For whom the whistle blows |

For whom the whistle blows

Open Space
Derek Franz
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO

A distress whistle barely heard over the pounding roar of a Class IV rapid in the Grand Canyon is a sickening sound.


Jenny was blowing her whistle from the shore. She had seen something happen to one of the rafts, but I couldn’t tell what it was.

In my kayak, I was stationed in an eddy (a pocket of relatively still water) at the bottom of Hance Rapid. The other kayaker, Anthony, was in an eddy on the other side of the river. If there were people in the water, we had to get them out of the turbulent, 50-degree liquid before hypothermia hampered their ability to swim.

From my position, all I could see was a yellow raft making its way downstream. It had been stuck in a hole for a moment but was still upright and moving downriver again. Still, Jenny’s whistle blew, desperate as ever.

Whatever it was, it was real. I felt helpless. My boat bobbed the way my heart throbbed – violently, crashing into rocks against the shore. I strained to read the situation. Across from me, I saw Anthony charge into action. Apparently there was a swimmer on the other side of the raft, which blocked my view.

I felt like I was in Alaska all over again.

On the Alaska trip, I was 18 and we were hundreds of miles away from anywhere. A raft flipped on a Class I stretch of river. We had navigated Class IV the previous day. Numbers don’t always belie the true difficulty, though, and we’d been complacent.

My mom wasn’t dressed to swim in 33-degree water. She had heavy boots and clothes bogging her down, and she was swept out of sight around the bend. Barrels of food and other supplies were also lost as the rest of us scampered to collect ourselves into a rescue team.

We found her wrapped on a log five minutes later. She was already hypothermic.

“Don’t let Derek see,” she kept repeating as I carried her onto a little beach.

We started a fire and cut her out of her clothes to dry and warm her as fast as possible. It took days for her to recover physically, and years to recover emotionally.

Then, about a month ago, Martha was in the water.

I was relieved to see Anthony pull her to shore before she went around the bend. It took her a while to warm up, but soon all was well enough.

Martha seemed a bit self-conscious from all the fussy attention paid to her after that. Her adult children were on the trip, and I empathized. I told her what happened to my mom and how relieved I was from a son’s point of view.

Until recently, however, I had never been the subject of a rescue.

Two weeks ago, I joined a group on a fourth-class scramble in Glenwood Canyon to replace a tattered American flag atop a 300-foot granite peak.

I stepped on a wasp nest while rappelling (lowering myself down a rope) down a steep gully full of loose rock. Suddenly I was getting stung on my face, back, lower belly and legs. I dropped my backpack, which went rolling down the hill as I struggled to figure out what was going on. Everyone except my girlfriend was stung multiple times.

Five minutes later, my mind was still a little out of focus when I dislodged a huge rock that rolled onto my leg. Suddenly my foot was literally being crushed and I couldn’t move to save myself.

“HELP! HELP!” I screamed the word like never before.

Five people were barely able to lift the rock enough for me to wriggle out. I rolled out of the way as they let it go crashing down the gully with a sigh of relief.

For some reason, I felt completely stupid and clumsy. I’d always taken care of myself before. In retrospect, the feeling suggests an underlying prejudice for people in needy situations.

Yes, it’s embarrassing to have that whistle blown on your account. But when you hear it, count your lucky stars – you’ve chosen good company.

– “Open Space” appears on the second and fourth Friday of the month. Derek Franz writes for the Eagle Valley Enterprise and lives in Carbondale. He can be reached at

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