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
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
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
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
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
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
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.