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  Jake Luck
  BQR ~ spring 1998

Once upon a time, back when the current generation of doddering old timers were young (late '60s, early '70s), you could actually kinda count the “good” boatmen on a hand or two, and people would even ruminate occasionally about who might've been the best. Don Harris had already ascended into a more mythical realm so he didn't count really, but Dave Mackay was often mentioned, along with Steve Bledsoe, Dennis Massey, and a few other obvious choices. Jake Luck fell easily into that category, not just because he was a great boatman but also because he was an awesome and imposing figure in general.
He seemed to be about seven feet tall. At a time when all the youngsters sported afros, beards, or ponytails, Jake had a flat-top. He was clean-shaven. He wore long levis and cowboy boots. He looked about as soft and gentle as the Rock of Gibraltar and no one, not even Brian or Dan Dierker, ever even thought about trying to make him mad. He worked for Western River Expeditions and had a million adventures there before switching to Henry Falany and finally coming to rest as the ace frame-builder for Waterman Welding up in Kanab.
gcrg worked up the nerve to interview him a few years back and, thanks to Mike Denoyer, went in armed with a bottle of Bushmills. Sat under a tree out in Jake's garden while the world went by and accidentally had an unforgettable afternoon. A few of the highlights follow:

This was Easter, so I spent that summer hanging on a wrench on
big old greazy goddam diesel-powered units. Spent another winter,
then here come Bryce with another little note, “How'd you like to run another boat through Grand Canyon?” Well, I got over the shakes. “Goddam right!” So here we went. You've seen that poster of Curry's? This was in 1969. It said, “You haven't seen the Grand Canyon until you see it from the river.”

And that's in Crystal. That's the big hole?

Yeah. I was driving J-1. The day after they took that picture, I broke four ribs in Dubendorff.

And that was your second trip?

Yeah.
Afterward Bill and Bucky Boren walked into the warehouse down there at Fredonia. They're looking for employment. And I'm walking around limping and taped; Bryce Mackay is walking around on a wooden leg. And they said, “Jesus Christ, is this someplace we want to try to work?!

For starters, you were born in Vernal?

That's right. April 28, 1934.

Right in the middle of the Depression!

Yeah. We were hungry back then—damned hungry. You worked three or four days to get a half-a-day's pay—my dad did. I remember it. I remember the ccc [Civilian Conservation Corps], I remember the wpa [Works Progress Administration], and the whole bit. My dad did a lot of work on the Dinosaur National Monument. In fact, most of the rock and the powder work up there, he did.

And that was ccc?

Wpa. Cccs built roads in the more out-back country.

And your aunt married Parley Galloway, who was Nathaniel Galloway's kid?

Yeah.

And Galloway did a couple of trips in 1909 or something like that?

In all probability, according to his record, he was through there before Powell was—being a prospector and a trapper, through the Grand Canyon. Wally Perry has his documents.

You mean he was through there in the 1860s?

Quite probably.

Well I wonder how come, if he did go before Powell, when Powell came down and got all this publicity, I wonder how come he didn't say, “I was there long ago!” He didn't care or something?

Oh, he wasn't into that kind of stuff. A lot of people aren't into publicity—including this one.
This woman that Parley was married to, Parley Galloway and Loretta, are Wally's grandparents.

I'll be damned! I didn't know that either! Well, what kind of guy was he? Did you ever meet him?

Parley Galloway died the year I was born. I never got to talk to the man. But he was a hard-drinking outdoorsman. In fact, that's what killed him—he died over here by Cedar City in the wintertime, drunk. He froze to death, as I recall.

But his dad, Nathaniel?

Old Nate Galloway was one tough sonofabitch. My dad and he knew one another quite well. My dad said he was the best rifle shot, and had the best eye for stock, of anybody he'd ever seen, and my dad was no slouch. But [you'd have something] out there 300–400 yards and old Nate Galloway, just standing there, would say, “That looks like a nice fat wether,” and let that sheep down and go over there and it'd be a nice fat wether.

A wether?

It's a male sheep that's been neutered.

So your dad knew him?

Oh yeah.

And then he knew Parley too, and all that.

There was an old historian up in Vernal—he was also a photographer—Leo Thorne [phonetic spelling]. He said Nate Galloway was the toughest sonofabitch he knew and had ever met. I said, “Why's that, Leo?” And this guy had quite a museum with different artifacts. He said, “Well…”—everybody up in that country called him Nate—he said, “Old Nate was out prospecting on the Ute Reservation, had a little bit of a diggings there. He was sleeping down in this hole in the ground he'd dug out. These Utes came up and told him to get the hell out of there or they'd kill him.” He got out of there and stayed gone a few months, I guess, according to Thorne, and then he came back. He woke up during the night and these three Utes are standing above him with knives. They told him, “We told you we'd kill you.” And Nate Galloway was not a big man. He came up out of that hole and killed all three of those Utes with their own knives. That's the kind of man he was.

Holy moley!

Pretty tough guy. And he was well respected.

It's funny, I guess. You think about Nathaniel and it sounds kind of like he really figured out a lot of stuff about how to run a boat, that he was way ahead of any of them other guys that went down there: like Powell, or Stanton, or anybody else for that matter.

We'll put it this way: When Nate Galloway was out on these rivers, there wasn't a whole crew of people to pull his ass out of the fire. He had to do it all by himself, had to depend on himself entirely.

And your dad said he was the straightest shot?

Best rifle shot he'd ever seen. I've seen my dad set there smoking his pipe, watching young guys blaze away at a deer going up across a wash. They started at maybe 300 yards, “bangedy-bang-bang, bangedy-bang-bang.” Once in a while they could get the deer onto a trot, and when they decided he was out of range, the old man would lay down his pipe, pick up his old rifle and let him down. (laughter)

So if he said somebody was a good shot…

They were goddam sure a good shot! I've seen my dad take a 25–35 at a hundred yards, standing off-hand, put round, after round, after round, into the end of a beer can.

At a hundred yards?

Uh-huh. Standing off-hand, no rest, no nothing.

And no scope?

No scope, open sights.

Sounds like your dad had pretty good eyes.

Yeah, that he did, up until the last. It's a hereditary thing, Lew. All of my family has had real good vision.

Well, what did your dad do?

He was a powder monkey, until he got to where he couldn't handle it any more because of the severe headaches. He helped build roads all over that country up there, in the mountains and stuff. When they were drilling for natural gas over in the Clay Basin, the man cut firewood with an axe to fire the boilers. Then back in World War ii, I went with him up in the mountains and we cut mine props for the coal mines in Carbon County. An old man by the name of Leslie Murphy would get the contracts for these coal mines in Carbon County, and we cut the mine props in northern Uinta County. He started cutting those props with a hand-powered saw. He'd fell a tree with an axe, and then buck ‘em up into lengths with a hand-powered saw.

Meaning just a big old bow saw, or one of those like a two-man thing?

It was like a two-man thing, only it was short enough that one man could operate it. And I was six or seven years old. He'd have me carry—one of these props I was able to pick up and shoulder out to where they could get to them with a truck. I'd carry those sonsofbitches on my shoulders until they'd bleed. And that old man would just keep on sawing. Then he devised a power outfit along about World War II that he and I could operate. Me and that old man were cutting a thousand linear feet or better of props a day. That's a lot of damned mine props. But he figured out rollways to where a kid could handle it. Started me driving an old 1929 Chevrolet that he had rigged up as a more-or-less logging truck, when I was nine years old.

Just get them around?

No, haul them down off the damned mountain. I don't know if you've ever been off the face of the Uintas, but it's quite a jump. Then when I was thirteen, he had me haul them alone. When I was ten, he and I and one old cowboy that got a Forest Service motor grader operator drunk-up at lunch—that afternoon we built about seven miles of new road down off the face of that mountain.

In one afternoon?

One afternoon. That old cowboy got up in the cab of that motor grader with the operator, showing him where he figured a good road would go. They bladed it out, and dad and I walked along behind and threw rocks off. Six or seven miles down, six or seven miles back up the face of that mountain. A long afternoon. And that road still exists! That was fifty years ago this summer.

Damn that must have been something to have all that open country and not many people in it.

Oh yeah! The old man and I'd back up in that woods. Sometimes it'd be, oh, pushing thirty days before we'd ever see another living soul. Camped out up there, cutting timber. It was good back then.
Then when I got to be about fifteen, sixteen, another one of my favorite memories was going poaching deer in an airplane. (laughter)

In an airplane?! Who was driving that?

My instructor. He had me working around the airport there to help him out, help pay for my flying lessons. He'd say, “It's getting hungry over at my house. Be here at five o'clock in the morning.” This one big grassy meadow had a long straight stretch of road in it, and there were always deer in it in the morning. We'd spot them, and he'd just glide that thing down, set it down, totally quiet. We'd knock one down, drag him over, throw him in the airplane and we were gone!

And how old were you then?

About fifteen.

And you'd already decided you were going to be a pilot?

Yeah, I soloed on my sixteenth birthday.
And the old boy also was teaching me how to mechanic.

Your dad? Or this guy that was teaching you to fly?

The old boy at the airport. By then Dad and I were out of the timber and he'd gone to work down there with Bus Hatch as a carpenter.

And did he like that? I guess Bus Hatch was quite the…

Oh, he was a character. He and Dad got along good. Bus was a damned-good carpenter.

Well how did you end up going to war and all that, getting in the Service?

I volunteered for the Draft when I got out of high school. By then, you see, I was a licensed pilot, and was an eighteen-year-old kid, and I wanted to fly one of these liaison planes. And they didn't want to hear it, so they ended up putting me in a Special Forces unit, regimental combat team. Everybody in there is supposed to be super-trained. You run an eight-week cycle on basic training/boot camp/whatever, in a sixteen-week. They put me through twenty-one weeks, learning how to kill and stomp and maim, then sent me to Korea. They teach you some neat shit in those last few weeks: stuff that you can definitely use to defend yourself.

How old were you then?

Eighteen, just turned eighteen. I went into that outfit, they were on Cheju-Do Island, trying to get their strength back. They took some pretty hard hits. In fact, they'd just rescued the first Marines off of Heartbreak Ridge. That was one nasty place. And then we went in and made a water landing, somewhere up along Korea, walked all goddam night long, and most of the next day and ended up on a hillside. See all these people around all over on the other hillside, wondering what in the hell was going on. They told us we had to dig some fox holes. I dug me one—dug that sonofabitch deep, too, boy. (chuckles) Along in the night I went to sleep. I woke up, and there's this light above me. I thought, “Oh shit, what's going on here?” I just laid there real quiet, not breathing. This is the story I started to tell you a while ago. I was staring at this light. “Aw, it ain't moving.” By God, it did move. “No, it ain't moving.” And your heart starts to pound. You wonder what the hell is there. You don't dare say anything. When you laid down in the bottom of that hole, you were one big brave sonofabitch. Now there's something up there shining that you don't understand, and you're about to shit your pants. I watched that thing and watched that thing. Finally after what seemed like an eternity, I started sneaking up on it. What would be your guess was glowing there?

I don't know. You mean you crawled out of your hole and went after it?

No, it was right on the edge of the hole. It was a goddam phosphorescent root that had terrified me, glowing there in the night. (chuckles)

You were down deep in that hole.

I was laying right in the bottom, asleep. You goddam sure get tired.

How long did you end up staying over there?

Thirteen months. They held me longer.
These surplus snout boats—you know, the old pontoons? I've drove trucks over those sonsofbitches over in Korea. There's a place over there called “the Murderer's Mile.” We had to drop down in and run across this goddam flotation bridge. Quite a deal.

 

So like the whole time you were growing up, you pretty much lived around Vernal there, just in that general area?

Uh-huh.

What was it like growing up with Ted and them guys?

Ted was one wild sonofabitch. I never ran around with him that much—we just went to school together is all.

How did you end up on the river? Did you get started with Ted and them?

No. Got drunk. (laughs) No, I started working for Curry probably about 1965–1966, mechanicing for him. Bryce Mackay was working for Curry at that time, just after he'd got run over with that truck and hurt.
I was wrenching there for a guy that ran a bunch of oil field service trucks. And Bryce come down and between he and I we built an engine and one thing and another for his wife's car and put it in it at the shop I was working at. He got disgruntled with the people that were doing the mechanic work for him, and kind of asked me if I'd moonlight and do it, and so I did. This went on for quite a while, and then I started doing driving for him. I was deathly afraid of water—you see, I don't swim. That's a strike against being a river runner, right? That's why I drive a boat so goddam good! (laughter) I might not swim, but I've pulled a lot of people who envisioned themselves as super swimmers, back to the boat. I'm smart enough to wear a life jacket.
But anyway, these guys got me all beered up and I made the promise, “Yeah, I'll go on a goddam one-day trip with you.” With a crew was running at that time, on a one-day basis. I kind of liked it. Then that fall, as a way of saying thanks, Curry came and said, “You like to fish, don't you?” And I said, “Yeah, I sure as hell do.” “How would you like to catch a steelhead?” I said, “What's a steelhead?” He said, “It's a big mean rainbow trout that's been out to the ocean and come back.” “That sonofabitch has got to be mean if he's been to the ocean and come back!” So he took me on a complimentary trip up on the main Salmon. I got a few pointers on how to row boats through there. The next spring he sent Bryce down with a note, where I was working—I'd changed places of employment at that time, still hanging on a wrench. The only difference was, it was more equipment and bigger equipment—an earth-moving outfit. I opened up the note and it said, “How'd you like to run a boat through Grand Canyon?” I thought, “Boy, that's my kettle of fish!” I'd seen the Grand Canyon once—I'd been down to Diamond Creek with Bryce to pick up Curry.
This was the spring of 1968 when Jack sent that note down. And so I ended up driving one of his vehicles down here, pulling a load of stuff. His wife and I went into Salt Lake and did a bunch of last-minute shopping. We were one of the first ones out of Vernal, warehouse. Picked up some stuff, and I pulled into here in one hellacious snowstorm, into Kanab. Spent the night, and the rest of them caught up with me, the next day, late. We went through deep snow. The only one that got stuck was Jack Curry, going over the Kaibab. We had to go back and get him. I'm not belittling Jack. I ended up on a little boat he called Baby J. He sewed j-tubes, you know, the snout bit, onto the back end of a regular twenty-two-foot tube. Put a little flat frame on it. Deadheaded to Phantom. My first squint at the river, and I was following a guy that had three trips. No way in hell you're going to do that today, right?

Oh, so you got to practice up, and then you got the paying customers at Phantom? (chuckles)

Being as I was a rookie, they gave me a little old wore-out 18-horse Johnson. You had to hold the throttle open for thirty to forty-five seconds before it would pick up on the second cylinder and start firing. Some god-awful rides! We made it. I was following a guy by the name of Lee Sutton. He was running an old Hatch-type rig with the motor hanging over the deflated back tube.

A tail-dragger, uh-huh. Did it have a floor in it?

We had put a self-bailing floor in it. So we went on down and loaded up people at Phantom. Everything went fine until we got to Crystal. (laughter) This is the first time I'd seen Crystal.

It was The Crystal, then. After 1967.

It was The Crystal. It was 1968. And Sutton said, “Whatever you do, you have got to get to the right of that big hole, and then do whatever you can with the other one.” (laughter) I got to the right of the big hole with this little old rickety boat, pretty top-heavy with ten people on it.
And then there was a real sharp dinger kind of to the left down agin' the wall. Goddam I missed that top hole. I was pretty proud of myself. I attribute the missing of that top hole to some of my earlier upbringing, riding motorcycles, learning to fly airplanes, racing stock cars and stuff.

You raced stock cars?

I raced fourteen years' worth of dirt track.

You were driving?

Uh-huh, and a little blacktop, but mostly dirt track. Son of a bitch, I hung that goddam boat up on them rocks down there in the Rock Garden. I walked around trying to figure what the hell to do with this. Finally I decided if I got everybody over on this side of the boat, it might…

So you just moved them around and it came off?

Uh-huh. After we got down to the bottom and pulled it over to the bank and I'm standing there, my knees banging together. This one guy came up and said, “Jake, how many trips you got through here?” I said, “Just the same number you got.” (laughter) He said, “Jesus Christ, this is my first one!” (laughter)

So how did that trip go after you guys got off the island then?

Well, I had another severe incident at Bedrock. (chuckles)

Went left, or something?

You might say that. They told me, “There's a big rock in the river down here. It's best if you go to the right side of it.” Well up in there by Specter, I saw this big rock. And I eyeballed it and I said, “Bullshit, I don't want to go to the right side of that sonofabitch. Uhn-uh! Somebody got their wires crossed.” Okay, big rock is passed. Alright. Got on down there a ways, and the river broke over this crest. All of a sudden, “Jesus Christ! That's the rock they're talking about, and I'm on the left side of the river!” Well, I started bending it to the right—that wasn't getting it. I was going to hit that rock, no two ways about it, and I knew if I hit it sideways, it was all over but the crying. So I figured at the last split second I had left I squared it around and I took ‘er head-on. Folded that little piece of rubber up into a “U,” slammed people around, it sprung back and went down around the left side. The water was low enough that on the left side you had these ledges to contend with. I was hung on these goddam ledges. We worked our way off them and went ka-thunk down to the bottom, and went on out. Then, by God, I paid more attention to what was going on. When I got back to Vernal, I said, “Bullshit, I don't want to do that ever again.” I had more shell-shock than when I came out of Korea.
This was Easter, so I spent that summer hanging on a wrench on big old greazy goddam diesel-powered units. Spent another winter, then here come Bryce with another little note, “How'd you like to run another boat through Grand Canyon?” Well, I got over the shakes. “Goddam right!” So here we went. You've seen that poster of Curry's? This was in 1969. It said, “You haven't seen the Grand Canyon until you see it from the river.”

And that's in Crystal. That's the big hole?

Yeah. I was driving J-1. The day after they took that picture, I broke four ribs in Dubendorff.

And that was your second trip?

Yeah…
Bill and Bucky Boren walked into the warehouse down there at Fredonia. They're looking for employment. And I'm walking around limping and taped; Bryce Mackay is walking around on a wooden leg. And they said, “Jesus Christ, is this someplace we want to try to work?!”

 

Did you know anything about the geology or history or anything?

Not at that time.

It was just: get 'em on through? Did you have a map then?

Yeah, we had Jones's map, a little scroll map.

What was the routine like? What kind of kitchen was there, and the toilet, and just all that? What was the daily deal like?

Well, the toilet was, go out, dig a hole, you bury it. The kitchen was much the same as it is today. Jack Curry ran a very, very good kitchen, because he was a professional cook before he went into river running. And his wife, Betty Ann, was one of the most fantastic cooks you could ever imagine, and she'd set up a menu. He was a good football player in his high school days. Betty Ann was a cheerleader. That's how they met. And they were very, very kind to me—very kind.

Was he that way to everybody? Was he a pretty good kind of guy? Pretty straight shooter?

Unless they stepped on his toes. He was very generous. Thanks to Jack and Betty Ann, I've got to see a lot of country that I never would have, met a lot of people I never would have. Just damned-good people. He thought enough of my driving ability that I taught his three oldest how to drive.

Well, how did you go about figuring it out, then? What happened after your second trip, and how did you learn? I mean, did you have to figure most everything out for yourself?

People like Dave Mackay, Art Gallenson. See, Mackay and I have become very, very close friends. And he knew about me running motorcycles and flying airplanes and racing automobiles and all that. He knew that I had a very astute rate of closure vision. And he knew that I knew how to respond. And so Mackay—between he and Gallenson—and I think it was mostly Mackay… Mackay's a brilliant man, very smart. The sonofabitch has got a shoebox full of degrees. He would design these things and try to compute the inertia and everything moving you into a point, from the river current, the power of the engine, and the whole bit. And most of these back-down runs, Mackay conceived in his mind. Also at that time we had another guy working with us, Dr. Buck Boren.

So Mackay was working for Curry?

Yeah.

And when you say “designed these things,” you mean Mackay was the guy that figured out the runs?

Yeah.

But you designed the boats, didn't you?

No, Paul Thevenin designed the boat, and then Bryce Mackay and I started adding into the original design to where it would support the load, which became heavier every year, you know.

Yeah.

But Mackay would think these things out. The sonofabitch lay awake at night, worrying over stuff this way. “Okay, Jake,” he'd say, “what do you think of this? You come in here, and you start shooting left. Then you bring your bow just off that gravel bar, over on the left side, and come in from the right. You're building up a little speed, and when your bow comes by that gravel bar, you pitch that sonofabitch hard right, and you spin around and theoretically, you should be able to power off those rocks over on the left side.” That's Twenty-five Mile, that's in the big hole. He said, “Can you do it?” I said, “I'll tell you in about five minutes, Dave.” (laughs)

So he hadn't tried it either?

No, no, he'd just dreamed it up.

But he wanted you to go first?

Well, who else? I had all this damned background: severe crashes, or avoiding a severe crash. And if I made it, then Bucky would try it. In the back-down run in Twenty-five Mile, and Crystal and so on down the line. For the most part, Dave Mackay dreamed it up, Bucky and I initiated it. Were you aware of that?

No. But I know that when I started, which was way late in the game—1971, 1972 and stuff—you were famous, and Mackay was…

Aw, what do you mean, “famous”? We were just guys doing a job.

But there were maybe five or six guys that you could say, “Those are the best guys doing this.” Nowadays, there's a million people that know how to do it. But back then, you'd say, “Those guys know how to do it.”

 

I'll tell you one of the dearest friends I ever had in my life was Georgie White.

What was it like meeting her? How did that happen?

Oh, God, I don't really remember. I do remember when we pulled over to the Ferry with the rig and Toby Tobias would be with me. Georgie would have rubber scattered from hell to breakfast. I just pulled my truck up and stopped. Never said a word to anybody, I'd just go over to the little store and buy a case of beer. That old woman seen me going over to the store. When I got back, all of her rubber was out of the way and I had a place to rig. (chuckles) Toby looked at me, “How'd you do that?” I used to carry Georgie cold beer and ice, drop it off at her camps when she was below Lava Falls where I usually unloaded, or whatever. I'd pull into her camp. She knew I dearly loved blackberry brandy, and back then I was running two engines on that J-rig, mostly running alone. I could get it up on the step.

You'd unload everybody at Whitmore and then double up?

Whitmore or Lava. Pump it up to where it was hard as concrete. Then I could get it up on plane. I've checked it out, on five-mile stretches, I was averaging a little over twenty-three miles per hour.

Whoa!

I'd come whistling into her camp, and she'd be standing out there. There'd be four or five of these great big diesel-burning firemen, to secure my boat. Some sweet-looking little thing in a bikini standing there with a Sierra cup with dark liquid in it. I'd step down off the bow of the boat and just as I was in mid-air, that old woman would reach out and give me a gut-shot. Just bowled me over. “Georgie, goddammit, one of these days you're going to kill me!” I'd just fall forward into her arms and she'd give me a big hug. If I had somebody with me, she'd say, “Jake, you look like you need a cup of coffee,” and hand me that cup of blackberry brandy.

 

I asked Denoyer, “God, what do I ask Jake about?” and one of the things he said was, “Ask about getting hung up and spending the night on the rock island.”

I did that, yeah. I was driving one of Curry's rigs, called the Super J, forty-five feet long.

That was just a design wrinkle?

Well, it was some of that, and a whole lot of pilot error. It's all Henry Falany's fault, every bit of it.

(chuckles) He just said, “Make the boat bigger”?

No, this thing had a stretched-out, added-onto, cotton doughnut deal. Then it had the snout tubes on the outside. It really widened out, had the typical J-rig frames on it. I had met Henry up at, oh, I guess Phantom Ranch. I said, “Where do you want to camp, Henry?” He said “Oh, I'm going to go on below Crystal.” And I said, “Okay, I'm going to camp at the head of Granite then.” He took off, and goddam, I'm running kind of late at night. I start to pull in at the head of Granite, and there's Falany. I said, “You sonofabitch! Now where the hell am I going to camp?”
So I knew Crystal was facing me, and I went on down, and like I told you before, we had come up with this back-down run and turn around. So I knew what Crystal was going to look like. I come in at the head of it, and I pitched it to the right, and I'm gliding down along there with it pointed to the right bank, waiting on the throttle in case I needed to give it more. And all of a sudden I realized that sonofabitch was too long, and I had given it too much, and the bow of the boat grabbed a rock and spun me backwards, a long time before I wanted to be spun backwards. And I can't recover from it. It's spinning me down, out and back. I end up jammed up on a big boulder, just off the right bank.

Oh, not the rock island?

Oh no. Oh no, right beside the big hole at the top. Right directly across it.
Okay, I'm hung-up on this thing. Well, I got a Canuck with me, a geologist by the name of Carl Norbeck, tremendous man. We jump out and try to push this sonofabitch off this rock. Well the current catches him—he's upstream from me—and it starts pushing him down. And both of us are up toward the bow of the boat, and his body slams into mine, and I'm ahold of the lifeline alongside the boat, and pulls me free of this life line—not free, but it slid from my grip. My hands slide down agin' the “D” ring, and the pain becomes so excruciating that I can't handle it any more, so I turn loose and grab for another grip, hoping it'll be less on the next one. We slide down agin' it, and the same story—I can't stand the pain in my hand with both of our bodies in that current. So I grabbed for a lower grip—we got forty-five feet here to play with—and it pushes me on down to the next one—the same story, I have to release from that one. And I grabbed the last one, and I realized, you got twenty-four people on board this goddam boat, and they're dependent upon you and Carl. So I just bit the goddam boat and hung on. By then there were enough of these people—they were from Litton Industries out of California, and several of them were return trippers, they knew the score—and they were there by that time. It seems like an eternity to you, hanging on the side of this sonofabitch, but in all probability it was just a matter of seconds. All of a sudden these people were there. I'm on the last “D” ring, I got nowhere to go but on down the creek, and then try to fight my way back and figure another way back to the boat. These faces appeared, arms started coming over the side of the boat, they snagged Carl out, then they got me. I said, “Okay, is everybody alright?” They said, “Yeah.” So everybody poked fun at me for carrying a Coleman stove. Well I lit that Coleman stove, Carl and I barbecued up some chicken.

Right there on the boat?

Right there on the boat.

Too far to get to shore?

Oh yeah! Shit, there was a lot of fast water running by. It was an incident. Prior to this, “Look” magazine was running an Indians' fashions article, and they had looked all over the area for a tall Navajo, Paiute, whatever, to stand there with this good-looking French model they had, to do these Indian fashions for “Look” magazine.

Indian fashions in the Grand Canyon?!

Curry had them. He was a day ahead of me, or two days. The gal that was running this, was a bit despaired over what they'd been able to find in the way of Indian models. [She] looked at me, being kind of dark, and said, “He'll do.” Curry said, “That's good. He'll be a couple of days behind us, he'll catch us around Havasu.” Alright.
Well, these are return people from Litton Industries, and I've got a little lady on board that I was kind of partial to—she'd been with me before. Anyway, I came into that goddam rapid, I'm sliding down, that bow snags this rock and spun me backwards, put me on these big ones and Carl and I do this sliding-down-the-goddam-rope thing, get up on there, and we fix them all dinner. And somebody said—this was back before the days of porta-potties, “What do we do about toilet facilities?” I said, “The same as on the bank: women upstream, men downstream.” Alright. I fix them up dinner, everybody got fed and they got bedded down.
I'd told them before this about how the rapid had been formed, about the flash flood. Well, along about midnight, one itty bitty cloud comes up over the top, and a few drops of rain hit the boat. And this one guy on there—he's a real paranoid, named Frank—comes back and says, “Jake, it's raining! I don't want to be washed down out of here.” I said, “I don't either, Frank.” This is right at midnight.
The only place for me to try to get any Z's is down in the motor well at the back end of this thing. The lovely lady decided she would accompany that space with me. We're back in there trying to catch some sleep. We're cramped-up in this three-foot by three-foot cubicle. I'm hurting, and she's hurting—we're cramped. It's a bad scene, alright? But we are hung-up there, big time.
Well, just as a point of jest: one of these guys comes back there to relieve himself off the back end of the boat, which is downstream. He's standing back there and tinkles—totally unaware of us being there. Just as he turns to leave, this little blonde-headed thing says, “Don't walk off and leave anything running.” God, he almost jumped off the boat!
You realize these are pretty deep, dark secrets.
Well, when it started sprinkling, why this guy, Frank, comes back down there. He's all in a panic, “I don't want to be washed out of here!” I said, “Goddam, Frank, I don't either. But I'll tell you what, it's pretty evident you ain't going to sleep, and I've got to have mine, so why don't you come back and give me a report every hour, on the hour.” “Okay.” So the little bit of a sprinkle passes by, and just one hour, right to the quiver and a tick, he's back there, “Jake, Jake, the water's going down. The boat's starting to…” “That's exactly what I want, Frank. See you at two o'clock.” (sigh) Well, it's one-thirty, he's back there, “Jake, Jake! God, the water's really going down. This boat's really getting twisted.” “That's good, Frank. I like that a lot.” This went on down to where it was every five minutes.
Along about four o'clock in the morning, just barely breaking daylight, I got everybody up, and I set my kitchen out on the goddam rocks and started cooking breakfast, and the water started coming up. I had Norbeck have all the people unload all the heavy shit that they could off the bow of the boat, and I pushed it out. And then I moved everything so the current would catch it and spin it. Back then we had to carry oars, these fifteen-foot jobbers. They were using those as pry bars, prying it over these boulders. Christ Almighty, you could nearly walk underneath the boat over the top of some of those rocks. I mean, it was a severe drop in the water. The rock that formed the hole at the top of Crystal was exposed.

So it probably went from 15,000 cfs down to 3,000? It was that kind of deal?

Probably 1,500 cfs.

Fifteen thousand to fifteen hundred?

That would be my guess, yeah—a severe drop. They're prying away on this boat. They got this splashboard, two-foot by eight-foot piece of plywood that we use as a table, on the bank—and a whole manner of shit. And they're prying this thing, and horsing it over, moving the heavy shit forward, trying to move the back end a little. The water started coming up and started washing the kitchen away, so we put all our stuff up on the boat, went ahead with breakfast, and had one of the guys tie a rope to the bow, up to a rock up here, where when it tightened up, it would swing it to where I wanted it. And I got these people all fed: I cooked them up bacon and blueberry pancakes on my Coleman stove. I'm just finishing up eating, and I felt the boat shift. I had given this guy my knife—which I always take pride in it being pretty sharp. I told him, “When I call for it, just cut that goddam rope.” I'm downing my last bite of pancakes, I felt the boat shift again, and he said, “Jake, this sonofabitch is starting to tear the boat apart.” And I said, “Cut the goddam line.” He hit the line and it exploded like a shot. Well, we were minus a piece of plywood and a few articles, but it didn't matter. We went on down. That goddam Johnson wouldn't start!

Hoo boy!

So I changed it, put another one on, and got it running just before we hit Tuna Creek. Got through it, went on down to Havasu, caught up with Curry, and they started laying on me what they wanted me to do about posing with this gal. They wanted me to stand up there on these hot rocks, barefooted, nothing but a breechcloth on. It's 130o you know. I said, “I don't need no part of this shit!” And Curry was over asking Carl, “How'd you do in Crystal?” “Oh,” Carl says, “it was rather unique.” Curry said, “Jake must have done his back-down run.” Carl said, “You might say that.” (laughter)


What were the passengers like?

They were adventurers, they were not tourists. Back then these people didn't want to be namby-pambied around, no special favors, they jumped in and they would help you. It didn't matter. If you said you needed something, by God, it was there. You know, outdoorspeople—not the guy that's doing it because the Joneses next door did it.

Did they have much money? Or did that even enter into it very much?

It wasn't that big a deal. It was something like $175.

The people in general, did you see them evolve? You said they were adventurers at first.

Yeah.

And were they quite that way in the end?

Oh no—vacationers. Wanted to “do what the Joneses did,” type deal.

So you'd play guitar and sing and all that stuff?

Used to, yeah.

Was that something you just did? You used to play before you…

Oh yeah. I got with a kid in Korea that started me on the guitar. Then I went from the guitar to the banjo to the fiddle to the mandolin, trombone, piano.

And learned how to play all them?

I've given it all up. Yeah, you wouldn't believe that of those old clubhands.

And you worked for Curry until the late seventies or something, somewhere in there?

Uh-huh. No, early seventies.

And then for Falany.

Uh-huh. And off and on, in between, Waterman.

And pretty much went steady until the mid-eighties or somewhere in there, wasn't it?

No. I was pretty much tied up with Waterman Welding by then.

So it was the sixties through ‘til the late seventies?

Yeah.

The first time you went… You know how it kind of gets to people spiritually and all? I mean, people go down the river, especially when somebody gives you a little bit of geology, you're kind of forced to think about the origins of the earth and all... it kind of takes you out there on that religious train of thought. Did any of that happen your very first time? Did any of that strike you or anything? Or was it just a matter of trying to survive? You probably didn't have time to even think about that.

Oh, trying to survive and keep everybody fed and not kill anybody, or hurt anybody.

Probably not just the first time, but the first several times.

This is true. I'll tell you what, Lew, I'm very proud of my record. I've never had to evacuate an accident victim. Of course I've only got 147 trips through Grand.

Never evacuated somebody. That's a hell of a deal. How did you…

I don't swim, so I drive a boat real goddam careful.

How do you watch out for everybody on the beach?

I tell them what to expect, and how to handle it. But I have had to scale walls at two o'clock in the goddam morning and set up there until it got light enough to make a descent, with somebody that was ledged up, panicked. I could go up, but I couldn't come down in the dark. You're looking at a fat old man now and saying, “How'd that sonofabitch ever climb…”

Oh, I don't say that, because I…

You remember me back when I weighed about 170 pounds. I don't have the strength I used to. The last time I made a power lift was about four years ago, down there at the shop, just to show my crew, impress them: 1,127 pounds.

Holy moley! That's like a bench press or something like that?

No, you get your back and shoulders up agin' an object, and then you're using your arms and your legs. The most I ever lifted with my arms this way was 700. (chuckles) Just cleared the floor with it. When I was seventeen years old, on a bet, I picked up 417 pounds and carried it 100 feet. It was a piece of drill pipe. Ed Carpenter said I couldn't pick the sonofabitch up, and I said for fifty dollars I'll carry it the length of this building. I took his fifty dollars. I was seventeen.


In 1968, what did the beaches look like? And the driftwood and all that? Do you remember that? Do you remember it changing a lot?

Oh, back then, there was enough driftwood. We cooked primarily on mesquite. There was enough dead wood and enough driftwood to where we could run our cooking fire on those.

So you'd actually go and just gather the good wood?

Uh-huh.

And then did you see the beaches get smaller? Or did you even notice much of that?

I saw them begin to decline, yeah—to a point, nothing spectacular, nothing earthshaking. But then I saw the decline of firewood, and I got tired of going out and trying to hustle it. So I built the propane stove type thing.

Those blasters?

No, it was the rectangular thing. And I cooked on those for a couple of years, carrying my own propane.

And that was just something you'd decided? “To hell with it,” that's what you were going to do?

Yeah, because I'm lazy, alright? I got tired of gathering firewood, got tired of asking my people to gather firewood. Became tired of not having enough firewood to cook a meal with. And this “blaster” thing you're talking about (chuckles), that was an evolution thing. What I primarily invented that thing for was a garbage disposal. See, it was a lot taller. I fluted it so it would circulate around. Then I put the propane underneath this three-foot-tall, sixteen-inch tube. And all garbage went in that sonofabitch—wet or dry.

Wow, and it'd do it, it'd cook it up.

And instead of me crossing the lake with all these big bagfulls of garbage, and a half-mile long string of flies following me, I had a couple little bags of ashes. That's the way my daddy taught me: the cleaner you can leave your camp, the better it's going to be for the next guy.

And he taught you that back in the thirties?

Back in the forties.

People looked at it like that.

Yeah, he did. All the mountain people did. Leave a clean camp. And I would come off of the river with just a couple of little bags of ashes. I mean pork chop bones, chicken bones, steak bones, were powder. Once I initiated the fire, got it going big-time, with the way I had it fluted, it would burn by itself. And people said, “Well, God, what about these folks standing around the stench of this burning garbage?” I said, “A fire is a fire. People are attracted to a fire. If they don't like the smell, they'll move to the other side of the goddam fire.” (laughs)

 

What was the best part of coming to the Grand Canyon and doing the work and doing the river running and all? If you had to pick some aspect of it that was the best for you, what would that be?

Being able to learn about it, to impart it to the people that traverse the Grand Canyon. Study it, care about it, and try to realize what happened here. That's all we can do, is try to realize. There's no way we could know, because we were not there. We cannot be there.
You were asking me about knowing anything about geology? You want to know who inspired me to start studying geology?

Absolutely.

Are you familiar with the name of Dr. Corbett Thigpen?

Nope.

Are you familiar with the movie and the book called The Three Faces of Eve? He wrote the book. Okay, Doc Thigpen made four trips through the Canyon with me, and he was an amateur geologist. And he started asking me about geology. I didn't know shit from Kaibab Limestone. And he got perturbed with me, “By God, you ought to know that, boy!” And I said, “Sir, I'm sorry.” He said, “I'll be back in a couple of years, and by God, I want you to know what these formations are!” (laughter) And by God, I did.
I never took any formal training, but I did have the benefit of taking people like Bob Sharp, Gene Shoemaker, Leon Silver, down there, and they pointed out things to me to dazzle Dr. Thigpen with.

And those guys are all geologists?

Gene Shoemaker is a friend of Peggy and mine. He was a geologist of the greatest magnitude. Let me tell you what Gene Shoemaker is doing right now: He's setting out there with high-powered telescopes. You are aware that July 23, there's going to be an impact of a comet on the planet Jupiter? Okay. This comet is fractured. It's had close encounters which have fractured it. Fragments will begin encountering Jupiter on probably July 23, and it will create a tremendous fireworks out there, for anybody with a telescope looking at Jupiter. And what Shoemaker is looking for is the one that will impact the Earth, which will probably be the demise of most homo sapiens—much like the dinosaurs.
All I know is what people like Shoemaker and Silver and Sharp tell me.

Were you always interested in science, or was that something that started after you started looking into this geology? I mean, what took you out there into the stars? Was it thinking about the Canyon and all that stuff? Or were you just interested in that before?

The main thing that got me interested in it was the ionosphere.

See, I don't have that much training, I really don't. I don't have squat for an education.

I don't either. I'm dumber than a post.

Yeah, right.

I don't put myself up to be a smart old sonofabitch. Alright? But I have tried to listen to those who think they know. And so far, people like Gene Shoemaker and Silver and Sharp have been a real inspiration to me.

I don't know how I missed getting educated in the sixties in Prescott, Arizona, but I did.

Well maybe you didn't have the type of teachers we had! No offense meant.

Or maybe I just wasn't paying attention.

Hey, I've got a couple of hands down at the shop that are that way. (chuckles) You know what I induce attention with? Firecrackers! When I catch them asleep on their feet.

Do you carry some around in your pocket?

Indubitably.

 

What happened between Korea and getting to the river?

Oh, I started racing. Then I went to work for an oil field service company. We did a lot of what they called hydro-frac-ing where they pump fluids down a well, under a lot of pressure. And then part of our bit was blow-out and firefighting. I was oscillating all the way from the Texas panhandle to the Canadian border with an outfit called Halliburton.
I spent three days and nights out on this blow-out fire. I mean, we had fires all over everywhere. It hit high pressure gas and it was coming up around the surface casing and anywhere you wanted to drop a match, the goddam sand would probably catch fire. We were pumping a mixture of cement and Calseal—which accelerates the setting of cement—mixing it with a nine-pound brine. In seven minutes, it would set up to where you could walk on it. Thirty-three thousand sacks of cement, 33,000 sacks of Calseal, and three days and nights, going in, pump a stage, wait four hours, and go in again. I was going in there in one of these old asbestos suits, people squirting water on me, and I was being steamed, making connections on this wellhead and breaking connections—twice every four hours. It would take me about twenty minutes to pump this mixture—mix it up and pump it in. Then I'd have to suit up, go in, break the connection to get it out of there before they set up.
It was a pretty good blaze. It wasn't that it was just one, you know—not like some I've seen where they come billowing up out of the goddam thing, and the steel derrick would melt in three to four minutes and fall to the ground. It was just a lot of little fires oozing up through. It was not that high a volume, but it was high pressure.

(whistles “whew”)

Yeah, all for $1.37 an hour! Red took me to dinner, it was down in a little place called Canadian, Texas.

Was that the famous guy?

You're talking about Red Adair?

Yeah.

He went over to my boss and said, “You got enough people here to get this boy's truck to town? I'm taking him to dinner.”

He must have been something else, to figure out how to do all that stuff.

He's one smart sonofabitch.

How was dinner?

Good.

Well, what was it like getting on the river after all that kind of activity?

It was just another exciting experience. (chuckles) Alright? I've not always been a mundane old, sit-down-and-draw-it-out, weld-it-out, cut-it-up sonofabitch.

But it sounds like the river wasn't that… It was just “business as usual.”

Bullshit! It was another unknown, back then. For me to negotiate a rapid that Shorty Burton died in, safely, was another hallmark in my life, because I respected Shorty.
My little sister put his oldest daughter the rest of the way through high school. His oldest daughter went and lived with my youngest sister. She helped get her through school.

Did you go down there right after Shorty had died and all?

Not that long. Amil Quayle almost met the same type of fate, there at Upset. He flipped one doing exactly the same thing Shorty done.

Was that a Hatch boat, a tail-dragger?

The same type of thing.

What did Shorty do?

He just got hung up.

Did he hit that thing straight and everything? I've heard that he just kind of went down there straight, and just lined her up and hit the hole straight, and it just…

No, that ain't Shorty's type of run. He just missed.

So Shorty Burton was forty-four and a day?

Yeah, when he died. He celebrated his forty-fourth birthday just below Deer Creek on the left, just below on that big beach.

I wonder if he saw it coming, if he had any kind of feeling about it or any of that.

You'd have to talk to Shorty.


Photos courtesy of Peggy and Jake Luck, Mike Denoyer, Richard Quartaroli. Interview by Lew Steiger.
Editing: Steiger & Dimock.


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