“The song of the river ends not at her banks, but in the hearts of those who have loved her.” – Buffalo Bill
There we were. 16 of us, standing on the river’s edge looking downstream at the 280 miles which were to become our home for the next 23 days. It would soon delight us, challenge us and inspire us. We would create a lasting bond; a connection that would be ignited by the adventure that awaited us in the canyon.
Rig day was hot and long. Efficiency drastically drops when you try to load 3,500 cans of beer onto 6 rafts, especially after already drinking a few of those said beers… But our spirits were high and our hearts were eager. For most of us, this was a trip that we had been dreaming of forever. We quit our jobs, we lived out of our cars, we said goodbye to lovers and we saved every damn penny we could to make this dream a reality.
After our boats were rigged we floated 100 ft downstream to the boat ramp campsite and cooked our first river dinner. Fajitas on a sandy beach during a sunset is pretty much what I live for. We also began our valiant effort to lighten up our boats 12oz at a time, if you know what I mean. The energy that was circulating through us that night was practically palpable. The next morning we woke up early with anticipation and sat anxiously through the 30 minute required ranger talk. The ranger was going through safety procedures and requirements when we mentioned that we didn’t have a satellite phone. He swallowed loudly and nervously and said something along the lines of, “hmmm, well you are the first group I’ve come across that didn’t bring one. I guess, disregard everything I just said about evacuations. Good luck.” But we didn’t bat an eye at his concern, we knew that people had been running this river for years before satellite phones were even invented! (Calm down mom, we had GPS “spot” devices just in case…)
And that was that, we were off! Well not quite, we had to scoot our incredibly heavy beached rafts off the shore thanks to the tides caused by the dam… Damn!! I’d love to say that we figured out the mathematical equation to avoid beached rafts, but every single morning we moaned and grunted and rolled our eyes at the sight of our dry boats. But, what better way to bond a group of strangers than to have them do the ol’ heave-ho with a two-thousand pound, 18ft hunk of rubber!
Days 1- 5, miles 1-71
These first few days seemed to be fake. The sheer novelty of being in The Grand Canyon left me feeling like I was dreaming. It hadn’t quite sunk in yet. Every single day brought us new scenery and new hikes. And the rapids were like nothing I had ever seen!
Our first major rapid, House, was on day two. There was nothing home-y feeling about this gigantic raft flipping rapid. In fact, I wanted nothing to do with what it had to offer. There was a HUMUNGOUS hole (think washing machine turbulence, times 1000) on river left, which is conveniently where all of the current goes. When it was my turn to run it, I set my boat at a downstream angle, which would give me the most momentum to get away from certain death, and yelled a slurry of obscene profanities as the bow of my red raft brushed the tops of the biggest waves my eyes had ever scene. Oh dear god, PULL you worthless sissy!!! And that’s what I did. That’s what we all did. And we all made it, with the exception of two swimmers… oopsies!
Days three and four boasted a ton of fun with two great hikes and the “Roaring Twenties” section of rapids. Silver Grotto was our first hike. It was a stunning slot canyon with pools and waterfall slides, and we even got to set up rope to climb up and rappel down! The second hike was to the Nakoweap Granaries, which were located just above our campsite. From the top, you given a breathtaking panorama of the river corridor. I unfortunately missed out on the hike, due to a morning run gone awry (basically I got lost in a field of cacti) but the pictures I saw were amazing!
Days 6-10, miles 72-120
At this point we had started getting into a routine and river life became normal life, preferred life. Our chore crews were running smoothly and our musical crew provided full day entertainment! This particular section of river provided some beautiful geology and scenery. We entered the Upper Granite Gorge on day 6 and I stayed up all night watching the massive full moon light up the glistening walls. That moon would wake us up every night as it slowly rose above the walls and lit up the dark night sky.
The rapids we hit were some of my favorite, including Grapevine, Sockdolager, Horn Creek, Hermit and Crystal. I decided that it would be a great idea to ride the bull (sit with my feet dangling off the front of the raft) through most of these, because the guidebook made them sound insignificant. I quickly learned that “read and run” just means that there isn’t a particular line, it doesn’t mean that the waves won’t eat you. My feet were quickly up over my head for most of Hermit and I must have swallowed a gallon of water, all while Curtis was rowing behind me hysterically laughing. I quickly joined in on the laughter and decided that this would become my new seat for the rest of trip.
Day nine brought us our first rain of the trip and the crystal clear water abruptly turned chocolate brown. This milky, silty water followed us down the rest of the canyon but it was beautiful in its own right. We spent the next day doing a couple of rainy hikes, which were actually prettier because of the damp weather. Shinumo Creek and Elves Chasm were both short hikes with waterfalls and even though we were cold, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to climb up the rocks and jump into the inviting pools.
Days 11- 17, miles 121-214
This particular section of the canyon had mellow whitewater, aside from one major rapid which I will get to later. But it was home to some life changing hikes. Most of our days on the water were spent splashing around on the inflatable pool toys and SUP board- I even rode on the back of Colin’s kayak through a small riffle! The absence of stressful rapids really allowed us to focus on the beauty of the river.
On day twelve, our group embarked on a long hike from Thunder River to Deer Creek. It’s about a 6 hour hike and you get dropped off upstream and picked up a few miles downstream. The first part of the hike was pretty treacherous; I don’t think any of us were really aware of how difficult the hike would be. We hiked up and up and up for 3 hours through a winding and exposed canyon setting. Just as everyone was beginning to think twice about their choice to do the hike we approached a towering wall that had a roaring waterfall shooting straight out the side. Not only was the water feature remarkable, but there was also a magical lush micro-environment surrounding it. The mere sight of something this spectacular gave us the needed kick-in-the-butt to continue on. We hiked another few hours through Surprise Valley, which offered some seriously unique views, then came up to pinnacle of the trek; Deer creek. I think my journal entry best describes what this unique place is like. ” This place is what dreams are made of, holy shit. You arrive in a shady slot canyon that has a large natural patio- where you watch the creek cascade over the smooth rock into glorious waterfalls. Something special happened here, I can feel it in my bones.”
It was Jess’s birthday on day fourteen and we hiked Havasu Creek for most of the afternoon. Another gorgeous hike. We’re talking turquoise water and a confusingly lush green canyon. Honestly, this day is a bit of a blur. We may or may not have been under the celebratory influence, all I know is that we had GREAT time!
Remember that major rapid that I mentioned earlier? Well it was the largest rapid of the trip, a class 5, and we arrived above it on day sixteen. From river level it really didn’t seem that bad, but once we reached the viewpoint from the scout I wanted to vomit. My stomach lurched into my throat as I tried to wrap my mind around what I was seeing. How the hell do you get a boat through that madness?! The river was littered with massive holes and there was really only one clear route, which would require some serious boat handling skills. We said our I love you’s and goodbyes and buckled our helmets on. My hand were shaking uncontrollably as I rode the eddy line fence into my first move. But then a funny thing happened. I hit the first big wave and everything fell into place. I was one with my raft and one with the river. I had a beautiful line and my adrenaline gave me just enough strength to keep my boat straight. Everyone else had amazing lines as well! We really had a solid crew. Tequila shots awaited us below the rapid, whiles hugs were exchanged and everyone talked about their run.
Days 18-23, miles 215-280
After Lava Falls, we were greeted with about 65 miles of flat water. Might sound a little treacherous but we had a blast. We strapped all of our boats together and floated downstream like a giant barge. We had numerous floating lunches, even through an insane sandstorm and the instruments were brought out on a daily basis. Have you ever heard a banjo, mandolin and guitar in a canyon? Mmmm it’s pretty incredible to hear! I vividly remember our second to last morning. We had camped at a random beach out of desperation and were shocked to find a cave lingering behind the trees. We had time in the morning and we all wandered into the cave for a concert. The acoustics were outstanding, but mostly the sound of us all singing and laughing was what I remember most. I really grew fond of these crazy dirtbag rafters and moments like those make me miss the simplicity and rawness of our friendship.
Our last night on the river we did our best to go out with a bang! With the help of a makeshift riverside bar, we drank and ate our way into the night. We talked about our favorite moments and even made a fire and brought out some glow sticks… ya that’s right we are real party animals! The next morning we all worked in relative silence as a somber feeling fell over the group. How could it be over already? We didn’t want to leave this place, especially not yet. But regardless, we loaded up our boats and reluctantly rowed the last mile downstream. I think most of us were holding back tears as our shuttle arrived at the boat ramp, I know I was.
And that’s that folks. The brief story of a trip that I will remember for my entire life. These typed letters are supposed to form words that articulate what I experienced and felt. And I hope they did that for you. But it’s only a small glimpse of what this place is, what it does to you.
This river has become a part of me, a part of my story and I will carry it with me always.