Water Skiing In The Murdock Canal
The Murdock Canal is a century old water conveyance facility running along the foothills of Utah County. Farmers constructed the 22-mile long canal to divert water from the Provo River at the Murdock Diversion Waterworks located at the mouth of Provo Canyon. The purpose was to convey irrigation water to northern Utah County. The drainage was originally built by hand with teams of horses and scrapers.
In the 1940s the canal was enlarged - 30 feet across and 12 feet deep. Five hundred Sixty cubic feet of water per second irrigated 46,000 acres of farmland in Orem, Lindon, Pleasant Grove, American Fork, Highland and Lehi. Then the waterway plunged underground and dumped into the Jordon River at the Point of the Mountain where Utah and Salt Lake Counties meet. The canal is pretty much all dirt – except for a few sections of concrete.
Over the years various road and foot bridges were built over and a narrow one-lane dirt roadway runs along one side. Cattle guards were installed, but access was always available to both vehicles and people.
In the late 1950’s the rapidly flowing canal was also used as major recreation, mainly by kids, old and young, who inner-tubed, swam, jumped off bridges, and in general saw the waterway as their own private swimming hole. A favorite pastime was to get in a tube, and float down the canal until you hit a bridge where the water was touching the bridge’s underside. Then get sucked down – tube and all – the width of the bridge – 75 feet or so. Dangerous –unbelievably – but other hitting your back or head on a snag hanging down, scraping the bottom of the concrete bridge, or drowning, there really wasn’t that much risk. Good training in holding your breath and adjusting to minor panic attacks. Since the water came out of the bottom of Deer Creek Dam it was very cold and shrinkage was an understood phenomenon.
Summer jobs in 1957 were plentiful if you didn’t mind being an indentured slave – thinning sugar beets at $.75 cents a row, where the beet row went over the horizon, working 12 hour shifts on the pea viner, or picking pie cherries for $.03 a pound – not a good idea to indulge in too many while picking, since the cherries moved through the alimentary canal at an astonishing rate and with high decibel fanfare. Stimulating, interesting, thought provoking, lifetime career jobs like these abounded.
I spent a lot of my life at this time sitting on the Murdock Canal footbridges above Pleasant Grove with my buddies drinking Orange and Grape Nehi sodas. And of course, in those days before Recycling, the EPA, or Green Accountability, seeing how far we could huck the bottles downstream was great sport. We discussed great philosophic topics of the day – girls, could we sneak our dad’s cars, was it worth a shot to attempt another watermelon borrowing expedition from Pulley’s Farm, and what plausible excuses would our parents accept to get out of working.
In Fifty-Seven there were not a lot of recreational opportunities around, but one of our group of twelve – loyal friends all to this day – had access to a powerboat for water skiing in Utah Lake. Unfortunately his father insisted, wisely, in being there whenever the boat was used. He seemed to realize that none of us had the slightest regard for someone else’s personal property.
One afternoon, as we were sitting on our favor bridge dangling our feet over the water and lamenting that we didn’t have anything to do, a thought came, like a bad migraine, “we can water ski in here”. Get skis, a rope, and a tow vehicle and we could be in business. We quickly worked out a method whereby one person would hold the towrope out the rear door of the car as it roared along the canal bank road – another guy would look backward at the skier and signal the driver – of course the only signal ever given was to increase speed. Others would offer moral support and yell.
There is a certain thrill in piloting a car at fifty miles an hour on a narrow dirt road – water eight feet below on one side and a twenty-foot embankment on the other. The skier also had a challenge or two because of the narrow width of the waterway and the angle of the rope from the car. An occasional crash was expected but the injuries were not life threatening. It was exhilarating to say the least, but one problem became quickly apparent, there were so many cattle guards and bridges that the ride was not very long, less than 20 seconds.
We scouted the entire 22-mile stretch of the canal and finally found about a mile with only cattle guards, no bridges. The theory was to have a guy (Animal, the strongest among us) stand in the back door rear opening of the car, hold the rope and flip the it over the cattle guards as the car roared along. The door would be open but no big deal.
We anticipated maybe a 2-minute ride on the skis. I was elected to man the skis and we used Gary Price’s 1955 Green Ford Station Wagon as the tow vehicle. Gary accelerated and we were speeding down the canal at about 30 mph. Animal flipped the rope up and over the first cattle guard, so far so good.
As Gary accelerated to the max speed of 50 another cattle guard appeared. He was having some trouble controlling the car at that speed and got too close to the guard. Bang, the door that the Animal was leaning out of smashed into the metal guard, and tossed him back into the seat. The rope jerked out of his hands and of course it didn’t clear the cattle guard. But it did catch in the bent car door.
Dazed by the spectacle unfolding, I didn’t immediately drop the rope. The next thing I knew I was flying up over the canal bank. When I let go and hit the road – my swim trunks were shredded and a bunch of skin from the front of my body left a bloody smear up the bank.
My frightful appearance brought sympathy from my friends in the form of doubled over laughter. The Animal’s eyes had rolled back in his head from the concussion of the door, but he soon regained consciousness and we convinced him that the orange sized protrusion on his head was just a minor bump and certainly didn’t need stitches.
Meanwhile Gary was examining the caved in door on his Dad’s station wagon. This was a time for responsibility, for gathering around, and supporting a friend as he anticipated facing his father. No problem that I was bleeding out on the road, we needed to help Gary. Take joint responsibility – surround him as he went home to face the music.
Our solution: immediate abandonment after we convinced Gary to drop us off at our houses. We knew Gary’s dad was even tempered, but saw no advantage in admitting any slight responsibility in the adventure. Even we did not anticipate Gary fate. Didn’t touch the wheel of the family car for six months. And the problem was no one else dared use their Father’s car for a second attempt. Eventually Animal recovered, my skin grew back, and Gary forgave his loyal friends – but showed somewhat of a lack of trust from that point on.
We were back a few weeks later sitting on the same bridge shooting the breeze, missing water skiing, and replaying the unfortunate car crash. Guys have a gene in their DNA that encourages them to relieve themselves out of doors whenever possible. There is just something about taking a whiz in the open air that borders on spiritual. As the sun was starting to go down, we were all standing on the bridge, trying for distance when the devil tempted me. I reached over and ever so gently touched the Animal on the back, tilting him slightly forward.
Have you ever tried to rub your stomach, tap your head and walk at the same time? Tougher than you think. Anyway, the Mule, another favorite name we had for him, tried to steady himself, holding one arm down while at the same time lifting the other arm up for balance – all quite ineffective. The desired result was accomplished. He plunged, fully dressed into the canal; arms wind milling, zipper down – quite a sight.
When he came up, the first thing he did was utter an oath that questioned my heritage. I could see from his face as he dog paddled to the side that he may have not view this as just a fun prank.
I had a couple of choices – I could apologize, offer to have him throw me in, or come up with some boldfaced lie about accidentally bumping him, but, after a millisecond considering all these, I decided the other option was best – run like hell.
Fortunately I had about a 75-yard head start and admittedly running in wet Levis didn’t qualify Animal for the track team especially while trying to get his jeans zipped. I made it home without him catching me, locked my parent’s doors and hid. It took him about a week to finally catch me defenseless, and at that point he heated up a pair to tongs we were using in chemistry class and clamped them on my arm. I still have the scars, but all in all, it was worth it just to see his body flailing away as he hit the water.
Now its 2009 and water conservancy district is finally going to Pipe old canal – no more sitting on the bridges talking about the possibilities of life, no more drinking Grape Nehi, no more water skiing at 50 mph or shoving your friends off – days gone by never to be recaptured – just a cement pipe in place of the Old Murdock Canal.