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Ned & Carol’s Excellent Grand Canyon Adventure


| August 10, 2010

Ned and Carol’s Excellent Grand Canyon Adventure June 28 – July 6, 2010 By Ned W. Downing 7/17/2010.  Two weeks ago Carol and I set off on a 187-mile white water Colorado River rafting adventure through the Grand Canyon.  I did not imagine that the trip would be so exhilarating, so dangerous, so mind expanding or so much fun. 

Back in April while we were watching a pro tennis match on the exhibition court at The Landings where we live in the winter, our friend, Tom Fullerton, mentioned that the Levy’s, Sandy and Stu; the Cushners – Jeff and Roberta; the Murrays – Mike and Carla; the Rices – Erin and Ron; and themselves – Tom and Marsha – all Landings tennis buddies - had reserved a spot on an 8 day Colorado River rafting expedition and that the raft had seats for four more.  Would we like to come? 

First we checked with Sarah and Jason whose marriage for 160 celebrants was planned at our Crystal Lake, NH summer home for July 24th.  After we got their OK the answer was a kneejerk reaction.  Both Carol and I had this trip on our bucket list for years but had mostly believed the urban legend that there was a multiple year waiting list for a spot on the river.  Turns out that this legend is partially true.  It does take years to get a spot from the National Park Service if you are manning your own raft or group of rafts down the Colorado.  But there are several professional outfitters that regularly schedule 3 through 12-day expeditions for private parties.  Stu Levy investigated them all and booked an 8-day trip with Western River Expeditions.  That was a great choice. 

Our guide/boatman, 35-year-old Steve Wiley, a Mormon from Utah, wearing his Red Sox hat, could have owned the river.  After 15 years guiding and hundreds of trips down the Colorado he was as experienced and professional as you can get.  It was evident that every other professional guide we met on the river had respect for Wiley.  He gave us confidence that no matter how dangerous it seemed we would come out OK.   But no one owns the Grand Canyon.  It is a wild, timeless, mind-expanding place.  Up until 1950 only about 100 adventurers had successfully made the journey down the river that Major John Wesley Powell, a one armed Civil War veteran, first navigated in 1869.  Three of his party were so intimidated by the wild river that they left the expedition and tried to walk out of the canyon and were never heard from again.  You can’t imagine the incredible feat it is to walk out of the Canyon from the river until you’ve been there and seen and experienced it firsthand.

  We hiked up canyons every day we were on the river.  Most days the temperature was between 105 and 115 degrees and our hikes mostly were uphill, over dangerous cliffs, along narrow ledges, and totally exposed to the searing sun.  Wiley told us he did it once and would never do it again unless he had to.  In fact in most places in the Canyon it would be impossible to hike out anyway.  Everywhere 1,000-foot cliffs straight up from the river are dwarfed by 1,500 to 2,500 foot additional cliffs further back from the river.  The cliffs are dotted with rock fall canyons eroded away and collapsed anytime from last year to 65 million years ago.  Then any walker faces anywhere from 20 to 150 miles of searing desert to cross with few or no places to find water before you find civilization.

  We did get some clues from a big horn male goat that lead his family across a cliff on the opposite side of the river from our campsite on our last night on the river.  He knew as he stood up on his hind legs and smashed his hooves down on the top of a cactus plant then amazingly drank from the hole while his female companion nursed the smallest member of the 5-goat family. 

Our raft, filled up by Drew and Connie Duerwald at the last minute, gathered at Lee‘s Ferry, Arizona, just downstream from Lake Powell to set out on the river after meeting Wiley and Erin, his knowledgeable and very competent swamper, the river term for helper.  Connie was a trooper.  She can’t swim.  But she participated in every part of the trip with vigor and bravery.  Some of us flew in from Las Vegas on puddle jumper Vision Airways and a few drove to this spot.  By previous agreement those that drove brought a solid 8-day supply of beer and wine for all of us.  Besides the booze we each were allowed 20 pounds of luggage – enough for a few pair of shorts, change of footwear, hi-tech fast dry shirts, rain suit, sun protection, and a few personal items.  Then a five-minute trip by bus down to the river. 

My first impression of the river was that it was beautiful and pristine, not brown and silt filled, as I believed.  And even though it was 110 degrees outside the river temperature was no more than 50 degrees.  That’s cold!  While Wiley gave us instructions on how to stow our gear in waterproof bags they provided he also explained that all the cold river water results from water released upstream at the Glen Canyon Dam from the bottom of several hundred feet deep Lake Powell. Within ten minutes we were rafting the Colorado.  After two or three sets of rapids and being totally drenched by the turbulent water we learned how it was to be cold when it was 110 degrees outside. 

This paradox was the first of many we encountered in this strange and foreign environment – all of which acted to expand our sense of time and space and our place in it.  Right away as we looked around we realized how enormous was the scale of the canyon.  Distances were very hard to judge, as your brain had never computed this kind of scale before.  From one peak another arose.  Layer upon layer of multicolor earth etched out by more than 60 million years of erosion.  We learned the first day that although some rock formations in the canyon contained rocks that were more than 2 billion years old, the Grand Canyon was carved out of the Colorado Plateau by the emptying erosion of a huge inland sea and weather changes over only the last 65 million years – not really a long time when you realize our earth is more than 3 ½ billion years old.  Right away we’re thinking of time, space and natures relation to us in this moment in a way that few of us had done previously. 

Every turn in the river introduced us to new vistas of spectacular rock formations, cliffs, and dazzling light shows as the bright sun cast its ever-present shadows across the landscape.  It was an enormous 360-degree wrap around nature show – almost so much it didn’t compute.  We could have been on another planet.  But you worked hard to take it all in.  And if you missed something one of the other 15 rafters in the boat always made sure you were alerted.  And Wiley and Erin constantly made us aware of important feature of the river, upcoming rapids, and they told us if we didn’t pee at the comfort stop on the river, we weren’t drinking enough water. Hydration, or lack of it, is the biggest source of problems on rafting trips.  The first symptoms of dehydration are irritability.  So one of our group’s inside jokes when someone started complaining about something – and you could have found much to complain about - was responding, “He (or She)’s dehydrated!”  

The first night we camped on a narrow spot of land on the South side of the river.  Everyone scrambled to find a decent campsite with as many amenities – privacy, close to the kitchen, near the river and cold beer and wine, and not too close to our potty site - as possible.  The potty needs more description.  Remember this is zero impact camping.  Everything we take into the canyon goes out with us.  Including the waste.  Yes, that waste!  When we made camp, the two swampers carried the two portable toilets, one designed to be in a small tent and the other a “leu with a view” – set up each day for its picturesque view.  Turns were taken in a very civilized manner.  Most preferred the “leu with a view” so when you went there you took a 2 foot square yellow distress sign that said “NEED HELP”.  When you finished your business you returned the sign to the wash hands spot and the next in line took the ticket. 

The first day everyone was very respectful at our river comfort spots.  Guys 100 yards downriver.  Women 100 yards upriver.  Needless to say as we all bonded and got used to the routine your natural need for privacy became eroded by necessity.  When we broke camp between 5:30 to 7AM the last item picked up and placed back on the raft by the swampers were the two toilets (with all contents!).  Remind me to tell you about Laura, a National Park Service Ranger, who joined our trip for a day and a half.  She freaked us out as she evidently felt part of her job description was watching us while we used the leu with a view.  Weird!  

That first night Carol and I selected a narrow spot of land very close to the river.  Set up our cots parallel to the river so my dangling hand was no more than three feet from the water.  Despite Wiley’s warning we also set up a tent in which it was far too hot to sleep.  But it served a privacy purpose for which we then had a greater need than later in the trip.  I got a little nervous when I returned from our first cocktail and hors d’ouveurs session and I found that the river had risen about six inches and now my hand would dangle no more than two feet from the river.  Wiley said it was OK though.  It wouldn’t get much higher.  But then we realized that the level of the river was dependent on how much water was being released from the dam upstream.

  After dinner we were exhausted.  A few cocktails and we set off to our campsites to sleep.  Or at least that’s what we thought.  In truth it proved very hard to sleep out on your cot totally exposed in the heat of the night and the bats overhead.  But we tried. I’ll never forget the first time I opened my eyes after about 2 hours of laying there with no sleep coming on. Instantly I saw a most magnificent and familiar sight. The big dipper was right in my sightline in a way that I had never experienced before.  Across the river was a 1000 to 1500 foot cliff and from my position on the opposite bank the big dipper rested perfectly on top of the cliff – like a pan sitting on the stove.  I let out a huge gasp it was so overwhelmingly magnificent.  We see and enjoy the big dipper every night at our summer home in N. H.  So seeing it this way sitting on top of the cliff and it being the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes the first night.  Well you get the picture. 

This trip was special!  We were in a new expanded relationship with nature.  Incredibly after I closed my eyes again and tried to sleep for about another 2 hours I had another moment when I opened my eyes the second time.  This time it was almost as bright as daytime. I had rolled over and was facing down stream and just above the some 1000-foot cliff immediately behind us a huge moon had just risen.  I was moved.  It was awesome.  Imagine a place showing off its beauty while you can’t sleep.  Really it was hard to complain even though few of us got much sleep for eight days.  You won’t believe it but after a couple more hours I opened my eyes to the same spot the moon had risen before and there was Mars, the red planet rising.  Can you believe it?  I was in awe!

  I thought the gourmet food offered the first day by our chef/guides would soon only be a memory.  But breakfast the second day was blueberry pancakes with several different kinds of syrup – all heated – and pork steaks, yogurt and fruit.  Yea, we ate a lot of pork.  Protein helps build river character, Wiley explained.  He and Aaron were great chefs.  We ate Mexican fiestas, tender 3 “ porterhouse steaks, shrimp cocktail, salads galore – all fresh and kept refrigerated magically in parts of our raft which we couldn’t see.  Wiley was even giving away “cocktail ice” on our sixth day to another boat captain who he obviously knew and respected. 

The trip with all its ingredients came together so well that it was a moving experience for every one of us.  We were exhausted all the time but only rarely got “dehydrated”! The exhilaration of the new and wonderful experience trumped all. Each day we stopped along the way to take different hikes mostly deep into canyons carved by streams, flash floods, and rock slides during the rainy season.  Guides from both boats took the time to help us over the rough terrain and to explain the flowers, fauna, and geology of the hike area. We saw magnificent waterfalls and rivers that you’d swear had water straight from the azure blue Caribbean.  Calcium carbonate caused the beautiful display in the place where the Little Colorado River met the Colorado.  It was a sight to behold when the azure blue colored waters met with the now silty brown waters of the Colorado River.  The further down the river from the dam the browner the water got. 

Two of our hikes took us along Canyon trails that turned out to be a lot more dangerous than I ever thought I would be taking.  Imagine climbing along a cliff with just a 12” footpath above a 1000-foot drop and then having to reach for a handhold that required you to release your other hand’s grip while you pushed off for the next grip.  You just did it.  But it was scary.  Tales are many of those who missed the next grip.  I even knew one – my best friend’s business partner. 

We were very surprised at the lack of pesky insects.  Sleeping on a cot in the open on top of my sleeping bag I kept expecting an ant ambush.  We did see a lot of those but they pretty much kept to themselves.  And I did see a couple of scorpions – two in the tent that served as our comfort station I noticed when it was too late to run.  They didn’t bother me and I warned the next person in line who decided to use the leu with a view instead.  After several days on the river we had heard many rafters comment on the lack of pesky insects we took a side hike up to Havasu Falls where we stood under a 1000-foot waterfall.  Half way up the trail Carol and I were startled by the first appearance of a dragonfly.  This wasn’t just any dragonfly.  This one was bright red.  And it followed us like a companion for 5 or ten minutes. We were moved because our son, Christopher, wrote about his relationship with nature in his Outward Bound journal.  There he quoted an ancient Indian saying, “We are all one – the wolf, the dragonfly and I”.  Chris died in a 2001 car accident and we have forever since connected his return to nature with this statement and the many dragonflies that patrol our lake house in NH and keep the mosquitoes away.  So the dramatic appearance of this red dragonfly provided Carol and I with another emotional moment.  Imagine how we felt when another red dragonfly appeared to us on our hike the next day.  The Grand Canyon/Colorado River is an amazing place. 

After dinner we always had more cocktails and sat around and told war stories from the day’s activities.  The third night Wiley brought out his guitar and we were all surprised to hear such a beautiful voice strumming out old rock and new country songs.  Then Erin revealed her wonderful whippoorwill like voice and Tom, the other boat leader, accompanied on the ukulele.  This led to several nights of singing and pleasant entertainment. 

Carol and I missed the raucous party on July 4th, the night we joined two other rafts at our campsite.  We were in the “honeymoon suite” that night!  Those that attended the big party were in sad shape the next day.  I was glad Wiley took down the Irish Flag from the back of the raft and replaced it with the NH “Don’t Tread on ME” coiled snake Revolutionary War flag to celebrate our national birthday.  I was particularly thankful that day for what our founding fathers accomplished as I looked around the Grand Canyon and took in such a great experience. 

The next to last day on the river Wiley announced at lunch that we would be having a party that night.  “Toga,” he exclaimed.  Everyone had a sheet given them the first day along with a sleeping bag.  We were all to wear our togas to dinner.  “No toga,” Wiley said, “No dinner!”  This led to a burst of creative energy and everyone did show up in costume.  Tom was a little embarrassed at the condition of his sheet.  Mike Murray’s portrayal of a damsel with a huge rack won first prize that high-spirited evening.  Everyone got a prize thanks to Carla and Marsha.

When you’re on a white water rafting adventure obviously there is a lot more than shooting the rapids.  But while you’re in the rapids nothing can grab your attention but the survival instinct.  Wiley told us when you’re spilling into the big one to “Suck rubber!” the colloquial term for bending into and kissing the rubber raft before the oncoming explosion of wave slams into your body and washes through the raft.  Sometimes you had to suck rubber two three or four times continuously while wave after wave, hit after hit enveloped the boat. 

The basic Western Rivers Expeditions raft was designed by its founder after he got permission from the US Army Corp of Engineers to use five of their patented inflated rubber bridge building floats laced together as a base for a river raft.  Up front there’s space for 9 rafters on the inner three floats.  Then there’s about a three-foot space maybe three feet high for storage on which five rafters can sit and hang on for dear life when you hit the rapids.  Behind that is the chicken coop, 2-5’ x 5’ cushioned spaces that are the safest space on the boat in the rapids.  Then an open space of about 5’ before another storage space on which our water and lemonade supply rested.  Behind that more storage space for the toilets, extra motors and god knows what else.  In the very rear is the boatman’s seat and the 30 horsepower motor that helped us get to where we wanted to go much faster than just paddling or floating. 

Many advocates of the river have fought hard to stop the use of motors on the river, the latest challenge just decided in favor of motors this year.  My advice to anyone interested in taking this trip is do it now while you still can.   In the Grand Canyon rapids are rated on a scale of one to ten depending on the amount of water and drop in elevation.  I think I heard that there are less than 20 rapids worldwide that rate a 10.  In our 187 mile odyssey we shot three tens, Crystal, Hermit, and Lava Falls.  Once you dropped into each of these there was no time to think. The forward section of the raft would rise up into an almost vertical position and then snap back horizontal as we breeched the wave only to be crested by the next curl.  If you were in the front then and peeked up to look you were in danger of taking a frontal hit that could easily cast you off the boat into the river.  It was like riding a bucking bronco.  You had to grab on to your two handholds and ride it.  No one got bucked off our raft though we barely saved Stu from being swept off the side at Crystal and the other boat lost one of its young men at Lava but he was recovered quickly even though they lost their tiller and prop in the madness.  Lucky they had a spare engine.

  At the end of the day rafters nursed shore shoulders, bruised arms and legs, scraped and bloody knuckles. All learned to use duck tape as a substitute for band-aids. From beginning to end we dropped about 1700 feet in elevation while experiencing the result of some 65 million million years of erosion and water flow that made the Grand Canyon out of rock and sediment layers laid down over the previous 2 -3 billion years.  It’s a mind-expanding experience just trying to get that concept into your head. But when you do and shortly after Lava Falls you arrive at your 187-mile destination to meet your helicopter that takes you out to the Bar 10 Ranch for your first shower in a week you’ve met the test.  You’re a “River rat” – the aptly descriptive term all 7 couples on this trip adopted to describe themselves after 8 days on the river.

Ned Downing - Ft Myers, FL
Grand Canyon Rafting 6 & 7 Day
OverallRating: 5 stars
Western River Rafting Trip
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