Randy Breckenridge, and a True Story of the Colorado River

Randy Breckenridge 1985_1I have a new book coming out next month, Wheels of Change, and it’s dedicated to Randy Breckenridge, who died under sad circumstances, at too young of an age. He lost a baby to SIDs, went through a tough divorce (is there ever an easy one?), grew estranged from many of his friends, and had his spirit roughed up by drugs and alcohol.

I met Randy at UCLA when we were both freshmen in the Rieber Hall dorm. We became fast friends because of a shared interest in mountains and rivers. He was a real river rat and an expert whitewater boatman who guided commercial rafting trips for the American River Touring Association (ARTA). Together we rafted the Stanislaus, South Fork of the American, Tuolumne, and the Big Daddy of all western rivers, the Colorado in the Grand Canyon.

If you ever get a chance to go down the Colorado on a raft, jump on it. It’s the Sistine Chapel of whitewater river experiences. My chance to raft the Colorado came when I was twenty and kicking around the country with no money, no job, and happy as a fellow could be. Randy was working for ARTA, and there was an opening for an assistant boatman for a two-week, oar-powered trip down the Grand. He invited me. Free of charge. Needless to say, I found time in my busy schedule to go. Rafting Colorado_1

The Colorado is a big, wide, fast desert river. Our trip covered more than 200 river miles, passing all the while through the amazing Technicolor walls of the Grand Canyon. Most surprising to me was how tropical it was. Down at the river, at the base of these ancient, incredibly beautiful canyon walls, there is an abundance of something you don’t ordinarily find much of in the desert: water. You can hike up these side canyons with overflowing creeks and waterfalls with lush ferns and greenery, and it’s like you’ve been transported to Tahiti.

Once a gila monster walked through our camp, and late in the day at another site several of us stood around and watched the petals of a white datura flower open up before our very eyes, as if we were viewing it through time-lapse photography. Datura 2

On the mighty Colorado, once you are inside a major rapid, it is impossible to turn or maneuver your raft because the water is too strong and fast. So you must set your boat up straight at the top of the rapid before you enter, and then hang on for dear life once you’re in it. Boats full of people flip quite often on the river, and that was what happened to us on our trip.

But we did not flip on Lava Falls or Sockdolager or some other big rapid on the river. It wasn’t even a rapid, and it didn’t have a name at the time. Because there are long stretches of open, flat water on the Colorado, it is common for the professional boatmen (or boatwomen) to turn the oars over to passengers to give them the experience of rowing. This was what Randy did. A passenger was rowing, and no one noticed the big rock jutting from the water ahead of us. We reacted too late. The power and speed of the river even in this mild stretch caught us off guard, dumping us all into the drink.

Two of the passengers were not strong swimmers and not wearing their life jackets. I towed one to shore, and Randy pulled out the other. Everyone made it to shore safely. But our inflatable six-person rubber raft was wrecked. It filled with water and both ends of it wrapped around the rock. The only way we eventually set it free was by cutting it with a Buck knife.

There were two other boats on the trip, following after us. They picked us up, and the five of us on Randy’s boat squeezed into their boats and rode the rest of the way. We recovered our clothes and gear, stored in waterproof bags, as they floated down the river until getting snagged on rocks or running aground.

Our mishap became a permanent part of rafting lore on the Grand Canyon. It is virtually impossible to lose a raft on the Colorado, because the force and power of the water will almost always push it off a rock or wherever it is stuck. But we had done it. We had achieved the impossible, and if you look in the official guidebook for rafting on the Colorado, at Mile 126, you will see the notation for “Randy’s Rock Rapid.” That is the true story of how it got its name.

So now my old buddy has a rapid named after him, and a book dedicated to his memory. I’m sure he’d happily give them both up to once again breathe air.

Colorado River map 2

Randy’s Rock Rapid, from The Colorado River in Grand Canyon, A Guide, p. 83.



Filed under Adventures in Writing, Personal, Wheels of Change

6 responses to “Randy Breckenridge, and a True Story of the Colorado River

  1. Jennifer

    Here’s to you and Randy … and I know the book is a fitting tribute to his spirit.

  2. Lillian Kaiser

    Dear Kevin, being Irish I have a morbid
    compulsion to read obituaries, eulogies and
    gravestones. Your salute to Randy is
    a fine one and fits the day. 9/11 reminds
    us all of all our losses, personal and national.

    Love from your mother-in-law.

  3. Allan stamler

    Hi Kevin,
    I was very happy to read your story about Randy. As you know, I also remember him from those days. As a young man, I think I may have taken Randy a bit for granted, thinking that the world must be full of guys just like him. Sadly, with the passage of time, that has not proven to be the case. His blend of physicality, solid values, and intellect just doesn’t come along everyday. As I recall, he was a bit cynical about the world, although much of that( in hindsight anyway) has turned out to be somewhat prophetic. At any rate, it’s a fine thing that he is remembered in your book and “Randy’s Rock Rapid”. I’m sure it would have gotten a smile out of him.

    Regards, Al Stamler

  4. Sue Bielman

    Hi Kevin,
    It’s been a long time and I’m not sure we ever met, but I was Randy’s wife. I
    want to thank you for fond rememberance. Randy was one the funniest, most intelligent men I’ve ever known. He had a sense of humor that could leave you in tears, could anyone ever forget “The Bear”. I think the only thing he loved more than the river were our sons, they are 25 and 23 now and I’m sure they will be as touched by your words as I. Best regards, Sue

  5. Jeffe Aronson

    Hey, Kevin: my friend “Moley”, AKA Bob Haymond, was on a trip with Randy where he wrapped a snout boat on “Randys Rock”, flipping, then sinking it under the upstream undercut. They camped right there at “Randy’s Camp”, retrieved some gear the next day after it sunk and broke apart, and went downstream. The company was sued for lost camera gear (they bought new stuff for the client.) I was told Randy had given a client the oars and dropped off for a nap, to wake too late. Is this a different trip?… or ??

  6. Mark B

    Kevin, A big thanks for providing more information on Randy (and this particular trip) in your article here. Just got through reading Pete Winn’s story in Christa Sadler’s book.

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