Aramcons Challenge the Euphrates, Part V: The Serpent’s Mill

[In the most recent installment of this series, a party of Aramcons was about to enter a stretch of the upper Euphrates River in eastern Turkey known as the Serpent’s Mill. We continue here with their story, told in the voice of Aramco ExPats president Vicci Turner.]

In 1841, poet Edgar Allen Poe—he of “Quoth the raven ‘Nevermore’” fame—published an unsettling short story some regard as an early work of science fiction, “Descent Into the Maelström.” It tells of a man who survives a shipwreck at sea only to be sucked into a fearsome whirlpool off the coast of Norway.

Having miraculously escaped a descent into that hellish vortex, the sailor relates how his ordeal has affected him:

“The six hours of deadly terror which I then endured have broken me up body and soul,” Poe wrote. “You suppose me a very old man, but I am not. It took less than a single day to change these hairs from a jetty black to white, to weaken my limbs, and to unstring my nerves, so that I tremble at the least exertion, and am frightened at a shadow.”

Negotiating the rapids of the Serpent’s Mill was the closest I ever care to come to experiencing first-hand a maelström à la Edgar Allen Poe’s benighted mariner. Our extended watery do-si-do with the Serpent’s Mill, shadowed every step of the way by the Grim Reaper hoping to collect new souls to usher into the afterlife, was enough death-defying adventure for me to last a while, maybe a lifetime. Quoth this writer, “Nevermore!”

Nevertheless, it is a story friends have long insisted I must share, so here it continues.

***

The last glimpse I caught of our herder friend Abdullah came on our third morning shortly after we set off downstream. Looking back, I spied him standing atop a huge boulder well astern of our Avon holding his right arm high above his head, motionless, in a solemn farewell salute. Soon thereafter the Euphrates took on a new personality—the same sudden, unexpected change in character that caught Richard Bangs and his crew unawares the year before.

After two days and 17 miles of unhurried drifting, frequent stopping, and cheerful mixing with denizens, headed all the while in a mostly southerly, sometimes easterly direction, we sat up to attention as the Euphrates in a sudden pivot picked up her pace and narrowed. In the span of a few minutes, she turned worrisome and her soft shoulders morphed into angular rock-strewn slopes sharply rising to intersections with towering walls of basalt and metamorphic shale rising thousands more feet into the azure sky. Out of caution, we pulled up on a wide and gravelly sand bar at the mouth of a creek flowing in from the west and hopped out to assess conditions ahead—in the same manner at the same spot as Ellsworth Huntington had done in 1901.

Aramcons Challenge the Euphrates, Part V: The Serpent’s Mill

Rocky slopes pinched the river’s flow for the next quarter mile before it angled right and disappeared around a sweeping bend. There was no telling from where we stood what might await us beyond that point. A rapid or two, most certainly, but how many, how fast, and how dangerous? We were confident no Niagaras or giant holes in the earth lurked there, trusting in Richard Bangs’ assurances, but other potential threats weighed on our minds.

We were about to enter the innermost depths of the Kymyrkan (Helmuth von Moltke’s spelling in the 1830s), the Kemur Khan (Ellsworth Huntington’s spelling in 1902), the Kumur Khan (D. G. Hogarth’s spelling in 1908), the Kömürhan (the U.S. Army Map Service’s spelling in the 1940s), the Khemer Khan (Michael Ghiglieri’s spelling in 2013), or the Kemer Khan (Richard Bangs’ spelling in 1978 and our preferred spelling today). Take your pick. No two authors consulted spelled it alike. Von Moltke referred to this span of the Euphrates as the Serpent’s Mill, home according to him and Harrington to mile after mile of frothing whitewater with but a spattering of tranquil interludes along its length to offer us respite from the tumult.

“Serpent’s Mill” is the English translation of the German word “Schlangemühle” used by von Moltke. “Schlange” is German for serpent or snake; “mühle,” meanwhile, commonly refers to a windmill or flour mill. He also referred to this series of rapids using the Turkish words “jilan-değirmeni“ (“courtier’s mill” in English). An alternative—and perhaps more descriptive—English equivalent of değirmeni is “grinder,” as in meat grinder. By the end of that day, I felt like I had been run through a flour mill or meat grinder or both.

Our interpreter Vic decided to walk further down the bank to get a better look. “It’s the biggest one so far!” he announced excitedly upon his return, grinning like Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat. Hearing that, Mike, Dan, and Dave decided to take a look for themselves together. In his 2013 quasi-memoir, BOATMAN: Lessons of Survival from the Back of Beyond, Mike described what they saw:

“‘Nasty,’ Dan observed as we watched the river funnel, cascade then pound into a projection of bedrock on our shore. From there it washboarded into crazy hydraulics. The huge tributary canyon on the opposite side had spewed a zillion tons of boulders into the river here, damming and reducing it to a small fraction of its former width and shoving its plunging flow against this projection, a bit like Horn Creek Rapid in Grand Canyon. The rapid next roiled into huge, reversing haystack waves like those on the right side of Lava Falls in Grand Canyon.”

Ten months earlier, Bangs and his party entered this very rapid in an Avon Pro inflatable just like ours with each team member equipped with his or her own paddle—a contrasting set-up from ours with our Avons sporting center-mounted rowing frames bearing guides wielding a pair of oars apiece, reducing the rest of us to passive passengers without paddles. Bangs et al. had approached this same spot with their heads down, blithely focused on a game of hearts, their gear bags doubling as card table, heedless of what lay ahead.

Aramcons Challenge the Euphrates, Part V: The Serpent’s Mill

“Lulled by days of flat water,” Bangs wrote in a 1981 article published in Saudi Aramco World, “we’re taken by surprise when we plummet into the first cataract. Our boat is tossed like a tiny cork, and as it slaps on end I’m washed overboard, Micki loses her paddle, and our sense of anticlimax evaporates. This is not a complacent river after all; we have to listen to it, reckon with it.”

He later admitted to Mike that their uncharacteristic inattention nearly cost them their lives.

We had arrived at our own moment of reckoning at that very same place with three options to choose from: Either we stopped where we were and turned back, like Abdullah advised; or we plucked the boats from the river and portaged around the rapids, like reason dictated; or we ignored a host of warnings, said our prayers, and continued to forge ahead, like our hearts implored. We consulted our guides, who between them had successfully vanquished many a river in the past. They reassured us that they could handle this latest test, that Bangs had prepared them for just this sort of challenge, cautioning them to expect “big mountain canyons, mostly flat water but with some Grand Canyon whitewater.” Here was some of that Grand Canyon whitewater he promised.

Our guides seemed especially worried about holes. Rapids were known to harbor holes, and the bigger and swifter the rapid, the bigger and deeper and more dangerous the hole it potentially concealed. According to Mike, there were 30,000 cubic feet of water per second moving through the funnel-like gap before us, a slot no more than 80 yards wide at best by von Moltke’s estimate and narrower still where massive boulders lay in dam-like heaps at the mouth of a stream on the left. Thirty-thousand cubic feet of H2O crammed into so narrow a space seemed like a lot to me, and I asked Mike about it. He agreed, but insisted it was something they could handle, not to worry. They had dealt with similar flow rates on the Colorado. That calmed my nerves for the moment, but not for long.

Mike and Dan and Dave had all three mastered the Colorado’s waters multiple times; mastering those of the Euphrates should pose no insuperable problems, they reckoned, so why not try? Easily convinced, we nodded our heads in agreement and hastened back to the boats. Checking again to make sure that everything was securely fastened, we assumed our respective places and continued not so merrily, merrily, merrily or gently down the stream on what proved to be a thrill ride for the ages. At moments like this, life is but a dream for dedicated aficionados of river-running. Such dreams can border on nightmares, however, for others less bold. Witness the testimonies of von Moltke and Huntington regarding the miseries endured by their unhappy crews.

***

The instant we rounded the bend, we found ourselves teetering on the cusp of waters more turbulent, swift, and threatening than anything I had visualized preparing for this trip. Nerves tingling and mind racing, I braced myself for a head-first collision with real danger. Before us stood the same rapid-turned-waterfall that ended von Moltke’s second attempt of the Kemer Khan in 1839 and more than a century later, running at half power, gave Richard Bangs and his boat-mates conniptions. Huntington described this rapid as “worse than any we had yet shot” but insisted on running it anyway. Afterwards, he noted, his boatmen were so “unstrung” by the experience they refused to go on when they faced a similar bed-rock rapid further on.

Aramcons Challenge the Euphrates, Part V: The Serpent’s Mill

Side by side, Mike and Dan and Dave rowed furiously against the accelerating flow at the rapid’s tongue, slowing our advance as they struggled to execute the ad hoc plan they had just concocted meant to see us safely through.

Using the published guidelines of the International Scale of River Difficulty, I would rate the waters of the Grand Canyon of the Euphrates as they showed themselves at that moment and place, fed as they were by a thunderous spring runoff at its height, as “Class VI, Extreme and Exploratory Rapids.” I have no idea how our guides rated it, but no matter. On my personalized scale it was a VI at the time and, in my hyperbolic imagination, it has since grown into a VII, as if there were such a thing. In any case, it was a supreme challenge for a band like ours made up predominantly of neophytes to the sport.

“These runs have almost never been attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger,” according to American Whitewater’s website in their description of Class VI rapids. “The consequences of errors are very severe and rescue may be impossible. For teams of experts only, at favorable water levels, after close personal inspection and taking all precautions.”

We faced water levels unfavorable to the meager, scarcely-tested skill levels of us ExPats, rank amateurs, mere mortals that we were. What mattered far more were the skill levels of our guides. They were the ones handling the oars. Our fate rested in their practiced hands. As for the rest of us, our primary responsibilities were to hang on for dear life, put on brave faces, and not get in their way or do anything too foolish. Mostly we succeeded.

These same rapids had been personally inspected one year earlier by Bangs, but that had been in July, after the spring run-off had subsided. Applying von Moltke’s calculations to our present situation, the Euphrates was running as much as 15 feet higher than what Bangs faced—its precise level at any one moment determined by the omniscient, omnipotent team of engineers at work upstream at Keban Dam—inarguably increasing the danger level. Would Bangs’ advice and our guides’ skills suffice to save our skins?

Aramcons Challenge the Euphrates, Part V: The Serpent’s Mill

With bursts of sunshine glistening off rippling waters like so many warning flares gone unheeded, our boatmen shouted for us to hold on tight as they made their move. Dave went first, followed by Mike, then Dan. Propelled forward at breakneck speed by a deafening torrent of swift-moving water, we hurtled down a 10-foot drop in single file into a sheer-walled canyon. Surprised by the river’s fury, stunned by what they saw, with scant room to maneuver, they were forced to make split-second decisions, adjusting course on the fly to address unexpectedly dangerous conditions.

If they hesitated for but a moment, the Euphrates, not them, would decide our fate, and that decision might lead to disastrous results, perhaps even to loss of life. This set of rapids had claimed its share of lives before. Was it thirsting for more blood?

Halfway through the gap, the water’s path was blocked by a hidden fault formed eons ago in a great tectonic shift when the metamorphic core of the mountain had been split asunder. In a supremely ironic coincidence, we—a group of adventurers from Arabia visiting the Anatolian Peninsula—were passing just then over a geological feature known as the Assyrian Suture, the fault line marking where the Arabian and Anatolian plates meet in a monumental clash of titans known generically as a thrust fault. By way of comparison, California’s notorious San Andreas Fault is a thrust fault.

Typically for such formations, the rock on one side (in this case the upriver north) had subsided, while the rock on the other side (in this case the downriver south) had risen, creating an impenetrable submerged wall stretching the river’s width. With the nuanced insight of the noted geologist he was, Huntington had referenced features like this in detail in 1901. This was doubtless one of the spots he had warned about. Von Moltke on his part mentioned three waterfalls here, leaving two more for us to face after this. On his first attempt in 1838, with the river running low, he had made it through all three; on his second attempt in 1839, with the river running high, he had advanced no further than this before disaster struck. On this particular day, with an assist from compliant Keban gate-keepers, the Euphrates was running high in our honor.

Aramcons Challenge the Euphrates, Part V: The Serpent’s Mill

Slamming into that unyielding bulkhead, the torrent created a monstrous hydraulic backwash, blasting skyward in a 12-foot-high solid wall of water that curled back over on itself like the on-rushing crest of a surfer’s wave. As the river’s right flank broke against a wide undercut ledge on the north side of the canyon it created still more swirling mayhem. On the left—the south side—the Euphrates pummeled angrily against a tangled mass of large boulders strewn at the mouth of a stream. Huntington referred to this feature as “the fan of the Uslu brook.” We were no fans of the messy conditions Uslu’s fan had helped create. If we were to make it through this rapid unscathed, we needed to stay well away from either of those wicked traps. Somewhere in the middle was our best option, if possible along a path closer to the left, the lesser of two evils, than to the right, the epitome of evil.

Just then, three Kurdish herders appeared on the slopes above, impassively waiting to see if we would live or die. Judging from their concerned looks, they thought little of our chances for survival. Their forebears had once harbored similar thoughts about von Moltke and Huntington’s prospects for successfully surmounting these same waters. To wit, several times during his descent of the Kemer Khan, Huntington had been forced by locals and skittish companions to portage around similarly dangerous rapids, but notably not this particular one. It was too late now for us to portage, that option was lost, leaving us no choice but to cast our fates upon the waters as oblations to the Egyptian river god Sobek—after whom Bangs had named his river-running company—and hope for the best.

With Dave at the helm of the lead raft, his team plunged into the yawning hole first. Deftly guiding his Avon well to the left, carefully eluding the Uslu’s fan, he heaved on his plastic-bladed Carlisle oars like a man possessed, desperate to avoid the more treacherous waters on the right. Disgusted by this prideful show of impertinence from a band of uppity mortals, the Euphrates jerked Dave’s raft hard to the right in the direction he was fighting mightily to avoid. How silly we humans can be at times like this thinking we can outwit the forces of Mother Nature. Success is never guaranteed at such moments; there is always risk involved, and an element of uncertainty. That is part of the adrenaline rush of river-running, after all.

Aramcons Challenge the Euphrates, Part V: The Serpent’s Mill

Like a projectile shot from a cannon, the raft all at once pierced the watery veil and disappeared within. Seconds later, Dave and his charges reemerged on the downstream side of the curtain, arms raised in exultation over their victory. They had made it through alive and in one piece. Our turn.

Carefully positioning our Avon, Mike chose a route straight down the middle of the channel. Picking up speed at a startling rate and briefly out of control, we swung dangerously far to the right. Moments before meeting what surely would have been a calamitous end, digging his oars deep into the water and pulling with all of his might, Mike muscled the craft back towards midstream, avoiding disaster by the width of a whisker from his reddish beard. In a wink, we crashed head first through that emerald, foam-flecked wall of water like a charging rhino bent on destruction, a maddened beast oblivious to whatever dangers might lie beyond. Safely through and soaked to the gills, we counted heads, took deep breaths, gave thanks to Sobek for being spared, and pulled in to shore next to Dave’s Avon. Jumping out, we cast our eyes upstream and waited anxiously for Dan to run the gauntlet.

“Here he comes!” someone shouted.

Dan had chosen a route slightly to the right of the one we had just taken, inching his team that much closer to flirtation with disaster. It was a risky choice, but one he must have figured he could handle, which he nimbly did. His Avon seemed to hop as it abruptly popped over the front rim of the rapid and slid into the hole, momentarily disappearing from view. I clenched my fists and leaned forward into a slight crouch, holding my breath, beseeching every higher power I could think of to show them mercy and grant them safe passage. Seconds later, I exhaled a grateful burst of air as the river spat out Dan’s watercraft like an Iowa farm boy competing at a county fair might expectorate a watermelon seed.

Hooray! They made it! We all cheered.

Shaking off water like a pack of wet retrievers freshly back from a long day at the duck pond, we set to work bailing out the rafts while our three guides hiked further down the riverbank, seeking a promontory from where they could better plot a strategy for attacking the next set of rapids. According to von Moltke and Huntington, two more beasts like the one we had just tamed would soon follow, not to mention the many miles of watery thrills beyond that promised by them both. Our fun had just begun.

[to be continued]

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