Aramcons Challenge the Euphrates, Part IV: Into the Kemer Khan

[When last we heard from Vicci Turner two installments ago regarding her memories of descending the Upper Euphrates with 10 fellow Aramcons in 1979, they were two days into their adventure and had just entered the stretch of river referred to by Richard Bangs as “the Grand Canyon of Asia Minor”—the Kemer Khan. We pick up the narrative at that point.]

Vast numbers of water birds—storks, herons, cranes, kingfishers, and myriad other species only a dedicated birder would recognize—populated the Euphrates’ banks and grassy islands. Whenever we put into shore, our feathered friends would scatter, startled by an unexpected intrusion into their private domain. In their place came herders with their flocks, joined by children ranging in age from toddlers to teens, converging on our party and eager to investigate this strange flotilla of aliens from another world invading their land in exotic watercraft and speaking in an unfamiliar tongue. In those improbable meetings, they amazed us and we amazed them. The excitement was palpable. We all felt it.

Painfully curious but a bit afraid, the younglings among them initially kept their distance, wary about approaching us. I resolved the impasse by employing a move I had mastered when facing similar situations involving Bedouin children in the Kingdom. Wielding my Polaroid SX-70 camera, I snapped pictures of the little people. Seizing the photos as they were ejected, I made a dramatic show of shaking the positives back and forth, back and forth, back and forth before flinging them face up on the ground in front of our young audience. Using my hands and body like in a pantomime game of charades, I gestured for them to pick up the photos and wave them back and forth with flips of their own wrists the same way I had just done. They caught on quickly, and I waited to see their reactions when the snapshots developed.

On cue, they cried out in amazement as the images came to life. With that, instant photos made us instant friends. By the end of a stop, youngsters were beseeching me to take more pictures. They reacted to the Polaroids as though they were witnessing for the first time a mysterious new form of wizardly magic performed by a friendly enchantress—yours truly. Mike Ghiglieri—today Dr. Michael Ghiglieri and still a noted character according to recent reports—laughingly referred to me not as a sorceress or enchantress or good witch but rather as “the Pied Piper,” joking that, with enough film, I could have conquered all of Anatolia. Not really. Maybe half on a good day.

One particularly stand-offish teenage shepherd tried to take control of the situation by threatening us with his staff. I shot a Polaroid of him anyway and left it behind as we retreated to our boats. Reluctant at first, he gave in to his curiosity and picked up the photograph. Holding it up and inspecting it, he flashed a huge grin.

With the notable exception of a hell-bent-on-destruction hooligan whose path we crossed near the end of our journey, the locals we encountered along the banks of the Euphrates were unfailingly friendly and helpful. They brought us fresh milk from their animals and tasty bounty from their lands and kitchens: apricots, raisins, hazelnuts, oranges, olives, goat cheese and goat butter, and chewy loaves of Kurdish flatbread that reminded me of naan or, closer to home, the khobz sold by bakers in the suqs of the Kingdom. We paid them with coin of the realm; they paid us back many times over with generosity and laughter and kindness.

Our exchanges reminded me of similar encounters from my recent past with Bedouin families in Arabia on excursions into the desert and reaffirmed one of my basic tenets of life: People are the same the world over no matter where your travels may take you. We all treasure our children and strive for what is best for our families. Those indigenes of the Euphrates stand tall in memory as exemplars of all that is noble and good in the human spirit. Thanks to their big hearts, we lived off the land as much as we dined on the victuals we had packed.

Aramcons Challenge the Euphrates, Part IV: Into the Kemer Khan

Come morning, we feasted on yogurt made from milk procured from locals the day before delivered in saggy waterskins fashioned from sheep bladders, bringing history to life. Stone reliefs dating from 3000 BCE portray Assyrians carrying identical pliable vessels on their shoulders. Lashed to the side of a craft where the milk would stay cool through the heat of the day, the waterskin would flop about in concert with the river’s undulations from morning till night, whisking the milk within while residue from the previous day’s yogurt served as starter for a fresh batch. That yogurt was delicious, the best I ever tasted before or since.

Moments past sunrise on Day Three, I awoke to the sound of bleating black goats and bah-bah-ing white sheep pouring through camp on their way to the river to soothe parched throats. They say that if you are having trouble falling asleep at night, you should try counting sheep; I counted sheep and goats that morning trying to wake up. I later learned there were braying gray Anatolian donkeys in the mix as well, but I somehow missed counting them amidst the cacophonous chorus.

The shepherd tending the flock—a Kurd by the name of Abdullah—had been shadowing us from shore for the better part of two days. We had given him a short ride in one of our boats the previous evening, and he had sold us fresh milk from his herd with his daughter acting as milkmaid and his niece assisting. That morning, he brought as a parting gift to his new friends a simple yet memorable breakfast of flatbread, goat butter, and green onions. In one of the more unusual gestures of gratitude I have witnessed in my lifetime, Mike gave Abdullah a pair of wool trousers as his own distinctive way of saying thank you.

While his billies and nannies, lambs and ewes, jacks and jennies quenched their thirst, Abdullah engaged us through our interpreter Vic in an animated conversation, insisting we must stop what we were doing, turn around, and go no further, arguing that the waters below were far too dangerous for us to attempt passage. The man genuinely feared for our lives, and I was touched by his concern for a group of total strangers from a far-away land. We mulled over his words briefly before declaring, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

Upriver, when we first launched our inflatables what seemed like a lifetime ago, a throng of 100 or so anxious observers, mostly ethnic Kurds, had warned us of the dangers we were about to face. One faction claimed that somewhere downstream the Euphrates flowed straight into a giant hole in the earth; another insisted that it plummeted over an enormous waterfall. In either case, according to them, a descent of the river such as what we proposed to undertake would mean certain death to the lot of us. Having dismissed those earlier warnings as fables, we now did the same with Abdullah’s. We knew nothing of Helmuth von Moltke’s accounts of his danger-filled descents in 1838 and 1839, or of Ellsworth Huntington’s accounts of his dramatic attempt in 1901. Otherwise, we might have paid closer attention to Abdullah’s admonitions, not that it would have made a difference.

Still, we were somewhat concerned because none of us had been down the Euphrates before. Mike reassured us that they had been thoroughly briefed by Richard Bangs prior to leaving the U.S. and that Bangs surely would have mentioned any spots where the river vanished underground or cascaded over an impassable waterfall. Obstacles such as those would be hard to miss or forget for an astute observer such as Bangs. We had no choice but to proceed, regardless. Pride dictated an advance; retreat was not an option. Nothing could stop us now, not when we were fully immersed in the true adventure we had anticipated for so long and traveled so far to experience. Rational thinking had to elbow its way into our calculations that week if it wished to temper passion and impulse. And its elbows needed to be sharp at that.

Despite our jejune bravado, mastering the whitewaters of the Euphrates proved to be a far greater challenge than what I for one had expected. From the earliest days of my childhood, I had been a thrill-seeking fan of roller coasters, and I had long fancied myself a braver-than-most risk-taker. Safe at home in Abqaiq, I had envisioned this trip down the Euphrates as being something akin to a water-based extension of one of those rip-roaring amusement park rides. Was I ever wrong. Before coming to Turkey, I had no realistic notion of the dangers awaiting us. None of us did. We were about to find out.

Aramcons Challenge the Euphrates, Part IV: Into the Kemer Khan

I spent my high school years in Orofino, Idaho, a tiny speck on the map of the American west where the North Fork of the Clearwater River cuts straight through the heart of town. Every summer my older brother Mike and I together with our friends swam in its waters and rode inner tubes down what we deemed serious rapids. We would plop ourselves face down, belly first, on inner tubes, our legs dangling behind us and our arms and heads pointing forward. Using our hands as rudders, we would gleefully steer ourselves in this direction and that, borne by the river’s flow, squealing with delight, and never once worrying for our safety. But I was just a teenager then, innocent and unaware to the core and, like most of my peers, unconcerned with issues of mortality. Now I was an adult and should have known better.

How different could the Euphrates possibly be from the Clearwater of my youth?

As it turned out, very. The rapids we were about to challenge had taken the lives of members of two failed Ottoman expeditions that had preceded von Moltke’s party in the early 1830s. On his own first attempt in the summer of 1838, with the water level at its nadir, the Prussian officer had encountered notable difficulties, but none so serious as to deter him from returning a year later for another try, confident he would succeed the second time around. He was wrong.

That April, with the spring run-off at its apex and the river running 15 feet higher than on his previous attempt, the rapids von Moltke had faced in the Kemer Khan near Tilek nine months earlier—the same ones now lying in wait for us—had been transformed.

“What used to be rapids was now a waterfall,” he observed cryptically.

The awesome destructive power of those former rapids tore apart his kellek—a watercraft fashioned from dozens of inflated sheepskins elaborately lashed together—for thousands of years the people of the Euphrates’ answer to Avon inflatables. Von Moltke vividly portrayed his encounter with the rapids we were about to challenge:

“The Murad [Euphrates], which is over 250 yards wide, narrows to 100, to 80 and fewer yards. The whole mighty mass of water rushes down through this funnel and over boulders, giving rise to enormous whirlpools and waves, so that in some places water fountains five feet high or more rise upright, while on either side the tide shoots quickly against the cliffs and appears as if boiling. The billowing waters literally hit our heads, and the raft was at times completely under water.

“The biggest danger was capsizing while ascending or descending one of the steep, high waves. Rowing was out of the question. Two of the kelektschi fell overboard, but they were bound with safety lines and thus saved. Among the rest of the team there was the greatest consternation, and the kellek continued on for a third hour ‘at its discretion’ until Allah led us sideways into a whirlpool, turning us around a dozen times. …

“The oars were now used with great effort, but it seemed doubtful for some time whether we would reach the shore, or, taken by the stream, be led to a new waterfall. The poles, which were joined to the raft, are 1 ½ to 2 inches thick. Three of them were broken right in the middle, four of the tubes were flattened, and two of them had broken loose and floated away. But fortunately, we managed to reach the shore.

“At that point, Sergeant Suleiman, a devout Muslim, made like William Tell and jumped out of the swaying kellek onto a protruding rock, fell to his knees, turned toward the Kaaba, and raised his hands in prayer. Another Muslim, named Ali-Aga, vowed to slaughter a lamb as a thank-you gift to Allah for having saved his life.”

Aramcons Challenge the Euphrates, Part IV: Into the Kemer Khan

With his conveyance reduced to a jumbled mess, von Moltke was compelled to abandon his quest to conquer the Upper Euphrates, “about which,” he later wrote in dismay, “we did not want to know anything more.”

Ellsworth Huntington during his 1901 attempt enjoyed far more favorable conditions compared to those von Moltke faced in 1839 and, likewise, compared to those we faced in 1979. Even so, he, too, had to deal with daunting problems. His account of the Kemer Khan remains the most detailed and informative ever written and describes well the distinctive riverscape seen there.

“As the spring of 1901 in Turkey was unusually dry,” he wrote, “the river was comparatively low, being about halfway between the extremes of flood and low water. As it was, the current seemed very swift…

“At Kemur Khan the river turns at right angles and goes south by east through a remarkably straight gorge 12 miles long and nearly 4,000 feet deep. The scenery is even finer than in the preceding gorges. The dark, steep, gloomy walls of basalt and metamorphic shale are terraced at an elevation a few hundred feet above the river, and on each terrace or nestled in each tiny valley are one or two houses and a patch of bright green fields. In some cases the fields are on slopes so steep that it seems as though the sower could scarcely find a footing. Far above the fields white patches of snow contrast strongly, in spring at least, with the black and green walls of the canyon, and send little streams cascading down through rough gashes in the resistant rock, amidst a chaos of huge boulders and trees. In this gorge our real difficulties began.

“Our Armenian kellekjis, who knew the river thoroughly as far as Kemur Khan, were now beyond their accustomed track and ready to be afraid of everything. The first rapid in the gorge looked to them so bad that we made a portage of between 2 and 3 miles around both that and the next rapid, climbing 1,200 feet up the steep slope over the roughest kind of road. …

“Through the whole length of the gorge, we went at an average rate of 5 miles an hour, between walls of solid rook which come down sheer to the narrow stream, and are broken only by precipitous gullies entering at grade and bounded by jagged cliffs with needle-like points. The mouths of these gullies are footed by fan deltas, which have been pushed out into the river, forming dams, over the outer ends of which the water pours in foaming rapids. We shot into these over smooth rounded waves, like the long swells of the ocean, but in a moment were among the breakers, which tossed the light raft up and down like a cork, and often came over us, breaking up-stream, as is usual in rapids. The kellekjis paddled with all their might. The raft spun round and round so that we saw the wild mountains on every side without turning our heads. …

“Just below the ferry where the road from Harput to Shiro crosses the river at the head of a dangerous rapid, which, unlike those just above it, is caused by a detrital fan, thirty or forty of the villagers tried to prevent us by force from going further, but were soon persuaded to take up our craft and carry it a quarter of a mile around the rapid. … The people here, as well as many others with whom we talked, both above and below this point, asserted that no one ever had navigated or could navigate the river from Aivose to Chunkush. Von Moltke’s journey seems to have been forgotten.…

“We boarded the kellek once more, and in less than ten minutes were at the angle where the river, turning once more to the south from the longitudinal valley, enters an immense crooked transverse canyon, the last and longest of the great gorges, 30 miles long and 5,000 feet deep. Before we knew it we were at the head of a rapid worse than any that we had yet shot, or around which we had made portages. It seems to be due partly to the structure of the bedrock and partly to the fan of the Uslu brook, which flows into the river just in the middle of the rapid over a series of small cascades, which, as seen from the river, appear to be caused by the brook’s own fan. The kellekjis wanted to make another portage, but we insisted on shooting the rapid. Although we made the passage safely, the men’s nerves were so completely unstrung that when we landed soon after at the head of another large bed-rock rapid, they absolutely refused to go on.

Aramcons Challenge the Euphrates, Part IV: Into the Kemer Khan

“One was sent to find a village and get men and animals to help in making a portage. … The other Armenian, when told to take some baggage off the safely moored kellek, said, ‘If I ever set foot on that kellek again I know that I shall die. Then who will take care of my wife and children? You haven’t any hearts. The mountains are savage, the river is savage, the people are savage, but you don’t fear them. Don’t you even fear God?’ …

“Floating very rapidly for nearly an hour, we passed the sulphurous hot springs of Tilek, which rise on both sides of the river below high-water mark. … Travelling at the rate of 8 miles an hour, we passed for 18 miles through a continuous succession of bed-rock rapids, many of them larger than those around which we had made portages.”


As we prepared to shove off that third morning, it was late April 1979 and conditions on the river precisely mirrored those of mid-April 1839, one hundred forty years earlier nearly to the day from when von Moltke gamely entered a stretch of river aptly called by locals ‘the Serpent’s Mill,’ the same stretch of river we were about to enter ourselves, the same tumultuous stretch of river Huntington so vividly portrayed.

“Over 300 rapids such as what I have just described to you,” von Moltke wrote when introducing said Serpent’s Mill to his readers, “most of them of lesser importance, lay ahead, one following after the other, forming over a distance of about twenty miles the cataractae Euphratis. As soon as you passed through one, you heard the next roar. … High above, individual Kurdish villages clung to the slopes under shady nut trees, and waterfalls lapped down the steep mountain slopes. The worst spots were near the town of Schiro, and there were three falls, one immediately following after the other, just above Tilek, where hot sulfurous springs evaporated from the rocks. In the ragged crevice just below this village, the current, already 200 to 300 yards wide, has been narrowed by an earthquake to 35 yards. This place is called Stag’s Leap.”

In a class in Idaho state history I was reluctantly forced to take in high school, I learned about the exploits of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery. Their route west from Missouri in search of the mythical Northwest Passage eventually led them to the North Fork of the Clearwater River and the future site of Orofino. Before that, upon crossing the Continental Divide, 200-plus twisting miles to the east by foot and horseback, 150 as the crow flies, Clark had chosen to ignore the advice of friendly Shoshones—the tribe of their legendary guide, Sacagawea—when they warned him against attempting a descent of the Salmon River owing to its narrow passages and raging rapids.

Mistakenly thinking he knew better, Clark proceeded to test the Salmon nonetheless, only to be forced to concede defeat and retrace his steps. From that point on, the Corps had no choice but to travel overland across the Bitterroot Mountains and through the daunting obstacle course famously known to history as Lolo Pass, continuing haltingly westward and downward from there until finally reaching the Clearwater in a weakened and exhausted state.

Close by to where present day Orofino stands, with help from the Nez Perce, they harvested trees and carved a new fleet of canoes. Launching them in the nearby river, they paddled west to its confluence with the Snake. Continuing down the Snake, they reached the Columbia. From the Columbia’s junction with the Snake, the Corps rolled on down the river’s mighty waters all the way to their union with the Pacific Ocean, not far from the treacherous bar marking the river’s mouth known to mariners as “The Graveyard of the Pacific” and rightly feared by all who sail the northwest coast.

Would history repeat itself? We had already chosen to ignore the advice of Abdullah and others the same way that Clark had cavalierly dismissed the wise words of those friendly Indians. His rash decision had led to a short-term setback and tactical retreat. Would ours produce the same results as his? Or better? Or worse? Would our journey enjoy the same happy ending as his? Or not? And let us not forget our noted predecessor, Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, the future Prussian field marshal who, at the time still a lowly captain with much ambition as yet unfulfilled, abandoned all hope when his second attempt at mastering the Kemer Khan ended in failure after several unnerving near-death experiences for him and his crew.

And what about graveyards?

[to be continued]

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