Gauley. That was big water like they have in Africa. This is more of a creek. It’s steeper and more technically demanding. Can you zoom out?” This last was directed at Sutherland, who reached to the trackpad and expanded the view of the canyon.
Chip pointed at another white blur about a half-mile upstream of the buildings. “See, there’s a smaller falls here that you’ll probably have to paddle over. You should do some training for waterfalls and technical whitewater before you go.” This was looking better and better. Chip could smell a road trip, and these guys obviously had the bankroll to do it. He’d probably even get paid to go.
“Where can we go to train?”