The keys to the river trip

Never take your keys with you.

That was one of the first lessons of river running (aside from “If you open your mouth to scream, you’ll only end up inhaling a bunch of water”) that I learned as a fledgling river rat. See, small, valuable items like car keys and wedding rings have a funny way of falling out of unzipped pockets, dropping in the sand or tumbling in slow motion into the water. And next thing you know, you’re thumbing a ride on a deserted stretch of road in the dark, jonesing for the beer locked in your backseat and sloshing around in soggy neoprene. Plus, by keeping the keys somewhere on the vehicle, if any of the party gets split up – or busted up – there’s always an escape plan, usually stashed somewhere under the driver’s side bumper.

Of course, I’ll be the first to admit I do not always follow the rules. But this is not so much out of rebellion as it is out of convenience and sheer force of habit. Sometimes, it’s so much easier to slip a small key into your pocket than to wrestle with where exactly on a car’s undercarriage is the least likely spot for thieves to find but the easiest for your half-cocked boating buddy to stumble upon. So, after wrestling with this age-old dilemma on a recent overnighter through the desert, I came up with what is surely the most brilliant boating breakthrough since the invention of the koozy. In an effort to stymie the thieves, who surely were after my collection of assorted cam straps, broken ice scrapers, stale goldfish crackers and Grateful Dead cassette tapes, I pulled a switcheroo. In a stroke of pure, crime-fighting genius, I swapped the shuttle car keys, putting our truck keys on our friend’s minivan. That way, even if the scoundrels did find the keys (which was highly unlikely given my expert stashing skills), they would spend hours of anguished frustration trying to put the wrong keys in the wrong lock before giving up and moving onto the next car, which had a much better stereo anyway. And just in case my perfect plan had a hole (and because I am a creature of habit), I stuffed a spare key in my lifevest, just for backup.

I know, I know – totally risky, especially given that the nearest civilization was a good, blistering, lonely, thirsty, 75 miles away, and I have an uncanny knack for forgetting things. But I had more important stuff on my mind. See, for the first time since B.C. (Before Children), the spousal unit and I were embarking on a trip down Westwater Canyon. A mainstay of our previous existence, where countless lost weekends were spent listening to the chirping of the Maker’s Mark by night and trying to keep the right side up by day, we had taken a hiatus from our beloved stretch of the Colorado to raise a couple of river rats of our own. But with the diaper years nearly behind us, and a Nanna who lives a training-wheel ride away, we once again thought it safe to venture away for a few nights to revisit our former haunt.

But it was not without misgivings. Would it still be the same? And more importantly, would we be the same? Would my new, conspicuously small boat be swallowed whole by the swirling eddies? Would I still recognize the horizon line at Funnel? Would I be able to make the move at Skull? Would I ever be able to escape the mandatory clobbering of Sock it to Me? Would we have enough beer? And even worse, what if we did? Would the glory days be gone forever?

Thus, with at least one part of the equation safely solved, I patted my pocket again, just to make sure the key was safe, and set off with a small flotilla of Westwater veterans and those soon-to-be. And aside from a backflip gone awry (not enough rotation) and a yard sale courtesy of Little D (always rig to flip), things flowed quite smoothly on the Colorado that day – including the beer, which was amazingly plentiful and cold.

And as we headed into day two, the river gods continued to smile. OK, so I spent a lot of time looking up at them while desperately trying to get out of the backseat, and the hole at Sock it to Me had it’s way with me, as usual. But even the Room of Doom had gone dormant. And that most feared of all Western river features, the stuff of campfire lore and morning groover jitters, Skull Hole, allowed a woefully offline 16-footer to go through its gut sideways and emerge completely unscathed.

Which, of course, called for celebration – approximetly7 river miles’ worth.

Alas, as is the case with all good river trips, the beer dried up and the put-in appeared all too quickly. As the sundazed seafarers stumbled back to their land legs, I reached into my lifevest pocket for the key – which, despite the odds and my poor track record, was right where I left it.

After a scenic tour of the better part of the Kokopelli Trail (“You don’t mind if we take the backroads, do you?”) with a guy named Harry (“but everyone calls me ‘Buck’”) I began the long journey back to civilization, hot showers, electric refrigeration and sippy cups.

In fact, it wasn’t until well back into the throes of sippy cup land the next day, that I realized my stealthest of moves, the shuttle car key shuffle, had managed to elude even me, its inventor. Our car key ring (which also inlcuded every key from every dwelling we’ve ever inhabited as well as keys to Yakima racks for cars we no longer own, a bottle opener, small Swiss Army knife and lucky Irish coin) had never been retrieved from underneath the mini van, which took an unfortunate detour to G.J. before coming home the long way over Red Mountain Pass. Could it be that I was foiled by my own ingenious plan?

“They’re gone – I looked all over,” my friend assured me upon arrival back in Durango. Just to be sure, I checked anyway, sliding my hand under the car, behind the grill and into a small groove beside the wheel well. And low and behold, there was the massive janitor-sized key assortment, exactly where I had stuffed it. As miraculous as this was, I can’t say I was totally surprised. Sure, call it dumb luck – just like the picture-perfect weather, the miraculous escape from Skull, the perfectly calculated amount of beer, the absence of any debilitating or embarrassing sunburns.

But I knew it meant more (plus, it makes for a good story). Sure, the boats may be a little smaller these days, and us paddlers may be a little older, a little less rad and a little earlier in turning in to the Paco Pad. But in the grand scheme of those million-year-old canyon walls, we’re mere pups. And even after our several-year absence – a mere blink of the geological eye – we were being welcomed back, because the best was yet to come.

– Missy Votel



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows