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Tom Chaney: A Frisky Little River

Of Writers And Their Books: "A Frisky Little River." Tom reviews White Water, a report on a Colorado upstream expedition in a jet boat "without a propeller which could plane cleanly in three inches of water, [and] which gave instant response to steering regardless of boat-speed." This column first appeared 10 May 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: The Confluence of Memory: The Continuity of Love

By Tom Chaney

"A Frisky Little River"

In the fall of 1957 a young Kentucky cave explorer, adventurer extraordinaire, stopped over in New Zealand on his way to another adventure at an American base in Antarctica. Whilst waiting in Christchurch he took an incredible boat ride.

Guy Mannering an outdoorsman and commercial photographer owned a jet boat.\

He gave Bill Austin from Horse Cave, Kentucky, USA, and Phil Smith a ride up the rocky Waimakariri Gorge at thirty miles per hour in water so shallow and treacherous that no boat should have ventured near it.

But Bill Austin was riding in Bill Hamilton's latest jet boat.

Through trial and error Hamilton had developed a workable impeller system involving hydro-jet propulsion which resulted in "a boat without a propeller which could plane cleanly in three inches of water, which gave instant response to steering regardless of boat-speed, and which could attain speeds of up to fifty miles per hour."

Bill Austin instantly saw the potential for such a boat in the United States. On his way back home from the Antarctic he picked up a boat and an agreement allowing him to find a manufacturer in the states.

Upon his return Bill contacted John Buehler who was eager to secure the rights to manufacture the jet-boat for his Indiana Gear Works which specialized in helicopter gears.

Within a year Buehler had issued an invitation, at Bill Austin's suggestion, to Bill and Peggy Hamilton to take part in "an expedition to run the Colorado River up-stream through the Grand Canyon."

Run it they did -- both ways -- up and down. An account of that run was written by Joyce Hamilton, wife of Jon Hamilton, son of Bill Hamilton. Unfortunately the book, White Water: The Colorado Jet Boat Expedition [Caxton Press; Christchurch, 1963] was never widely distributed in the states.

According to Hamilton, Austin had chosen an appropriately "frisky little river" in the Colorado. By 1960 as many as a dozen efforts had been made to attempt the up-river run. Each was defeated at the first rapid up from Lake Mead.

Time for ever making the run up was getting short. The Glen Canyon Dam was under construction. Its completion would so reduce spring run-off of the Colorado through Grand Canyon, that the attempt would forever be impossible. It was now or never.

From Lee's Ferry down to Temple Bar on Lake Mead is roughly 300 miles. In that distance were only two places where supplies could reach the river -- Bright Angel Trail at Phantom Ranch 87 miles along and the rarely used Whitmore Trail at mile 188. Fuel was brought to these two points. Everything else had to be packed in the boats.

There were four boats -- two 24 foot twin hull boats with two jets, "Big Red" and "Big Yellow"; and two 18 footers with single jets, "Wee Red" and "Wee Yellow."

The plan to conquer the river began where it was to end -- upstream at Lee's Ferry. The four jet-boats would shoot each rapid going down; turn around and shoot the same rapid going up; then back down to the next.

At Temple Bar in Lake Mead they turned about, heading back to Lee's Ferry.

The expedition was launched after a false start with insufficient flow on June 18, 1960, and completed the twelfth of July. White Water tells the tale in fine detail. The excitement of judging the rapids -- hitting them just so; the accidents that befell; the privations of camping and food make for thrilling adventure. One thing sticks in my mind. The Colorado was not only a frisky river; it was a gritty river -- loaded with silt. The expedition beverage of necessity was Tang made with river water. Joyce Hamilton helps us taste the silt and feel the grit with each swallow.

One accident of the expedition must be noted. On the downstream run Bill Austin was at the wheel of "Big Red" testing one of the last rapids, Vulcan. On the up shoot the breaker in the rapid tossed the boat and Bill into the air. The impact of landing shattered his leg.

A park ranger's short wave radio summoned a twin rotor, jet powered helicopter from Luke Air Force Base -- one of the first such helicopter rescues -- which plucked Bill from deep in the canyon and transported him to hospital.

Bill insisted the expedition continue. He got constant news in his hospital bed. Some weeks later when the much battered boats in triumph arrived at Lee's Ferry, there was Bill leaning on his crutches welcoming the crew ashore. He had helped conquer the Grand Canyon with the same doggedness with which he had mastered the stygian passages of Kentucky's Flint Ridge earlier in the decade.

Hamilton notes "When the massive gates of Glen Canyon Dam [were] lowered they close[d] a century of river-running history, and end[ed] one of the great adventures of our time. Only the Grand Canyon will remain as a monument to the power of a once mighty river."

Forty-three years later in late summer of 2003 two of the major players, Bill Austin and Guy Mannering, within a month of each other, died -- making their last uprun of the last rapid.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-05-11 05:11:45
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