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

Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story called "The Imp of the Perverse," which describes by turns an imp that rests and wrestles inside us all, a compulsively self-destructive creature who bids us to do exactly what we know is the worst thing to do. So the imp and I jumped. Into what turned out to be three feet of water. From 20 feet up. There was a sickened hollow mewling that echoed off the walls, and Eric shot awake in the raft that had by then drifted down stream. I tried to stand up and fell back in the water like junk.

"Chris, I told you not to jump!" screamed Rob.

"I think – my leg – it's – broken." Now I was crying.

I floated to the boat and they hauled me in and examined the swelling left leg. The flesh around the tibia was turning an odd yellow and I had trouble moving my toes. "I don't fucking believe this," Eric said, and for a moment he was at a loss for words, the first time I'd ever seen it. "Yep," he finally nodded, "you're an asshole. That's all I have to say. Rob tells you not to jump, it's too shallow. And you jump." After a moment, Eric very quietly said, "I'll never forgive you for this."

We paddled to the shore and gathered wood and Eric tied a splint with old rope and rags, and we each took a moment to absorb what lay before us. Enclosed by walls 1,200 feet high and rising, we had no choice but to continue downriver to Lake Powell, five days south, and we hadn't yet arrived at the most dangerous stretch, where in Cataract Canyon the Green is engorged by its confluence with the muddy Colorado.

The next few days were a blur of pain minimally dulled by our fast-diminishing weed. One evening, as Cataract drew closer, my broken leg and I went to take a shit, which had come to be a maneuver like docking a truck. Eric had always lectured us about crapping near the river, so I propped an oar under my shoulder and hopped far into a lonely grove of cottonwoods and high yellow grass. I remember the comedy of keeping the broken leg straight and unweighted while squatting with the other one; I remember teetering on my oar, trying to maintain a little dignity; I remember falling in my own crap, which was steaming in the cooling afternoon, with the sun dipping below the canyon rim. I wanted to cry, but instead I just lay there awhile looking up at the walls and feeling suddenly calm and thinking that my death would mean nothing here, that it would be but a speck in the vastness of geologic time. And this was not, for some reason, a frightening thought; maybe it was a dawning, a revelation, who knows? But it's stayed with me.

When Cataract's walls closed in, Powell's men remembered Lodore and they groaned. For our part, we beached on an open strand and spent our most sullen night on the river, not even pitching a tent, and then in the morning, unable to stomach breakfast, we ran Cataract in one fell shot.

I remember the first rapids racing to us like a car crash, and Rob yelling atop the wind, "Keep your legs forward if we go over – don't let your head go downstream!"

"Oh, for fuck's sake, we're not gonna flip," Eric declared, and no one said another word, for we were now in the mosh of waves. The boat shuddered, I clung, my leg shook and went white-hot, and almost immediately I bounced in the air and was scudding overboard. The wall of water smashed my face and was about to tow me under when a pair of arms snatched me from behind and – to this day I'm not sure how Rob did it – pinned me to the raft, all while gently cradling the leg.

In Mile-Long Rapid, Eric nearly had to eat his words. The bow pointed skyward, a great cry went up from the three of us, and the water appeared to slow down as if envisioned in a fugue state: You could watch the holes gape and the waves curl, taking their time to come at us. And I turned my head and saw Eric pounding at the oars, and now he wasn't smiling. Then, as suddenly as being dropped into another dream, we were in the Big Drops and Satan's Gut and Capsize Rapid – Cataract's two dozen rapids average more than a half-mile each over 50 ridiculous miles – and there was no other existence but howling water and spray and pain.

Cataract Canyon ends as abruptly as it begins, and we only realized we'd made it alive when Eric said, "The current – look...." I pulled myself up from the flooded boat bottom, Rob stopped bailing, and we looked down the canyons, and knew immediately we were on Lake Powell. We laughed and high-fived, and yet also knew that 33 miles of dead water stood between us and the road out at Hite Marina.