Conquering the Narrows

By Ernie Witham   |   January 24, 2019

Occasionally, I find myself in a position that seemed like a good idea at the time, but in hindsight could have used a bit more forethought. For some reason these positions often involve water.

Like the time I decided to jump off a roof and into Lake Winnipesaukee at Weirs Beach in Laconia, New Hampshire – on a dare – and realized as I neared the water that a) there were numerous motorboats darting about my landing spot and b) I hadn’t decided ahead of time whether to jump or dive. This resulted in a belly flop of epic proportions. Or as it soon became known – “the Ernie.”

Another time, I was waterskiing with a friend (the boat pilot) and his girlfriend (the spotter) and as I lost my balance I wondered how long they would continue to make out before they realized they were just pulling a rope?

“Need help?”

“No thanks. Just waiting for a boat.”

“That the boat with the lip-locked couple I passed a mile back?”


“Well, have a nice wait… Bob. Ha, bob, get it?”

I was enjoying these fond memories as I was leaning with all my weight on my right arm, which – sweatshirt and all – was shoulder-deep in the frigid Virgin River, as were my two splayed feet and one buttock, a position that probably resembled a Cossack dance or a not-so-great hip hop move. My other hand held my camera, just inches above the little rapids below the steep canyon walls of The Narrows in Zion National Park in Utah, a famous slot canyon, where I tried to get an award-winning, trout’s-eye-view photo.

I wasn’t alone of course. My wife Pat and her sister Sally were just a few turns back, sitting on a wide sandbar on the sunny side of the river, probably sharing amusing anecdotes. There were other hikers too – though none were close enough to ask for help.

“Hiking in the river can be slippery,” people told us at Zion Adventure Company. “The water is fast-moving and the bottom of the river is covered with rocks the size and shape of bowling balls. Plus, it can be cold.”

So, Pat, Sally and I had rented “the Dry Pant Package,” which consisted of Gore-Tex pants, shoes, and neoprene socks, which had to be overlapped in a certain way so that you stayed dry. And they worked pretty well except for the parts of me which were underwater. The final piece of safety equipment, a hiking pole, was still attached to my right wrist and floating just out of reach. 

This was the third day of our Road Scholars “Canyons, Cliffs & Waterfalls: Hike the Geological Wonders of Zion” trip. The rest of our group was hiking to Observation Point, but we had decided rather than hike up high where it was steep and dangerous, we would hike the easier Narrows that I was now splayed out in.

It was about this time, I realized I was hungry. I had a sandwich, chips, and a big fat cookie – chocolate chip – in my backpack, which also hovered just above the melodic river. 

I came up with a plan. I would tighten my abs and glutes, push up with my right leg, quickly raise my right hand – the one that was supporting all my weight – grab the Hiking Stick, force it into the rocks below me and simply stand up. Or, I would tumble backwards and my camera, lunch and I would become a trout’s eye view.

I tried to think of a clever thing to yell like kowabunga, but instead just grunted loudly and pushed. All sound seemed to disappear for a few seconds other than my abs and glutes screaming, but the stick caught and I pushed and leaned and pushed and leaned until I actually stood, wobbled a bit, and got my right leg back under me. I had lived!

Back at the sandbar, Pat and Sally listened to my death-defying tale: “Wow, let’s see the photo that made it all worthwhile.” We stared at the little screen on the back of my DSLR as I brought it up.

It was totally out of focus.

“We can probably buy a postcard at the gift shop,” they suggested.

I sighed and ate my cookie.


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