Zach’s Account of Splash Grand Canyon Rafting (Part 1)

red walls of the Grand Canyon with HE Travel gay group

HE Travel has been rafting the Grand Canyon for 40 years. In fact the first gay tour ever offered was a Grand Canyon rafting trip that our founder Hanns Ebensten organized in 1973. We are currently the only gay tour operator running annual trips down the Canyon, and we run about 8 all-gay boats each year including a lesbian boat, several for men only, and occasionally an all-welcome trip on which our gay travelers can invite their straight family and friends!

Our trip starts and ends in Las Vegas Nevada, which allows our guests to extend their time visiting the many attractions Sin City has to offer. This year we were approached by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) to add some pre/post tour activities for our groups to join. This is the part of my job that I really love. I can’t put someone on tour activity that I haven’t personally tried… so bring on the fun!

The new potential pre-tour activity? How about a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon followed by a wild ATV ride in Bootleg Canyon. I’ve never ridden in a helicopter before, so I really didn’t know what to expect. Since I was the potential “buyer” they gave me the front seat. Have any of you been in a helicopter before? If not, I highly recommend it. It was AMAZING!!! No runways, just a quick upward rise, quickly moving forward at 200 miles per hour while flying low over the magnificent terrain. After you finish picking your stomach up off the floor and placing it back into your abdomen, this becomes one of the most thrilling experiences you can ever have. Thank you Leonardo Di Caprio for inventing the helicopter. (Or was that just in a movie I saw ….)

We flew along the rim of the canyon, and dipped and rose over its peaks. I got butterflies several times. When the tour was complete, they flew us to Bootleg Canyon, where Jim (the rep from LVCVA) and I were dropped off in the desert to await our ATV’s. The best part of this was watching our fellow passenger, an Italian woman who spoke no English, become frantic that we were being dumped in the desert. She kept trying to explain to the pilot that he’d forgotten us. Hilarious! (But I actually DID appreciate her motherly concern for us.)

We were then quickly driven to an historic mine site for a tour of an old gold mine. As we entered the mine, the temperature quickly fell from about 100 degrees to about 58 degrees. The cool air was lovely. After the mine tour, we each got our own quad ATV, and we went zooming all over creation. My go pro videos make it seem really intense!

We’re still finalizing the details, but we hope to have some exciting new pre-tour activities to offer our 2014 Splash! Grand Canyon Rafting tour members!

Day 1: The Orientation

The orientation is always the scariest part of the trip. No one knows what to expect since we are a group of strangers coming together, but my job as our tour host is to try and create group cohesion as quickly as possible. Today’s orientation was one of the smoothest I’ve ever had. Everyone seemed to instantly like each other. I led an HE Travel group orientation and then we all went to meet with our boat company rep. Several of the guys in the group nearly had heart attacks when they realized how little space they would have in their dry-bags that had to carry a week’s worth of belongings. “Where are we going to put our tiaras?” was one question… and I was easily the biggest complainer. Sean wanted to bring his stilettos and had even made room for them in his bag, but was very disappointed when I pointed out that we would be on an inflatable raft and he would have to leave them behind.

After the orientations, everyone went straight to their rooms to prep for the early morning departure.

Day 2: The Launch

getting off the bus at Lees Ferry for the Grand Canyon HE Travel gay tour

We all got on the bus, and did the five-hour drive to Lee’s Ferry, just upriver from the Grand Canyon itself, and about 17 miles from the base of Glen Canyon Dam. Everyone gathered their gear and found their seats on the raft. We pushed away. This was the beginning. No chickening out now!

Our first rapids were Badger and Jackass… who named these? Everyone loved the early rapids, although I got cold and started shivering (I have something like 10% body fat – all in my butt). Sean and his partner Adam were very kind to cuddle up to me to keep me warm. I recommend that skinny folks like me always bring the raingear. It’s not for the rain, but rather for the cold rapids on the first couple of days when the river still runs icy cold from the bottom of the dam.

The group really meshed well together. Our first night was the hardest for getting used to sleeping outdoors. As far as camping in the wilderness goes, this is about as luxurious as we could possibly make it. Everyone gets a cot, inflatable sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and a tent. The canyon is gorgeous in the dark; the Milky Way was visible every night. I never once slept in my tent. I just enjoyed the view and the sound of the roaring river.

Day 3: The Awkward Question: Bathrooms????

Did you know that everything …. and we mean EVERYTHING that we take into the Canyon must be taken out again? That’s right. The canyon’s fragile eco-system is too delicate to handle lots of rafters digging holes and covering them over after going to the bathroom every day. Therefore each raft carries a portable toilet for solid waste, which is actually a little luxury I hadn’t expected! Everyone is also encouraged to pee in the river, which is so large and swift that a little urine is diluted immediately. This appealed to every man’s inner child, and no one complained about this requirement. (Our apologies to our more squeamish readers – questions about bathroom facilities in the Canyon are never the first ones we are asked, but certainly the most common!)

Our morning started off with a hot cup of cowboy coffee, which was far better than I had expected in the middle of nowhere! We packed up our camp site, then headed up for our first hike (North Canyon). At the top we found a stagnant pool with toads in it. We took turns trying to figure out how to climb across the rock wall and not fall in the algae basin… I fell in several times. Bleh.

climbing the walls of North Canyon pool Grand Canyon with HE Travel gay group

Back on the river, we ran some rapids, which was exhilarating! With each rough and tumble rapid, it became clear which members of the group didn’t actually realize they would get WET on a rafting tour. Our lunch was on a small beach where I attempted to feed a lizard a cookie. What do you know? Lizards apparently don’t like Nabisco wafers. Today we got our first taste of rain; and some seriously wild rapids! I was very glad to have my rain suit on.

Our camp was at mile 60. After each of the others had selected their campsite, I claimed mine at the top of the hill, then set up happy hour for everyone. Tonight we made Sangria! Everyone had so much fun drinking and talking that we forgot about the rain. Our captain Jalynda pulled out her secret stash of Jameson whiskey, and we passed the bottle around sharing stories and watching an amazing fireworks display of lightning.

Day 4: The Amazing Little Colorado River (LCR)

We started our day early with blueberry pancakes; they were absolutely fantastic! We got moving as soon as we could and made our way to the LCR. We were the first group to arrive at this popular site and had a good 2 hours of privacy before anyone else showed up. The main Colorado River was muddy and brown from yesterday’s rain, but the Little Colorado was running a beautiful blue. (It’s usually the other way around, and it’s fascinating to watch the two parallel colors flow together where the LCR flows into the bigger Colorado.)

The LCR is shallow enough to wade in, so we all lined up to go body sliding in the river. We took all kinds of wild pictures and video with the Go Pro Camera. We then hiked up farther and went cliff diving in the most amazingly blue water I’ve ever seen!

swimming in the little colorado river Grand Canyon with HE Travel gay group

Today we had lunch at a seeringly hot beach that felt like it would burn my toes off. I had to give up and put my shoes on. Several of the guys had to carefully extract their sarongs after building a shade structure in thorny trees!

Our next stop was the largest Pueblo Indian site in the canyon. It started to rain and we put on our gear and headed into the rapids of The Gorge, a stunningly beautiful section of the National Park. The walls ceased being the usual layered sandstone and limestone and we were suddenly surrounded by colorful metamorphic rock. When we eventually made it to our campsite and set up camp, we made hot toddies, and hiked up a beautiful granite side canyon. I would have loved to slice off a piece and make it into the most beautiful countertop this side of the Mississippi.

Dennis, Jason, and I collected rocks and when we got back to camp, we started a game of beach bocce. Most of the camp joined in and we broke out the happy hour drinks.

Day 5: Hot Naked Sunday Pool Party!

Our first stop today was Crystal Creek. Everyone was so happy to get to walk through warm water. Michael found a petroglyph of a guy having an acid trip. We came upon a waterfall that everyone wanted to sit in. Several of us scaled the cliff and made body dams to stop the water. We would then release the water to flush down onto the people below. This started huge bouts of giggles and general childish shrieks!

We stopped for lunch, which was a delicious Thai-style wrap. After lunch we donned our lifejackets, situated ourselves on the boat and boated for like five seconds before Jalynda pulled over for our next hike (while having a good laugh about how much prep we’d done for a five-second boat ride.)

We hiked in, up to our ankles in a little side creek, then Jalynda said “seeing as I’m a girl, I’m going to let you guys finish this one on your own.” As we rounded the next corner, we realized why. In front of us was a beautiful natural pool, fed by a gorgeous waterfall. Everyone stripped down and we had our own private naked pool party! We were able to crawl behind the waterfall into a little cave where you could see up though the rocks into the river roaring overhead.

group of guys in a waterfall of the Grand Canyon with HE Travel gay group

We got back on the boat and hit our next rapids. Mark rode these ones standing up, while Tino and I rode on the pontoons. What a fun day, I love the Grand Canyon!

To be continued…read Part 2 Here!

To read details about our Splash! tour Click Here!