The Wild River Ride

by Vera Pauline Hansen Johnson

The swollen river boiled up around us. The horses swam frantically against the pressure of tons of water bearing down on them. I had never ridden a swimming horse before in my life, and, indeed, I don’t believe my horse had ever had to swim before in his life. We were being swept downstream by the raging current. The thought flashed through my mind, “No one will ever know what became of us!”

I no longer remember our destination. My brother George, my sister Esther and myself had set off in the morning for an overnight trip. We were teenagers, and it wasn’t unusual for us to travel on our own to visit relatives or friends in other towns. Bounder [Utah] was a very isolated town in those days. There was no road suitable for automobile travel to Bouder then, so we rode horseback.

We may have been going to a church conference in Escalante, or to visit with relatives in Richfield. But to get there we had to ride horseback for hours, first through the Claude V. Baker cut-off, then on through the wild, beautiful country of Esclante River canyons. Our brother Omer kept an automobile in a garage on the outskirts of Escalante. When we reached the garage, we would then exchange our horses for the car and continue our journey.

We were still on horseback when we got down to the Baker wash. It started to storm and rain, and I said to George, “I think we better go back!” But he said, “No, no, no.” The wash was beginning to flood, but we made it through. When we got down to the Escalante River, however, it was high—it was really high—and just boiling! It looked dangerous. Normally you could wade easily across the Escalante at our usual crossing, but now the river looked dangerously flooded. I said, George, we can’t cross the river!” And he said, “Sure we can, sure we can. I will go across first to show you.” He took our suitcases—Esther and I had our things in one suitcase and George had another—and he rode across that river, his horse swimming bravely. He left the suitcases on the other side and then he came back.

Next he took Esther across. I don’t know if she was as frightened as I was. I think she was. The river was still rising, and the current seemed to grow faster and faster. I begged George, “Leave our suitcases. Forget our suitcases. Let’s go back!” But he and Esther plunged into the river swimming the horses directly upstream to fight the current. This was the first time I ever remembered riding a swimming horse. Our horses never had any need to swim, and I marveled that they could just plunge into the water and swim by instinct. George rode on the downstream side of Esther to protect her from being swept past him, and they made it to the other side.

Then he traded horses with Esther, because by now his horse had made two trips across the swollen river and was getting tired. He mounted Esther’s horse and returned for me. Again I pleaded, “No George, please, no!” But into the river we went. Again he rode on the downstream side, next to me, and the horses swam what seemed like directly upstream to keep us from being washed downstream by the river’s now raging current. The river bubbled and boiled up around us. We were losing the battle against the current!

But our horses swam valiantly, and George bravely shouted encouragement to me and the horses, and we finally, barely made it across. We had been washed the distance of a good city block downstream from where Esther waited for us. Our horses clambered up onto the river bank, exhausted.

We were all exhausted and frightened. When I finally got my breath back, I looked at George and said, “George that was the craziest, most foolhardy thing we’ve ever done in our lives. Nobody would have ever known what happened to us!