Of the many warning signs at Lee’s Ferry put-in for the Grand Canyon, one is missing: Caution! Following this river may change the course of your life.
By Haven Livingston
“Marriages? Divorces? Conceptions?”
No one says a word. Gazes are cast out the windows, into laps, a few grins appear. We had agreed to follow the Las Vegas rule: “What happens in Vegas …”
But really, our hearts were still in the canyon. Our minds were on the river. Our tanned, silted and slightly bruised bodies were evidence of the 21-day journey through the Grand Canyon on the mighty Colorado.
The shuttle driver laughs off his standard reentry question as we lash on the last piece of gear and drive away from the take-out at Diamond Springs.
I had been laid off months before and depression about not landing a new job was settling in on me. I took a counterintuitive action and headed north into the dark days of winter in southeast Alaska to spend time at my boyfriend’s house.
One dark snowy afternoon light appeared with a phone call. It was an invitation for my boyfriend and me to join a private float trip down the Grand Canyon with a couple he knew from living and fishing in Alaska. I had met them only in passing, on their way south to spend the winter in New Zealand.
For five years I had been applying to the lottery system, vying for one of the coveted private trip slots down the river, meticulously timing my lottery dates to not conflict with work schedules and making sure my hand-picked team was available. Now I was agreeing to push off with a pack of 14 other people, all unknown to me; every one of them a potential wild card. A shadow of fear of the unknown winked behind me, but I’d be damned if I would miss out on this opportunity. I was free from work and would do whatever it took to scrape together what I needed to get myself there.
A float trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is one of the quintessential adventures of the American West; a landmark in the life of any outdoor adventurer. For river runners of all types it is often a lifelong goal. Some are lucky enough to have been on many commercial trips as hired guides, but that means spending much of the time working to satisfy paying customers.
Nearly 80% of the permits issued to run the river through Grand Canyon are commercial. This makes it extremely competitive to win one of the remaining permits reserved for private trips through a lottery system. Of the 22,000 people that run the Colorado each year, only 3,000 people are on private trips.
A private trip down the canyon meant we would be self reliant; no guides, no cooks, no set itinerary except when to put on the river and when to take out. The food and equipment would be supplied by a river outfitting company to our specifications. Everything else was up to us, which made me wonder — Who are we?
Our permit holder leads a double life; he’s a part time Alaskan fisherman who migrates south to New Zealand when daylight falls short. It was up to him to select a team who could both successfully navigate six oar rafts down the river and generally have a fun time together.
From Alaska came a few other fishermen and women, an older crowd with years of experience on water, a preparedness for anything and a willingness to try it all. From New Zealand came a tight pack of young friends, expert kayakers and adventurers. Most of them would be in charge of rowing a raft each, while a few would kayak the river. A few in the group had already been down the canyon three or four times. One guy had been down enough to be considered our Canyon Guru and expert consultant on the river’s nuances and the best camp spots.
The rest of our group consisted of a token German kayaker and a handful of us who came along as partners or friends to those above. My experiences on rivers have been spread out over more than a decade in an array of crafts, though I am far from expert in any of them. I had hopes of stepping in to hone my rowing skills, but those were dashed the first day on the river.
Selecting what looks like a fun yet safe ride out of a host of unknowns is an intimidating choice to make. Other passengers were starting to stake their claims at the put-in at Lee’s Ferry. My boyfriend and I opted for the husky German guy’s boat. He looked like a serious, no bullshit kind of guy, and aren’t Germans supposed to be organized and well prepared?
Day 1, and on the precipice of the first significant rapid, I learned that, no, Germans are like everyone else — human, and this one was about to make a huge mistake.
“Oh Shit!” was all that came out of his mouth as we dropped sideways into the gaping hole in the middle of the river at Badger Creek Rapid. Instantly the boat was on its side, the upstream pontoon getting sucked underwater, threatening to flip the whole thing. Thrown against the underwater side of the raft I was pummeled into the river, down the hole and somersaulting underwater, then under the raft, telling myself, ‘Stay calm, you’ll get to breathe eventually,’ and ‘Wow, this water is f***ing cold!’
I swam through the rest of the rapid, choking air down where I could, looking for the raft. Finally catching hold of a loose line off the runaway raft I pulled myself toward it only to realize the German had been ejected too, and my boyfriend was madly rowing to get into an eddie where the current would hold the raft in place against the canyon wall. He helped me back in and I stood shivering, trying to figure out why my left hand was immobile and bleeding. The German swam his way toward us, tail between his legs and eyes cast down in shame.
One of the Kiwis told me her professional physiotherapist opinion after examining my hand and gave me the optimistic diagnosis of broken thumb, damaged ligaments and damaged soft tissue, all of which should be starting to heal up quite nicely by the end of the trip. So much for rowing. I no longer had an opposable thumb on my left hand. I had a paw.
Later in our camp at Soap Creek, I felt my trepidation about the crew grow into a real fear. These were all kayakers. None of them claimed to be rafters. What if this was the beginning of daily Matag cycles through each rapid? How broken would I be by the end? I wandered up the side canyon of our camp spot until it channeled into a pond-size bowl surrounded with vertical layers of rock. Others trailed in around me, awe in their eyes. They were falling in love with the canyon too. How could I not enjoy this, and them? I promised myself I would get back in the German’s raft the next morning. Putting myself there would boost his morale and attempt to quell my fears by proving it was a freak mistake. It worked, but excitement on the river was far from over.
Days went by as we drifted and bounced down the great green tongue of the river. We were blessed with diversity: some afternoons so peaceful and hot we could float for hours without lifting an oar and dive into the frigid water to cool off, some were windblown with tedious nonstop rowing. All days involved consumption of beer, starting at whatever hour seemed appropriate for that given day. I wanted to mix things up and get to know everyone in the group so I started riding on different rafts. I was riding with the newest oarsman in our group, the permit holder, while he was learning how to row whitewater right there on the Colorado.
It appeared that I was the only one game enough to ride as the rookie’s passenger. The rest of the team encouraged me by saying, “What’s the worst that can happen?” In my mind I thought, “Loss of property, serious injury, certain death,” out of my mouth came, “just a swim.”
My confidence was coming back and I wasn’t afraid of the water. It was a good thing too, because on Day 12, as we approached Specter Rapid (rated 7 out of 10 in difficulty), I could see that we were entering too far right. By the second wave the boat was up on its side and I had just a fraction of a second to feel it pass its tipping point. We were flipping. Holding onto the raft’s perimeter line with a cruxing grip, I had a quick scout around for the oarsman and saw him holding on behind me. The other rafts were quick to the rescue and pulled us out and secured the upside down raft. Then commenced the task of finding an appropriately sloping bank in the steep canyon walls to pull over and unrig the raft so it could be righted. The whole team took part in this process and cheered when the raft was righted, reloaded and on its way.
Now the jokes and superstitious fears were flying back at me. Maybe I was the wild card who jinxed these boats and their oarsmen to bad fortune.
Our Canyon Guru had things to say about how the canyon exposes things in people they may not expect. He explained how the canyon helps strip people of their facades and brings raw emotions to the surface; working down the layers within ourselves as we work our way through the layers of time stacked in the canyon walls.
I’m familiar with the trials of living in small groups in the wilderness, having done so most of my life as a recreation leader and field biologist. This time it seemed more intense for me with uncertainties about my own future place, job and relationship. There is nowhere to hide from each other in the canyon and no distractions from facing oneself. We depended on each other for traveling safely, preparing food, finding a place to sleep. If conflicts arose we couldn’t pick up and go home, and with a trip longer than most American’s annual vacation leave, there was too much time to just ignore your feelings. My own feelings were expanding faster than I could process; seemingly trying to catch up with the immensity of the canyon.
It was easy to lose track of time, to forget what day it was. On a calm stretch of river you could lie back on the spinning raft and grow dizzy staring up in the sky and the towering canyon walls. Thoughts about finding a job, where I would live or relationships outside the canyon lost importance.
What became important were my relationships with the people surrounding me and the nature enveloping us. The desire to be accepted and part of this team was overwhelming. I was struggling with finding my place. Was it with my boyfriend and how we might be experiencing the trip as a couple? Or was it alone as my own person, wanting to explore new people, places and ideas? Or did I now belong to something bigger than all of that? Did we all belong to each other and as a group belong to the canyon, the river and the rules of nature?
My perspective was blurring between what was real and happening in the canyon and how my actions would affect the rest of my life outside the canyon. I looked around me and saw other people’s relationships bending under the energy and ages of the river and the canyon. Some were becoming strained, some growing in strength and intimacy.
It was like the dichotomy of the place itself; the river forever young in its state of constant renewal with fresh water, yet flowing through layers of rocks which had stood still for hundreds of millions of years.
I wanted to move away to something new and exciting. I wanted to stay and peacefully grow old.
I didn’t have long to ponder on the day we flipped. Around the corner from our ordeal was another party struggling with its own. A party of nine had wrapped one of their rafts around a rock at the entrance to Bedrock Rapid. We pulled over and gathered gear to offer assistance.
Our involvement turned into an all-afternoon ordeal. Those with the most experience in our group quickly organized and established alternative plans. They were clearly experts and this was their element. It didn’t take long, though, for us to pull together as a team. Everyone took on a role and was needed at some point. Small things like making sure everyone had water to drink while exposed on the hot shadeless cobble bar were not overlooked. Those without immediate tasks stood by, at the ready to help.
Everyone was involved when it came time to pull on the lines hoping to free the raft. When that failed, our team rescued the man stranded on the raft and sent two of our own nimblest river men in his place. They put themselves at risk to strip the raft of all of its gear in hopes of lightening the load and aiding the release of the craft. What would seem like dangerous work to any normal person, threatening to life and limb, was made to look like a pool party by these guys. They made short work of getting to the raft, helping each other reach equipment and supplies that were under the tons of water piling up on the raft, and cutting them free and lining them all safely to shore.
Even after that, the raft failed to budge. The last alternative of cutting out the floor of the raft was out of the question. This was a prototype craft built by the man rowing it with a solid foam floor and solid foam pontoons instead of the standard inflatable raft. The other party eventually called off our retrieval efforts. We parted ways and barely made it to camp by sunset. Later that evening the other party contacted the National Park Service who used a helicopter and power equipment to dislodge their raft.
Though we had received little appreciation from the other party, our own group had grown a new sense of pride within itself. To those who were new to whitewater rivers, there was a glowing appreciation toward the experts in our group who took charge and directed the afternoon’s efforts. Those who were directly involved in the rescue and retrieval process were coasting on the exhilarating high of having put their skills to work to help others.
More days passed with great camps and stops along the way at magical side canyons: Ledges Camp, Matkatamiba Canyon, Deer Creek, National Canyon. The going was easy and fun with the water level holding steady at around 16,000 cubic feet per second and it was projected to remain the same for the remainder of the trip. The only rapid remaining on everyone’s mind was Lava Falls, rated 9 out of 10, the most difficult rating in the canyon.
Lava Falls can be run on the right or left, but in the middle of the river is a giant recirculating hydraulic known as the Ledge Hole. A hydraulic is created by water pouring over an obstacle so powerfully that the water below it reverses its downstream flow and creates a hole around which there is an eruption of white water. If a raft enters this hole it will almost certainly flip and it can even be retained, getting batted around on the surface of the hole, for several long minutes.
Below the Ledge Hole is a set of monstrous standing waves 10-16 feet tall beginning with the “V wave.” Entering one of these waves in any direction but straight on can easily flip a raft or eject its passengers and send them careening toward a truck-sized rock on river right known as the “Cheese Grater.” None of these threats are visible while approaching in a raft at river level. All you can see is a horizon line where the water ends.
On Day 17 we arrived at Lava Falls under gentle breezes and warm skies. We pulled over to river right above the rapid to scout from a high vantage point along the bank. A party of eight rafts had just finished scouting from the lower vantage point on the left bank. We hurried up the slope to watch their run. It’s advantageous to watch other boats going through rapids to see how their boats react to the currents and wind.
The first boat took a line for the left side run and made it through cleanly. Following closely, the second raft did the same, but edged a little closer to the hole. The third raft approached the same line, but was even farther off and unknowingly heading straight for the hole. It dropped right into the hydraulic, immediately flipping. That grabbed our attention. It appeared the fourth boat, unable to see what had just happened to the third, was headed for the same fate. It flipped too.
Now there were two boats flipped and people’s heads appeared and disappeared through the rest of the rapid’s crashing waves. The fifth boat, we could hardly believe what we were seeing, went straight into the hole while the oarsman seemed frozen at his post. One of our teammates exploded into tears after the third raft to flip in the hole catapulted its passengers into the roiling water. The fourth and fifth boats were stuck surfing in the hole upside down while the sixth came shooting into the center of the pit.
It was so hard to comprehend why they seemed to be aiming right for the danger zone. Looking up river we saw that the whole team had been playing ‘follow the leader’ yet each boat was farther off the initial line than the one before it. We were helplessly witnessing a horrific run of Lava Falls. By the end of their run five out of their eight rafts were upside down and at least 10 people were swimming. Some of the rafts and people continued that way through the next rapid, Lower Lava, a quarter mile downstream.
There was no way for us to rush to any sort of rescue. We still had to get our game on and make it through ourselves. I had been riding in one of the Kiwi’s rafts all day and had planned to continue there until people started shuffling their feet and talking about the ‘walk around’ option. Along the right side of the river it is possible to scramble around and get picked up below the rapid. With people deserting their oarsmen the rest of us had to be divided up to distribute the weight in each raft. I was back with the German.
We were both excited and confident in having a clean run: “clean” meaning no flips, no loss of passenger or oarsman, no damage to craft or equipment. I took a quick mental inventory of our collective track record: 1. Getting dumped and injured the first day. 2. Riding through Crystal Rapid together and breaking an oar blade when we hit the wall. 3. Flipping and swimming again while riding in the trip leader’s boat. If anyone was prepared to deal with disaster, it was the two of us.
From the bow of the raft I watched as we skated safely around the Ledge Hole and down into the giant waves below. The first one swamped us and tipped us a little left. Without time to correct our position the second wave pitched us straight up and sideways, almost to the point of flipping. We landed it and I looked behind me. The German had disappeared and there were more waves ahead. I leapt into the driver’s seat and pulled on the oars trying to straighten out. A few seconds later and out of the maw of the rapid, I looked down and to my great relief saw the German clinging to the side line of the raft.
Our party collected on the beach below the rapid for a brief circle of celebration. One man from the previous party had been stranded and needed our help to reunite him with his boat and the rest of his party. We set off downstream to locate and right his overturned raft. Tears of joy and hoots of relief flowed out when we informed the rest of the man’s party that he was just behind us, rowing his way down stream. They showered us with gifts of alcohol, hugs and praise for coming to their rescue. We reached camp and settled into an afternoon of rejoicing.
With only a few days left of the trip I begrudgingly let my mind wander into thoughts of what would come next. I didn’t want to think of the trip being over. For a few precious weeks I had let myself forget about the rest of my life and simply enjoyed the present. I had forged new friendships with people whom I didn’t know if I would see again. I was feeling the itch for more independence and self exploration. Increasingly more life options seemed possible. But with options come decisions. Did I still want the same career, boyfriend, or home? Do we ever really discover something new about ourselves, or just remember things we had tucked away?
We may not have had any marriages, divorces or conceptions on the trip, but each day had its share of emotionally significant moments. The Colorado River has cleaved a great canyon in the landscape, but to be carried by its waters and live between its cliffs can bring people together. It presents both the expansiveness to let imaginations roam and the narrowness to focus on the vitality of life.
I don’t have answers to all the questions which arose on the river, but I know we would all give a resounding “yes” to this one: Do you want to go back?
Haven Livingston continues pondering an employment-free life based in Santa Cruz while she surfs, climbs and paddles around the West awaiting her next opportunity to join a Grand Canyon trip.