U.S. National Park Service, Grand Canyon National Park
Transcript of communication received by satellite phone by dispatcher Cleome James
April 16, 0945 hrs.
“—Gotta talk fast ’cause these satellites cross over the aperture of this canyon like hot lead. We’re missing one of our party.”
“Say your name, sir.”
“Your location, please.”
“The Ledges. River mile 151.5.”
“You’re with a river party?”
“Yes. A man is missing.”
“Are you reporting a drowning, sir?”
“I sure hope not.”
“State the circumstances.”
“Woke up this morning and he was gone. I don’t know what happened. We’ve done an exhaustive search of the immediate area. His boat is here, his life vest, all his gear. The only thing gone is him. If he left on purpose, he sure didn’t tell anyone, and he sure didn’t hike out, unless he’s a fly and can go straight up these cliffs. Request a ranger—”
End of transmission. Connection lost.
APRIL 1: LEES FERRY
I’d had a morbid fear of moving water ever since I was a kid and my brother drowned in the irrigation ditch on the ranch I grew up on back home in Wyoming. It sucked him under. I watched him go, and could do nothing to save him. And that was just a man-made ditch, almost narrow enough that I could have jumped across it. Now I stood on the bank of the Colorado River at the upper end of the Grand Canyon, wishing like hell that I was almost anywhere else.
“Isn’t this great!” A strong pair of arms wrapped around me from behind: Fritz, my beloved, my husband of six months.
I plastered a grin across my face and turned toward him to burrow into his hug, trying to press from my brain the image of the roiling water that swept between our heap of equipment and the naked red ground of the Moenkopi Formation that rose above the far bank. We’d unloaded everything out of the hired van: four sixteen-foot rafts, three kayaks, a heap of tents, camp stoves, waterproof duffels, and an impossible mound of food and beer, twenty-one days’ rations for sixteen people. And I was one of those sixteen. Or it would have been sixteen, except that three days earlier, we’d lost our leader, which was another little problem I had with this expedition. What in hell’s name was I doing rigging up to help Fritz row one of those rafts down a gigantic river? I was ready to puke with anxiety, and the water that flowed by the launch beach here at Lees Ferry was hardly a riffle; what was I going to do when we reached the giant rapids that awaited us downstream? Sockdolager, Hance, Horn, Crystal, and the horrendous Lava Falls; Fritz had been going on about them for months, exulting over what an adrenaline rush they were. The rapids on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon were so large that they had their own rating system, and as water levels fluctuated, some of them got worse with higher discharge and others got worse with less. Oh, woe was me.
I know that I should have told Fritz about my little phobia, but I hadn’t had the heart. His friend Tiny had sprung this raft trip on us as his present at our wedding, all happy because it had taken years of entering the lottery to get a private trip permit, and he had been so sure of things that he had put Fritz down on the application as alternate trip leader. By the time Fritz was done slapping Tiny high fives and doing his happy dance and finally turned to me to share his excitement, I’d had time to kid myself that I could maybe do this thing. At worst, I figured that I could look pleased now and sort it out with him later; I mean, how could I disappoint him on our wedding day? But it only got harder to tell him. Tiny had worked damned hard to get a private permit, and Fritz was incandescently excited to take along his son from his first marriage, thirteen-year-old Brendan, who could only come if I was there as substitute mom (you should have seen the stare his ex-wife fixed on me, after she was done glaring at Fritz), and … well, it all just snowballed.
Brendan shuffled past us carrying a heap of life preservers, struggling to carry more than his short arms and small frame really allowed. “Where should I put these?” he asked.
“Over by the dry bags is fine,” said Fritz. He had bent his own frame down from its eagle’s-nest height and was kissing my neck now, really nuzzling in. Into my ear he whispered, “It’s too bad Tiny couldn’t be here.”
“Yeah, he worked so hard to put this trip together.” Tiny had slid his Harley across Interstate 80 west of Salt Lake City. Tiny was in the hospital in traction. Right now that sounded like a smart place to be.
I felt something metallic jab into my back. “What’s that?” I asked Fritz, shoving my hand between us to find out what was poking me.
“Sorry,” he said, pulling my rock hammer out of his belt loop. He gave it a heft. “I’m glad you brought this along. It’s got a thousand uses.”
“No geologist would consider leaving home without one,” I said. I reached for it, but he snapped it away.
“I’m not done with it yet,” he said. “I was using it to make a couple of adjustments on our rigging. The outfitting company that rented us that raft had it set up for someone with short legs.”
“Everybody’s legs are shorter than yours, Fritz.”
“Oh, hey, here’s the ranger!” Fritz loped over to greet a petite woman in uniform who had just climbed out of a National Park Service truck. He bounded up to her like a Saint Bernard puppy, all loose-jointed and full of delight, announcing, “Hey, hi! Tiny couldn’t be here, so now I’m trip leader.”
She looked up at him, shifted her gaze uncomfortably toward the rock hammer, stiffened her spine, and said, “You’re the alternate?”
“Yes, Fritz Calder.” He poked the spike end of the head of the rock hammer at the list on her clipboard. “Right there.”
“That’s just fine, sir. Now please round up your party so I can check your requirements.” The ranger lined us up and began going down her list of persons who were going on this expedition with us, checking IDs. “Okay,” she said, “so your original leader couldn’t make it, so you have fifteen instead of sixteen, but I only count fourteen of you. Where’s your fifteenth?”
Fritz said, “Not here yet.”
She looked at him over the frames of her sunglasses. “Expecting him anytime soon?” she asked drily.
Fritz colored slightly, hard to see under his tan, a sort of blotchiness. He had not in fact met the fifteenth member of our party. There were several people on the list he hadn’t known before we arrived, but all the others had shown up when we did, the night before, and we had all had dinner together at the café up above the cliffs and had camped out on the riverbank and gotten to know each other a bit. This fifteenth guy figured he was special somehow, like he didn’t need to show his face until launch day. Tiny had put him on the list at the last moment, just before he went and stacked up his motorcycle, without discussing his decision with Fritz. We knew almost nothing about him. The story was that they had met in a bar. Tiny had justified his decision by stating that the guy had a lot of experience on the river. “It’ll be a really good thing to have him along,” he said. “I’m not getting any younger, and, well, I just think we should avail ourselves of real talent and knowledge. He built his own dory,” he concluded, as if being able to handle a hammer and saw made him our dream date in the middle of Class 10 rapids.
The mystery man’s name was George Oberley, but he’d told Tiny that he went by “Wink.” I wanted to kick Mr. Oberley’s ass from the moment I heard that nickname, but having a saucy moniker was the least of what worried me about him. Here was every other thing Tiny had been able to recite on the subject of Wink Oberley:
He was a geologist. (“One of your brethren,” Fritz had said brightly.)
He was working on his Ph.D. in geology at Princeton.
He had been a professional boatman and was soooo experienced that this would be his forty-third trip down the river.
He used to be in the army, an Airborne Ranger.
My basic distrust of anyone who’d let himself be called Wink aside, when I heard this summation of our supposed Colorado River expert, little klaxons and sirens had gone off in my head. That group of factoids sounded more like something on a SAT test than a résumé, one of those questions where you’re supposed to figure out which item doesn’t fit with the others. There was just no way that an Ivy League geologist Ph.D. candidate river rat had ever been an Army Airborne Ranger. Geologists make crappy soldiers on account of we question all authority, including our own. We do not play well enough with the other boys and girls to make it into an elite, tightly knit cadre like the Airborne Rangers. Shout orders at a geologist under fire and you get someone who wants to sit down and open a beer and have a conversation about the plan, parse it down to a gnat’s eyelash, maybe offer up a few alternative concepts, and then do none of the above. Putting one of us into a parachute and telling him to jump out of a plane over a jungle full of people who are shooting at dangly things in the sky would not be a viable proposition, because while “geologist” is, for bizarre reasons, considered by insurance actuaries to be one of the most dangerous professions, we like to choose our dangers rather than having them chosen for us. We are each a one-person herd of cats. And the fact that Mr. George “Wink” Oberley and his wonderful homemade dory had yet to appear tended to support my case.
In fact, before we left home, Fritz and I had had words over my concerns. This was stupid, but there you go. Fritz had been elite military, a jet pilot, an experience that can bring out the chauvinist in a man, so he had felt compelled to defend this Army Airborne Ranger he had not yet met, even though on another day and in another situation the competition between the navy and the army might have come to the fore. Fritz had ended our debate by stating quite firmly that my paranoia and prejudice had no place on a river trip where we were going to have to get along together and rely on each other for three weeks at the bottom of this canyon. I’d let it go because Fritz was my darling sweetheart, but this was one of the times in our acquaintance that I found him to be a bit credulous. They say opposites attract, and he stays on the right side of me most of the time by not pointing out too many of the places where I run a bit thin, so here I was.
The ranger lady looked at her watch and then back at her list. “This fifteenth name is handwritten. I can’t make it out.”
“George Oberley,” said Fritz.
The ranger stiffened. “George Oberley?” she echoed. “You don’t mean Wink?”
Her face began to twist into an unpleasant smile which so contorted her cheeks that her sunglasses slid askew. “Holy Mother of God, Wink Oberley! I thought he was…” She caught herself and pressed her lips flat, trying to look official again.
At that very moment a beat-up pickup truck pulling a trailer with a big wooden Grand Canyon dory on it rumbled down the road that led from the cliff tops into the parking lot, kicking up a cloud of dust as it left the pavement and turned onto the launch ramp. It pulled to a stop. The shotgun-side door opened and a guy stepped out and racked his shoulders back in a stiff little stretch. He was forty or so, a bit under average height, thickset. He wore a sagging Princeton T-shirt, frayed cutoff army camouflage fatigue pants, a cheap pair of flip-flops, and an expensive pair of wraparound shades that were too narrow for his face. Below the edge of that reflective plastic I could see a three- or four-day growth of beard, and he’d pushed his faded ball cap down hard enough that his shaggy hair stuck out straight. As he idly surveyed the scene, he used his left hand to reach around and have a good scratch at his right armpit, then pulled up his T-shirt and had a go at his belly.
The driver of the pickup called to him through the open door. “So let’s get this thing unloaded, shit-wad,” he shouted. “I gotta be back in Page by dinnertime or Eleanor will put my balls on the menu!”
“Keep it zipped,” said Mr. Armpit Scratcher, who was now strolling down the beach toward the ranger. “Well if it ain’t Maryann Eliasson,” he said.
“Long time no see,” replied the ranger, in a tone that suggested that perhaps the long time hadn’t been quite long enough.
“Oh, give an old friend a hug,” he insisted, mashing one on her before she could jump sideways and escape.
The driver of the pickup gunned the motor, racked the gears into reverse, and began to back the trailer down toward the river.
Ranger Eliasson had a fight on her hands trying to wrestle free of Wink’s bear hug, which seemed focused on making pelvic contact. “You son of a bitch, get your mitts offa me,” she said, and as the struggle continued, she lowered her voice and growled, “I haven’t forgotten what you did to Cleome!”
“Cleome? Oh, now, we’re all one big family on this river!”
“Family? Sure, but you and me, we’re not kissing cousins, so back off!”
My attention was split between this display and some honest gawking at the dory, which looked to be about sixteen feet long and between four and five feet at its widest. Everything about it was curved, its flat sheets of plywood bent so that the bow rose to a high point and the small transom at the stern almost equally upturned. It looked like it had been through the wars, its paint bruised and faded and the plywood patched in multiple places, attesting to long and hard use. A pair of eyes were painted in the bow, one to either side, and toward its stern we were all treated to its name: Wave Slut.
Fritz moved in and broke up the tussle between river ranger and river trash by forcefully offering the man a hand to shake. Fritz is tall and muscular and knows how to be imposing when he has to be. “You must be George Oberley,” he said, like it was an order.
“Wink.” The masher abruptly let go of the woman and lifted his sunglasses, squeezed one eye shut like that was real cute, then snapped that plastic visor back in place.
“Wink,” said Fritz, his jaws tightening. “Nice of you to put in an appearance. So, you need some help launching that dory?”
Wink’s face went slack. “For what? Hank can handle it.”
Hank now had the trailer up past its axle in the water. He got out of the truck and waded around the dory undoing straps, and as the boat began to float up off the cradle, he paid out the bow line, letting the river take it down the beach a ways. It rode high in the water, its up-curved flanks almost begging the water to challenge it. When it looked like it was about to slam into the row of rafts, Hank gave the line a tug and pulled it neatly into place in the rank, then selected a rock to use as a crude anchor. He then immediately turned his back on the boat, stalked back over to his truck, reached into the bed, hauled out a large gear bag, which he dumped unceremoniously on the ramp. He next unlashed a pair of oars and dropped them next to the duffel so hard they bounced like pickup sticks, then he jumped back into the pickup, gunned the engine, and drove away.
Wink gave him a merry wave. “You can pick it up the end of the month at Diamond Creek!”
The driver of the truck extended one scrawny arm out the window and flipped him off.
To anyone who might be listening, Wink said, “It’s a great boat. I’ve taken it down this river a hundred times. My friend here’s had it stored for me in Page while I’ve been at Princeton working on my Ph.D.” He emphasized the words “Princeton” and “Ph.D.,” just in case people were listening.
I wasn’t quite sure how you can take a boat down a river a hundred times if you’ve only been down the river forty-two times, but mathematics seldom matches hyperbole.
As if nothing odd had just occurred, the ranger hitched herself up all officious again and began ticking down her list of requirements, checking our life vests, the fire pan, the military surplus rocket boxes we would use to carry out our poop. She cast a gimlet eye on my rock hammer and asked Fritz, “You have a permit to collect rocks?”
Fritz said, “No, and we know not to collect anything but memories. I use this for driving in tent stakes.”
“Each boat has a spare life vest?”
Brendan lifted up our spare.
Wink stepped toward Brendan, snatched the vest out of his hands, and turned it over. “I see you’re renting your equipment. What a bunch of crap,” he said, then stuffed it back into Brendan’s hands and gave him a not entirely playful swat across the top of his head.
Brendan clutched the life vest to his belly and shot a worried look at his father, who had his hands balled into fists and planted on his hips. And so began our trip down the Grand Canyon with the marvelous Wink Oberley.
Copyright © 2012 by Sarah Andrews Brown