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 Eldon McArthur's Big Adventure
  BQR ~ Fall 1999

ldon's account of his one, and only, trip rowing the Canyon, in the high water summer of 1957, reminds me of a story told by Salman Rushdie of a nomadic Arab tribe, newly enriched by oil, who charters a plane to Mecca. They had never flown before; they bring their beasts and light fires in the cabin. Upon landing, a wheel jams so the plane crashes and cartwheels to a stop. The tribe disembarks down those inflatable slides amidst screaming fire engines. They think nothing of it; since it was their first flight they just figured that's how planes landed.
This story emerged during an interview for a regional project about Seniors in the Workforce, older people who choose to keep working. Eldon is 78, and despite a fused ankle and shoulders shot from a lifetime of lifting steel, he still welds all week at his business, McArthur's Welding, in St. George, Utah. Eldon tells a great story; the interview went over three hours. He survived the Depression and WWII, and carries the humility and moral certainty those times conferred. His jet white hair arcs up around his temples almost like horns, but exactly like a victory laurel, so he kept morphing into a Roman god as we spoke. I knew this story would be good when he said he felt prepared for rowing the high water (which peaked at 126,000 cfs just before his put in on July 1) because he had rowed some in the ocean and had, after all, rowed the San Juan once. It turns out he was right.
He was so passionate about rowing the Grand at least once in his life that he left a pregnant (and very understanding) wife, five children and his new welding business to do so. He almost died twice, saved a life and experienced an atomic blast, among other things. Despite the passage of 42 years, his recall of detail is remarkable. I was honored to record his life story, inspired by his determination to experience the river, and riveted by his high water tale. Since most of the interview questions were “And then what happened, Eldon…” they have been omitted.


Logan Hebner


I always had a yearning to look the place over, so I rowed down the Canyon, once, from July 1st to the 22nd, 1957. I understand it was pretty high water, 100,000 cfs or more the day we put in.
I met a man here in St. George who had crewed for Norm Nevills, Wayne McConkie. Wayne lived in Moab until he came to Dixie. This is way after the war and things had smoothed down a bit. Wayne was hard to get acquainted with; it took me three years. He was a great man, a good man, cousin to the McConkie who was an apostle for the (lds) Church. He'd been a sheepherder before he came to teach school. He said, “I'd rather herd sheep than kids; you can throw rocks at sheep.”
I had always been interested in the river. I was a search pilot for the Civil Air Patrol so I explored every inch of the Canyon, down along the river, everywhere. I spotted lots of things along the way, Indian ruins, old mines. I finally asked Wayne about rowing in the Canyon and he says he knows Frank Wright, from Blanding, who was sort of ramrodding Norm Nevills' outfit since he died in a plane crash. I said, “Tell him I know how to row, (I'd rowed one out in the ocean fishing so I knew how to get by…), and if he needed a crewman to give a call. He did. I went over to Blanding and rowed the San Juan. It was the first time they had ever let a new man take a boat through. It was a regular river boat, but not those Nevill boats with the enclosed “waterproof compartment” (laughs). I did well. It was a trip for Disney's High Search for Adventure, sponsored by Ipana toothpaste and Dash dogfood. We also had one man from the government who was checking on sites for radioactive materials. He was secretive, wouldn't let anyone go out with him. It was pretty low water. There was line in a song we'd sing: “The brochure says you run every ripple, don't you believe it, we walk down the middle!” We bumped into one of Georgie White's trips. They had been eating freeze dried carrots and peas, we had steaks; her passengers about attacked us they were so sick of their food.
When the Grand trip came available I just went for it. I had five kids by then, with my wife Denise pregnant with our sixth, and my own welding business at home. But Denise, bless her, she's always understood that I need adventures like this, so she let me go. I'd been told about the water level, still it was a shock at Lees Ferry, all that water. There were no Park Service people around, nobody said anything. But it was an adventure; I really wanted to see that country and I felt up to it.
The crew was Gaylord Staveley, who had married one of Nevills' daughters, Frank Wright, his son Willard, myself, and John Harper. I rowed the Doris. Right off at Soap Creek I followed Frank between some boulders big as this room and dropped about five feet; I felt like a canoe going off a falls. That old boat was buried; the whole waterfall was just in my boat. For some reason I didn't tip over.
We lined Mile 29, just to make sure we could camp at Bert Loper's boat, and we lined Hance, where we had a big signal fire to tell folks on the rim to come down on the mules for their trip. It was a split trip, 21 days total. Up above the mule bridge there must have been 40 boats tied up in the willows. They all said they weren't going down until the water dropped. We stayed a couple days there, but this one was scheduled so off we went.
I tipped a boat over in the Granite Narrows. Right between Tapeats and Deer Creek. You're travelling northwest and all at once there's a big old wall in front of you. The water slams that wall, begins turbulent, goes into crevasse, back out, into another crevasse and back out again, like a very sharp W. When the water hits that wall it becomes so turbulent that it comes up the other side in toadstool boils. On the second one there's a huge eddy. Huge eddy. A terrific thing. Eldon's Map of Granite Narrows
I'd surveyed it and knew I had to stay to the inside of the turns. You gotta stay to the inside if you're gonna make it. I was the third boat through out of five. I got right out to the point, and I curved this first one here, got just off the point. But one of those toadstool boils came up so high my oars were just up there in the air, ten-foot oars. It shot me right back upstream; right back toward that wall. I was really a moving. My bow was headed straight for Willard Wright and John Harper, who were both pinned against the wall, pushing off the wall with their feet. I would have cut either one of 'em in two and I'm still trying to get my oars down in the water. I finally spun just enough to hit them sideways. The water caught me and spun me around so fast I didn't have a chance to get my feet against the wall; as soon as that gunnel hit my upstream rail caught and I went over. Little Reet Plohetcka from Michigan City, Indiana, all 105 pounds of her went sailing—ptooooo!—thrown the length of these two rooms. My other passenger, Russ Hart, from Billings, climbed up on the boat's bottom. He had been kind of grumbling because all the rapids were washed out and there wasn't any excitement. I told him I was going after Reet, who was headed toward a deadly overhang. What else could I do? I knew she'd be dead over there, she was in my charge; that was all I could do, the best I could. I went after her and I caught her just a few feet before the overhang. She'd a been there for good. I grabbed her and kicked off the wall, swam like hell and we headed around the point.
I knew there would be a lot of turbulence there. As I moved us around the point she started to climb right up my back and I had to yell: “For Hell's sake Reet hang on, don't climb on,” and I guess I said it with enough authority so she eased off. We got blown into this eddy, and I got Reet almost around the next point, out of the eddy, which would have been a good thing. But I didn't have enough strength to break through that joint, that invisible wall along the eddy. I'd been swimming for a couple hundred yards; my arms were giving out and I had just enough strength to jam Reet into some rocks but not enough to even get myself out. So I just let my arms fall and relaxed.
Then I could hear that whirlpool in the middle (makes sucking sound) but there was nothing I could do. I knew I was going to hit that whirlpool, unless one of the boats came and got me. While I'm riding around this eddy I saw my boat go by, still upside down, with John Harper, who had a hold of my line, trying to steer both boats. It just so happened there were two Chris-Craft inboards who stayed overnight with us at Tapeats. We didn't talk to them; they came in late and were still asleep when we left. I saw one of those go by, so I thought maybe the second one could spot me, pick me out of there, but I never did see it go by. I was hoping to see Willard Wright, Frank's boy, a husky 225 pound kid, strong and knowledgeable, who was still behind me, as I went closer and closer to that whirlpool, but soon I was in its depression. Lord, just that must have been about three feet deep. Then (sucking sound) I'm gone. The last breath I took was down in the funnel.
It was like looking up a posthole about 18–24 inches in diameter and I'm not exaggerating it was twelve feet above me and I was spinning like a top. Boy I was gone. I was just spinning in the vortex of that thing and down I went and there was nothing I could do. I had this big breath of air, though, as it took me so deep my ears ached. I waited for the strength of the vortex to ease up, so I hung on. It felt like my lungs were going to burst. I waited then I got to the point were I said, hey, either I'm going to give up and finish it or fight and finish it, and that's all. So I started to try to break loose from the vortex of that thing, which was now bent, headed downstream. I finally broke loose of it. I don't know how long I was under, it seemed like three minutes, still trying to hold that air. I finally broke to the surface. Air never felt so good in all my life. Sweet. But I looked around and realized that I was still in that big old eddy, that I going to go around again. I've got to go through that whirlpool again.
I knew the next time I wouldn't survive. I had already used all my strength twice. But I relaxed again; that was the only thing to do. Still going around there. I still couldn't see any boats, but only from here up was all anyone could see of me. I prayed. I said “Lord, if you need me here you're gonna have to help me now.”
I was only about twenty feet from that whirlpool again when I heard someone say, “There he is!” I recognized Russ Hart's voice, my passenger. As soon as I could turn around I could see him. It was the last boat going by, Willard Wright's boat, with Russ up front looking for me and Reet. I saw Willard pull on those four-inch coast guard oars so hard trying to break into that eddy his oars bowed. By now I'm getting pretty close to the center, down in the saucer depression of that thing. Well Willard Wright somehow came right down across that depression, out the other side while Russ threw me the lifeline; a perfect throw.
Now there's five of us in this boat, stuck in this eddy, still having to get Reet. Willard worked his way around the eddy, finally got out to the edge where Reet was clinging to the rock. Willard put a dally in the rope and I hopped off with it, but I couldn't quite get to her over that ledge. She was terrified, her fingers were as white as plaster; she wouldn't let go. I couldn't quite get her, I was reaching over as far as I could when I felt someone grab me by the ankles. Willard had come up and just shoved me right over the ledge. I grabbed Reet and he pulled the two of us back over. Like I said, he was a big kid.
Later, Willard and I sat under an atomic cloud all day in the canyon. I got real tired, my hair fell out, my lips burned and wouldn't heal for six months. We heard it, a slow roll coming, going into every crevasse. One of the most ominous sounds of my life. I was used to it, though; I heard the St. George valley rattle whenever they shot one off. I saw the clouds out there. My kids were chased underneath benches in the schools. Yet our government lied to us. Never, never, have they told us the truth. Never. They used the Mormon people here as guinea pigs. We were a control group they could depend on, our diet, our lifestyle. They absolutely knew what was happening. Willard died twenty years ago of cancer.
We found my boat at Deer Creek. One of the Chris-Craft had tied it up to a willow, still upside down. Frank had found it. Gaylord Staveley and John Harper were there; all three boats were there. We tipped the boat over. I'd lost that rail where I hit, but a fourteen-quart bailing bucket had trapped some air and was still in there, not tied in.
I'd lost our spare oar (I carried the extra oar for the bunch). A bottle of jam broke, two rolls of toilet paper got soaked. Reet carried my camera with hers in her bag. My film and camera were fine, both her camera and film were ruined. My sleeping bag was dry. All in the same compartment.
That night we camped at Tuckup; the first time we found a sandbar big enough for the fifteen of us. I laid there on the sandbar, feeling it shake as the boulders rolled along the river bottom.
Lava was rough. Huge. The Anvil had maybe only ten to fifteen feet showing above the water. You could hear Lava way off. The tongue to Lava was just horrendous. On far right, there's a huge black ledge. Surges of water covered that completely and would surge back sometimes. We portaged down the left bank. Even then we had to cross the wave train, twelve-foot waves, to miss the wall down there. That was a full day.
We pulled into Whitmore; Pat Bundy was resupplying us. There was my oar sticking up in the sand. There was a note on it from the Chris-Craft guys. They said it was the roughest rapid they ever did run. One of them had flipped, but before they could really react another wave came along and knocked them back upright. Just lucky.
Nobody else flipped on the trip, though Gaylord about went over in 229. The cable at the Bat Cave was so low, and the water so high that it about clotheslined us; it was only about four feet above the river. I was told they were taking it down, but there wasn't anybody around. We were met on the lake and took out at Boulder City. I can't remember if it was this trip or in Glen Canyon somewhere, but one night we sat around and sang this song with Katie Lee that about sums up my one trip in the Canyon…“Oh glory what a ride”.

 
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