A 226-mile trip in the wild

“I think our purpose here is to improve stewardship of the Earth, with compassion and respect for all life, to live with a sense of humor and adventure as we move towards spiritual fulfillment.” — Larry Stevens, senior ecologist for Wild Arizona and the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council

“Tell me about it!” Robin said after we hugged, heaved my luggage in the back, and climbed into the car. She’d picked me up at the airport after I flew back from a trip consisting of many firsts.

I thought, but where to begin?

With spending 13 nights outdoors, sleeping on the ground atop a sleeping bag, thin foam mattress, and tarp to keep the red ants and scorpions at bay, and hoping a rattlesnake didn’t slither onto the assembly in the night, nor a bat swoop down for a nip?

With the blazing temperatures — reaching 114 degrees in the height of the day — that got marginally comfortable only long after the moon rose? And slaking thirst with water that, at best, is luke warm?

With daily pooping into one of two communal metal boxes known as “groovers”, hidden discreetly in the shubbery away from camp? And, in the night, peeing into a quart-sized plastic cup to be emptied and rinsed out with river water in the morning?

With bathing in river water, wrapping yourself in a thin cloth sheet, clomping through the sand and rocks to your camping spot, quickly donning something to cover your tush, slathering moisturizing lotion over your body, then being whipped with wind-driven sand until your body feels like a sugar doughnut?

Sounds horrible, right? To the contrary, I took what was among the most exhilarating and inspiring trips of my life. Physically demanding, at times exhausting, it was a total blast. Specifically, rafting 226 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, starting 15 miles below the Glen Canyon Dam, at a spot called Lee’s Ferry and designated Mile 0. Fourteen days later, the trip concluded at a spot called Diamond Creek, in the Hualapai Tribe Reservation. In between? Some of the most magnificent scenery on earth, taken in with physical adventure in the company of agreeable people.

More than a float down a river, it was a transformative journey through honest-to-goodness wild land, something I realized I’d never really done. All of the camping and hiking I’d ever done heretofore, mostly occurred barely out of earshot of a highway or railroad track. This time, two weeks without sight of so much as a telephone pole. Where I live, deer intrude on civilization. Down there, we were visitors to the deer grounds, and those of the big horned sheep, mountain lions, and birds of prey.

The AzRA bus crosses the Navajo Bridge en route to trip start at Lee’s Ferry. I didn’t miss the bus. It stops to let everyone walk across the adjacent foot bridge and get a preview of the terrain through which we’d be rafting only a couple of hours later.

A Flagstaff, Arizona company called Arizona Raft Adventures provides pretty much everything in terms of equipment, food, and expert guides. The Grand Canyon — among God’s great terrestrial gestures — provides scenery unsurpassed anywhere in its grandeur. Its never-ending and mysterious rock formations seemed to have been fashioned by an ancient civilization. The Colorado River provides the water to cool you off in the heat, the thrill of rapid after rapid, the serenity of the flat water in between, where you might see the nose, eyes and ears of a beaver purposefully paddling by; or a duck shooing along a dozen tiny ducklings. The scrub shrubbery along much of the river produce scenes of bighorn sheep chewing on grass or, if you’re lucky, butting heads. The sky provided, on this trip at least, an unblinking sun by day, a spectacular galaxy of stars and satellites at night, far from urban light pollution.

Soon we’ll be down there; Colorado River viewed from South Rim of the Grand Canyon

My friend and neighbor, Mitchell, who is an accomplished hiker and camper, and who has a particular interest and experience in the Grand Canyon, asked me if I’d join him on this trip. We were supposed to go in 2021, but the lingering pandemic pushed into this year. His brother-in-law Mitch and Mitch’s friend Scott rounded out the D.C. area contingent on this particular trip.

I’m no tenderfoot, but it’s been quite a few years since I’ve slept outdoors. The last time was maybe 25 years ago when my son and I went on a couple of one- or two-night canoe camping trips on mild Virginia rivers. So I was frankly nervous about the idea of being outdoors for 14 consecutive days. In the Grand Canyon, you can’t run to Walmart if you forget something. In fact, unless you are injured or fall sick, once you leave the shore of the put-in, you’re committed for the entirety of the trip.

I’ll add a day-by-day summary at the end, but basically the trip starts the night before, at the Little America Hotel in Flagstaff. As if to purposefully contrast with the ensuing two weeks, the spotless, low-rise hotel’s rooms are sumptuously furnished, with sofas, marble showers, and the latest in comfy bedding.

After an hour-long orientation in a conference room by an AzRA staff member, each traveler is given two dry bags for the trip. Back in your room, you transfer your trip clothes and other items to the dry bags, and the next morning leave remaining luggage for storage at the hotel. A white AzRA school bus driven by an energetic staff member pulls up. Dry bags are stowed in the back of the bus, and everyone troops aboard for a two hour ride to Lee’s Ferry, about 15 miles south of the Glen Canyon Dam.

When we arrive at Lee’s Ferry, it’s hot and already the vestiges of civilization are behind us. The landing is little more than a parking lot and a shed. After a thorough briefing by Michele, our trip leader, time comes to get on with it. Forming gang-lines, everyone helps shift the bags to the boats. The guides tie everything down. You pick a boat, scramble in — now your feet are wet — and shove off into one of the world’s great rivers. The water is greenish blue and clear.

Having started close to mid-day, we only travel 12 miles the first day, but get to experience some exciting rapids and feel the sometimes vigorous splash of the waves. Our first camp site lies on the South side of the river, just below the Soap Creek Rapid.

Here’s a feature-by-feature description of the trip.

The groover: The universal worry people bring to these trips is, where and how will I, you know, poop? So I’ll start here. Guides set up two of these oblong metal boxes at each camp. Basically after you do your business, and use toilet paper sparingly, you sprinkle some sort of chlorine down in there and put the lid back. There’s a system for the groover, no less than for every other aspect of the trip. At the start of a path into a hidden spot thicket, the guides set up a handwash station. There’s a small canister containing the toilet paper. You take the canister with you down the path to where the groover has been discreetly hidden. And bring the canister back to the handwashing station when you’re done. Thus the canister, adorned in colorful tape, serves as a signal for whether a groover is in use. Having a shortly-after-breakfast regularity, I don’t try the groover until the next morning. I have what was for me, someone who assiduously avoids public restrooms for #2, a success.

The routine: Days follow a routine, but are never the same. The camp awakes naturally at about 5 a.m., as the sky starts to lighten. One or two of the guides arise early — they each sleep on one of the six boats — to make a big pail of hot coffee and prepare breakfast. I make two trips to the river each morning. One to empty and rinse my pee cup (and pee directly in the river) and a return visit to brush my teeth. I spit in the river, but rinse my mouth and toothbrush from one of my Nalgene bottles. I try to pack up my sleep kit before breakfast. Breakfast is social, with people sitting around on blue camping chairs. After busing my dishes, I hit the groover, then repack my dry bags in preparation for the day’s rafting.

My traveling buddies from D.C. area: Scott, Mitch, Mitchell, me (right, with Buff on my head)

Mornings the air isn’t yet hot; much of the canyon is still shaded. We might move along until lunch time. Often we stop for a mid-morning hike to see some natural or ancient Native American-made feature. Other times the hike and lunch stop coincide. Afternoons, high heat is often accompanied by sharp wind blowing from downstream, making hard work for the guides. By 4 or 4:30, we glide into a camp site. Passengers help secure the boats, then hop onto the camp site to find a spot. Some like to sleep down by the river, others on rock ledges above, at the base of a cliff. I go for shrubbed alcoves for privacy, hopefully with a flat rock nearby to serve as a table for my dry bags.

The pull-in to camp at first is my low point of the day. It’s when my regular-travel brain says: Go to the room, take a quick nap, shower, then head for the bar. Not out here. Still, after a few days in I find a comfortable pattern of site-finding, stuff-arranging, river-bathing, then socializing before dinner. A few evenings I’m content to sit by myself before dinner, sipping from one of the flasks of whiskey I brought, just to contemplate precisely where I am.

After claiming a sleeping spot, it’s time to help the guides unload everything needed for camp — food, kitchen equipment, everyone’s bags, handwashing stations, groovers, burlap bags full of adult beverages, water purification system, camping mattresses, tents (which only one or two people used once or twice), bags of folding chairs, ammo cans of miscellaneous items. Literally a couple of tons of materiel. While the guides prepare dinner, we’ve got 90 minutes or two hours to bathe in the river and socialize over beer or, in my case, whiskey.

It’s maybe 7 p.m. until one of the guides calls dinner time. We line up to wash hands and make way along the tall buffet table, eat, bus dishes, then wait for the dessert call. After dessert it’s dark and everyone rushes to get their camp site ready. By 9, it’s nearly dark and the camp falls silent.

The food: No one can quite figure out how, but AzRA and guides are able to provide fresh and amazingly good meals right up to the last day. Each oar boat houses an ice chest. There’s neither electrical refrigeration nor any opportunity to restock along the way. Dinners include steaks on the grill (twice), spaghetti with tomato and sausage sauce, chicken and bean stew, hamburgers and brauts, and barbecue chicken and pork, among other entrees. Always with fresh salad and a side dish. Breakfasts include blueberry pancakes, French toast, eggs made to order, and casseroles of eggs and green chilies. Plus bacon, Canadian bacon, or sausages. Lunches include chicken or turkey sandwiches, or tortillas filled with chicken or tuna salad. Bread always seems fresh. Peanut butter and jelly are available. Cookies, nuts, condiments of every description. Desserts are frequently cakes of varying flavors, baked in a cast iron dutch oven over charcoal.

The trip is no cruise ship, but neither is it hot dogs and beans. On the first half of the trip, Kat, AzRA’s food buyer (and excellent ukulele and guitar player and singer) is among the passengers. She wants to see how the food is actually consumed.

The guides: I’m continually impressed by their enthusiasm, stamina and skill. Your life on the river is basically in the guides’ hands. The river is the river, the canyon the canyon. Both are eternal, indifferent to whether you survive. Thus the guides are the important variable in the voyage. Our trip consisted of six boats, each with a guide. Four regular oar rafts, a raft designed for three people to paddle on each side, and a roughly symmetrical, pointed aluminum boat called a dory. An assistant guide, Laura, is the fiance of the dory guide Matt.

The guides not only oar all day, they possess surprising knowledge of the grand canyon itself, its history of exploration, the details of its various rock layers. I couldn’t remember the names of the layers, but now understand how plastic a substance rock actually is, over eons anyway. Guides work tirelessly, literally from dawn to dusk, directing the daily loading and unloading of the boats, ensuring everything is strapped down before morning departure. They set up and take down the kitchen, beverage and dishwashing stations, groovers. They take turns preparing meals, working in pairs. They make sure there’s plenty of purified river water. They’re quietly firm on what passengers are expected to help with, and what they, the guides, alone must do.

In the paddle boat. No, you don’t need a left- or right-handed paddle

Most of all they possess gifted human relations skills. Never are passengers made to feel like city rubes, or people to be tolerated while the guides pursue their river passion. To the contrary, the guides genuinely and continuously engage with us, eager to share their knowledge of geology, wildlife, and of course, the subtleties of the river’s pulsing patterns of currents, eddies, whirlpools, waves and tongues.

Two of the guides are men my age, men of surprising durability and skill. Larry is a renowned kayaker. He’s run the Colorado River in one type of boat or another scores, perhaps hundreds of times. With a wry sense of humor and unflappable demeanor, he is asked by one passenger how he’ll handle a particularly tricky upcoming rapid.

“I’ll probably just back into it, close my eyes, and see what happens,” he replies.

Bob, a home builder from Colorado, is heavier and more taciturn, but warms up a lot as the trip proceeds. The first evening on the river he has the passengers saucer-eyed with what turn out to be completely tongue-in-cheek instructions for how to use the groover, using a single sheet of toilet paper. One evening he has everyone gather ’round, ostensibly to make duck callers out of the little flat plastic doodads that close bread bags. When we’re all about to test our earnestly-crafted duck callers, he tosses his and yells, “Hey ducks!”

A cave the size of an amphitheater, one of the Canyon’s many other-worldly features

Matt is the young male guide. He looks too skinny to row the dory day after day, but he does. On several occasions he calmly guides me around climbing situations when I’m gripped by my fear of heights, when I have to creep along a narrow ledge while finding handgrips in the rocks at eye level. He’s soon to embark on his first trip as trip leader. He’ll excel.

Riah, one of the three women guides, cheerfully adjudicates the demand for trips in her paddle boat, which gives a more involved, but less chill, experience than the other boats. She orders everyone when to paddle, and which direction, and when to stop. Passionate about geology, she talks in great detail about the canyon formations as we guide past. Comes a rapid, and she’s all business, expertly steering the boat through the thrills, then having everyone tap their paddle blades together in the air as a self-toast to a successful navigation.

Riah also nearly saves my trip. Early on I realize my made-in-China Teva boat sandals are coming apart. That would be a serious bummer. But Riah produces a gadget called a Speedy Stitcher, a sort of threaded awl. She wondrously sews them together with heavy thread. By golly they hold up until the very end. I’m tempted to trash them back at the hotel, but I bring them home so my wife can see the stitching.

End of day on the river: The awesomely talented guides having a moment of their own in the moored dory, accompanied by a libation.

Taylor, who goes by Tay-Tay, is a vivacious and funny red head, a seeker of knowledge and insight. We had a couple of deep discussions on the flat waters. With the arrival of a rapid, she becomes a river tigress, entirely focused on achieving the correct line through. In the bounding, splashing, noisy rapids, she lets out shrieks of joy, congratulating herself on a perfect run. We whoop it up along with her. It was with Tay-Tay that I go through the biggest rapid of the trip, known as Lava Falls.

One day the group hikes to a sort of grotto or deep, narrow channel in the rock, where we find smooth rock surfaces for a nap in the shade, our flotation devices serving as pillows. Taylor brings her guitar, and sings a set of songs that echo through the grotto. It makes for a weird sensation in my half-awake state, lying on rocks in this nearly unearthly setting.

Laura is our assistant guide. Although engaged to Matt, she participates on many of the boats, not always riding in the dory. She’s also quite capable of oaring. We end up on several river segments together, and I learn she is a student of human development in her work training people to become ski instructors.

Pretty, but don’t grab it on a hike! (Photo by Scott Schroth)

Our trip leader is Michele, a relentlessly sunny woman with a brilliant smile. She’s rafted the Colorado through the Grand Canyon 60 times. Riding in her boat a couple of times I sensed I was in the company of pure competence. Ultimately in charge of safety and the trip’s general success, she governs with the lightest touch. In reality everyone wants to cooperate anyhow, and I don’t ever detect any sort of conflict. Before the initial put-in at Lee’s Ferry, she outlines what to expect. Each morning she lays a map on the ground as we gather ’round. With a stick, she retraces the prior day’s progress and points out what’s to come this day.

The river: The subject of a library’s worth of literature unto itself, the Colorado River between the two major dams — Glen Canyon and Hoover — is a living thing, albeit much different than it was before the damming booms of the 1930s and 1950s. Because of the Western drought, no flooding has occurred recently, so the water is green-blue and clear. It twists and turns, long stretches of placid flat water punctuated by rapids their inferior cousins, riffles, 118 in all. When last I visited, during a hike in the Canyon several years ago, the water was so cold I could barely go in for more then a few seconds, and then only to my ankles. On this trip, weather, drought and Lake Powell water release patterns have rendered the river much warmer. I’m able to take a daily bath, and wash out clothes. At one camp site, there’s a wonderful area where the water is gently flowing, at the mouth of an adjacent dry stream bed. I’m able to sit in the river up to my neck, a bum cheek on each of two stones, and let the cool water drive the day’s heat out of my bones.

Not the Hyatt Regency: sandy camp site (Photo by Mitchell Gaynor)

We stop at the confluence of the Little Colorado River, at about Mile 62, Navajo Nation territory. The Navajos hold the river and the confluence sacred. We hike up along the shallow river, the color of a swimming pool, and float feet-first down a ripple for a few hundred feet. The water is tantalizingly warm compared to the Colorado.

The wildlife: Throughout the trip we see, in no particular order: big horned sheep, deer, beaver, mouse, peregrine, rattlesnake, duck, blue heron, bald eagle, hawk, bat, snowy egret, turkey vulture, osprey, raven, lizard, toads, cormorant, red ants, and tiny scorpions. At least that’s what I can name. We see many other insects, but no mosquitos. Ravens are no fools. On several days after the camp is packed up and boats loaded, ravens arrive to feast on the dinner and breakfast morsels left over.

The Canyon: On my second trip to the Grand Canyon, I was no less impressed than on the first. No photograph does it justice. The last time consisted of a hike down, two nights at the fabled Phantom Ranch, a hike along the bottom on the middle day, and hiking back out the third day. Seen foot-by-foot in the slow motion of the rafts, I am doubly impressed by the splendor of what a billion years of geologic activity has wrought, My mind wanders towards seeing things in the formations — a temple 2,000 feet in the sky, an array of singing monsters (Riah pointed out that one), rows of stern soldiers, faces of every sort. Maps, machines, animals. The rock seems almost alive, but with a heartbeat measured in eons.

Before final day on the river, passengers and guides gather for group pic (Photo by Scott Schroth)

The trip felt like a fantastical mixture of pleasant hardship — peeing into a cup by moonlight while admiring the surrounding Canyon vistas in the 2 a.m. chiaroscuro — and continual awe at the wild, rugged, stunningly beautiful totality of the Canyon. Was it luck, I wonder, that the guests were all so agreeable, or do like-minded people self-select to embark on this type of experience? No one spends hours pecking at their device.

The handiwork of Barbara from Wisconsin.

You make fast friends, isolated in such surroundings with no email, phone service, or internet. Barbara, an athletic hairdresser from Wisconsin, transformed my ponytail into a French braid. A 70-ish but lithe Cass from Tuscon describes her late husband’s sailing from from Honolulu to San Diego. Near the end, after another trip passing by handed our trip a bag of ice cubes, Barbara’s husband Brett and I share the last of my bottle of Bourbon over ice, sharing the same coffee container. An athletic 30-year-old woman, Carissa, on the trip with her brother and their plucky mom, repeatedly offers me a hand when scrambling over the rocky hikes. I realize that at 67, I’m not quite as lithe as I was a decade ago!

People cheer one another on. At one location, we park the boats and climb onto a flat-topped rock with a straight drop to the river, which is about 60 feet deep. It’s a popular place for jumping. It’s no higher than a poolside high dive, but to me it felt like jumping off the Empire State Building. I’m the last to go, standing stupidly on the edge, gulping. Guides Riah and Laura and passenger Robert from Alaska are urging me on with mental tricks. Bob offers to hold my hand and jump with me. Everyone else is arrayed on the rocky beach below, waiting, urging. They start singing songs to get me to jump. Taylor tells Scott, “I’ve never wanted someone to jump so badly.” Finally, having no other honorable choice, I step off, yell “F—–k!” on the way down, and hear yells and applause when I bob to the surface.

Two weeks in, the trip ends, and a few hours later we’re back at the hotel. The river and canyon might be far behind, but they’ve — and the people I encountered — have made such an impression that they will remain in my heart.

Still to come: A brief day-by-day account

Last day of trip, at Diamond Creek, it’s all business. We help the guides take down all the gear and deflate the rafts
Back in civilization, a stop at ’50s era ice cream shoppe, on Historic Route 66. I order a vanilla malted shake

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