Christopher Ketchum and Eric Konheim on the Green River, June 1988.
Credit: Photograph by Robert Morris
Five days later, the tribe was at one another's throats. I may have been a stoner and an acidhead, but Eric liked to drink, and when he drank he got mean. He taunted Rob, the kindest among us. Rob had a pensive streak, he was sometimes melancholy and unspeaking – not the exclamatory man of action that Eric was. For this failing – that Rob was not, in the end, Eric – there were jokes and mockery, but amends could be made. As for me, I was simply to be dumped at the next town: "You just....get a bus. Get back to the airport. Get the fuck off my river."

Finally Rob spoke up. "Eric, why are you always so pissed off? I mean, what's your problem with yourself that you have to attack people all the time? Why can't you ever just be....happy with things as they are?"

Eric drank more and said nothing for a long while, which somehow was worse. One night, in my sleep I hugged him through my sleeping bag and held him tight enough that he awoke and untangled himself, and the next day made fun of me – "He's a fag, huh, Rob?" – shrewdly dividing his crew.

But a little farther on there was another change, never spoken, but understood. Rob and I at last were allowed to pilot alone, Eric flying at our side in his kayak, beating out the rhythm of the descent with his calls. "Cut left – big hole....What the fuck are you fucking doing?! That's it, perfect!" Thanks to the wisdom he shared, his crew was learning the water – about standing waves and curlers and how to find the channel and stay calm.

After particularly gruesome rapids where he'd have to take the oars himself, Eric would ground the raft and with a criminal grin untie the kayak and portage it back upriver along the slickrock. Once in Desolation Canyon he ran the same crazy stretch again and again, his kayak's dance appearing initially quite out of control. Then I realized it was a dance: It was measured, had steps, coaxed the water to him like a partner, and when Eric's hips snapped the kayak kicked and flitted. In its turmoil and concentration it was a beautiful dance, the only one that Eric could do.

On the 14th or 15th of July, in Stillwater Canyon, where the water runs narrow between soaring rock, I pulled what has to be the dumbest move in the 275-million-year history of the place. We were cliff-jumping; we cliff-jumped all along the river, testing the depths with an oar or swimming down into the brown darkness beforehand. Eric was siesta-ing under the shade of a tarp we'd fashioned on tent poles over the stern, so Rob and I were on our own. I splashed to the foot of the cliff and started climbing, and Rob probed.

"Too shallow," he shouted, poking an oar. "Come on down."