Tom Ross: Putting my name on a Grand Canyon rapid |

Tom Ross: Putting my name on a Grand Canyon rapid

A pair of Grand Canyon rafters narrowly avoids flipping after the oarsman was knocked off his oars.
Tom Ross

I’ve just returned from 17 days floating the Grand Canyon and I’m brimming with confidence about the possibility that someday soon the National Park Service will rename a rapid after me.

This is no April Fool’s joke. There is legitimate reason to rename the rapid at mile 23.5 below Lee’s Ferry. And I’m unselfishly willing to resolve the situation by offering my own first name.

I’m sure you’ll agree that “Tommy’s Baptism” has more of a ring to it, and is far more politically correct than “Indian Dick Rapid.” And besides, a name change would save me from forever being remembered as the rookie rafter who was at the oars when the raft flipped at Indian Dick.

If you’ll indulge me, I’ll tell this story from the beginning.

In late December, I was invited by a friend to fill a vacant spot on a private raft trip. These opportunities don’t come along often.

I must confess, I had doubts about my ability to row a heavily loaded raft through the daunting rapids of the Grand Canyon. However, I was reassured that among our party of 15 (almost all of them strangers to me) were some experienced river guides. I definitely planned on improving my very limited river skills, but figured the veterans would take over any time we encountered rapids that had the potential to flip an 18-foot raft.

Because the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon has higher flows than other whitewater rivers in North America, it has its own scale for rating rapids – from the mildest, which earn a 1 rating right on up to 9 and 10 for people-eaters like Crystal and Lava Falls.

Indian Dick was rated a modest 3 and I wasn’t even aware of its name as we made our approach. I was under the tutelage of a veteran who had rowed or paddled the Grand several times and guided parties down wild rivers in Alaska.

“You’re set up perfectly,” he said, and turned his back on the rapid in order to monitor the progress of other boats in our party. The next thing I knew, the oars were being ripped from my hands, the raft was upside down and I was beneath it in 45-degree water.

Long story short – I had been overturned by a rogue wave that rebounded off the canyon wall and took me completely by surprise. More experienced rowers in our party saw the lateral wave coming and easily avoided overturning by steering their bow into the wave. Not me.

Thankfully, I was able to work my way out from under the raft by traveling hand-over-hand along the rowing frame, no one was hurt, and all of our gear except my ball cap and teddy bear stayed with the boat. Ultimately, we had a fairly easy time getting the raft into an eddy where we could flip it upright.

I didn’t feel too ashamed until someone informed me that I had flipped in Indian Dick.

“What was that?”

Many of the rapids in the Grand Canyon are named after early explorers and geologists, and my first thought was the rapid that dunked me was given a white man’s nickname for a trusted Native American guide.

That notion was pretty well dispelled when another member of my party pointed to the towering monolith of Supai sandstone that guards the river. It was distinctly phallic.

I decided something had to be done to rewrite history. I’d like to tell you I was personally offended that a landmark in one of our national parks bore such a name. However, the truth is that I was more motivated by the fear that somehow the nickname might forever be attached to myself.

To be fair, I have found no reference to Indian Dick Rapid in National Park Service documents. However, a number of guidebooks and annotated maps for use by rafters describe Indian Dick.

The most detailed account is contained within an impressive guide to Grand Canyon place names, “River to Rim” by Nancy Brian.

Brian relates that in July 1955 a pair of geologists, George C. Simmons and Parkman Brooks, with the Western Speleological Institute of Santa Barbara, Calif., came up with the name after their own boat was upset in the rapid. Simmons later published the name of the rapid in his own book, a guide to the canyon and its geological features.

History is history, but the legend of Native American Richard needs to be rewritten.

In an era when professional and college sports teams such as the Florida State Seminoles, Washington Redskins and University of Illinois Fighting Illini are catching heat for their mascots, how can we let a name like Indian Dick Rapid persist?

If you can think of something more appropriate than Tommy’s Baptism, or perhaps, Tommy’s Comeuppance, don’t hesitate to e-mail me with your suggestions.

And always remember what one of my favorite river runners told me when he learned of my misadventure: “Rig to flip, dress to swim and drink to upchuck.”

Or something like that.

– To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail

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