DAY 1: SUNDAY, MAY 23
Vision Airways. That's the name of the airline that was taking us to the beginning of our journey. Who the hell is Vision Air? At first blush, it sounded more like an optometrist's office that does asthma tests on the side. But soon enough, after paying a fee for baggage that was too heavy (oops), we were boarding a duel prop plane that held 16-18 people for the 50-minute flight to Marble Canyon. The pilot, who seemed competent enough, announced that we'd be boarding as soon as his copilot showed up. Apparently, the copilot was MIA and, considering it was early Sunday morning in Las Vegas, we began wondering if perhaps Mr. Copilot was still busy spreading his wings somewhere else. Not to worry, however, as the copilot showed up in due time and we were soon airborne toward Marble Canyon/Lee's Ferry.
Over the next 50 minutes, we flew over some of the most desolate desert in these United States. Southern Nevada and extreme northern Arizona is the world's capital of zero. Nothing but ancient dried lake beds, scrub and the occasional hill and cactus. Sort of pretty for the first few minutes, but more like moonscape afterward. It occurred to me that if the need ever arrived that I needed to hide a body, this was the place to do it. Even the CSI experts wouldn't look here.
In due course, we landed at the little Marble Canyon airstrip in Northeast Arizona near our put-in point at Lee's Ferry. It was the only semblance of civilization for miles around and consisted of the airstrip, a small country store, a lodge and an old house. We were met by Erica Andersonn, an attractive young lady and representative of ARR. She escorted us to the house for coffee and donuts and said there would be a briefing before we departed for our cast-off. I asked if she was our river guide and she responded that she wouldn't be "driving our boat, just swamping it". Swamping it?? Hmmmmm, I had no clue but pretended that I knew exactly what she was talking about. No worries.
After coffee, we were escorted to a side yard of the house and our trip leader, John Crowley, arrived to brief us on what we would be doing in the next week of our lives. Yeah, we had an idea but we didn't have the details. I've never been a detail person, but was interested in just how this trip was going to go. There were 24 people taking the trip and John immediately put most of us at ease with his Grizzly Adams-styled demeanor. It was obvious that he was a natural leader and had the knowledge, experience and skills to see that at least most of us would be in a good position to survive the next week and maybe even enjoy it. A native of the Southwest, he had an easy Arizona desert accent with an almost Canadian twist and ended most sentences with "OK" or "eh."
He told us he would be driving the "guinea pig," or lead boat, and introduced Gretchen Younghaus who would be driving the other boat which would follow John down the river. Turns out Erica the Swamper's job was to assist on both boats wherever she is needed as part of her training to become a driver herself one day. Normally, these are the only three people provided for most trips. We were fortunate to have two extra "helpers" on this trip. One of Gretchen's friends, Dan, a river guide on the Arkansas River in Colorado, and his girlfriend, Julianna, would be helping out on the boats in lieu of buying the trip. Dan and Julianna had no experience in the canyon, but they would make Erica the Swamper's life easier.
These guides are unique in the best sense of the word. They have their own culture and customs and are deeply spiritual in a way that is hard to put one's finger on. And they can become excitable - I learned that a loud bellowing of "Hooooooeeeee!!" by a guide can mean anything from "It's time to eat" to "That was a helluva great rapid ride." They are always positive and optimistic and share a live and let-live attitude toward pretty much everything. They are generally well educated and approach each day as though it's their last and without worry. They are genuinely friendly with everybody and obviously in love with the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. Their job is a true labor of love.
And these "boats" are unlike anything I'd ever seen. They're over 30 feet long and are powered by a 30 HP outboard motor. They're basically a big traditional raft framed by steel and outrigged by two huge pontoons, one on each side of the raft. Each boat is capable of carrying a crew of three, 14 passengers and enough food and gear for at least a week. I figure they're pulling well over a ton of people and materials down the river.
There were rules, of course, both for safety's sake and for environmental reasons. The first and most basic rule was that, when on the river, one's life vest, not PFD but "life vest" (no silly acronyms with this bunch), was to be on, buckled and tightened. "Your life depends on you having on your life vest. If you've ever been on this river before, you will understand this," we were told. Of course, none of us had been on the Colorado River prior to this and experience on the Middle Oconee River in Jackson County, Georgia definitely would not count. "If you refuse to put on and cinch up your vest, you'll be left on shore." 'Nuff said on that issue.
Second, the lead guide's word is final on all things and we were all asked to respect that. I prayed that this would be a benevolent dictatorship but quickly determined that - despite my libertarian leanings - this arrangement is not such a bad thing because once we launch, the only realistic way out is at the end of the trip, nearly 200 miles downstream. The guides were the only ones who knew how to get there in one piece. Monarchy isn't so bad if you have a good king.
During our entire journey, the only manmade provisions we saw, other than other rafters, were a few bridges spanning the river (these cable footbridges were hundreds of feet up and inaccessible), a bunkhouse type area with the very basic of accommodations at Phantom Ranch about halfway through, and an ancient wooden footbridge, connecting two ledges that dates back hundreds of years to the Anasazi indians. That was it. No convenience stores. No Motel 6. No emergency medical clinics. No cops and no air conditioning. There were also no signs telling us to be careful near ledges and cliffs dropping hundreds of feet. No fences either. In the bottom of the canyon, one is largely left to one's own devices. Or at least the dexterity of one's own coordination and the leadership skills of one's guide.
The park service is adamant about keeping the canyon natural and wants no human alteration of it. The biggest rule is that what goes into the canyon comes out of the canyon. And they mean everything, including solid waste. It was explained to us that we could dispose of liquid waste only in the Colorado River - not in side streams, not behind a big rock on shore or even off any trails on the hikes we took. If there had been any trees big enough to "go behind," they would have been off limits too. In other words, you gotta pee in the river. Period. The idea is that since the volume of water in the river is so enormous that the river can best "absorb" this most human of intrusions into the wild. This rule created an interesting situation because there is a lot of open land in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. At first, some people were a bit nervous relieving themselves 15 feet away from some member of the opposite sex they'd just met doing the same thing. By week's end, it had become commonplace.
Solid waste is another matter. It all had to be hauled out at the end of the trip. This was accomplished with the assistance of a device that was known as a "groover." We were on the river for seven days and there were seven different groovers - one for each day. Essentially, a groover is an aluminum box approximately 2 feet X 2 feet with a big hole in the top which accommodates a very indoor-styled toilet seat. Each evening, this device was set up in a semiprivate location. Each morning, just prior to launching the boats, the seat was removed, the hole sealed and the whole thing - contents and all - was stowed on the boat. Sealing and loading the groover has to be the low point in the life of a river guide. Particularly the morning after we did Mexican for supper. Being the inquisitive person I am, I had to inquire as to the origins of the name "groover." I was told that in times past, a simple, square US surplus ammo can was used to collect solid waste and that after utilizing the ammo can, a person exited the session with a dual set of grooves on his rear end. Thus the term "groover" was born and lives on today.
Another rule the guides stressed was about hydrating one's self constantly. We were all issued drinking cups that held about 12 oz. and told that we'd needed to drink a minimum 12-15 cups every day. ARR provided all of the water and lemonade you could gulp and up to five soft drinks per day, if you wanted them. More on days that we had hikes. It's hard to tell when you're getting dehydrated here because the humidity is so low you don't sweat. Well, technically, the sweat evaporates before you get "wet" like here in Georgia and you don't notice how much water you're losing.
After digesting the rules, we were dismissed to pack our dry bags and make any last-minute provision purchases at the little store a short walk from the house. It was run by a quiet, humorless, uninterested older Indian lady and my efforts to engage her in conversation, even small talk, proved fruitless. I had been told that temporary fishing licenses were available for purchase here and told her I wanted one for Marty. "Got to have ID. State require it," it was explained using no extra words. I hadn't brought my wallet to the store with me but had just grabbed a handful of dollars as time was running short for our departure time. Knowing how detailed getting any sporting license in Georgia is, I figured we were out of luck. But Marty, having overheard the conversation, immediately announced that he had some ID. Wondering what kind of identification my 14-year-old son could possible have, I was dismayed when he whipped out his billfold and produced an old worn wrinkled business card of mine. It had to be at least five years old and had been scribbled all over. She looked at the frayed card, flipped it over a time or two, said "OK" and gave us the permit. I didn't argue.
We loaded up in vans and took the short ride down to Lee's Ferry, a national historic site and the traditional put-in location for these type trips. Lee's Ferry is an interesting place with lots of colorful history. I won't spell it all out here, but suffice it to say that for a lot of years, it was the only place to cross the Colorado River for many, many miles in either direction.
We loaded the rafts with all our stuff, were fitted with life vests and got settled. With a loud "Hooooooeeeeee!" from the guides, we were soon pushing off at Mile 0 into the Colorado River where it enters the Grand Canyon. It was 10:30 am and the sky was a deep crystal clear blue as it was to be for the duration of the trip. The boys, Brian and I were in the "guinea boat" with John, and Gretchen's boat was within sight behind.
One of the most anticipated parts of the trip was, of course, the whitewater we would encounter. I brought along my copy of "The Colorado River in Grand Canyon Guide" that I had ordered weeks before and had studied fairly thoroughly. This book (by author Larry Stevens) contains an extensive map that shows and rates the river's rapids on a mile-by-mile basis. It also shows major attractions like waterfalls, trails and ancient Indian ruins that can be seen along the way.
I learned that rapids on the Colorado are classified on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most difficult. This is quite different from the Class I - VI scale I'm somewhat familiar with for measuring whitewater in the Southeast. I asked one of our guides about this difference and was nonchalantly told to "just divide our scale by 2." Made sense to me. The rating for rapids in the Grand Canyon sometimes changes based on the water level of the river. In low water, some have a higher rating, and some have a lower. Same story for high water. There also is somewhat of a "tide" in the river based on the release of water from Glen Canyon Dam and that makes the water rise and fall over a 24-hour period.
Anyway, since I'd done my homework (I thought) and had studied the map of the river before departing, I told Brian and the boys there would be no major whitewater on the first day of our trip. Oops. So much for book sense vs. the real world. We hit several sets of rapids the first day and they were simply exhilarating. The boys had put on their full rain gear anyway so other than Brian and I getting a few cold showers, no damage was done by the 48-degree water. Cold water was to be the norm for the trip and often came as a welcome cooling from the close-to-100 degree temps.
Soon after passing Mile 4, we crossed under the somewhat famous Navajo Bridge. The bridge, completed in 1929, soars over 450 feet above the river and replaced Lee's Ferry as the most feasible means to cross the Colorado in this area. Lee's Ferry had closed the year before, in 1928, because of the drowning of three men while crossing the river via the ferry. We saw some people up on the bridge as we crossed under and Marty tried to call up a greeting but the breeze was so stiff they couldn't hear him. I shot a picture of the bridge that was backdropped by an unbelievably blue sky nearly totally void of clouds.
After a thorough soaking at the first "big" rapid, Badger Creek Rapid, at Mile 8, Marty spotted some bighorn sheep on the north shore. We were to see these animals often over the next week and they didn't seem to mind us getting within photo range. At one point, Marty got within 15 feet of a small ewe we happened upon on a side hike. After watching the sheep for a while, we continued and soon passed "Ten Mile Rock," which is a giant boulder that looks as if some giant had simply plunged it into the left side of the river. More likely, it had tumbled the 1,000 or so feet down from the rim sometime in the distant past and planted itself deep into the river bed.
Even though we were drenched in that first rapid, 10 minutes later, we were bone dry. To us, this was simply amazing but was to be a constant throughout the trip. No, we definitely weren't in Georgia any more. The relative humidity was 2% and being wet was a brief, temporary thing .
We then stopped for our first lunch of the trip. The procedure for any "docking" on shore is that nobody is to depart the boat until it's safely tied up to shore. Tying it up is part of the swamper's job and can be somewhat tricky at times. After securing the boat, the guides went to work assembling a couple of tables for holding the food and within minutes, we were called to line up for a lunch of delicious cold cuts, sandwiches, fruits, chips and cookies. We were not provided with any paper plates or napkins and were strongly encouraged to "eat near the shoreline" to make sure crumbs fell into the river instead of soiling the soil on the spit of sand we had landed on. If this meal was an indication of the meals we were to be served on the trip, it was a darn good start. Marty tried a little fishing during lunch, using some of the spinners we'd brought but had no luck. Another member of the trip had brought a fly reel and was casting for the supposedly abundant trout in the Colorado. The fishing portion of our trip was to materialize later.
After about an hour, we loaded up and continued down the river. We washed through Soap Creek Rapid and a rocking House Rock Rapid at Mile 17 before landing at North Canyon and its accompanying side stream around Mile 20. This was our first hike of the trip and was only about a mile and a half in length. One thing that struck me right off was that hikes here hold no resemblance to the hiking I'd done in past years along the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and North Carolina. In the Grand Canyon, there is little soil to speak of... only rocks and sand and frequently, sand on rocks which makes for tricky traction. Not only that, elevation gain is abrupt, without much shade and often along ledges that would have guardrails anywhere else.
All of this made me wonder why all our guides were wearing sandals, some even wearing what I would call "flip-flops," on this trail. Are these people crazy?? Following the guides' lead and against his father's better judgment, Marty made the hike in sandals. I thought it insane at the time and worried every step of the way - waiting for him to clumsily slide his flip-flopped feet off some rock and tumble hundreds of feet into oblivion. But it turned out that on this one occasion, father didn't know best.... the guides were right. Most of these hikes were wet walks in and out of creek shoals and the newer, outdoors sport sandals proved to be the best footwear for the conditions. By the end of the trip, I was doing all of my hiking in sandals too.
This North Canyon walk culminated at a small waterfall the boys dubbed the "Jacuzzi" because of the fire hose force water coming out at about 8 feet. We all took time to soak in the small pool and cool off. The temperature had gotten quite warm compared to what we were used to and it was a welcome relief. After a brief wade, and back massage, the boys got bored and started finding ledges to climb. Brian and I called them down, fearing for their safety, and after they got down from their perches, they listened to John tell them a story of how he'd seen an 11-year-old boy die from a fall from one of those very ledges a few years ago. Perfect timing on John's part as the tale seemed to hit home with the boys. I asked him about the frequency of these type accidents and his answer was what I can only call informingly vague: "Sure, people fall down here every year - it happens. Never lost anybody on one of my trips but I've caught a couple before they went over the side. Lucky for them, eh?" I'll say. The river and its environs, although beautiful, can be unforgiving and deadly. Like doctors, river guides here often bury their mistakes.
We reboarded the boats and entered the first couple of miles of the "roaring 20's," so named because of the unusual abundance of rapids located between Mile 20 and Mile 30. Even after descending just 23 miles of river, we had already passed through older and older geologic layers and noticed the walls of the canyon growing taller and taller. By trip's end, we would have dropped nearly 2000 feet from where we started and the river-to-rim distance would be nearly a mile. The word "spectacular" doesn't even begin to describe the scenery we'd seen that first day.
John decided to make camp for the night at Mile 23 on a sandy spit of land on the north side of the river. We formed a "duffle line" to unload our equipment from the boat and began looking around the site for suitable spots to camp. The various groups pretty much kept to themselves and setting up that first camp seemed a bit rushed and hectic to me in trying to organize everything. While people were busy finding their individual camp sites, pulling out sleeping gear and repacking their dry bags, the guides whipped up supper. Keeping in line with their advertisements and our earlier lunch, we were served a superb supper of grilled salmon, dirty rice, salad and homemade strawberry shortcake for supper. There was plenty and no one went hungry. One note on the condiments: one of the salad dressings offered was called "Vidalia Onion Salad Dressing." Upon seeing an item from my home state, I investigated and was disappointed to read on the label that this dressing was actually made in West Virginia. I felt the need to point out to the whole group that the Vidalia onion's true home is in Vidalia, GEORGIA, not West Virginia and that the expedition had been tricked into thinking that their otherwise excellent assortment of condiments was contaminated by a phony. Unbelievably, nobody else seemed to care as none of them had any idea Vidalia was an actual city anywhere. A person less sensitive than myself might have been offended.
At dusk that first night, the wind began surging up to about 25-30 miles per hour and sand was blowing everywhere. My first thought was that this was going to be miserable and that sand was going to get into every piece of clothing and equipment we had. Cold, heat and rain I can handle, but sand in one's underwear is something that has always stopped me cold. Brian noticed the same thing and we decided to request tents to sleep in to try to avoid sand getting all over our stuff. John patiently smiled and without comment gave us each a tent to assemble. That was easier said than done in this sort of wind, but being seasoned Scouts, we finally got the well-made North Face tents pitched. These were warm weather tents and had ventilation screens on three sides of the roof. Even after having assembled the rain fly, not for any threat of rain, but to try to keep the sand out we realized that sand was all inside the tents anyway. Not only that, but even after sinking tent stakes in the ground and putting rocks on top of the stakes, the corners of the tent kept riding up in the persistent wind. Reflecting now, I know that some in our group who were somewhat familiar with desert camping had to be chuckling, watching us attempt to assemble these tents in the blowing sand.
But again, being persistent know-it-all-Southern-redneck Boy Scouts (and stubborn to boot), we stood by our decision and slept in the tents. Around 9 pm, the wind ceased and the temperature dropped about 10-15 degrees. It was one of the most unusual weather phenomenon I've ever experienced but the same thing happened every night, give or take a few minutes. Still, the problem was that even with the diminished wind and temperatures, it was still hot as hell in those tents completely covered with rain flies.