by Rebecca Lawton
Chapter 1 Madeline
The Yampa River roared and rose up with teeth. Newly thawed in Colorado and coming into the high desert of northeastern Utah, the water flowed swollen and ice-cold, running bigger than it had in years. It was the summer I met Chris, almost two years after 9/11 and his brother’s enlistment. I was rowing the brown river for the first time, thrilled by its oceanic volume and giddy as I punched my eighteen-foot raft through its house-sized waves. Their muddy peaks broke brown and viscous, casting thick chocolate droplets as different from the crystalline flow of my Oregon rivers as the moon is from Earth. Even with a lifetime of boating skills behind me, I needed all my strength and focus to stay in control. The three other guides were hanging in, too—there’d been no flipped rafts, no swimmers, and no lost bags, oars, or boxes. At least not until the third day and Warm Springs Rapids.
“Warm Springs has killed before and will kill again,” our lead boatman, Michael, had warned during guide training. When I asked what my mom Ruth would call a clarifying question, he said, “Boats flip, Maddie. People swim. And sometimes end up way, way downstream.” “How ‘way’”?
“Last year one swimmer actually floated past take-out. He turned up two months later in the town of Green River, bloated and belly up.”
The floater’s face as I imagined it—puffy and hollow eyed—drifted in and out of my vision as I tried to sleep the night before reaching Warm Springs. Replaying mental tapes of the unfortunate corpse, I spun like a roast on a spit until nearly dawn. When I finally slipped into sleep, paranoia filled my dreams. The body took the rapids, which churned and foamed with pounding ferocity, seventy thousand gallons pouring past shore every second. Dark and silty, the river rocked heartlessly fast. The lone corpse never quite executed its runs correctly, never finished, never pulled out. In my dreams, my fate was tied somehow to its success getting to shore, and it didn’t make it. It stayed river bound. I woke up groggy from ghost-boating, knowing the rapids lay in wait downstream, as open and patient as a steel trap.
At Warm Springs our group of four rafts pulled to shore. Naturally my bowels were working overtime. Big rapids generally loosen my intestines, and, as usual, I knew I’d have to hold everything in, reveal nothing—the life of a river guide, one of many ways you trade comfort for glory. I tied up my bowline, followed my three colleagues to the bouldery overlook, and perched beside them. Soon we were pointing, analyzing, sizing up the run.
The first waves broke clean. If we set up with precision, we’d take the entry spot on and possibly miss the deadly hole at the bottom: a thrashing, churning, cauldron of whitewater.
Michael and Joanie, the consummate river-guide couple, huddled beside the rapids. She was chic and blonde in a pink bandanna scarf, fuchsia tank top, and teal-blue guide shorts, wearing her confidence well on her five-four-inch frame. I towered over her, street-pole narrow where she had curves, adding to my sense of height in her presence. Michael, her perfect mate, sported a lean build, handsome head of dark, movie-star hair, and thick, trimmed beard. He never changed his one pair of quick-dry boardies, but they always looked miraculously clean. Michael and Joanie—their names went together like rivers and rafts.
I could guess what they were saying to each other, although I couldn’t hear for the roar of rapids. They’d be agreeing the hole looked nasty, would be a bitch to miss, and would swallow us if we screwed up the technical entry and landed in it. Lateral waves rolled off shore, shoving and pushing toward the middle and into danger. Visually I traced the route I planned to travel through the chop and surge, even as the water assured me it would throw me around like so much cork.