Vermillion Cliffs (wikipedia photo)
On Sunday, June 15, 2014, Tania and I got into a van with a driver and 10 other people and headed north from Flagstaff. We followed a five-ton truck that carried four others from our party, plus enough food and gear to sustain 16 people for 16 days. We were leaving behind grocery stores, air conditioning, e-mail, and cell phones. We were expecting rattlesnakes, scorpions, extreme heat, high cliffs, and world-famous rapids. But it would all be worth the trouble, because we were rowing the Grand Canyon.
I don’t want to over-sell this. We didn’t live on flour, coffee, bacon, and wild game, as John Wesley Powell’s party did when it went down the river in the summer of 1869. Unlike Powell, we carried generous amounts of beer and wine, a four-burner propane stove, and coolers that could keep fresh vegetables edible for two weeks. We had Dutch ovens for baking bread and cake, sleeping cots, camp chairs, and a
satellite phone that would summon a helicopter if anything went seriously wrong. About 35,000 people float through the Grand Canyon every year. There’s a system.
But still. Most of those 35,000 don’t go on the full 226-mile trip from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek, and most of the 226-milers rely on professional guides, paying upwards of $4,000 for a seat on a 30-foot motorized raft. Only about one-fifth of rafters go on “noncommercial” trips like ours, and we weren’t using motors, either. Our trip was cheaper but also harder because we did the work ourselves.
The trip leader, Pete Kirchner, won a permit in the National Park Service’s (NPS) annual weighted lottery in February, 2013. He and his wife, Christie Kroll, contracted with Professional River Outfitters (PRO) in Flagstaff to rent the rafts and equipment, buy and pack the food, and drive everything (and us) to and from the river. Pete and Christie recruited a great crew. And Pete also cloistered himself at home in the weeks leading up to the trip, forsaking outdoor exercise and washing his hands compulsively, because if he was injured or ill and unable to make it to Lee’s Ferry on June 16, the strict NPS rules would probably not allow the trip to happen. I think we all felt that getting to Lee’s Ferry was a milestone, but for Pete and Christie, it was an especially big one.
US Highway 89 north of Flagstaff cuts through an arid plain with mountains in the far distance, and after an hour of looking at that kind of scenery, my mind started to wander. I grew up in a small town in south Florida, which is as flat as Nebraska. There was not much for a kid to do in the summer, so I would check out huge stacks of books from the library to amuse myself. One day I brought home a book about geology, and I opened it to a color photograph of the Grand Canyon.
The book said that the river often flowed more than a mile below the rim. As an eight-year-old, a three-foot drainage ditch seemed deep to me. But a mile? How is this possible? I needed to see this place. And I did – I glimpsed the Canyon from the South Rim on a road trip at age 15. At 26, I hiked down from the South Rim and slept on the river. And over the next three decades, I spent a lot of days blissfully wandering around in desert canyons. Yet I had not done what that eight-year-old had dreamed of doing, until now.
I saw the Vermillion Cliffs when the van was about 25 miles away. Someone in the van said that they were on the far side of the river. They grew closer while I stared at them, their colors changing with the angle of the sun. Then we went around a bend and down an incline, and there was the river, a blue-green streak amid the reds and grays. The van broke into applause as we crossed the Navajo Bridge. A few miles later, we reached the boat ramp at Lee’s Ferry.
Navajo Bridge (Wikipedia)
Most summer visitors to Arizona’s low desert live inside an air-conditioned envelope. The daytime high temperature in the Canyon in June reliably exceeds 100 degrees, and the humidity is usually very low (around 10 percent) before the summer “monsoon season” starts. When we got out of the van around 3pm, it was cloudless with a steady hot wind. It was perfect weather for drying stuff — fruit, skin, eyeballs,what have you. And we had three hours to unload the truck, inflate the rafts, set up their internal frames, pack them with our gear, and launch. The work was so hot and the sun was so strong that long pants and sleeves, a hat, and sunglasses were safety equipment. Wearing artificial fibers instead of cotton was also important, because they made it easier to jump into the river to cool off. With nylon, your clothes would feel like they had been pulled fresh out of the dryer ten minutes after they were soaking wet.
(above) Tania and Christie inflating the rafts; (below) rigging at Lee’s Ferry boat ramp
We were rigging six neoprene rafts — five yellow 18-footers, and a blue one that measured 16 feet. Each raft weighed more than half a ton when it was loaded. The frames had compartments for the coolers and large steel boxes, plus straps for the rest of the stuff. Everything had to be secured, in case the rafts ever flipped (as one eventually did). Clothing, personal items, and other things that needed to be waterproof were loaded into rubbery dry bags or metal ammunition boxes. The work was focused but not frantic, as PRO manager Beth Roeser and the driver, her spouse Bryant, stepped in whenever questions or disagreements came up. PRO has been doing this since 1983, and they lived up to their name.
Each raft had a “boatman” who was in charge of the craft and did most of the rowing. All of the boatmen on our trip had significant whitewater experience. Four had been on the Canyon before, and two were professional river guides on vacation. (This place has a tendency to become an obsession). I was also reassured to know that Christie is a paramedic, that she and Pete volunteer for a search and rescue team, and that the spouse of one of the river guides was a pharmacist (and also a master of Dutch oven cooking). There were also two geologists on the crew. And everyone else was comfortable with the outdoors and willing to learn.
Near the end of the packing, Beth introduced us to a three-ring binder that was the key to meal preparation. The binder listed the menus, recipes, and ingredients for each meal over the 16 days, and it also identified the box where each ingredient was stored. “Neatness counts,” explained Beth. “So put things back where you found them.” Neatness, as in hand-washing, was also the key to escaping from norovirus. This is the highly contagious food-borne illness that makes headlines whenever everyone on a cruise ship starts vomiting and shitting at the same time. It has become a problem on river trips.
I understand now that the difference between a vacation and an expedition is responsibility. This trip was an expedition because everyone had important responsibilities to the group, and anyone who slacked off would make things harder for everyone else – maybe a lot harder. This was abundantly clear to all of us by 6pm, when we were finally loaded and ready to push off. But we were only going 150 feet, down to a private boater’s campsite to spend the night. The next morning, a NPS ranger would check our identification, inspect our boats, and hopefully send us on our way. That’s why today is Day Zero.
Fortunately, there is a restaurant at Lee’s Ferry, so we didn’t have to unpack all the stuff we just packed. It was at the Marble Canyon Lodge, where Beth and Bryant would be spending the night. The original 1926 lodge building had burned to the ground a year earlier, but a back room had been re-done and christened the Resurrection Restaurant. It was packed. The food was basic and the waitresses were stretched to their limits, but who cares. Everyone sat together for the first time at one long table and started to talk. We kept at it for the next two weeks.
Before too long we were back at the campsite on our fabulous new roll-a-cots, under lightweight sleeping bags that became necessary as the night wore on and the temperature dipped into the 50s. Tania and I were both fairly pie-eyed over what we were about to do, but fortunately, we were also exhausted. We were awake just long enough to notice the amazing depth and clarity of the stars. The night sky may be my favorite thing about camping in the desert.
I woke up a few hours later. The moon had come up – it had been full just two days earlier, and it still cast enough light to read a newspaper. The Vermillion Cliffs were a dark mass on my left, and on my right, I could hear the Colorado River. The river seemed loud because there were no other noises. No car engines, no radios, nothing at all. Before I reached over to Tania and fell back asleep, I felt intense gratitude.