This is the third in a series of what will be more than a dozen posts on rafting the Grand Canyon: 19 days, 280 miles of adventure.
When you go rafting in the Grand Canyon, you have lots of options for getting through it, most of them involving outfitters and even motors. That’s not the kind of trip we did. We did everything, from getting ourselves down through the rapids by our own muscle power and know-how to mundane activities like preparing food and handling human waste. Of course, the commercial trips have their advantages. Trippers have few worries except avoiding sunburn, but they also lose a lot. Their lives are not in their hands and friends’ hands. They do not choose with whom they travel. And they pay some outfitters $5000 for a 16-day adventure. We, on the other hand, laid out a few hundred dollars in vehicle shuttle fees and the permit fee plus food–little more, actually, than three weeks at home would have cost us. And it’s the people that really make private-permit trips work, so today I’ll talk about our cast of characters, who came from the East Coast to the West Coast and some places in between.
Introducing the Boaters
Permits for private trips on the Grand Canyon are notoriously difficult to get. Our permit holders, RS and LS, each had tried their hand in the permit game for 15 years before the system changed a few years ago, allowing for a weighted lottery. They pooled their permit attempts to get credit for a 30-year wait in the weighted lottery and got the permit. RS, by the way, used to work for one of those giant international delivery companies. In his late 50s, he’s now retired and was the oldest person on the trip. LS, his wife, is in her 40s and is a teacher. Each had done a few Canyon trips in the past, but I think they were on commercial trips. They have an adopted daughter, AS, who is 14 and was the youngest member of our expedition. The S family were in a cataraft for the trip. As permit holders, they got all of us on the trip, but (as I’ll discuss in a later post), every permit holder needs to know that once the trip starts, he or she shifts into an unenviable position.
LS especially wanted AS to have company on this trip, so she tried to find parents with kids who’d like go, using a whitewater boater forum to find them. LS’s search yielded SC, a 50-something, home-schooling mother of 8, and her 17-year-old daughter, ZC. SC has past canyon experience and thus brought knowledge of camp sites and hikes. Mother and daughter paddled a Shredder, a mini half-raft/half-cataraft and thus carried none of their own gear. In the most maneuverable boat, they were, loosely speaking, our safety boaters.
LS’s call for parent-daughter teams also yielded SJ, an environmental engineer, and his 17-year-old daughter AJ. SJ is in his 50s and AJ is one of three daughters. If the other two are anything as wonderful as AJ, they must be astounding. AJ rowed some of the most difficult rapids herself, yet she was also kind, hard-working, and generally humble. Because SJ had Canyon experience, the J family’s raft was our sweep boat–that is, the boat that went last, watching for stragglers and problems.
RS years ago paddled with a group of men who went by a nickname I won’t repeat here, not because it’s lewd (although it is a little suggestive) but because it would identify RS so quickly. Among his old group was fellow Arkansan DB, a sewage treatment expert, who brought with him his wife KB, a union rep, and their daughter VB. DB and KB were two of the hardest workers on the trip. They pitched in for every meal clean-up and just about everything else. We know DB and KB from rivers in Arkansas but really got to know them on this trip and feel truly honored to call them friends now. VB was in a tough spot. She’s a college girl in her early 20s and has been on her own long enough that she’s pretty independent, but on this trip VB was grouped with “the girls,” who were all teens. The B family traveled in a cataraft.
My husband–let’s just call him DH, in line with some message board abbreviations for for “dear husband”–was also an old member of RS’s whitewater group. That’s how we got on the trip. We were in cataraft we borrowed from a friend with whom we own a smaller raft. (When we heard about our invitation on the trip, I said to my husband in classic Jaws style, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”) Oh–occupations? As I say in my “about” post, we’re both educators, and my husband was the second oldest person on the trip. I swear he robbed the cradle.
DH recommended that RS call GH and his wife BH, both in their 50s and recent retirees, him as a firefighter and her from retail management. GH had the most trips on the Canyon and brought with him the core of the “kitchen” and toilet system. BH was always there to make sure the kitchen was in good shape and gear put away and has a sweet disposition and modesty. GH and BH were in the largest raft, and it is safe to say that GH was the biggest storyteller on the trip. He had lots of them. As the boater with the most Canyon experience, GH rowed in probe position–that is, first. GH is also a swift-water rescue instructor and paramedic, which meant he’d be good for handling things like medical emergencies and flipped rafts . . . .
Finally, RS also called on two single male boaters he’d met on a previous trip. These guys, in their late and early 30s, each rowed gear haulers (with extra bags from RS’s family, the shredder’s gear, and the groover). JS was in a raft, while JD was in a cataraft. They too were easy to get along with, just generally nice guys and excellent boaters. They both work in construction.
A Preview of Group Dynamics
The saying with company goes that “even the best fish starts to stink after a few days.” Had this trip ended like most western trips do at eight days, I would have said it was the best group with which I’ve ever traveled. Even at thirteen days I probably would have said that. Sure, everyone has eccentricities, but I can live with most of them. By nineteen days, well, let’s just say that a few people were getting on each other’s nerves. Still, that’s normal, right? And this group had by far the largest percentage of women and girls I’ve ever been on a whitewater river trip with; usually it’s many more men than women. I liked it this way!
Meeting in Flagstaff
Anyway, on the afternoon we arrived in Flagstaff two days before launch, we met all of the folks we would be traveling with except for GH, BH, SJ and AJ, who were coming from north of the Canyon and would meet us at the launch site the nextday. Those of us in Flagstaff introduced ourselves to those we did not know, compared last-minute shopping tasks, and enjoyed the hotel’s happy hour. (Mmmmmm. Free, good adult beverages. Mmmmmm.) We also received our trip mascots, blow-up dinosaurs of various kinds. Yes, a lot of trips like this have mascots. (Look back at my previous post about getting to the Canyon. Can you tell from the animals stenciled on the rocket boxes in our trailer what our mascot was for our Middle Fork trip in 2004? Feel free to answer in the comments section here! The first person to figure it out gets two automatic entries in my first give-away, which will be coming up this fall and will most likely be cast iron cookware.)
Then we went off to finish shopping, and my husband and I finally landed at a Flagstaff microbrewery, where we had a wonderful dish of mussels in a spicy coconut sauce–I just knew the foodie regulars would want to know! Back in the hotel, I started tossing things out of my gear bag left and right. How many shirts? Did I really want to bring those shorts? The hiking boots came out and went in repeatedly. Oh, well, I could wait another day finally to decide. It was off to bed for us, for the next day would be one of the hardest working days of the trip: rigging. I’ll talk about rigging, orientation, and finally getting on the river in my next post.
A View from the Rim
Meanwhile, look closely at this view of the river from the South Rim. Do you see that green river? That’s where we’re going. We even stayed at a campsite that’s in the far right of this picture, on river right (figured by looking downstream). Now look more closely. That’s a pretty easy rapid, but even from a few miles away it looks pretty big. I didn’t see the river like this until we were already done with our trip. Had I seen the bigger rapids from the rim first, I might have chickened out!
Have you figured it out? Those spots are rafts–actually four of them. One upstream, two clustered, and one downstream. Go back two photographs and find those spots. It’s a big river, and the rim is a long, long way up. Come rig and launch with us in my next post, and a few days later we’ll be camping within site of the rim here!
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