I gave my heart to the mountains the minute I stood beside this river with its spray in my face and watched it thunder into foam, smooth to green glass over sunken rocks, shatter to foam again…By such a river it is impossible to believe that one will ever be tired or old. – Wallace Stegner
And yet, rivers or no, we will become tired and we will grow old. So, at some point, we will need to ask, “When are we too old?” Does there come an age when the risk of running rapids is far greater than the reward? And should anybody—children, loved ones, friends—be able to tell someone else to stop, to hand over the paddles or the oars, so to speak?
Many of us have thought about these questions, at least abstractly. Either we, ourselves, are older, or we’ve rafted or kayaked with older people. Most of us have probably realized there are no easy answers. Too many variables apply.
So each river trip becomes a partial answer.
This May, I picked up a cancellation permit for the Green River through the Gates of Lodore. And because short-notice favors the retired, semi-retired, or at least securely employed, I ended up with an older group of boaters, including my own dad, who, at 69, wasn’t the oldest person in the group.
Eleven of us launched on a lucky 7000 cfs flush from the Flaming Gorge Dam. My only experience on Lodore had been the previous August with flows at 1800 cfs, so I was excited to see the river at a higher level. My excitement tempered, however, by the fact that my dad was going to pilot his own 12-foot cataraft through whitewater for the first time. In my memory, Lodore at 1800 would be a good flow for a first whitewater experience, but higher flows created some questions.
Several of the other boaters had multiple Lodore trips under their oars, on flows ranging from 1200 to 10,000, needless to say, opinions varied on what 7000 would be like. This rapid bigger, that one smaller, but in truth, no one really knew.
After launching from the ramp you don’t get a long time to ponder these questions. The first major rapids come early.
We rowed into a fast eddy above Upper Disaster to scout. My dad struggled to hit the eddy. His ferry angle was wrong. He hit the eddy too low. He didn’t pull hard enough on the oars. When he finally rowed up beside the rest of us, he didn’t seem concerned that he just about blew the eddy. The list goes on. Or, maybe I just wanted to find a reason—or twelve—that he shouldn’t row the rapid. My dad wasn’t just an older boater, he was a newbie older boater—a dangerous combination.
Most of the older people I boat with have river resumes pre-dating me. These people were guides on major rivers, recreational rafters from way back, or spent their youth kayaking and only switched to rafting after an injury. The assumption has always been that they can take care of themselves. Because he was a rookie, I couldn’t assume that about my dad.
Part of the equation of when we are too old has to do with experience. Being older might mean having a harder time getting out of trouble, but being older often means you don’t get into trouble in the first place. “It’s never too early,” was the first piece of rafting advice I was given—not coincidentally by an older rafter. This advice has always served me well, and it’s something older boaters frequently employ. If there’s a move that needs to be made, they do it early. Except, or course, when they don’t or can’t.
On my first Lodore trip, the trip leader missed the scout and we ran Upper and Lower Disaster Falls blind. Gary, a 75-year-old bucket boater, took the bony run down Disaster Falls and ended up with five holes in the bottom of his raft. “This is nothing,” he said as he patched the holes in camp. “Did I tell you about the time I hit the ledge hole in Lava?”
Unlike Gary, however, my dad was not a rafter from way back, and I didn’t really want him to have a ledge-hole experience. Back home, when my sister had questioned the wisdom of this new hobby, I had shrugged. But watching the water pile up and surge at Upper Disaster, I couldn’t be quite so cavalier. He was my dad and his safety mattered to me. Then there was the safety of the group. A rescue or an injury early on in the trip could put others at risk or, at the very least, be a real bummer.
From the scout, Upper Disaster Falls looked tricky, big water and a couple of big holes. But the real problem, at least in letting my dad run the rapid, was Lower Disaster Falls. A quarter mile and an ankle-busting scout away, the river runs up against an undercut cliff. At lower water levels I didn’t remember it being any problem. But even from Upper Disaster I could see new features were in play at a higher level. Water broke against the cliff and waves splashed over a large rock in the middle of the river. Moves in fast, broken water, would need to be made.
Then and there I decided not to let my dad run the rapid. It’s not easy to tell your dad no. Despite all the times he told you “no” growing up, but I did. His face said he wasn’t happy about it, but he didn’t protest.
Earlier during the drive to the launch, he had confided that he would abide by my decision about running the bigger rapids. For this I was thankful because you can’t really tell grown adults they can’t run their own boat. Just like you can’t really tell them they can’t drive their car. I appreciated that he knew his own limitations or at least listened to the advice of someone who knew his limitations, which as a river-running accessory might be as important as a PFD.
A friend rowed my dad’s cat and the run went fine. Not everybody hit their lines perfectly, but all rafts and kayaks were right side up at the bottom and nobody was injured. I felt good about my decision because those of us who love rivers know that it could’ve been otherwise.
A scroll through the American Whitewater accident database reveals age as a factor in whitewater fatalities, but not in the way one might expect. It isn’t reckless young men and women who make up the majority of victims on western rivers; it’s the middle-aged or oldish middle-aged. A common entry reads “Male 60 something/heart-attack or other health problem.”
In my own family, there’s such a case. My dad’s first cousin, a man we called Uncle Junior, died in a recreational kayaking accident while kayaking with his daughter. He was 49.
I attended guide school with a young woman whose 68-year-old grandmother died on the Smith River in Montana, a shallow class II run. This year one of our state representatives died kayaking, as did one of my student’s aunts in a different accident.
These were not people paddling extreme water on thin margins of safety. They were older recreational boaters who trusted their minds and bodies to be up to the task and they were wrong.
Our brain often locks at our most competent and physical best. This becomes a memory acting as our reality even as our body and brain function slowly decline. We ignore life’s small reminders that our bodies aren’t young, a slip on the ice, an awkward fumble of something casually tossed. These reminders are mostly harmless. The same reminder in an upside-down kayak or raft in moving water may not be so harmless.
Even when we do recognize we’re getting older, we may say, with a devil-may-care attitude that “we” want to go out doing something that we love—probably not acknowledging, or at least conveniently omitting, there might be real terror and not imagined bliss in those last few moments. Drowning, a heart attack a long way from help, freezing to death on a mountain aren’t really romantic or noble ends.
But, of course, terror and confusion can happen in a hospital just as easily. The cacophony of doctors and machines might accompany our end, or worse, a dark cloud of painkillers robbing us of our surroundings before we’re gone. We don’t always get to go out on our own terms.
After Disaster Falls, my friend rowed Harp, Hell’s Half Mile and Triplet before letting my dad take the sticks again. Dad followed the lines of some really good boaters. Peter Hanson, one of the older boaters on the trip, had been one of the first guides for George Wendt, the founder of OARS. He’d guided rivers around the world. Glenn Martin, a Colorado native, mostly guided on the Arkansas (and still runs that river), on top of years on the Gauley and New in West Virginia. And Robert Jennings ran regular laps through the Grand Canyon.
Behind these boaters, my dad rowed the tricky eddies of Whirlpool Canyon and through the braided channels of Island Park to the mouth of Split Mountain Canyon.
Split-Rock Mountain marks the last section of the Lodore float and the beginning of the daily run. It includes three Class III rapids: Moonshine, SOB, and Inglesby.
Here’s the rub in taking up something new when you’re older: to get better at something, you have to push your boundaries, but to stay safe you should probably back away from your boundaries like a dangerous animal. For many boaters, the answer to rafting as you age is dialing down the adventure. Many rafters move from Class IV rivers to Class III, II and on down. My dad, however, needed to move in the opposite direction to get better.
He ran Moonshine in fine form. He took a great line through SOB, but then in Schoolboy, a Class II, he messed up. At high water the rapid piles hard against the left rock wall. He didn’t pull hard enough off the sharp rock wall, and from my raft we watched as his cat moved closer to the cliff despite his backstrokes. Right on the wall, he quit rowing and shipped his oars. In my imagination I watched the cat catch the rock and pin him between water and rock. But that didn’t happen. Some magic pillow of water or micro-eddy kept him an inch off the limestone wall and he floated past, chastened and a little shaky.
At Inglesby, the last rapid of the trip, I yelled instructions to my dad about setting up early to miss a huge mid-river boulder and pour-over. Then I looked downriver to find my own line, and I watched the raft ahead of me with Peter and his seventy-year-old wife, Anna float right over the left side of the boulder. The raft dropped away and Peter flew off his seat into the river.
I blew my whistle and yelled, “Swimmer!” Peter popped up just beyond the wash of the hydraulic and swam to his raft. Anna had held on over the drop and by the time I caught up, Peter, with Anna’s help, had climbed into the raft and rowed to an eddy.
“It’s always the last one that gets you,” he said and smiled. And so it will be—for all of us—if we keep rafting. We straightened Peter’s oar tower and floated to the take out at the Split Mountain Boat Ramp.
Every trip is a partial answer to the question of whether or not we’re up to the challenges of a river trip. At the take-out, you, upright and breathing, are one of those partial answers. To the question should you be out there running rivers, the answer is probably another question, “are you out there running rivers?” In other words, those who feel young enough to take the oars are still on the oars even if it’s on a tamer river.
On the ride home my dad said he learned some new things, including, “It’s never too early.” But I hope he also learned that “It’s never too late,” at least for now.
Editor’s Note: All photos courtesy of Glenn Martin.