Guest blog by Alyson Adventures Splash! Grand Canyon Rafting host Sara M:
At the end of July 2012, I had the amazing opportunity to host a group of women on an 8-day camping and whitewater rafting adventure down the Grand Canyon. We boarded a motorized boat with an experienced Captain and mate (called the Swamper), who cooked our meals for us, led our hikes, filtered river water for us to drink, and showed us the colorful life and culture of the Grand Canyon boatmen.
For weeks leading up to my trip to the Grand Canyon, I had anxiety about some small concerns: how would I, a non-drinker, make sure to have enough of the right kind of alcohol on hand as the host of the group? Would I like the guests? Would they like me? Would my five-year-old son and his dad be ok staying home without me with absolutely no contact? Would I pack the right things? What if I forgot something?
There is no cell phone service in the Canyon, and no electrical generators for charging or powering gizmos. There is no resupply station for beer or sunblock or disposable cameras or fresh batteries, so good preparation is essential.
My job on the trip was simple: make sure everything would go as smoothly as possible, and that the guests would be as comfortable as they could be with sand in their ears (and hair and shoes). My first big challenge was to untangle a hotel snafu involving a massive bodybuilding convention in town that caused the hotel to inadvertently give some of our rooms to their muscled group. Thanks to the patience of a few of our guests, and the hard work of my colleagues in Key West, we were able to get things sorted out. Dr. Linda and I had the enviable pleasure of staying up the block in a tall, atrium style hotel with a pond and two resident white swans, Elvis and Priscilla, and yet more of those tanned and rippled conventioneers. (Thanks Linda for your patience as we worked out the details of our rooming for the night!)
On Friday night, I hosted an orientation for the 10 women who signed up for the trip. I was really pleased to find them all smart, interesting, and adventurous. We talked about what to expect, what to bring on the river, and the schedule. We memorized names and established a buddy system. Many women were traveling with their long-time partners, a few had kids or a grandkid at home, and sweet Gaye would be celebrating her birthday during the trip. We were all excited to get to know each other over the coming days, and all of the women were thrilled to be taking this famous “bucket list” type of trip.
A short time later, we met with a rep from the expedition company for our orientation, and were each provided a brown waterproof bag for storing all the things that we would need at our campsites each night on the river. For the things we’d want to have accessible during the day, we were each given a metal waterproof ammo can, labeled with our name. We had a short presentation (with emphasis on the importance of staying hydrated), and then adjourned for the night, vowing to get a good night’s sleep, and went to our rooms to pack. It turns out I had brought way too much to Las Vegas, and ended up leaving a completely full suitcase stored in the hotel locker for the week.
Into the brown bag I put my spare clothes and shoes, glasses and a week’s worth of daily contact lenses, headlamp, travel pillow, extra camera battery, tampons, a knitting project, playing cards and some things I never used. Into the ammo can went the sunblock, the field guide that Alyson Adventures gives to each Grand Canyon rafter, my waterproof journal, a few pencils, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, and a secret stash of lemon cookies. I was too energized to sleep much, and morning came pretty fast!
Eleven excited but sleepy women convened in the lobby at 4:30 am on Saturday morning, ate a continental breakfast, and boarded the bus for a long drive to Lee’s Ferry.
When we arrived there in the late morning, we rushed to get to our raft, quickly introducing ourselves to Dustin and Kinson, our captain and swamper, and then hopped right on board. The fellas laughed and said that we had to get back off and get fitted with our life jackets – and we weren’t to be on that boat without them for the next 8 days.
Imagine our surprise when, an hour into the trip, our engine started to sputter. Dustin steered us to shore and Kinson tied us up. They made us a sandwich buffet in the shade and while we ate, they replaced the motor with the on-board spare.
I was impressed at how prepared they were! For a day or so I fretted that the second engine would go kaput, and I wondered what on earth we would do. (Of course there are NO boat shops in the canyon).
Later, I had come to understand the culture of the Grand Canyon boatmen and their close working relationship with the National Park Service, and I felt confident that even if we lost our second engine, the friendly river-running community would help us out. The various companies that offer Grand Canyon rafting trips may be rivals in trying to get business, but the professional boatmen (and women) are all one team once they are on the River.
After lunch, we were quickly back on the road, so to speak!
Throughout the day we bravely faced what we thought were big rapids with icy cold (47 degree) water splashing us in the face and shooting up the legs of our shorts. Builder Linda said the 60 bucks she paid for a rain suit was the best money she ever spent, so I put mine on, too.
When we got to camp, we formed a line from the boat up the beach to unload the kitchen gear, propane stove, tents, waterproof bags, and ammo cans together. We all set up our tents, because the sky threatened rain. Several gutsy women tried to “bathe” in a little inlet of water, but we mostly just gasped, squealed, and splashed spasmodically before giving up. I described it as “brain freeze, from the outside”. Afterward we sat around visiting and ate a scrumptious spaghetti dinner.
I enjoyed the colorful sunset from my tent door.
I slept outside in the starlight until it started sprinkling, then went into my tent, but left the door open for the breeze. The sprinkles became heavier and it seemed to rain for ages, and a few hours before dawn I put my hand out to feel the drops. Instead of rain, I felt a creature scamper over my arm and run out of the tent. That was the sound I’d been hearing all night. Tiny feet inside my tent. I steeled myself for the worst (scorpions?) and turned on my headlamp. I was relieved, then, to find cute little harmless mouse poops. Someone had discovered my bar of cocoa butter lotion and my secret lemon cookies! The only spider I saw on the whole trip took this opportunity to let himself into my ammo can too. I shooed him out and kept my lid closed after that.
I couldn’t sleep after my close brush with the creatures of the Canyon, and as I lay awake, I heard grunting and swearing from the direction of the river. Our boatmen were trying to push the raft off of the sandbar. The water level in the canyon is controlled by the Glen Canyon Dam upstream, and it fluctuates daily. After everyone went to sleep that night, the water level fell and left the front end of the boat high and dry. After watching quietly for a while, and then listening to the roar of the engine as they tried to back the boat up, I got up and offered to help push. That boat is heavy, but we got it repositioned and we all went back to bed.
Breakfast each day was eggs and fruit, muffins or pancakes or French toast, and the best meats I have ever eaten. The expedition company gets all their meat from a local butcher over the border in Utah, and the fantastic breakfast sausages are still being discussed. I awoke early every morning and waited for the call of “ HOT! COFFEEEEEEE!” Mostly I milled around in the misty dark listening to the river lap at the shore and watching the last of the morning bats flutter around until the coffee water came to a boil and it was time to break down my tent.
After reloading our camping gear onto the boat, we headed downriver for a bit and then took a small hike up to see some petroglyphs carved by the Ancient Puebloans, who we called the Anasazi when I was growing up in Utah. I have an old foot injury that makes wearing shoes uncomfortable, so I hiked up barefoot, dodging cactus and gravel, and feeling the warm boulders and silt with my toes. The top layer of sand was hot, so I tied on a pair of thin, flexible leather moccasins I’d made for myself. I wondered, on these outings, what the ancient people made for their own feet.
Note: If it weren’t for my word count limit, after every paragraph (maybe even after every sentence) my narrative would read, “Took a big swig of water. Drank more. Refilled my water bottle. Said drink more water to grown women whom I assume got sick of hearing me say it.”
Later in the day, while observing the passing riverbanks we were awed by waterfalls, huge caves, and the Grand Canyon’s most recent rockfall. Two years ago massive chunks of Redwall Limestone fell into the river from the height of a skyscraper. No one was there to witness it, but since the natural limestone is greeny white, stained over the millennia by runoff from the red rocks high above, it was obvious to everyone who saw the white stone cliff that a massive rockfall had occurred.
On this day I discovered that my rain jacket had a hood, and it was the happiest moment of my life. The rapids could drench me as much as they wanted now and my ears would repel their icy fingers! Builder Linda now stated that she would have paid double for her rainsuit.
That second night, I chose a campsite high on the hill, farther from the vegetation that shelters scampering little mice. The sand was baking hot, and I waited to set up my tent until the sun had fallen behind the cliff.
After setting up my campsite it was time to get clean. I went down to the river, determined to do more than holler about my feet going numb. Ann and Stephanie, newly back in the States from Denmark were blasé about the water temperature and I, being naturally competitive, couldn’t let them have the only clean hair in camp. So I dunked. And I screeched. And I ran ashore. But I had to go back in the river because bio-degradable camp soap still needs to be rinsed out. A bunch of women giggled and hooted, and got used to the water themselves … mostly. Some did laundry and hung it to dry in the trees.
We celebrated Gaye’s birthday with a chocolate-frosted cake, and stayed up after dark visiting and enjoying each other’s company. I went to bed clean, stuffed full of great food, and happy to be sharing this adventure with this group of women.
To be continued…click here to read Part 2.