Rafting Through Kemer Khan
[In the previous installment of this series, a party of Aramcons had just run a daunting bedrock rapid at the entrance to a stretch of the upper Euphrates in eastern Turkey known as the Serpent’s Mill. We continue here with their story, again told in the voice of Aramco ExPats president Vicci Turner.]
There’s a tale from Greek mythology about Scylla and Charybdis, two fearsome sea monsters mentioned by Homer in Book XII of The Odyssey associated with the Strait of Messina separating Italy’s big toe from the island of Sicily. According to myth, rocky shoals on the Italian side were the lair of Scylla, a six-headed beast that, when ships passed, was said to swallow one sailor with each head. Meanwhile, a dangerous vortex on the Sicilian side, the same legend held, was home to Charybdis, a gruesome creature with flippers for arms and legs and an unquenchable thirst said to create giant whirlpools whenever it sucked in or belched out water. Sailors passing through the Strait of Messina were presented with an unpleasant dilemma: either risk being shipwrecked on Italy’s rocks (Scylla), or take a chance being swallowed by Sicily’s whirlpool (Charybdis).
We’d made it safely past the upper Euphrates’ Scylla. Little did we know we were about to cross paths with her Charybdis. Unlike those sailors of yore coursing through the Strait of Messina, we came face to face on that memorable day not with one but both monsters. It was our only choice if we were to continue downriver and complete our modern-day Odyssey.
We’d just finished emptying out the water from our Avons when our guides returned from their reconnaissance mission with a report on the next rapid awaiting us on the river below.
“It looks like most of the action is on the left,” Mike said. “We’re going to try to stay just to the right of center. Everything should be okay. It looks like a long and wide rapid, moderately tough, I’d say. But not nearly as tough as that mother we just went through.”
Mike had it all wrong. We were about to run the biggest rapid of our lives, blind to what lay before us until too late. We were in a mad-dash, pell-mell rush to put as many miles of river behind us as possible before day’s end. We’d fallen far short of our mileage goals on Days I and II and could not afford a repeat performance if we were to reach our planned exit point on time. Our rash insistence on making up the difference in a single day added to the perils we faced.
Surprised to see we were still alive, the three Kurd observers had moved to a new observation point to watch our next move, looking more doubtful than ever of a positive outcome. What did they know that we didn’t? As it turned out, plenty.
View of Taurus Mountains
Once again, Dave led the charge. One moment he was maneuvering his raft to the right in the direction of the chosen entry point and the next, in a blur, he was gone, just like Road Runner in that classic Looney Tunes cartoon as he escapes from Wile E. Coyote’s clutches one more time. “Beep, beep!” Zooooom!
Dave’s raft skittered past a modest-sized hole he knew was there with nary a problem only to be swallowed seconds later in one giant gulp by the largest hole any of us had ever seen, one hidden from sight from our position upstream. Dave realized it was there only when he was directly on top of it.
Over the years, that hole has grown a tad bit bigger every time I’ve told this story, and I’ve told it many times, so I can no longer be trusted to reliably attest to its true dimensions. That said, as I remember it today, it had enough size and strength to effortlessly demolish any watercraft foolish or unfortunate enough to enter its lair. To it, Dave’s puny Avon was little more than one of those yellow rubber duckies children like to play with when splashing about in their bathtubs. Feeling benevolent at the moment, the river spirits chose to let Dave’s party pass through unharmed, but only after throwing a frightful scare their way first.
It’s difficult when entering a hole of this magnitude to predict how—and, in worst-case scenarios, whether—you'll next see daylight. The dive in is like plummeting into a deep well with steep sides and no handholds to help you climb back out. It takes a true whitewater expert like Dave or Dan or Mike, with large reserves of grit and cunning and a rabbit’s foot, horseshoe, and four-leaf clover on board for good luck, to escape the clutches of such a beast as this once it has you in its grasp. Our three boatmen proved themselves well worth their salt that day.
Via some form of black magic, Dave managed to keep his raft pointed parallel to the current on its downward plunge, catching the water’s flow just right so that the Avon’s momentum propelled it across the hole and straight up the downriver wall. The trick then was for him to maintain forward momentum and not let the weight of his passengers in the stern drag the raft down as the bow rose up. If that happened, the lighter bow would likely lose purchase with the water and the boat would topple over backward, sending everyone and everything tumbling Topsy-turvy into the icy-cold drink.
In all of ten seconds, their trial was over, and Dave and his team were safely through, basically unscathed. It was Dan’s turn next to prove his chops.
A squad of large rocks, some taller than others, all of them intimidating, each of them sporting its own hole, stood guard over the channel, arrayed like sentries in a staggered pattern across the river’s width. The only possible way to make it through to the waters beyond was to choose a path between any two of them and commit yourself, come what may. Dave, going first, had chosen a path on the right. Dan, going second, decided to try one on the left. His raft shot through a narrow gap and quickly disappeared. As it did, we could clearly hear him shouting to his passengers, “Hold oooooooon!”
The raft reappeared moments later crawling sideways up the giant wall of water on the downriver side of the hole. The left oar flopped loosely in its oarlock like a broken wing, and Dan was nowhere in sight.
“He’s out!” Mike cried, “and that boat’s going to flip!”
But he wasn’t out, and the boat might not flip as feared. Dan’s feet had slipped off of their brace, throwing him flat on his derrière on the floor of the raft. Out of control, the boat sloshed sideways as he struggled to regain his position on the rowing frame. Tricia, riding in the bow, later said that, for an instant, she thought that the boat had already flipped and that she was swimming in the river. Not so. She was swimming with Dan inside the raft. Like with Dave before him, Dan’s skill and quick-thinking saved the day. Regaining his seat in an instant, he seized his oars and with a flurry of powerful strokes drove the raft straight into the heart of the wave and out the other side, averting disaster by the slimmest of margins.
Sidestream in Kemer Khan
It took him ten seconds, fifteen at most, to traverse that hole from start to finish. It felt like forever to those of us watching and no doubt longer still to Dave and those in the boat with him.
Now came our turn. Mike turned to us and said, “Hold on, everybody. Here goes nothing!”
He chose to split the difference between the routes taken by Dave and Dan, pointing the bow straight down the middle of the river between a pair of particularly menacing pillars. He had no clue as to what he might find should we make it past them, but it seemed like the best option to Mike, so he took it. A standard rule of river rafting dictates that one keeps their boat pointed straight into the waves when running big water like this. Taking his half out of the middle looked to Mike like the best way to accomplish that.
Just past those sentinel rocks, we found ourselves facing a hole—“Not a huge hole,” Mike wrote later, “just a medium hole, abrupt, not dangerous, but the kind that pours hundreds of gallons of water into the boat in a second or two. Those gallons can reduce maneuverability due to their tremendous weight. Had I a choice I would have avoided that hole. I did not have a choice. We dropped into it almost as soon as we saw it.”
Breaking free from that so-called “medium hole,” carrying hundreds of extra gallons of water as ballast, we immediately came face to face with the Mother of All Holes. “Holy s---!” Mike cursed. Nothing he could do could save us from plummeting into this watery abyss. From my forward perch, the hole looked like a bottomless pit, much like what the Maelström must have looked like to Poe’s benighted sailor. Mike pushed on his oars as hard as he could, trying to increase our momentum in hopes it would be enough to carry us through to safety.
Jeff confessed later that at that moment he was reviewing in his mind instructions for how to avoid drowning if your boat has flipped: Keep your mouth closed and your feet up and pointed forward, and breath only in the troughs between waves.
Our 16-foot Avon Pro hit the bottom of the hole upward-angled nose first. Rebounding like a giant spongy Nerf ball, it immediately began climbing up the towering wave forming the hole’s southern wall. We were nearly vertical, and our raft’s stern had risen off the floor of the hole, yet her bow had not yet reached the crest. Ken and I clung to our seats directly above Mike’s head, hoping not to fall on him; Mike clung to his rowing frame and oars directly above Jeff and Carol’s heads, hoping we didn’t fall on him and hoping not to fall on them; and Jeff and Carol clung to the stern, hoping nobody fell on anybody.
The raft was about to lose all momentum and execute a reverse flip when, at Mike’s urging, the bow dipped forward into the back-curling lip of the wave—ever so slightly but just enough. The downward pressure of water pouring in at that moment provided the extra leverage he needed to overcome gravity’s downward force and save us all from catastrophe. Like a teeter-totter, the Avon dipped at the bow and rose at the stern, with the crest of the wave acting as a fulcrum. Leveling off, it shot forward and down, and in a moment we were free, shuddering and shaken and thankful to be alive. We could hear our fellow team members cheering from shore.
After back-to-back, death-defying tests like these, I was too exhausted, emotionally and physically, to respond. For the past half hour I had felt non-stop terror, fearing we could fall victim at any moment to the vagaries of the Euphrates’ angry waters. I wondered how many more mountains of water like this pair awaited us downstream. Enough was enough!
But that wasn’t all, not by a long-shot. There was more, much more, including the third “waterfall” promised by von Moltke and many miles of lesser-though-still-challenging rapids after that with few calm water interruptions. This was, after all, the Serpent’s Mill we were dealing with here, and it was doing its best to live up to its name. The rest of our day was filled with non-stop adventure—30 miles worth by Mike’s count. He wanted to make up for lost time, and we managed that with a powerful assist from the swift-flowing waters. I was exhausted even though I hadn’t touched an oar all day long. Endless hours of holding on just hoping to survive had exacted a toll of their own.
Dam site in Kemer Khan
After that harrowing ordeal, I looked upon our guides in a fresh new light as saviors. With savvy and muscle, Mike and Dan and Dave had steered us through the Euphrates’ most fearsome rapids without a scratch. Their performance had been extraordinary, medal-worthy, epic.
Just when I was about to give up hope of ever reaching the end of the rapids, we entered a calm stretch, spied a suitable spot to camp, and pulled into shore. Thrilled to have reached terra firma at last, I jumped out of the raft and into the river in a rush to wade ashore. “Ker-plunk!” I sank like a rock to the bottom of the river in water over my head—in water so cold, it felt like I’d jumped feet first into a pool of dry ice. Shivering and sputtering, I clambered to shore with the help of my startled raft-mates. In a heartbeat, that plunge had purged my system of all fear of the river and its monstrous rapids. All I could think of now was doffing my water-logged togs for dry clothes and getting warm again.
Later that night, while gathered around the campfire reliving the day’s exploits—beginning an embellishment process that continues unabated to this day—we learned from our guides for the first time the severity of the dangers we had faced down that afternoon. Any mistakes made taking on that wall of water on the right at the first rapid, they explained, would almost certainly have capsized the rafts and tossed us into the frigid waters. Trapped in an extreme hydraulic with no means of escape, we would soon have faced hypothermia, and more than likely would have drowned.
Had we survived a flip and by some miracle managed a self-rescue and made it to shore, we would still have been trapped between two fearsome rapids at the foot of a sheer rock wall difficult to climb, praying for someone to come and rescue us. The chances of that happening were close to zero. While the three Kurd shepherds could observe us from their vantage point, they would have had a difficult time coming close enough to lend a hand. Our most plausible option would have been an attempt to climb out. Such a feat would have been difficult, but not impossible, as I learned much later. Our earliest predecessor, Helmuth von Moltke, had survived just such a disaster in this way.
After losing their kellek to the river’s wrath, von Moltke’s party in 1839 had managed to climb out from that same spot. He later described their self-rescue:
“Behind us was a rock wall that climbed up to the snow line. … There was nothing left for us to do but to climb up in a creek, or rather in a waterfall, and I certainly believe that we rose well over a thousand feet. The loose stones we kicked with our feet rolled down into the river, and we had to carry up several pounds of water, which our clothes had absorbed. In Telek, where everyone had gathered together to see our departure, people thought we had been lost; the whole village was now summoned to recover our wreck.”
The dangers we faced knifing through the second rapid were not much different from those posed by the one before it. When our guides finished talking, I just shook my head. I counted myself lucky to be alive.
The first rapid reminded Dave Henshaw of Horn Creek Rapid on the Colorado River, and he suggested we name it Hammerhead Falls, to which we all agreed. Someone (I can’t recall who) came up with an equally-colorful name for the second rapid—Turkish Delight—in honor of the ubiquitous, gummy pastel candies sold in shops on every street corner of Turkey. That proposal likewise won unanimous approval.
I have new names to suggest for those two rapids. In the Grand Canyon of the Euphrates, Hammerhead Falls was our Scylla, Turkish Delight our Charybdis—a pair of fearsome river monsters soon to be slain by an army of Turkish dam-builders.
[to be continued]