The Story of Sockdolager Rapid

The Story of Sockdolager Rapid

 On August 14, 1869 John Wesley Powell and crew were already a couple of months into their exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers.  They'd been no stranger to disasters, losing boats, rations, oars and equipment on multiple occasions.  Powell and his crew were in no way prepared to run the big rapids, instead they opted to line or portage almost any whitewater that looked intimidating.  But this morning when they finally entered the Granite Gorge in Grand Canyon, they saw something that absolutely terrified them - a rapid they could not avoid.

Powell wrote this in his journal:

"About eleven o'clock we hear a great roar ahead, and approach it very cautiously. The sound grows louder and louder as we run, and at last we find ourselves above a long, broken fall, with ledges and pinnacles of rock obstructing the river. There is a descent of perhaps 75 or 80 feet in a third of a mile, and the rushing waters break into great waves on the rocks, and lash themselves into a mad, white foam. We can land just above, but there is no foothold on either side by which we can make a portage. It is nearly a thousand feet to the top of the granite; so it will be impossible to carry our boats around, though we can climb to the summit up a side gulch and, passing along a mile or two, descend to the river. This we find on examination; but such a portage would be impracticable for us, and we must run the rapid or abandon the river. There is no hesitation. We step into our boats, push off, and away we go, first on smooth but swift water, then we strike a glassy wave and ride to its top, down again into the trough, up again on a higher wave, and down and up on waves higher and still higher until we strike one just as it curls back, and a breaker rolls over our little boat. Still on we speed, shooting past projecting rocks, till the little boat is caught in a whirlpool and spun round several times. At last we pull out again into the stream. And now the other boats have passed us. The open compartment of the "Emma Dean" is filled with water and every breaker rolls over us. Hurled back from a rock, now on this side, now on that, we are carried into an eddy, in which we struggle for a few minutes, and are then out again, the breakers still rolling over us. Our boat is unmanageable, but she cannot sink, and we drift down another hundred yards through breakers - how, we scarcely know." 

Lead boatman John Sumner was a tough and fearless mountain guide who fought in the Civil War.  He described in his journal that rapid was one of the scariest experiences of his life. 

“I have been in a cavalry charge, charged the batteries, and stood by the guns to repel a charge, but never before did my sand run so low. In fact, it all ran out, but as I had to have some more grit, I borrowed it from the other boys.”

Powell and his crew would name the rapid "Sockdolager," a slang term for a bare-knuckled knock out punch. Little did they know the most ferocious rapids of the entire expedition were still yet to come.

For me, Sockdolager represents that adventure of the unknown and a nod to the Colorado Plateau - a place that was formative for many of my outdoor experiences. Those experiences motivate me to build gear that will hopefully help facilitate those same types of adventures for others.

Modern day rafters running the meat of Crystal Rapid at 40,000 cfs.

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