Christopher Ketchum and Eric Konheim on the Green River, June 1988.
Credit: Photograph by Robert Morris
July 20 marked the new moon. We paddled through the night, spelling each other at four-hour intervals, with only the tops of the cliffs lit by the stars. I was allowed to smoke our last joint, and the only sounds were the plashing of the oar, the boat whispering over the water, and, once, a giant bird beating its wings with a thumping like a distant drum. Eric had no love for the lake, this ill-chosen monument to the explorer. Once there'd been a canyon here that Powell and his men, terrorized by Cataract, found so delightful in its pink cathedrals and green gardens they called it Glen Canyon. But Glen Canyon Dam, erected to produce electricity for the strip malls and air conditioners of Phoenix and Las Vegas, had drowned those marvels 20 years earlier. "A fucking tragedy," Eric proclaimed.

Finally, arriving at Hite, no one to greet us, maybe three forlorn boats tied at the docks, and a Park Service outpost baking in the 110-degree heat. A lone ranger stepped from his shack, peeled back my splint, and said, "Yuh, it's broke." We had arranged for a friend to meet us with the Econoline, driving it down from Flaming Gorge, but in the hurry to save my leg we'd emerged four days early. The ranger, who looked to be nearly as stranded as we were, offered to call in a helicopter at $100 a mile. "No money," Eric said, and instead we left Rob with the raft and set out under the white sun to hitchhike the hundred miles to the nearest county hospital.

It took us three rides, more than seven hours, Eric hoisting me in and out of the beds of pickups. The sun was terrifying, it was everywhere; I understood now how men died from the heat without realizing they were dying. We drank our two gallons of water, and ate our last six strands of beef jerky, and I, with an old oar for a crutch, floated in the shallows of consciousness, borne by the sheer will and brute anger of my brother.

The following year, in 1989, just short of his 26th birthday, Eric wrote a will witnessed by his roommate, Debora. He bequeathed most of his savings – tens of thousands of dollars, the harvest of his frugality – to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit that works on water preservation. The two of them lit up a bowl and laughed and laughed as they each signed the document.

A few months afterward, it wasn't so funny. Solo-kayaking 350 miles along the rocky coast of Venezuela, Eric ran into a storm. Of the Venezuela trip, Eric wrote simply, "Big surf. Strong winds. Broke kayak." This was classic Eric understatement. He paddled all night to keep from being driven out to sea, and some time the next day – he hardly remembered how – he came to a white sand beach and collapsed. Later, he spent several nights in jail. The country was locked down after a series of bloody riots had claimed 300 lives; people had been shot in the streets, and Eric was caught walking on the road past curfew. Eventually he convinced a lazy guard to let him leap from the back of a truck that was transferring him to another jail, and he hid among garbage cans until dawn.

After Venezuela I think Eric began to ponder the wisdom of his path. He envisioned himself as a catalyst of some kind of social change, but he wasn't finding his footing. He was in love with a woman he'd tracked down after seeing her interviewed on TV about sailing around the world alone at age 18. But she was soon to be married and, though they became close friends, he didn't dare ask her to leave her fiancé. He thought about applying to architecture school, but the notion of sitting in a classroom drove him back to the kayak. He spent a lot of time thinking about the precarious state of the rivers he ran, and the metastasizing cities that always needed more from them. John Powell, who after the Green spent 13 embattled years as head of the U.S. Geological Survey, had warned Congress that the inevitable result of the pace of settlement in the west would be the drying up of its most precious resource. It pained Eric to see, even a century later, how few people beyond his river-rat friends, some Rocky Mountain Institute scientists, and local ranchers seemed to care. And yet, neither could he figure out how to carry Powell's torch in a way that didn't strike him as small-time. He didn't want to hand out flyers; he wanted to change the world. Two years before he died, he told a friend: "I don't want to lead a pathetic little life."