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