January 2015-Rob Raker Grand Canyon Reflection

Rob Raker, affectionately called “Papa Duck,” met Erik on a chance encounter in one of the world’s most remote places, Antarctica. After meeting again while filming an adventure race, Rob and Erik became good friends and have rock climbed, ice climbed, skied, ice-skated, paddle-boarded, bicycled, kayaked and traveled to over a dozen countries together. When kayaking was only a flicker of an idea, Rob taught Erik to “Eskimo roll,” and was instrumental in developing the guiding system that Erik uses. Rob served as a guide and safety boater on the No Barriers Grand Canyon Expedition.

Seeing Erik at the bottom of his second run down Lava was not only the highlight of my Grand Canyon trip, but the highlight of the past six years of kayaking with Erik. It represented the culmination of thousands of hours I had spent with him: initially teaching him how to roll, then trying to figure out how to guide him through whitewater rapids, the endlessly frustrating experience of finding a waterproof radio system that would work for us, and finally paddling on the many rivers that we had run to train and hone his skills. When Erik, Harlan and I finished running the rapid together and Erik was upright in his kayak, I was so very proud and had the biggest smile on my face of the trip, especially in light of the day before!

In contrast, the most disappointing moment of the trip for me was on the night before, during the first run down Lava. As I had on every rapid of the river, I followed behind Erik and Harlan as a back-up guide (we call the “Hail Mary” position) in the unlikely event something happened to prevent Harlan from communicating with Erik. In addition, we had two safety kayakers waiting on each side of the bottom of the rapid. Erik always liked having a “Plan B” in the event the guide giving the commands (we called him the “Squawker”) had a problem and couldn’t continue giving commands or needed help in the event of a swim.

As luck would have it, I made it down without a roll, so I was able to watch the whole run play out in slow motion. At the top, my heart sank as I saw Erik flip in the initial boil line, which is not the best way to start a run down Lava! He executed a perfect combat roll but was not set up to take the next obstacle, the “V” wave, which flipped him again. I was encouraged as he popped off another quick combat roll. Then, all hell broke loose. I came up over a wave and saw the bottom of both Erik and Harlan’s kayaks.

The picture that Q took of this moment (on kayakingblind.org website, Oct 3, 2014 post, 5th photo) captured it perfectly and for me, says it all. The three of us were at the bottom of Lava, Erik was swimming and all you can see is his helmet and his arm, which is extended over the top of his upside-down boat. Harlan, who had somehow broken his paddle, is just upstream holding the two paddle pieces. He had just rolled up using one of the broken paddle blades. His boat is at a 45-degree angle and he is about to flip over again. I am just ten feet away, watching this unfortunate sequence of events unfold. If you could see my face, you could tell what I’m thinking, “Damn! He almost had it!” I was so bummed. Erik had been doing so well on the trip and this was the final big challenge.

I was already having concerns before we got into our boats at the top of the rapid. Erik indicated he was frustrated by the long wait. We had waited for the scout, and then for the light to be good and for the camera crew to get into position. When Erik is anxious, he gets a peculiar look on his face that I have seen often during our years of paddling together. It’s hard to describe. He is not really looking in any particular direction and his face shows that his mind is clearly somewhere else. This is not normal for the typically alert and responsive Erik.

Once Erik was out of his boat, I went into rescue mode as we had planned. Timmy, one of the two safety boaters pre-positioned at the bottom of the rapid, had paddled out and reached Erik before me. He towed Erik to shore while I rushed to grab Erik’s paddle before it disappeared into the Son of Lava rapid, just below Lava. I reached the shore just as Erik and Timmy pulled into an eddy on river right. Shortly after, Kelly arrived pushing Erik’s boat into the eddy where we all caught our breath. Within minutes, Michael Brown arrived with his camera and asked Erik about what had happened. Though Erik said he was not that bummed, his expression said otherwise and I knew he was very disappointed. It was at that point I started thinking that we need to get him to give Lava another try.

The thought of doing another run occurred to the other guides as well and soon the machinations for such an effort were in motion. Quiet discussions around camp that night confirmed the consensus.

In the morning, with few words spoken about the plan, all of Erik’s guides were getting ready for an early departure for a second run of Lava. It was unusually quiet on the arduous hike and paddle up to the top of Lava. Even the camera crew was uncharacteristically silent as they moved into position to film the attempt. Then, without hesitation, it was a “Go”. Harlan was right on Erik’s tail as he bobbled again but didn’t go over this time in the swirly water at the top of the run. We proceeded down the rapid and though there were a few combat rolls (by all three of us) Erik was upright at the bottom of Lava!

So when I reflect back on this incredible journey, I do so as a very proud friend and teacher. Erik, as always, continues to impress the heck out of me.

– Rob Raker