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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!

Now look again, a little closer.  Can you see three little yellow spots just downstream (left as you view the photo) from the rapid?  Do you know what those three spots are?

Look a little more closely.

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!

Copyright 2010 Ozarkhomesteader.  All rights reserved, including for photographs.  Short excerpts with FULL url and attribution to Ozarkhomesteader are welcome.

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In case you missed the first installment of GCRA, click here.  Eventually the whole series will be here.

On a warm June morning, my husband and I departed our little Ozark homestead, bound for western waters.  We had had several months to prepare for our adventure.  We had made several trips to the big city–Little Rock–in search of the best non-perishable food.  We had purchased new gear–cots, to keep us off the hot sand; a breezy, bigger tent; high-floatation PFDs (personal floatation devices, as in life jackets) in extra-bright yellow–and crammed what would be our worldly possessions for four weeks into our car and trailer.

I departed home with a sense of trepidation.  I like summer in the Ozarks, and I knew I would get a bit homesick.  I also knew that some of the most dangerous whitewater that rafters regularly run in the US awaited us.  I had already gotten assurances from my husband that I could walk two rapids, Crystal and Lava, but I knew I would be seeing other big rapids up close too. (And my dreams of walking Crystal and Lava eventually were dashed, but those are stories for later dispatches.)  Meanwhile, I felt a little reassured by our friend’s 17-foot cataraft, more suited for the Grand Canyon than our 14-foot raft, which the friend had happily taken to smaller water.  I was not reassured by the fish-tailing of our trailer, but a bit of re-loading at a highway interchange straightened it out.From the back of the trailer you can see the army-green, waterproof rocket boxes, re-purposed for carrying food, ashes, and, um, poop (yes, you’ll learn more); milk crates, which make great places to secure large propane bottles on rafts; dry bags for personal gear (seen in red to the left and yellow to the right); the raft pump (gray); the upside-down oarsman seat; and other items too numerous to mention.

Our destination this day was to make it as far as we could, which turned out to be Elk City, Oklahoma.  Elk City has such great billboards and is on historic Route 66, so I had high hopes for staying there.  I was a bit disappointed.  Still, we pushed further west the next day until we reached Gallup, New Mexico, which is a delightful place.  We split a big Navajo taco (taco fixings on fry bread) at the legendary Earl’s (no, they’re not paying me).  Gallup is famous as being the filtering point for up to 90 percent of the American Indian crafts that find their way around the world, and I’d read that Earl’s was where the traders went to eat after their day of trading.  Imagine my surprise when I found out that they trade at the store, including while you’re eating.  I bought. I wish I’d bought more.  Prices are ridiculously cheap for really high quality jewelry.  I’m no jewelry collector, but these pieces made me want to collect.

The next morning we were back on the road, headed for Flagstaff by way of the Petrified Forest National Park.  We were lucky to arrive at a puebloan ruin a few days before the summer equinox, enabling us to see when a shaft of light hit a petroglyph, signifying the longest day of the year.

Other petroglyphs in the park were more artistic.  This panel includes some of my favorites.

The petrified trees were huge, laying as if some giant woodsman just felled them.

petrified log

We also saw where Route 66 ran through the park’s desert landscape, now marked by this great old car.

But we couldn’t stay long at the park.  We wanted to reach Flagstaff by noon, and that we easily did.  Over the afternoon, a caravan of other rafters showed up at our hotel (which I would recommend–and, no, they are not paying me either), some rafters with boats already rigged and inflated and almost ready for adventure.

We still had to finish our grocery shopping for our most perishable items (deli meat and cheeses, bread), so we hunted out Flagstaff’s health food store and whole-grain bakery and then came back to meet almost everyone with whom we’d spend the next twenty days.  I’ll tell you all about them and rigging for launching at Lee’s Ferry in my next post.

Copyright 2010 Ozarkhomesteader. including photographs.

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Some time over the winter, my husband got a phone call from an old paddling friend.  The phone call changed our life.  The friend, RS, said he had hit the Grand Canyon private permit river lottery.  He and his wife had combined 15 years each of wait-listing for 30 years in the weighted lottery in order to get the coveted permit.  Now they were amassing a group of friends and other boaters to fill their permit.  They invited us.

I suppose it’s safe to say in western rafting private-permit adventures, two brass rings, two jewels in the crown, two incredibly special trips vie for the top spot among rafters:  the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  We won a coveted Middle Fork permit in 2004.  Journeying into the largest wilderness in the lower 48 states, starting high in the snowy mountains and finishing in the desert 8 days later was amazing.  The Grand Canyon, however, was always more my husband’s dream than mine because non-motorized trips last at least 14 days.  Our invitation from RS was for 280 miles in 19 days.  It was over my girly limit.  It would stretch our ability to come up with tasty meals with no refrigeration.  It would try our whitewater abilities and tolerance for things that bite and sting.  But we accepted the invitation, and we’re still alive to tell the tale.

Come along on our Grand Canyon adventure over the next month or so as I intersperse my regular Ozark Homesteader posts with our trip report.  I promise you unrelenting heat and blowing sand, tales of wilderness hygiene, a bit of cooking, and lots of history, hiking, and heart-thumping whitewater.  Climb aboard and tighten your PFD!

Copyright 2010 Ozarkhomesteader.

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