Thanks to your donation and thousands of others, the 21st edition of the Ride for Life raised over $260,000 for the Southern Tier AIDS Program. On September 7, 2019, more than 300 riders circled part or all of Cayuga Lake. Tania outfitted our team, The Cats of Short Street. Hank Tepper, the cat in the middle, was too shy to wear his ears but he did the whole 102-mile route in style. It was a great day. Here’s my diary (click on the thumbnails to make the image larger).
Riding 90 miles (as Tania did) is about as challenging as a hard day of working outdoors. But if you want to enjoy the experience, you do have to spend a lot of time in the saddle beforehand. It helps to live near low-traffic county roads with gorgeous scenery. This is from our last training ride.
It was the 13th lake lap for me, 11th for Tania, and 3rd for Hank, and yes, “Why?” is a perfectly good question. The sunrise at the start of the ride is part of the answer.
Two of the biggest hills on the route happen in the first hour. Twin driveway owls at the top of the second, harder hill signal that you have made it to the top.
If you think the scenery doesn’t change from year to year, you’re not really paying attention. Cruising at 12 miles an hour encourages you to look closely.
Hank sped away from us at the starting line. At the second rest stop (mile 33), Tania and I were both feeling strong. She decided on the 90-mile loop. I wanted the full 102, so we turned our phones on to meet up later.
The scenery gets better north of the lake — another reason to do the full course. It was overcast until late morning, when the clouds started to move.
You almost always see eagles riding through the Montezuma Marsh. This year I saw Baby Big Bird. Someone had tossed him out the car window. I couldn’t just leave him there.
The football score turned out to be Maryland 63, Syracuse 20. Ouch, and hope it was a good party anyway!
A benevolent ghost watches over riders as they pull into the Seneca Falls Community Center for lunch. It’s the fourth of six stops for food and water. You can’t eat or drink too much when you’re doing this. It’s another reason to do the ride.
This year, the ghost of Sgt. “Peps” made sure that I caught up to Hank Tepper at lunch. We turned south and looked the last 40 miles in the face. This is when it turns into a job.
At mile 88, we finally caught up to Tania who, despite her diminutive stature, is a fitness monster. At mile 96, everything was going fine, and everything hurt. Mercifully, the last eight miles of the ride are on the Black Diamond rail trail, which has a steady 3 percent downhill grade.
We finished together and joined everyone for a celebratory dinner (BBQ chicken, veggie lasagna, free beer – thanks, CTB and Bandwagon!) at Stewart Park. Every year, the vibe at this party just can’t be beat. You oughta try it (info here). The rides start at just 14 miles with car shuttles, so you don’t have to be nuts like we are.
Thanks for your support! See you next year!
Your donations helped raise nearly $200,000 for the Southern Tier AIDS Program on Saturday! In this year’s AIDS Ride For Life, Tania and I rode around Cayuga Lake with our friend Henry Tepper. We did the whole 105 miles. Click on the top photo to start the slideshow with captions, and THANKS for your donation.
A year ago, Tania and I were enjoying boiled peanuts while delivering a free Cadillac to my mom in Florida. Things got even weirder and (often) more wonderful in 2016. Sometimes it got so exciting that I took pictures.
Click on the first photo to start the slide show. Order is left to right, top to bottom.
Wednesday, December 9, 2015: My mom got a Cadillac for Christmas this year. I didn’t give it to her—I only delivered it—and it isn’t really my kind of car, either. I drive a rusty Subaru Outback with a Bernie Sanders sticker on the back hatch. Whatever. Giving your mom a Cadillac is still every poor boy’s dream.
Elvis got his mom a Cadillac in 1955, just as he was hitting it big, even though she didn’t have a driver’s license. Last year, GM donated a pink Escalade to Terry Bridgewater to give to his mom, just after the Minnesota Vikings signed him. A Cadillac is a signal that you’ve finally made it. It’s more than money: it’ s class.
It was shaping up to be a low-key Christmas. My children are grown and have busy lives in Philadelphia and Manhattan. My daughter is a medical resident who works all the time. This was going to be the first year when everyone couldn’t make it home to Ithaca. So we agreed to meet and exchange gifts in a hotel on December 20, her nearest day off. December 25 was going to be a quiet day for two. Tania and I were kind of sad about it, what with the passage of time and all, but it also sounded kind of nice.
Then, 16 days before the big day, my sister called. Mom’s best friend lives just up the road from you, she said, and she wants to give mom a special present. It’s a white 2003 Cadillac DeVille and it’s in great condition, except for a glitch that keeps it from passing inspection in New York.
My mom lives in Florida, and there’s no vehicle inspection law down here, my sister said. Mom’s friend has already bought herself a nice new black Caddy. She really wants to do this, but she needs a driver. We could give mom the surprise of her life. And the car’s registration expires on December 25.
My mother is 82. She used to run a farm and still drives a big diesel pickup, but now she’s having problems climbing in and out of it. It was a long fly ball to deep left field, and I knew I had to catch it. So I cleared the calendar and asked Tania.
A woman I don’t really know wants us to drive a car with 100,000 miles it to Florida a few days before Christmas, I said. My mom doesn’t know we’re coming or that she’s getting the car as a present, but I’m pretty sure she’ll love it. Let’s go for it! What could possibly go wrong?
Tania immediately thought of several major things that could go wrong, but she said she was willing to go with me anyway. This is one of her many good qualities.
Thursday, December 17: We arranged to meet the friend at the mechanic’s shop, where she was having the car cleared for takeoff. I had only met her once, but as soon as I saw her we embraced. Wow, she said. I’m so excited about giving this car to your mom. I love her to pieces, and I know she needs something easier to drive. Christmas is pretty quiet for us now, so this Cadillac caper is the high point for me.
I know, I said, me too. I’m jumping out of my skin about this. She and I were grinning and bouncing around like kids. And Tania was clearly getting into it, too.
We waved goodbye, and Tania got behind the wheel of the rusty Subaru. I got into the Caddy, adjusted the mirrors, and put it in drive.
Wow. THANKS. What a car! It’s heavy, powerful, and stable. It cruises quietly enough to let you enjoy low-volume music or have a normal-volume conversation. The seat feels a lot like first class on an airline. There are all kinds of little knobs and doohickeys that do helpful things. When you hit a bump, it rocks up and down gently, like a good-sized boat going through a wake. And when you get a clear stretch of road and put the accelerator all the way down, it leaps forward with the sensation of rising, like a powerboat skating over a calm sea. I realized that we were about to take a long cruise on a Christmas yacht.
In no time flat, Tania and I were back home, working and packing and not quite believing that this was actually going to happen. We did the annual Christmas preparations over the next two days, except this time everything we did had to fit into the car. I was surprised to find that there always seemed to be room for more.
Saturday-Tuesday, December 19-22: How times have changed. Christmas with the children was shoehorned into 24 hours and took place in restaurants and a hotel room. This could have happened twenty or even ten years ago, but back then it would have been because of some business assignment I had. Now Will and Emma are running around like their hair is on fire, and all I can do is marvel at the change. I’m proud of them, but also sorry for the things they are doing without, and I keep reminding them that this phase of their lives is only temporary.
We pointed the Caddy south around 2pm on Monday and pulled out into Interstate 95. This has to be the most boring road in the United States. The landscape is either industrial or, in the winter, bare reddish-brown trees against a slate sky. It has been 35 years since I moved away from Nokomis, so driving from the northeast to Florida on this road is a familiar ordeal. It’s easier now, thanks to several significant improvements since the old days: travel websites, an Iphone loaded with interesting music, NPR all the way down, a fun traveling companion, and of course, the Christmas yacht.
Priceline got us a deal on a nice room in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. We pulled in around 9:30pm after doing 378 miles. Slept hard. Got up the next morning and put in 472 miles in off-and-on rainstorms. It was work. The wet clay soil looks like whipped off-brand peanut butter, Tania said.
One thing you can do on I-95 these days is eat well, thanks to yelp.com. We had an outstanding lunch in Yemassee, South Carolina at an antique store that had a deli counter staffed by three extremely friendly women, Fletcher’s Finds and Finest. Then we beat it south to get to Gary Lee’s Meat Market in Brunswick, Georgia before they closed. We weren’t hungry, but this is the place to go for all kinds of barbeque, including homemade smoked sausage I planned to turn into gumbo for Christmas dinner, and the best Brunswick stew Tania has ever tasted. She lives for Brunswick stew.
We crossed the Florida line at dusk, with about six hours to go. Mom wouldn’t be back from an errand until the next afternoon, my sister said, which gave us a couple of unplanned hours in the morning. So we found a place on Fernandina Beach, north of Jacksonville, ate take-out Brunswick stew in our room, slept even harder, and got up in time for a lazy walk on the beach.
(click on the photo to make it bigger) Wednesday, December 23: Another hard day, stopping only for boiled peanuts north of Starke, FL. The car made it to Nokomis without a hitch and we got off the interstate just as dusk was falling. We wired a big bow to the hood ornament and drove into the driveway slowly. My sister was there, ensuring that mom suspected nothing.
Mom didn’t want her picture or her friend’s name pushed through the Google. In fact, she’d rather I didn’t post this at all. Whatever. Merry Christmas, mom, we love you.
The 2015 AIDS Ride, my ninth and Tania’s seventh, was another emotional and physical rollercoaster. Every year we sign up with bright feelings of anticipation that turn to dread as the summer wears on. We do a few determined training rides. The pitch increases as the precipitation forecasts come in. Then on the big day, we take to the familiar course and the bad feelings melt away because after all, riding a bicycle around Cayuga Lake isn’t all that hard.* At the end, we’re always treated to a big, warm celebration of this once-a-year community.
* Here Tania and I disagree, but I think it’s about as hard as a hike – a really long hike.
This year’s ride raised $201,500 for the fight against AIDS in the Southern Tier by the end of ride day (Saturday, September 12), with more coming in. Our two-person team, Cats of Short Street, raised $1,100. We are among the slowest riders in the pack, but just like the hard-bodies, we turned a few pounds of flab into muscle, received valuable bragging rights, got soaked clean through, and visited the familiar landmarks one more time. If the key to successful aging is forming healthy habits — in other words, becoming addicted to things that are good for you — the Ride For Life is a great fix.
The opening ceremony starts around sunrise. It’s a half-hour of thanks and heartfelt mission messages with a celestial backdrop (see top photo). This year the riders were impatient because the weather forecast said that showers were likely by mid-morning, with steady rain later in the day, so the further you ride before 9 am, the less rain you’d endure.
We set off at 7am and climbed two large hills heading north on Route 34B. The first hill ends at the southern border of Lansing and the second, more serious one is a big down-and-up number formed by the drainage of Salmon Creek. At the top of the second rise, at a North Lansing roadhouse called The Ridge, two women stood at their car and clapped and yelled encouragement at each rider (click on the photo to make it bigger). These amateur cheerleaders are one of the best parts for me. A total stranger pops up at odd moments and makes you feel great for five seconds. Couldn’t you use one of those right now?
The long downhills are another favorite of mine, and there’s a good one when you turn off Route 34B and coast down Center Road, just south of Genoa, to get to the first food stop at King Ferry Winery. We pulled out of that stop at 8:40 am, 17 miles into an 90-mile ride, just as the first raindrops started to leak from the clouds. It rained off and on, and increasingly on, for the rest of the day. Fortunately, there was no wind and the temperature held steady in the mid-60s, so hypothermia was not an issue like it was last year*. But after you get used to wet socks and the spray on your face, a long ride in warm rain isn’t bad at all.
* Weather-wise, the 2014 ride was a monumentally awful day.
Of course, wet pavement is slicker. As we turned back onto the highway (now Route 90), an ambulance sped past, siren blaring, and all the riders immediately knew what that meant. A few miles later, we caught up with it just as they were loading a man onto a stretcher. He had gone off the road into a deep ditch and was injured in the fall — but not seriously, we later learned. Maybe he shifted his weight and moved his handlebars in the wrong direction at the wrong time. Bicycling is like driving, except it’s slower and you don’t wear a seat belt.
We cruised down Pumpkin Hill (hyper-alert) and through Aurora, then climbed past the huge faux new money temple of MacKenzie-Childs, past the site of Cayuga Castle, and into the second rest stop at Union Springs. I admired the headgear of Ned Buchman, who was on his 15th Ride. Ned had bolted a stuffed killer whale to his helmet. “Every year I choose a theme,” he said, “and this one seemed to work.”
Well done, Ned. At the rest stop, he melted the hearts of the South Seneca High School women’s varsity soccer team enough that they asked him to pose for a group shot. As we rode away, Tania reminded me that we forgot to put cat ears on our helmets.
North of Union Springs the ride gets flat as the lake gets shallower. The landmarks here are the large, permanent field signs of Upstate Citizens for Equality that say “No Sovereign Nation- No Reservation.” Since 1980, the Cayuga Indian Nation has pursued a legal claim that the 64,000 acres bordering the north end of the lake are theirs and were taken from them illegally by treaties they signed in 1790s. Although the Indians are right in a legal sense, political wrangling and inter-Nation fighting have stalled their claim indefinitely.
We turned onto Route 20 and headed west, crossing the Cayuga Inlet bridge and the Montezuma marsh, dodging roadkill as a steady stream of cars and trucks tore by us. Riding on the shoulder of a busy highway is something to be endured, and it was a relief four miles later when we turned onto Gravel Road (which is paved) and headed south at last. The lunch stop in Seneca Falls was beckoning.
The lunch stop is pleasant — maybe too pleasant. Old friends are there, and hot soup, and tasty sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies, and it’s warm and dry. Last year we arrived at the lunch stop in a mildly hypothermic state and stayed for 90 minutes (so Tania could warm up). This year, 15. The ride works best if you treat it like a job.
Turning onto Route 89 South around 12:30, the sky was darker and the rain steadier. We got another hero’s welcome at the Toro Run Winery rest stop and I paused to take a picture of my favorite junk shop sign, but the rain made it important to concentrate on the road just as our growing fatigue made it harder — so after mile 70, I focused increasingly on scanning the pavement.
“I’ve eaten so much sweet stuff and drunk so much Gatorade that I feel sick,” Tania said, and I agreed. “I need some real food.” And just like that, at the last rest stop, cold pizza! We each had a piece. In any other context, it would have been pretty yukky. But today, Tania said, “this is saving my life.”
We pulled out from the Bellwether Cider stop with 12 miles to go. The weather was dark, and a lot of people were getting flat tires. We were not, because we had a secret weapon — Mr. Tuffy tire liners, which are strips of Kevlar that go between the tube and the inside of the tire and virtually eliminate roadside flats. Racers don’t like tire liners because they add a few ounces to the weight of the bike. But if you’re long-distance plodders like us, they come highly recommended.
We stopped to see my friend and fellow Salt Creek Show DJ Armin Heurich, who was fixing a flat for his friend Anna. Armin was enjoying his seventh or eighth 100-mile ride of the year, and he usually does the 100-mile lake ride in a little over five hours. Today he was supporting Anna, an Ithaca High School senior who belongs to the school’s Cycling Club, which he advises. She was finishing her first Century ride at about the same pace as ours (eight hours, 13 minutes of riding), and she looked great.
We got through another screaming downhill into Taughannock Falls State Park, with nine miles to go. And then came the last hill, four miles from the finish line at Glenwood Heights. This is the last real challenge of the trip. It’s about three-tenths of a mile, at a pretty good pitch, and it happens after a long day when your legs have lost all their snap. You know you’re at the top when you see the sign for Terrence Flanigan’s Bam Bam Drum School. Bam, indeed!
When we finished, we were surprised to see that we had posted one of our fastest times ever for the 90-mile course (see “ride like it’s a job,” above). There was a party going on at Cass Park but also a hot shower waiting at our house downtown — no contest. We cleaned up, took naps, and then went to the celebration dinner at Stewart Park, where 300 riders and guests whooped it up and devoured a big meal catered by local restuarant god Gregor Brous. Man, it was great.
The riders and their donors gave a huge boost to the Southern Tier AIDS Program‘s services and counseling for 479 HIV-positive people in Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Cortland, Delaware, Otsego, Tioga, and Tompkins Counties; outreach activities that reached 2,900 people with prevention instructions in the first quarter of 2015; a large syringe exchange program with an 84 percent return rate; and 238 meetings in the first quarter where a counselor sat down with someone at risk and let them know the facts.
Only about one-fifth of the HIV-positive people in the care of STAP are gay men. About one-third of clients were infected because of heterosexual activity, and one-eighth because of intravenous drug use or sex with a user. What AIDS patients almost always have in common is that they’re poor and facing a huge, complicated set of problems. They don’t have much of a safety net, either, except for STAP, so the Ride for Life generates money desperately needed and well spent. So thanks a lot to everyone who donated, and see you next year.
What a day. This was the seventh time Tania has done the AIDS Ride around Cayuga Lake, and the eighth time for me. It was by far the hardest of all of them. We had cold rain from the start until midday. and then a headwind/crosswind in the afternoon. We didn’t break any speed records, and it took a long time to get warm at the lunch stop, but three things saved us: conditioning at the gym, good preparation the night before, and the hand dryers in the locker rooms of the Seneca Falls Community Center.
We did a fair amount of training rides this year. We also knew we were in for a cold soak, so we broke out the waterproof jackets, extra layers, winter cycling gloves, and most important, clip-on fenders. Here’s what Tania’s outfit looked like before she got doused (click on the photo to make it bigger):
I have a rule of thumb about riding in the rain. If all you see are isolated wet spots on a dry road, it isn’t raining. If the road is wet but there aren’t any puddles on it, you’re still going to stay dry, thanks to wind evaporation. It’s only when you start riding through puddles that the wet conditions have begun.
Yesterday, the first drops of rain fell at the starting line at 7am. About 300 riders left Stewart Park. We rode up Route 34B to Rogues Harbor, turned left, and did the big down and uphill at Salmon Creek. By the top of that hill, around 8am, the rain had turned steady and the puddles were puddling.
Riding in the rain isn’t all that bad, as long as you’re careful, but it was also cold — about 43 degrees at the start, and 50 degrees at the first rest stop — and a lot of people who didn’t have the right gear were getting hypothermia. There was a time when Tania wouldn’t have made it, either, but in the last several years she has gotten much stronger and more confident, and we just kept plugging along. It was fairly ridiculous, though. I mean, there are so many beautiful days on Cayuga Lake in the summer. Why were we riding around it on this day?
Answer: because we’re doing it, so shut up and keep pedaling.
At the north end of the lake, about 40 miles in, there’s an intersection where you either turn to start going back (an 85-mile ride) or go straight to lengthen the ride to 100 miles. We turned, because we aren’t completely nuts. But lots of people kept going.
At noon, the Seneca Falls Community Center looked like the triage point after a natural disaster. Tania disappeared into the girls’ locker room (see “hand dryers,” above) and I chose the other method of treating hypothermia — eating lots of chocolate-chip cookies — while talking to the old-timers who were wandering around. The intrepid Alex Wood, owner of Ithaca Cayuga Optical and an original organizer of the ride, had done the first half and finished. This was the worst weather in the 16 years we’ve held the ride, he said. Jerry Dietz, one of the chief organizers of the ride, agreed — but like us, he was going on.
Heading south around 1pm, the weather had changed for the better, and as we turned south onto Route 89 and started down, things continued to improve. By the time we got to Valois, it was clear that the rain was over and the clouds were breaking up. Tania wasn’t going as fast — her average speed dropped from about 12 miles an hour before lunch to maybe 9 or 10 MPH afterward — but I kept remembering the first year she did this, when we finished dead last with a man on a motorcycle behind us, interrupting Tania every few minutes to ask her if she please would quit so he could go home, and her repeated refusals. This time was way better. She was far from last, and she finished while many of her fellow riders dropped out.
We got back to Ithaca in time for a quick shower before we headed over to Stewart Park for dinner — a feast, as always, expertly catered and donated by Gregor Brous. Sitting there with hundreds of exhausted, happy people, I realized that the real reason we do this is just to be a part of it. It is an annual demonstration of one of the best things about Ithaca.
We’re pretty comfortable in this town — like most Ithacans, we have good jobs and nice places to live — and we easily could shut out all knowledge, as many Americans do, that life isn’t nearly as nice for people living just a stone’s throw away. Be we didn’t do that, and you didn’t either. Together we raised $242,000 (this year’s total, and still heading up) to help neighbors who are dealing with the life-changing diagnosis of HIV Infection and don’t have enough resources to ensure their own well-being. That’s the point of this exercise, and we’re grateful that you helped.
Until next year, many thanks. –Brad & Tania
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
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.
Half-awake before 5 am, I noticed the sky lightening and the dark cliffs turning red. Bats were dancing in the sky. They followed their own logic, chasing bugs, although to me their flight patterns seemed random and hypnotic. Then I started hearing noises coming from the riverbank as Peter Kirchner set up the stove. And then I smelled coffee.
In the summer, you need to start your day on the river as early as possible. You should try to break camp around the same time you feel direct sunlight (or, as Peter calls it, the incinerator). On the first day, we learned this rule the hard way. We didn’t get onto the river until noon and only made eight miles, and they were hard ones.
Drinking coffee and standing on the riverbank in the gathering light, I could see the riffle that encompasses the mouth of the Paria River, according to the fifth edition of the Guide to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon: Lee’s Ferry To South Cove, by Tom Martin and Duwain Whitis. This is an excellent book, with USGS topographic maps on the right side and accurate descriptions of landmarks and rapids on the left. It is also spiral-bound and printed on waterproof paper, so you can keep it out in the boat all day without ruining it.
Martin and Whitis refer to the ramp at Lee’s Ferry as River Mile (RM) Zero. But they also say that the mouth of the Paria is historically considered the beginning of the Grand Canyon, and their map indicates that the boundary of the National Park is at the point where the river goes under Navajo Bridge. So it isn’t entirely clear to me where the starting line is, but I knew we would be passing it today.
“Riffle” is the word guides use when they don’t think highly enough of a disturbance in the water to call it a “rapid.” Rapids are usually graded on a scale of one (minor) to five (most difficult), although on the Colorado, for some reason, they run one to nine. Badger Creek Rapid, eight miles downstream from Lee’s Ferry, rates a five. Lava Falls, at river mile 180, is a nine. I hadn’t seen either of them yet. But it did seem to me that Paria Riffle was making a lot of noise.
Beth Roeser showed up around 8 am, and we spent the rest of the morning listening to lectures. Beth led us through the menu book, and also explained how to use the water purifier – a battery-operated gizmo about the size of a breadbox that pumps river water through two filters, one of which contains an ultraviolet light that zaps any bacteria that should get through the screen. After filling a five-gallon plastic jerry can with purified water, we were supposed to take an eyedropper full of bleach, squeeze in ten drops, and say a prayer to Christopher, the saint who protects travelers and wards off plagues. That last part is optional.
We would go through 15 to 20 gallons of water a day. The job of carrying and purifying it fell to myself and Chuck Kroll, Christie’s cousin. Chuck is the City Attorney for Weiser, Idaho. I carried the water and Chuck ran the machine, which was a perfect distribution of labor. A five-gallon bucket of water weighs about 40 pounds, and as I staggered around camp with one on each arm, people started calling me Mongo. Chuck was far more competent around machines than I am. He is detail-oriented, unflappable, and as far as I could tell, the perfect person to entrust with the bleach that you will drink the next day.
Beth also told us how to work the menu book and the satellite phone, which we used once (our stove malfunctioned, and a commercial raft delivered a new stove to us two days later). Satellite phone calls cost a dollar a minute. She told us that a few years ago, a group of movie people from Hollywood went down the river and used up 1,200 minutes of phone time. One of them had been responsible for the legendarily bad film Waterworld. This struck me as hilarious. She also said that on September 29, 2008, a group of bankers were stuck on the river as the world economy was cratering. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 777 points that day, so the bankers called for helicopters to take them off the river and back to work. This also struck me as funny, but in a darker way.
Around 10am, Beth turned us over to Peggy Kolar, the Park Ranger who would make a final check and send us on our way. Peggy started talking about garbage. We needed to be vigilant about not leaving anything behind, she said, because the cumulative impact of all the rafters will destroy the campsites, the river, and the wildlife if we’re not all extra careful. So we were required to carry out every scrap of solid waste, including our poop, and comb each campsite for “microtrash” before we left. We were to camp below the high-water line, so the annual floods would wash clean anything we had left behind. And we were also required to dump all liquid waste directly into the river. This meant peeing in the river, not on the sand or in the side canyons. Also, when we were done with our dishwater, we were supposed to pour it into the river after passing it through a sieve, so any chunks of food in the water would go into the garbage cans we took with us. Like I said, serious.
While I understood and accepted the regulations Peggy described, I also thought she took things a shade too far. For one thing, she held us captive for 90 minutes, as it grew hotter and hotter. For another, she said stuff like, “If I saw you peeing in camp, I’d shine a flashlight on you and tell everybody, ‘look what this idiot is doing.’” I think that urinating on a parched desert plant is an act of mercy.
Peggy was wearing a Kevlar vest in the heat, and on her belt she carried a pistol, mace, and a radio — the whole shebang. Enforcing the rules is a crummy job but it does have perks, and one of them is throwing your weight around. Sadly, a cop is a cop. I wondered what another former NPS Ranger, “Cactus” Ed Abbey, might have said to her. Me, I kept my mouth shut.
The last thing Peggy did was check our official, government-issued identification cards against her manifest to make sure we all were who we said we were. This went smoothly enough until she met the two folks in our party who were citizens of Switzerland – Baryette Heyer and her boyfriend, Lukas Steiner. Baer and Lukas showed Peggy their Swiss driver’s licenses. Peggy frowned. I need to see either a passport or something that is issued by the US Government, she said. Where are your passports?
At the motel in Flagstaff, they said.
You can’t go until I see those passports, said Peggy. Cortisol and adrenaline started flowing in everybody’s veins. The trip suddenly seemed in peril. Then Beth stepped forward and said she would drive straight to Flagstaff, find the passports, and FAX them to Peggy this afternoon. Beth looked at Peggy. Peggy looked at Beth. All right, said Peggy. Needless to say, PRO gets all of our business from here on out.
Baer and Lukas joined Baer’s mother, Melissa (Mel), on the raft and put on their life preservers. Their boatman was Jim Kirchner, Peter’s brother and Mel’s partner. Jim is a geologist and outdoorsman who joined Pete on Grand Canyon trips in 2002 and 2011. Pete was also a boatman today, with Christie, Chuck, and Chuck’s wife Nan sitting in the front of their raft.
Peter Wiedemann took Tania and I downriver. He is an old friend of ours from Ithaca, and we knew him as a fine carpenter. I mentioned the trip to “Pedro” a few weeks before we pushed off, and said we were looking for experienced boatmen. He surprised me by saying that he had been a professional guide on the Salmon River and other big-time Western whitewater. Then he cleared his schedule on short notice.
The people on our expedition didn’t have much in common except a strong desire to see the Canyon. Eleven of us were friends, or friends of friends, of Pete and Christie, but two of our boatmen were recruited online. Pete and Christie had invited Jialeah (Ji, with a long “i”) Carroll, a friend of theirs who now works for the public transit system in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Ji had found the fourth boatman, Gary Painter, a contractor and family friend who had been down the Canyon and was eager to return.
I had posted a query on a private Facebook page for alumni of Deep Springs College which yielded the fifth boatman, Tim McGinnis. Tim didn’t have any Canyon experience but had trained at the US National Whitewater Center. He was looking for an adventure that might dull the pain of checking into graduate school in August.
The sixth boatman was Rod Metcalf, a geologist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who brought along his wife, Tracey (the pharmacist and Dutch oven master). Rod and Peter had met online through their shared interest in the not-for-profit group Grand Canyon River Guides and their excellent publication, Boatman’s Quarterly Review. Rod is a part-time river guide with Arizona Raft Adventures and has rowed the canyon more than a dozen times. His knowledge of campsites and rapids proved to be invaluable, and his stories and teaching added a great deal to the trip.
We finally pushed off around noon. In addition to the heat, we soon discovered the second disadvantage of starting late: afternoon wind blowing up the canyon. A front was coming through, and the wind was steady at around 15 miles an hour, with gusts to perhaps 30 mph. It mostly canceled the downstream current of perhaps 4 mph, turning the day into a long, hard, slog. Pedro and I took turns at the oars. He turned them over to me when we approached the Navajo Bridge because it is the nesting site for California Condors. We’re fairly sure we saw one wheeling around high in the sky. Pedro took pictures (not this one), and his river nickname became “birdman.” After almost four hours of hard effort, we stopped at Badger Canyon. The wind had left us five miles short of our goal.
Most of the rapids on the Colorado River are formed when flash floods in side canyons, like Badger, dump boulders and debris into the river. The debris makes a dam, the river backs up behind the dam, and the rapids are the river finding its way through the debris.I remember Badger Rapids as a long stretch of smooth water followed by a quickening of the current, 15 seconds of undulating excitement, and a big, cold wave in the face. It wasn’t so bad. At the base of the rapid, Pedro pulled hard for a small beach on the right side of the river. We set up camp for the first time in difficult conditions, with the wind blowing hard enough to raise sand and get it into everything. Jim taught me how to keep sand out of your food in a beach camp during high wind: douse the kitchen floor with buckets of water.
I pulled Tania away from the kitchen once dinner preparation was underway to see a family of Bighorn Sheep at the mouth of the canyon. Back at camp, the tired rowers were relaxing in camp chairs with beers. The water in the Colorado River at this point is steady at about 54 degrees, which also happens to be the perfect temperature for beer. We dragged aluminum cans behind the boats in mesh bags all day, pulling up the bags before heavy rapids. This left more room for meat, dairy, and vegetables in the coolers, and it also meant we didn’t have to disturb the coolers as often. Incredibly, we still had a bit of ice left at the end of the trip.
While the (male) rowers relaxed, the (female) kitchen workers puzzled out the food system for the first time, ultimately emerging with a delicious meal of butternut squash ravioli, asparagus, green salad, and cake. I hung around the rowers this afternoon, but not because I’m a sexist. I don’t even remember what we talked about. I was transfixed by a ballet of birds. They were rough-winged swallows, according to Pedro. They were diving and swooping over the rapids in another avian ballet that had something to do with eating bugs. They were doing this in warm late-afternoon light, with the constant dull roar of the rapids as a soundtrack.
The day was ending as it had begun for me, with an indescribably beautiful scene of wildlife, water, and stone. After the dishes were done and the light was gone, we all went straight to bed.
Now it’s time to pause and take questions. I already know what your question is. You’re concerned about something I wrote: “we were required to carry out every scrap of solid waste, including our poop.” You want to know, how did we do that?
The answer is not as disgusting as you might think. It’s US military ammunition boxes. When you buckle them shut, they are almost perfectly airtight and watertight. Most of our ammo boxes were about the size of large shoeboxes, and we filled them with stuff we had to keep dry. We shat into larger ammo boxes that, when full, weighed almost 50 pounds. The point of doing this was to make sure the wet, smelly feces stayed inside. We also carried wet garbage in ammo boxes, although it wasn’t mixed with the poop.
The ammo box we pooped into was called a “groover,” because in the old days you would sit directly on the can and it would leave grooves in your cheeks. The one we used had a standard toilet seat on a frame that fit on top of the box. It was all quite civilized.
I learned groover lore from Jim Kirchner, who set up and took down the outhouse every day. Jim took his responsibilities seriously. It was important to wash your hands every time you used the groover, and also before you handled food, because one slip could produce an anal-oral vector that could make everyone sick. Jim always set up handwashing stations next to the kitchen and the groover. And we were not supposed to urinate into the groover, either, because this would increase its weight and make it more likely to leak. Instead, we had to pee into an adjacent yellow five-gallon bucket.
At the end of each camp, someone would dump the bucket of pee into the river. I did this once. It was sickening and fascinating to see several quarts of yellow liquid enter the water, swirl around in the current, and lazily start to float downstream. Dilution is the solution to pollution, they say. I hoped I wasn’t poisoning any fish.
I liked the groover. Every morning we would drink our coffee and then take our turns on it, and then we would all wash our hands as carefully as kindergardeners. I looked forward to the few serene moments I had to gaze at the river and the rocks while I answered nature’s call. And just one more thing about poop: all of it got packed in the boat piloted by Gary Painter, which was co-piloted by Ji Carroll. Around Day 8, Ji reported that it did smell, a little, but she kept smiling. (Nothing ever stopped her from smiling). At the end of the trip, Ji stood on top of all of the feces we had produced in 16 days. We had filled nearly six boxes, weighing nearly 300 pounds. I wonder how many pounds of food that was?
We had big breakfasts most days, with eggs or pancakes and fruit and lots of coffee. Then we would break out sandwich materials and pack our own lunches. Then we would do the dishes by passing them through four washtubs: one to scrape, one for hot soap, one for a hot rinse, and one with bleach. Then we would pack up the kitchen and our sleeping kits, lash everything down, and set off. Peter would generally start the coffee before 5 am and we would be underway by 8:30 am on a good day. Mornings were busy.
On Day 2, we felt urgency because of the heat, because we were behind schedule, and also because of the hard wind, which was forecast to continue at least another day and was worst in the afternoon. So we pushed off shortly after 9 am and rowed steadily for four hours. Then we took an hour-long break to go through our first major rapid, and then we rowed for another two hours. The miles we covered were momentous, in geological terms. It was a huge rock show.
I don’t know much about the geology of the Grand Canyon, but I sure enjoyed looking at it. On Day 1 we had been introduced to two layers of limestone, Kaibab and Toroweap, and then a big layer of sandstone (Cononino), and finally, a big slice of shale (Hermit). These were some of the youngest rocks we would see (at 200 to 300 million years old) and they were highly erodible, which made the river below Lee’s Ferry comparatively wide and slow. Shortly after we pushed off on Day 2 we passed Tenmile Rock, a large block of sandstone that broke off the cliff, bounced down the slope, and presumably became airborne before embedding itself in the riverbed. That must have been something to see. But no one had seen it fall. That made it even more interesting.
Going down the Grand Canyon is going back in time, because the rocks get older as you go deeper into it. About an hour into our day, we rounded a curve and entered a new formation. The Supai Group are four layers of sandstone that are harder and more resistant to erosion, which means that the river suddenly becomes narrower and swifter. We entered a gorge and soon saw a distinctive projection of sandstone on river right. “If the water is a foot or more below this marker rock, running House Rock Rapid, four miles downstream, will be a little more challenging,” read our guide. Uh oh.
I was rowing at this point, and although I had a lot more experience with canoes and flatwater than with whitewater rafting, Pedro let me stay at the oars through a minor rapid. Sheer Wall Rapid was an easy run down the middle with one boulder at the bottom. It rates a 2 out of 9. What I learned was that it’s difficult to get your oar into the water when the waves are moving your raft up and down, but that you need to find a way to keep the bow of the raft headed straight into the waves as they push you around. It was a start.
And then, around 1pm, we came to House Rock Rapid. It rates a 7 out of 9. As far as I could tell, this is because of one nasty-looking rock and an enormous, sinister wave roaring away just below it. The river bends to the right as it rushes along, so that all of its force smashes against the left wall; the big rock and the bad wave are along that wall. So success at House Rock means not getting pushed over there.
A lot of good free videos of the bigger Grand Canyon rapids can be had just by searching YouTube by their names (see “House Rock Rapid”). But this was our first serious rapid, and I wasn’t in the mood to take pictures during the run. The low water made it more difficult to stay in the calmer water on the right side of the river without scraping the bottom of the raft, and Rod Metcalf spent almost an hour “scouting” the rapid with the boatmen (see top photo).
I think scouting a rapid really means staring at the waves long enough to imagine yourself getting through them safely, which gives you enough courage you to pick up the oars. And in fact, everyone did make it through House Rock Rapid just fine.Peter took this shot of Jim’s boat successfully avoiding the scary wave hole, which made Rod and Nan very happy. Mel, Lucas, and Baer are in the front of the raft.
I won’t attempt to describe what it feels like to go through big whitewater, because others have already done it far better than I ever could. Here is John McPhee, from Encounters With The Archdruid:
“There is something quite deceptive in the sense of acceleration that comes just before a rapid. The word ‘rapid’ itself is, in its way, a misnomer. It refers only to the speed of the white water relative to the speed of the smooth water that leads into and away from the rapid. The white water is faster, but it is hardly ‘rapid.’ The Colorado, smooth, flows about seven miles per hour, and, white, it goes perhaps fifteen or, at its whitest and wildest, twenty miles per hour — not very rapid by the standards of the twentieth century. Force of suggestion creates a false expectation. The mere appearance of the river going over those boulders — the smoky spray, the scissoring waves — is enough to imply a rush to fatality, and this endorses the word used to describe it. You feel as if you were about to be sucked into some sort of invisible pneumatic tube and shot like a bullet into the dim beyond. But the white water, though faster than the rest of the river, is categorically slow. Running the rapids in the Colorado is a series of brief experiences, because the rapids themselves are short. In them, with the raft folding and bending — sudden hills of water filling the immediate skyline — things happen in slow motion. The projector of your own existence slows way down, and you dive as in a dream, and gradually rise, and fall again. The raft shudders across the ridgelines of water cordilleras to crash softly into the valleys beyond. Space and time in there are something other than they are out here. Tents of water form overhead, to break apart in rags. Elapsed stopwatch time has no meaning at all.”
Running a big rapid is a singular, addictive rush. The people in our expedition who had been down the river before seemed to wait for them impatiently. Whenever we reached one they would linger at the scouting stop, discussing their potential strategies the way men talk about their golf shots at the Nineteenth Hole Lounge.
Tania and I experienced the rapids in a slightly different way. We found them exciting, but they also frustrated us because if you weren’t rowing, each major rapid meant an hour or so of waiting in intense heat during the “scout.” We were there mostly for the rocks, the plants, and the wildlife. For us, the ultimate Grand Canyon experience might have been seeing a mountain lion or even a ring-tailed cat.
A mile below House Rock we saw Boulder Narrows, the largest mid-channel rock on the trip. The river was deep enough at this point that the boulder caused hardly a ripple. Yet the water level on the Colorado during our trip was also quite low, relative to other times of the year. According to the US Geological Survey, our water levels fluctuated from between 6,000 to 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) being released from the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam, 15 miles above Lee’s Ferry. This made most of the rapids relatively tame, although some of them (such as House Rock) became more difficult. We read, “in 1957, a group of river runners boated past the Boulder Narrows boulder at 122,000 cfs. Their group could not see the boulder, as it was entirely under water.”
We went past North Canyon Rapid (a 5, at mile 20.7) and entered the Roaring Twenties, a set of fairly serious rapids spaced closely together. It was getting late and we needed to stop, but the wind was blowing again. We pulled into the first potential campsite during a sandstorm so severe it quickly drove us back to our boats. So we went another two miles downriver to Lone Cedar Camp (RM 23.5), a large sandy beach with better wind protection that was in full shade by the time we got to it. This made unloading and dinner preparation go quicker, and before too long we were tucking into plates of grilled salmon, rice pilaf, and sautéed zucchini.
Lone Cedar Camp is near a rapid and campsite named Indian Dick, according to our guidebook, and the scenery there includes a distinctive sandstone spire. Several of us (and you know who you are) assumed that Indian Dick was the spire’s name. With no way to access the Internet, we could not know that Indian Dick was also the name of a Paiute whose storytelling was of great value to National Park naturalists in the 1930s. And so it’s also possible that the spire is the park’s memorial to a treasured volunteer, and shame on you boys for thinking anything else.
As we made dinner, I started talking to Mel Heyer about Florida. I said, “you really can’t beat Naples in the winter.”
“That’s it!,” shouted Tim McGinnis, who was standing nearby, chopping zucchini. “That’s the quote of the day!”
I didn’t know, at first, what Tim meant, but as we kept talking, we came up with more. I remembered a funny story Jai had told, with this punchline: “On her last day, she licked her shoe.” Quote of the day.
Or this one: Rod, to Tracey and Nan Kroll: “Now row, wenches!”
Or me: “That’s it for trains.”
Tim immediately became the official who chose Quotes of the Day. I would bring him nominees and, if he approved them, I would write them down in my ever-present Rite In The Rain Notebook. Years from now, we won’t have any idea what the conversations were that prompted these lines. But we might wonder about them, and that, I suppose, is Tim’s goal.
In the morning we would float out of the Supai gorge and into Redwall Sandstone, a rock layer that includes iconic features like Redwall Cavern and Vasey’s Paradise. The canyon was getting deeper and conversations getting longer, but when the light faded and the dishes were done, there was really only one place to go. I think we all slept like rocks.