Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Rite of Passage

Sep 27, 2018

A journey through the Grand Canyon by river has changed many a life, maybe because of the wider perspective it offers. Professors have dropped out to become boatmen, boatmen have gone on to become professors. And once, a trip down the Colorado River became a rite of passage for a young river runner...and his father. Scott Thybony has more in this month's Canyon Commentary. 

Hance Rapid on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon
Credit Grand Canyon National Park

Leaving childhood behind and finding a way into the wider world often takes years.  On the Colorado River it can happen suddenly.  Deep in Grand Canyon at Mile 77 the river plunges thirty feet at Hance Rapid, multiplying its force.  Running it can go from difficult to dangerous in an instant.  One stroke too late or a cut too soon and a boat gets pulled into an obstacle course of hidden boulders, haystack waves, and crashing holes. 

Working as a river guide I made my peace with the rapid and generally had good runs, due to luck as much as anything.  But I’ve seen the mayhem it can create.  Boats get hammered and passengers get thrashed – all part of the fun until it turns serious.  Oar-powered rafts can flip and big motor rigs get stranded on rocks for hours and sometimes days.  River runners have drowned in Hance, and a broken oar once impaled the leg of a boatman during an epic wreck.  So I wasn’t too surprised when a friend told me about his near-fatal run in Hance and how it turned into a rite of passage for his son.

Tom Olsen, a former guide, was leading a group of novices on a private trip down the Colorado.  “Uniquely inexperienced,” was how he described them.  His 14-year-old son, Jonathan, was making his first run through the canyon in a kayak, and Tom saw it as one of his last chances to have any real influence on him.  As they entered the upper Granite Gorge, Tom paddled his own kayak toward one of the most dangerous stretches of whitewater on the river.

“Going through Hance Rapid,” he said, “I made a left run and flipped.  I hit my head on a rock and split my skull.  Jonathan saved my life.”

Tom floated unconscious through the breaking waves and came close to drowning.  But his son caught up to him just above the lower rapids, and held his head above water until they reached shore.  The impact of slamming against the rock had cut a deep gash on his forehead.  “Blood was profuse,” Tom recalled.  After regaining consciousness he was able to talk Jonathan through an evaluation of his injuries.  Nearby, a frightened novice struggled to hold the bowline of a boat in the surging eddy. 

“Hey,” he kept yelling, “what do I do with this boat?” 

Jonathan was focused on suturing the wound on his father’s head and tried to ignore him.  When the shouting continued, he looked up.  “Tie it to your neck,” he said, “or a rock!  I don’t care but leave me alone.  I’m busy.”

“It was at that moment,” Tom said, “that I knew my fourteen-year old could carry on and run the trip.”

After handling the immediate emergency, Jonathan realized he now had to take over as trip leader.  With his father out of action he was the most experienced member of the river party.  He would have to guide the others through the canyon with more than a week remaining and the biggest rapids still ahead.  The next day Tom found he could still row a boat, but hadn’t recovered enough to resume the responsibilities of trip leader.  He was confident his son could handle it.  

A few days after the accident, Tom noticed him looking downcast.  “Is something wrong?” he asked.

“You’ve always taken care of me,” Jonathan said, “and now I have to take care of you.”

Tom looked at him and said, “Welcome to the adult world.”