A Grand Canyon Adventure
By Whitney Chandler
Photos Courtesy Of: Ben Saheb
Being invited to join a rafting trip is always an exhilarating experience in itself. It means you have proven yourself worthy to embark on a journey with fellow river runners, to explore the history of the water and the canyons with like minded people, and to create long lasting memories with a special group of friends. Trip leaders pick their groups to perfectly combine skill, talent and experience as well as enough bow candy to appease the boatmen. Not donning any other skills pertaining to rafting besides my love for nature, water and adventure I often fall into the bow candy (AKA “hood mount”) classification…
When I was invited to take a place on a trip down the Grand Canyon, I jumped on the chance without hesitation. I lacked any concern as to having to leave my job for 22 days, how much it would cost or what I would do with my dog during that time. I was struck with canyon vision, unable to see the stretch of life existing outside those rising rock walls. I was river drunk.
Our group consisted of 16 people full of eclectic personalities, wide ranges of knowledge and most definitely its fair share of bow candy. For those that don’t know, some will enter the Grand Canyon permit lottery every year and never see a permit. It is highly desired and now considered a once in a lifetime experience. The lucky permit puller for our trip was rewarded a permit on his first entry, adding a majestic feel to the already mystical experience. Our soon to be traveling family of misfits included geologists, ecologists, anthropologists, outdoor education instructors, musicians, a talented videographer and a boat full of river advocates.
On June 18th, our group convened in Flagstaff, Arizona to finalize our preparations for the next 18 days on the river together. There were final food buys, gear checks and money exchanges. As we unload gear from the trucks to be placed into ammo cans and dry bags and boxes there was a buzz of excitement in the air. We drank in our last truly cold drinks we will have for the next three weeks, knowing all too soon we will be engulfed by the unrelenting desert heat.
It is difficult to describe the feeling of the depths of the Grand Canyon. It is something that you sense before you see it. The previous year I had hiked across the Grand Canyon, rim to rim. I explored the innards of the beast by foot with knowledgeable geologists and fellow students. This year, I revisited the depths with a new lens: a dirty river rat attempting to survive the 286 miles of river, 70 major rapids, temperatures known to reach 102 degrees in the shade and trying not to emerge at the other end looking like a sun-withered lizard.
You grow to be spoiled after a week in the canyon. You begin to take for granted the stunning sunrises and sunsets, the innumerable stars to be seen in the sliver of sky afforded between the canyon walls. You begin to dream of ice cold beverages and fresh vegetables that crunch. Then there are moments like seeing the Little Colorado River confluence that bring you back to the present moment. The turquoise mineral rich water is a striking contrast as it melds together with the sea green glassy waters of the Colorado. We pulled our rafts into an eddy to walk along the LCR. The heat causes life on the river to move much more slowly. We saunter along side the river to an area of pools and strip. We bathe in the water, covering each other in the sacred mineral rich mud until we can only recognize each other by eye shape and color. We lay on rocks in the sun, like reptiles, allowing the mud to dry and crack on our skin until the pull of the thought of our rafts urges us to redress and again done our PFDs (personal floatation device). We use our PFD’s as a mode of transport to return to the boats, floating the length of the river we had hiked hours ago.
There were so many moments that our group was left awestruck by the beauty that the canyon had to offer. The bighorn sheep always seem to have a way to silence us, whether it was watching one’s silhouette on a ridge during sunrise or rounding a corner while hiking to find a male staring you down before scampering up the hill, massive grapefruit testicles in tow. There is a stretch of river that original river explorer John Wesley Powell refers to as the “sighing caves”. At first you question whether you are beginning to lose it in the heat, that you hear a lone person playing a flute on the rim above but in actuality it is the breeze whistling in the caves of the canyon’s walls. It invokes a sense of fantastical magic on a hot summer afternoon to be serenaded by the winds being blown from cave’s mouths.
We were lucky enough to be a day behind a trip that carried a string quartet. Early one morning we had stopped to hike a slot canyon known as Blacktail Canyon. As we began to walk into the shadows to escape the warming sun we were welcomed by classical music reverberating off the canyon walls towards us. We all walked entranced by the sound trying to locate its source. We walked silently, mouths agape, to find the quartet perfectly set at the end of the canyon where the acoustics cannot be described by anything but sublime. We attempt to blend into the walls; some had tears streaming down their cheeks. I feel as if we are knocking on heaven’s door. When they stop playing we are all left in a dream like state.
I always looked forward to the afternoons. After assembling our traveling kitchen and posting up our floating city, we would scatter like ants to go explore, play and bathe. There is something deeply refreshing about getting to bond with your rafting sisters while taking lady bathes in the river. We were free to let the canyon winds kiss our bodies, the river that carries us to cleanse us and the desert sun to dry us. We would turn from rough skinned boating mates to glistening giggling nymphs splashing in the water. Trading perfumed soaps and oiling each other’s hair in a vain attempt to save it from the dry heat. Those feminine moments were a much welcome reprieve from the often testosterone filled rafts that we were encapsulated in for most of our days in the canyon.
We ate better down in the depths than we would otherwise treat ourselves in our regular day to day lives. Fresh salads were a welcomed treats the first few days downstream, goat cheese and olive tapenade towards the middle and chili with sweet potatoes towards the end. We never went without a Dutch-oven dessert of either brownies with dried fruit and nuts or pineapple upside-down cake. Stuffed to the brim at the end of an evening meal we would slither back to our boat beds and recap the day while rubbing Aquaphor, oils and lotions blended with sand over every reachable surface of our skin to prepare it for another day of full sun exposure. We worked together as a community to ensure everyone’s highest levels of comfort were met- giving back massages to the boat men that had rowed us downstream that day and promptly refilling our kitchen crew’s drinks whenever they neared empty.
We attempted to complete one to two joyous hikes a day to get us off the boats and allow our senses a reprieve from the swirling eddy lines. Hours in the brutal sun led us to waterfalls and lush hidden hanging gardens tucked deep within slot canyons. We hiked to Elves Chasm in the afternoon heat until we reached the blissful waterfall where we took turns climbing behind it and jumping from the top into the refreshing water below. We hiked to sacred sites that showed signs of our ancestors where we found shards of turquoise, dwelling remnants and dilapidated foot bridges. While enjoying all the beauty the desert has to hold it is always important to also remember how harsh the climate can be on a human body.
As an outdoor enthusiast, you are always told to watch for signs of dehydration and heat stroke when doing strenuous activities in such extreme heat. It is a whole different experience to watch and feel your own body go through these processes. I had a chilling moment when hiking Thunder River when I began to get dizzy, my breathing began to get shallow, and I was dragging my feet, constantly tripping. I felt nauseous. I was disoriented. I was so hot that I felt like my brain was melting. I was terrified. We were miles from the boat and it was 102 degrees in the shade at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I knew if we didn’t get to water soon I was going to be in BIG trouble. Luckily, I was with able bodied able minded girls that got me to the river and in the shade to wait out for the heat spell to pass. Even though we were seemingly very prepared for a desert day hike it will always serve as a reminder of how quickly those situations can happen and how fragile you really are.
Our trip is one to be rivaled by future river runners. We did not have a single swimmer, not one boat flipped, there were no petty arguments among our group, and we ate like kings and still had beers left to drink at the takeout. We had a traveling band including but not limited to a stand up washtub bass, a trumpet, two guitars, a kazoo and chorus of river rats. Everything that was needed in life fit on five bright blue 18″ boats, life was simple and at its finest. Until the next my next river invitation arises I will put myself to sleep by remembering the gentling rocking of the boat at twilight, listening to the bats overhead and try to imagine the popcorn on my ceiling are the uncountable amount of stars able to be seen in the canyon’s night sky.