To true white-water people, we clearly qualify as "dudes," "turkeys" or, least disparagingly, "river rookies." But Dee Holladay, who is paddling us down a 56-mile stretch of the Colorado River through Westwater Canyon and Professor Valley on what is perhaps his 200th trip with tourists, is too polite—or too much the businessman—for name-calling.
"Everyone who rides with me is a 'guest,' " says Holladay, 52. Fine. But as I watch him pull on two heavy red oars and maneuver a 17-foot raft down the tumultuous river, I feel like a turkey.
It is late morning on the last Tuesday in June, and we are running the first leg of a three-day white-water trip operated by Holiday River Expeditions of Salt Lake City. The start, or "put-in," is at Westwater, Utah, and the "take-out" will be near Moab, Utah. The Colorado River here is remarkably clean—by eastern standards, anyway. It is also relatively uncrowded, because the Bureau of Land Management regulates the launching of boats in certain parts of the river. "If it didn't," says Dee, "this place would look like Coney Island."
We have decided to begin our American summer vacation (page 4) with this relatively adventurous voyage—a not altogether logical decision. As my wife, Donna, points out when we climb into the raft, "You realize that if we don't make it out of here, we'll miss the rest of the trip." Our sons, Jamie, 11, and Chris, 9, tend to visualize the experience as a nice, long Pirates of the Caribbean Disneyland ride. They will be wrong.
Trailing us are two more rafts, which are guided by Karen Nelson, 26, and Tom Beckett, 34. Our flotilla includes 12 other guests in various stages of turkeydom, though none, I imagine, so advanced as ours.
The idea that we just might be flipped out of a raft into savage white water has crossed all the McCallum minds ever since we booked the trip weeks ago. With 12 rapids ahead today, it has pushed to the front of mine. Dee has already told us that none of his guests or guides has died or been seriously hurt on a white-water excursion. And he has confirmed an even more comforting statistic: Only eight of his rafts have tipped in the 20 years he has been in business.
Real white-water experts are no doubt chuckling by now, so let me put our trip into perspective. We chose the Westwater route precisely because Dee considers it his ideal "family trip," i.e., exciting enough to keep everyone from Grandpa to Junior interested but too tame for adrenaline junkies. On this trip sunburn is a much more formidable hazard than, say, death by drowning—speaking percentagewise, of course. But any white water is dangerous for neophytes, and we certainly fit that description.
"Anybody ever chicken out before the rapids and start making a scene?" Donna asks Dee as we near the first rapid. He answers, "About one in 20 all of a sudden say, 'What in the hell am I doing out here?' Nothing we can do about it, though. They're always the first ones to say 'I'm having a blast!' when we're through safely." What turkeys.
Sitting in the front of our raft are SI photographer Carl Yarbrough, Jamie and me. In the middle seat is Dee, who does the rowing, and behind him are Donna and Chris. "You nervous?" I ask Jamie. "Why?" he says. I shrug. A moment later he turns to me with a frown. "You and Mom wouldn't take us on anything that was really dangerous, right?" Later, Donna tells me that Chris said almost the same thing.
"After all these years, I guess you don't get nervous anymore," I say to Dee. He is not quite as reassuring as I might have hoped. "I never come down here when I'm not nervous," he says. "Never. Right now I've got the cotton mouth; I've got the nervous feeling in my stomach." Oh.