Tuolumne river days and nights, Part III: a night in the Log Jam
Some memorable times on the Tuolumne river–see the previous post to catch up on this story:
Part 3 A night in the jam
The Rusty Sucker was back. But it barely made it through the logjam to hook up our train of rafts. The Sucker got about half way through the log jam before halting. From my perspective near the middle of the raft train, all I could see was Jethro and Ricky Bobby arguing, the iron rod alternating between clearing logs, pounding on the motor and being used in a threatening manner between the two “engineers”. It was getting late, and the dark clouds had made themselves at home right above our heads, with no breaks in the rain. Finally, the Sucker was restarted, but now it was clear it lacked the power to pull our rafts through the jam. It struggled to get itself out. And as it finally cleared the jam, I heard shouts of reassurance that they’d send help when they could.
Another hour passed, and I began to have thoughts that help might not come before darkness fell. The other outfitter, who had the writers with him was near the end of the jam. At some point he decided pull his boat out of the jam, row to shore and hike up the ridge and hitch back to the nearest town. As far as I could tell at the time most everyone else on the trip didn’t know this until seeing his boat tied up on the shore sometime later.
As the sun began to set that evening, a handful of cold wet bodies began to shiver in the impending darkness. Our lead guide made a decision at that point that our best option was to pull the boats to shore, through the jam as best we could and find a patch of rock to gather and build a fire. The logjam was deep with debris, and the lead guide, realizing that his lifevest might just prevent him from breaking through the jam took it off and jumped in with a bowline in his hand. He soon disappeared under a pile of debris, and a emerged a few yards from shore, bowline still in hand. Like a human Log Bronc, he pushed through and made it to shore. After securing the rope to a stout rock we all pulled like crazy to bring the rafts through to shore. Not wanting to risk spending any more time in the log jam than necessary, it was decided that an experienced guide would hike out to insure help would be on the way.
The river canyon here is steep, and mostly comprised of loose shale. As luck would have it though, there was a small semi-flat rock a short scramble from where we were on shore. A dozen wet shivering rafters crowded closely together on the rock. There was just enough room in the middle for a fire to warm and dry everyone. Firewood was scarce, but someone managed to located a good collection of brush dry enough to burn (the office received a phone a few days later from an unhappy client who had had an allergic reaction to smoke from what turned out to be a fire created from poison oak branches). But we didn’t know that at the time. It was warm and the rain had stopped.
Various stories were told, word games were played, some even tried to sleep. The stress of the situation brought one client to tears, it turns out he had terminal cancer and this was one of the adventures he wanted to do before dying. He confessed to being frightened of dying, saying over and over again “I don’t want to die”. As the night wore on we all became quiet.
I had lapsed into a light slumber when I heard it. It was a quiet night but far off I could hear the sound of a diesel engine rumbling. Others heard it too. Soon we could see two spotlights rocking back and forth in the distance. It was the Log Bronc rocking back and forth, clearing logs out of the way.
We loaded back into the rafts and through the logjam. Moving through total darkness, we motored on to take out at Wards Ferry. These days, most commercial companies on the Tuolumne use a winch rig at the take out to pull rafts out, saving the dangerous and very difficult chore of hauling gear up the steep trail to the road. Back in 1983, hardly anyone did including us.
I knew that the trail had a steep drop off of loose shale leading down into the reservoir. So I really wasn’t looking forward to humping rafts up that trail in the darkness. I was relieved when our lead guide decided that the boats would be fine tied up to the bank until the morning. We grabbed bags and oars and started the climb up to the road.
I had a duffel over each shoulder and three oars balanced in my arms and was nearing the top when I heard the screams. Shouts rang off the canyon walls and mixed with sounds of sliding shale splashing below. Someone had brought the van to the top of the trail and turned the headlights on. Unfortunately, the lights blinded a father and his son just as they had approached the narrowest portion of the trail. The son took a wrong step into the darkness and tumbled down the hill towards the water. His panicked father followed him. I dropped the bags and oars and ran up to the top of trail. A few guides from another company had arrived to help, and had quickly set up a belay line. A guide was already being lowered down to help. I joined the chain of human anchors as the kid was brought up first, followed by his father next. Luckily the most serious injuries were limited to scrapes and bruises.
Our lead guide packed up the clients and their bags and headed out. I joined the rest of the crew, loaded into the truck and drove off to the guide house to catch a couple of hours of sleep.
Dawn came in a few hours, and we headed back to take out. The boats were waiting there for us. One by one we hauled them up to our shoulders and trudged up and out of the canyon. The end of the trip had finally arrived. We were too exhausted to crack the traditional post trip beer. That and the fact that it was about 8 in the morning.
I would celebrate that evening though, as I would be rowing passengers on the next trip. I’d passed the training stage on my Tuolumne guiding career.