So Long, Charlie

illustration of river runners and the river looks like a team of horses

To know a river is to ride it. Like a horse.

By Maple Andrew Taylor

What do we know of a river? How many ways are there to take its measure? We can know its hydrology, its flow in cubic feet per second, gradient in terms of drop in elevation per mile, the geologic formations and landforms and the watersheds the river drains, the ecosystems and land over which it flows. We can know it more casually, as it meanders along the highway as we drive by. We can park at an overlook and watch it run, know it from a distance as it shows itself like a reclusive neighbor through the slats of a fence. But the only way to get on speaking terms with and really know a river, is to ride it. Like a horse.

When we navigate a river, whether by canoe, raft, or kayak, we get to know it in the fuller context of those places hidden from roads and trails. We feel its depth and breadth and the fall of its angled gravity, its gathering push. We feel its breath on the fuzz on our arms and at times, we literally taste its waters. Even so, each year is different. Each season. Each week. Each day.

Consider the San Miguel: Born in the San Juan Mountains above Telluride and flowing some eighty miles northwesterly, skirting the southern slope of the Uncompahgre Plateau and winding past the towns of Placerville, Norwood, Nucla, and Naturita, to merge with the Dolores River near Utah. Bridal Veil Creek and other creeks above Telluride join to form the river, which drops steeply in its upper reaches and is mostly unnavigable until lower down, as it begins its transition from an alpine to a desert ecosystem.

During summer and fall, Telluride’s season of festivals, the San Miguel is seen by countless tourists along the highway, sometimes framed riotously by trembling leaves of aspen: lime greens and canary yellows, and red-tinged colors like freshly fanned campfire coals. It is clear and unhurried as it parallels the highway. Its waters bulge ever so gently on the upstream side of rocks and logs, lift and fall in the deeper runs, then fan out in shimmering dapples to interface languid pools. During the wintry ski season, the San Miguel shallows and dawdles and burbles mutely under a carapace of ice and surfaces now and then as if to get a breath.

Each spring, the days lengthen, the sun arcs higher, and the temperature rises. High in the timberline basins melting snow saturates the soils, and when the earth can hold no more, seeps and rivulets increase in volume and flow, merge like sojourners nearing the shrine of their annual pilgrimage. The air is charged with white noise as the tributaries race boisterously into full-on creeks, their waters persistent, dependable, and most worthy of a name: Deep Creek, Remine Creek, Mill Creek, Gorrono Creek, Specie Creek. Tumultuous and surly, these waters tumble into the river, which has now become a victim of its own making, soiling itself as it sloughs banks, scallops rock, and uproots timber along its reach. This is not the timid, little San Miguel of a picture postcard. No longer a sleepy horse lying in the shade with a belly full of oats, this stallion of a river is ready to run.

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The legendary racehorse Seabiscuit took such long and languorous naps it was hard not to worry about him. How could this lazy bones possibly be the same steed who would eventually win race after race and become renowned for outrunning the fastest horses on the planet—and doing so carrying immense weight assigned by handicappers to give the other horses a chance.

On November 1, 1938, Seabiscuit was eye to eye with War Admiral on the far side of the track, where the distant roar was not from raging, lunging waters but from an immense crowd congregated to watch a long-awaited match race. A match race for the ages, where each horse would do the impossible: War Admiral, the Triple Crown winner and unbeatable Adonis of a thoroughbred from the east would break dispiritedly and concede the stretch run; Seabiscuit, the everyman’s racehorse from the hardscrabble west that had more heart than pedigree, would fly down the homestretch of Baltimore’s storied Pimlico racetrack and cross the finish line four lengths ahead. Seabiscuit’s jockey on that day was George Woolf, who was riding in place of the injured Red Pollard. When Woolf phoned Pollard at his hospital bed and asked for some last-minute advice, Pollard told him to take the lead early and then back off on the backstretch and let War Admiral catch up to allow the horses to be neck and neck. Once “the ‘Biscuit” looked War Admiral in the eye, Pollard was sure, he would not let the other horse pass.

 It’s hard not to compare it to the force and flow of river waters: the push from behind that generates velocity to the front, the pull from the front that creates a vacuum that hastens the push. For Seabiscuit to win, he would need to be pushed and pulled by the other horse. Long before the maddened throng had even the slightest idea which horse would win, and well before the finish line, two people knew the race was already over: the jockeys. It was almost imperceptible, like the slightest stirring of wind on water. Charles Kurtsinger felt it from underneath (the loss would break Kurtsinger’s heart). George Woolf saw it in the roll of War Admiral’s eye. When Seabiscuit began to pull away from the great and regal War Admiral on the stretch run, Woolf turned to Charles Kurtsinger, War Admiral’s jockey, and said, “So long, Charlie.”

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It was many years ago, but I still remember vividly the San Miguel during a near record runoff at triple its average volume. We had three rafts with guests and overnight gear. I was rowing the last boat, running sweep. Oarsmen navigate the river’s obstacles—its rocks, banks, and tricky back- or side-curling waves—not with brute muscle, but with technique. By taking out and scouting the trickier rapids and visualizing each oar stroke and reading the current and setting up ferry angles across and along the moving plain of the waters and by using the river’s power and force against itself, like judo. Most days, simply going around a jagged rock that can rip the floor, or steering clear of a huge boulder where the water’s force can pin the boat sideways and literally wrap it around the rock, is plenty. But some days it’s the next obstacle downstream of the first (and even the next one after that) which dictates that you must flirt with the first obstacle: miss it but just barely, like a bullfighter and a bull, to gain just a little leverage, buy a second or two to increase the chances of successfully making your next move. And even if you have done everything perfectly, you still might need to pull for all you are worth. This was that kind of day. A day where we roller-coastered over haystacks of water, and had to row hard to keep the rafts away from the few exposed boulders and rough canyon walls. Clients become a bit masochistic once they put on a life jacket and most days the guide gladly accommodates them by hitting big, back-curling waves head-on where sunglasses get slapped from faces by hard slabs of water and the bow rears like a horse on its hind legs. On those days, the boatman pushes on the oars to increase speed which results in a more spectacular splash. But there was no messing around on this day. All of us boatmen rowed hard backward to slow our boats down to buy more time to move right and left.

Our rafts were tied for the evening, the tents were set up, and supper was baking in the Dutch ovens. And just then, a jar of mayonnaise caught the eddy and swirled slowly back upstream. I snagged it with a long stick. Then came a couple of cans of beer and then more beer and a few soft drinks and the lid of an ice chest and a flotsam of food items and plastic bags. Our whole crew gathered to discuss the obvious: That a boat had flipped over somewhere upstream. And then came a shiny plastic paddle. Blue. Too shiny to have been used much, if ever, and too small to be of use in a raft outside of a farm pond or swimming pool. The little plastic oar and the scattered food and drink spoke volumes. Whoever decided to float this river only knew it at its amiable and affable best, a river seen from an overlook in balmy August. A dozing Seabiscuit of a river, all sprawled out for yet another nap. What they got was the Seabiscuit neck and neck with War Admiral. What they got was a big and scary and potentially dangerous, “So long, Charlie.”

A can of beer swirled by and one of the clients from my boat grabbed it. He popped the top and raised the beer high out to the river as if proposing a toast, but before he could take a swig, his girlfriend admonished him. Said that drinking the beer from a wrecked boat would bring us bad luck. Said the river gods might not approve. Notwithstanding, he took a big draught and after a loud, refreshing exhale said that the gods would not want such good beer to go to waste, summarily downing the rest of it.

One of the guides hiked back upstream to see if anyone needed help. Turned out, two of their party of three were stranded on the far side of the river and the other was on the highway side. Long story short is that after getting the sheriff involved and with the guide’s help, all got out safely.

The following day was a very short river day. There were only a couple of tight spots, but the rapid of most concern was doubly so because we wouldn’t be able to take out and scout it due to the fast water and steep canyon walls. We were the last boat to run the rapid and when we rounded a bend two things were apparent: One was that the rapid was most worthy of my concern and the other was that the first two boats were safely downstream and moving away rapidly. As I was lining up for the first obstacle, there was a sudden yelp behind me:  Someone had carelessly fallen from the stern. I yelled for the others to grab her by the life jacket and pull her back in the boat—which they did, but only halfway—and back in she went, holding on to the raft’s lifeline to keep from being sucked completely under the raft. Even though my responsibility was to the boat and the passengers (remaining) in it, and even though the rapid was only a few yards away, I shipped the oars and stepped over the back thwart with one leg and reached back and around and grabbed her life jacket and pulled her up and over the boat and deposited her rather, well, thoroughly, onto the floor of the raft. When I hopped back onto the rowing seat and grabbed the oars I had run out of time, and a huge rock stacked with roaring water was just ahead, so I reflexively pushed on one oar and pulled on the other and spun the butt of the raft using the force of the current to loop around the rock…where the next obstacle was already rearing its ugly head. After scraping and banging around rather spectacularly we washed our way into calmer waters.

At the takeout not far downstream, I was limping and unable to straighten up. The next morning when I got out of bed back home I could not put an ounce of weight on one leg. Turns out I had severely injured my lower back (requiring surgery) when I pulled the passenger back into the boat. And that was the last time I rowed the San Miguel.

Or any river.

It’s hard not to think of the river gods and bad juju. These decades later and living far, far away, I only see the San Miguel River in a picture postcard, the little river winding serenely and sun dappled through autumnal colors. But it was a river I once knew, a river that even spoke to me one fine, spring day as we raced along neck and neck. Spoke to me in a language I was too young, too muscled, too full of me to understand. These decades later I have a pretty good idea what it was trying to say to me. It was telling me goodbye, in river-speak:

“So long, Charlie.”

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