Published on Monday, July 9, 2018
Media Contact: Gary Pettus
William Salaun’s eyes were wide open, but he was running the river blind. More than 1,200 miles from home, the medical student had lost his way; he feared he was about to lose his raft.
The waves of the Colorado were poised to swallow his boat as the river hissed between the bluffs of the Grand Canyon like 1,000 steaks on the grill. But Salaun and his fiancée Katherine Kratina, paddling behind him, wouldn’t sizzle if they took a dip; but they might freeze.
On the shoreline, their friends watched in horror as the boat turned sideways and shot toward dangerous rapids. No one would be able to help the pair of rafters today, on the worst moment of a journey Salaun had earned, in part, because he was lucky.
Luck had played a part in placing the New Orleans native on course for a fearsome spume of roaring river rapids this past May.
Living in Mississippi since he was 14, the Ridgeland resident had been coveting this placement, if not the spot it had put him in, for at least a year-and-a-half: a 16-day quest in one of the most scenic, and severe, settings in the American West.
“I’ve been on a number of trips that were as long as this,” said Salaun, a second-year medical student. “I believe they help you learn how to overcome adversity.”
All he had needed to qualify for a permit to launch from Lee’s Ferry in Coconino County, Arizona, was whitewater wisdom, camping skills and self-care savvy. And the winning draw in a lottery.
He and seven other members of a group of his friends and his fiancée applied for a noncommercial, or self-guided, trip in December 2016, or eight months before Salaun would enter medical school at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
The permits are required by the National Park Service to protect the river, not to mention the rafters and kayakers who take on a row-a-thon of 225 miles – slightly longer than the driving distance between Jackson and Shreveport, Louisiana.
“It’s easier to get a permit in January or December,” Salaun said. “May is very difficult; the weather is better then, so more people enter the lottery, and the chances of winning go down.”
The details of this “weighted” lottery, which has better odds for first-timers or those who haven’t been on the Colorado within the past five years, are explained here. To sum up: You need a lot of patience and desire when pursuing this dream held by so many, not to mention the wherewithal, what with rafts, gear, fees and other costs that run into the thousands.
Salaun, a trained outdoors educator and guide and wilderness first-responder, is an experienced mountain biker and camper. For two summers, he worked as a white-water rafting guide on the Chattooga River in South Carolina.
But he had never set an oar in the Colorado.
In February 2017, six months before he entered medical school, Salaun and the entire eight-person group learned that in some 15 months, they would be twisting in the coils of a cold, snaky river whose year-round temperature averages 50 degrees F.
Beyond the whims of a lottery drawing, there was one remaining obstacle between Salaun and the Grand Canyon: a mandatory exam. It conflicted with the scheduled departure date, May 23.
“I couldn’t miss out on this opportunity,” he said. He would have to get lucky again.
PACKED TO THE RAFTERS
The Grand Canyon, located in north-central Arizona, is closer to Utah than Colorado, in spite of the name of the river that helped carve it out of sandstone, limestone and shale and inhabits seven states in the U.S. and two in Mexico.
Cliffs rising between 5,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level dazzle visitors with layers of red, yellow and green layers of rock. Along the narrow beaches, there are also splashes of green: mostly shrubs and small trees that offer nothing in the way of nourishment for the wildlife scattered along the shore – that is, travelers resting their tired muscles at the end of the day.
This was the prize Salaun had won, and Dr. Jerry Clark realized what it meant to him.
“He had hit the jackpot,” said Clark, chief student affairs officer and associate dean for student affairs in the School of Medicine. Clark allowed Salaun to take his board exam two days early. “I’m so glad he got to participate,” Clark said.
“He’s a terrific student and is going to make a fine physician. He let our faculty leaders know very early of the opportunity. Everyone was so accommodating. We were all probably a little jealous, wishing we could tag along on such a grand adventure.”
Salaun took his test at 8 a.m.; boarded a flight to Flagstaff, Arizona, at 2 p.m.; drove from there to Lee’s Ferry starting at midnight and arrived around 2 a.m. in a state that does not, for the most part, observe Daylight Saving Time. Back home, it was about 4 a.m.
At 9 a.m., Salaun and the team launched three 18-foot, two-person rafts and two light-frame kayaks. Most of the crew had worked together on the Chattooga.
They had a satellite phone with them, first Aid supplies, raft repair kits, spare oars, a water purifier, tents, sun protection gear and a z-drag kit of ropes and pulleys used to right a flipped raft.
They also packed a propane stove, a grill, charcoal and lighter fluid. They rented the rafts from a Flagstaff-based company which also assembled and organized their food supplies for them.
“Surprisingly, we ate really well,” Salaun said. Once emptied of provisions, containers became trash cans. “You are responsible for storing and removing waste when you leave,” Salaun said.
Their toilet was a portable metal box called a Groover – the name a holdover from the ammo cans once used for that purpose and which left tell-tale furrows in the user’s fleshly parts.
“Setting that up and taking it down every day at camp was not a fun job,” Salaun said. Otherwise, the views were majestic.
“Everything is so huge,” Salaun said. “You sit in this tiny raft, bobbing in the water, looking up at the walls of this big canyon, and you feel pretty insignificant.” Towering over him were rocks millions of years old.
“And here I am,” Salaun said, “age 27, and doing this.”
“This” was mostly paddling, eating and sleeping. Up with the sun to avoid strong afternoon headwinds, the travelers averaged 15 miles each day with no days off.
Throughout the journey, the color of the river might change, depending on its surroundings or the water’s moods – green, aqua, brown, and, ominously, white.
“These were intense rapids,” Salaun said. “I remember cresting one wave, then dropping down and, suddenly, I can’t see over the next one.”
Supplies were strapped in, but an overturned raft could ruin them.
“You don’t want to be the person who lost everyone’s dinner for the next four days,” Salaun said.
Of course, they risked a much bigger loss.
‘YOU CAN’T ESCAPE’
“I messed up,” Salaun said.
It happened right above what he judged to be a Class 7 or 8 rapid – “advanced, intense, powerful, but predictable, requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water,” says one equivalent classification system.
But predictability went overboard after Salaun and Kratina’s raft bumped another one, pushing them off his “read” – the path, the angle and speed, he had set to elude what they now faced: large waves threatening to swamp them as they shot too far downstream.
It appeared that no one would be able to help them if they flipped. The river that took millennia to carve out a canyon required only a moment to gouge a gaping hole in Salaun’s plan.
Still, whether the rafters clung to their training and composure, or whether good luck clung to Salaun, or both, they made it through.
“Then we stopped for a moment and celebrated,” he said.
As with any student of the health professions, Salaun has his knowledge, skills, perseverance and self-discipline tested every day in class. But a white-water journey is an exceptional trial.
“You can’t escape the elements – the sun or the wind,” Salaun said. “It’s a really simple life, but it’s a hard one; everything is harder.
“When I come back home, whatever my problems are, they don’t seem so bad.”
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