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  Whale
  BQR ~ fall 1995

urtis Hansen came to Hatch in the late ‘60s and became both a boatman and an institution. During one wild run of Upset, portly Curt—who had hiked in to join a trip at Deer Creek on a hot summer day and quenched his thirst with whiskey—tumbled overboard and washed ashore comatose. And someone said “Look—a beached whale.” From that time on, few ever heard the name Curt Hansen again—he was Whale. Of course some say it happened in Deubendorf. He was wearing, as the story goes, a poncho. No life jacket. Some say he was naked.

   Wild shit seemed to drift through the universe waiting to encounter Whale so it could happen. Whale’s river trip burned to the ground at Diamond Creek one day. Whale and his motor rig were both extricated from Whale’s Rock at Hance not once, but twice. Whale was the cover boy on the one and only issue of Bush League magazine—flipping end for end backwards at Lava in a Wilderness World boat with a quadriplegic in the back seat. His car was stolen in Flagstaff—its trashed remains appearing later on the reservation—a landmark on the put-in drive for some time. His waterline froze while he was out of town, leaving him with a destroyed house and an astronomical water bill. For weeks one of his red oars waved merrily from the rock island at Crystal after a calamitous run. Whale stories. There’s a million of ‘em. The details vary but surprisingly many are true.

   He was one of the main men on the River for twenty five years and ran for more outfits than anyone can quite remember. And, Whale being Whale, got fired from more outfits than he was hired by. But he was always back—somebody always had a trip for the Whaler. Because he was good. Damned good. Folks loved to ride with Whale.

   In winters he worked the night shift, alone in a snow cat and was as good at it as they get. Better, some say. And in Chile, on the Bio Bio River, he was la Ballena, still the famous Whale.

   Yes, he had vices— he smoked, he drank, his weight fluctuated from the trim Killer Whale to the giant Sperm Whale. From a boyhood in southern Idaho potato country, Whale had gone to Vietnam and served as a door-gunner on a helicopter. Demons that climbed on his back over there would resurface throughout his life. He had ulcers and his health was sometimes a concern to his friends. And there were many, many friends. No matter how much he might irritate you at times, you could not help but love the man.

   Because he had so much love in him. He loved his garden, his goldfish, his pards and, most especially, the ladies. His big heart had a big lap and a big shoulder nearby. Few ever heard him say a bad word about anyone.

   You didn’t have to know him too long, though, before you realized he was a heavy hitter. He was capable of anything. And one thing was certain—Whale didn’t do anything he didn’t want to do. He was his own man and no one—no one—made his decisions for him.

   Late this summer Whale decided to clean up his act, take care of his health, get a real job and become a ‘90s kind of guy. But a rock none of his friends ever saw got in the way of his run.

   As August was ending, Whale went to the woods and laid himself to rest. He left without a goodbye and left more shocked and saddened friends than can be counted. Although we will all miss his physical presence dearly for a long time, his spirit and soul live on, permeating the Canyon, the Mountain and his friends.

   Whale, thanks for your time with us, your love and the sparkle in your eye.

   Rest, Whaler. Rest in peace.

   ***

   It rains at Lees Ferry. We all stand around and think about how we knew him, when we saw him last, his beautiful voice, that dirty t-shirt with the whale on it, “Save the Humans,” and that wonderful grin, the stories and memories. I first met him here, the last time I saw him was here. Hearing of his death was like hearing that a big river was gone, dammed and taken away. I look downstream, to the outlines of a scarcely visible Canyon, shrouded in mist.

   It rains, fitfully at first, then harder; lightning with close, loud claps of thunder. His family and some of his many friends gather in the rain to express their love for him again. All who knew this man shared their love for him and his remarkably open heart. Brian Dierker said Whale’s job was to listen, to witness, and he did it well. Perhaps his passing is to remind each of us to be better friends, better brothers and sisters. We cry openly in the pouring rain. The Canyon is completely lost in mist.

   Whale knew what he wanted, knew what he was up to, launching his last Earthside trip. He made his choice, decisively and willingly. There was no place left for him to go but into the unknown, so he did. I don't understand much of what he was going through, the pain of losing identity and health and love. But I do know about the resolve he had, the way he made that decision, and what it took. I hope I have his resolve and humility when my turn comes.

   His death is the journey that expeditions are all about: readiness for uncharted territories, of unknown duration and unknown consequences. Perhaps not all adventurers are driven as he was, but all seek a freer terrain, a deeper beauty and a larger state of grace than exists in the dust and blood and pettiness of the civil world. In leaving, he took some of each of us with him, and part of the Canyon as well. I give him now what he took from me, and hope it serves him on that new journey. The rain fades to drizzle.

   I hope where he’s gone is as awesome in its grace and subtle power as the Canyon he left behind. I hope he meets friends as dear as those he left. I only know I will miss him forever.

   He is the rain.

Larry Stevens

big horn sheep