Christopher Ketchum and Eric Konheim on the Green River, June 1988.
Credit: Photograph by Robert Morris

I come back often to the green river in daydreams, the river as I knew it when I was 15 years old and my stepbrother Eric was still alive and captain of our unlucky crew of three. I think of the long days of June on the river, the 500 miles of it that carried us for almost a month from the border of Wyoming through Colorado through red-rock Utah. I remember how when we beached at the one or two outposts along the way, little Indian villages with just a bridge over the river and a few trailer homes and no phone, I'd look at myself in a bathroom mirror and be astonished at the burnt-brown, wild-haired boy staring back, who had muscles that hadn't been there in New York, who had no idea what day or date it was. That's when I knew I wanted to live forever on a boat in the desert with my stepbrother and his oldest friend, Rob, like the three loneliest, most primitive men, finding the shelter of the cottonwoods as we lay down to sleep in the sand, and in the mornings, fearful and hopeful, finding again a safe path down the raging chutes of water.

And then, of course, I think of the accident and what I did to ruin our trip. Sometimes I wonder how we even made it home after that. I think of how we rowed and rowed with no way out but down through the most violent of the rapids, and then on Lake Powell, in the darkness of the new moon, racing against the injury, and Eric cursing my stupidity. In the end it was the only river we would ever run together. And so it's the Green River I come back to, in daydreams, hoping this time to get it right.

The Green River is one of the epic drainages of the west, a river of the beaver trade, a watering place for rustlers, a landmark and compass point for early Spanish explorers, and a hideout for Butch Cassidy. Dropping 9,000 feet from the Wind River Range to its confluence with the Colorado, the Green was first explored at length by a one-armed ex-Union Army major named John Wesley Powell, who in 1869 embarked with a crew of nine oddballs in rickety boats of pine and oak. Powell emerged from the canyons 99 days later, half-starved, short two of his boats and four of his men, having kept a log that was eventually published as the rollicking bestseller 'Canyons of the Colorado'. It was Eric's dog-eared, mud-wet copy that had inspired and would guide our trip.

On June 22, 1988, Eric, Rob Morris, and I entered the Green under the shadow of Flaming Gorge Dam. Unlike Powell, we had the benefit of inflatable rubber. Our raft was a 15' x 7' Maravia, with an oar station at its middle and storage front and aft that burst with the necessities: bread, ham, cheese, cans of beans, tuna, beer (Eric drank gargantuan amounts of beer), an ounce of marijuana, psilocybin mushrooms, several tabs of LSD, a tent, sleeping bags, a first-aid kit, grill, pan, and gas stove, plus Eric's red Prijon T-Canyon kayak, all 11 feet of it strapped to the stern, the baby on the mother's back.

The river gathered us to its fast lane, the sun blazed, and on that first and second day it was smooth cruising on riffles. I smoked pot and lazed and watched the blue sky and white rock and the silt of the water. On the third day, the rock turned the color of blood, the walls rose up 2,000 feet, as if clicked on, and the river plunged into "a great stone mouth," as an early trapper described it. Powell and his crew named this passage the Gates of Lodore, and he worried at the unknown beyond. The sound of rushing that came from the gates made them seem like "a dark portal to a region of gloom," he wrote. "The old mountaineers tell us that it cannot be run."

Our raft lifted like a cat getting kicked, and here for the first time I knew there was no turning back, even as I literally turned back to watch the canyon rims disappear). The spray nettled the eyes, and from the top of a wave we saw sky and rock and the calamity of more rapids below; everywhere there was rushing, roaring, echoing (a sound that at night in Lodore never stops – it could drive you crazy). The water formed pillars, toppled, filled our raft with hisses, explosions, Eric tearing at the river with his long thin arms. On his face there'd be a smile, white and toothy and a little power-maddened, and from this long-distance stare, reading the hydraulics and eddies downstream, he would cast an eye on me and yell, "Don't fucking sit there, stupid – bail!"

Eric soon regretted my existence: I didn't stow gear correctly, I was lazy, I ignored orders, disappeared up canyons writing poetry, all of which, Eric felt, made me a waste to have around. The way I rowed was wasteful. I even made wasteful sandwiches. "They fall apart," he said.

Four days into the trip, while we were still in the Canyon of Lodore, I got heatstroke during a rare calm stretch. I was high on something good, and Eric and Rob turned a fantastic shade of purple and disappeared. I had passed out, which, in Eric's eyes, pretty much blew away my other offenses.

He tossed my body over the side and tethered my life jacket to the boat. When an hour later I woke up trembling in the icy water, he said, "You woke up. There's no luck in this world. Hey, Chris, I'm thinking you don't give a shit about the boat or the river or me." I noticed he had placed a big droopy straw hat on my head. Rob looked at me with pity while Eric went on. "I tell you to wear a hat. You don't listen. Now look at you. We hear a rapid coming up. I tell you to secure your shit. You don't even know where your shit is. And I'm starting to think I shouldn't have brought you. Because who needs a fuck-up in the wilderness?"