When I was 15 I took a trip down the Grand Canyon in a raft with my Ma, my sister, and her boyfriend. I returned to my senior year of high school with a straw hat on my head and big stupid grin. Those were really the best 2 weeks of my life. 10 years later I had the opportunity to do it again – this time as a “work your way,” which basically means, help pack the boats, cook some meals, clean up, and what not. Most people drop thousands of dollars and wait on 10 year waiting lists to do this trip, I was really fortunate to have a friend who runs these trips for a living. So following two years in St. Petersburg, Russia, I got a plane to Phoenix, and then a bus to Flagstaff, Arizona.
The Colorado River will take us 225 miles from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek and over this territory there are no roads reaching the river, little signs of human life, and only one place to hike out. If you get sick or injured and you cannot hike, you are evacuated by helicopter.
Every commercial trip starts at the warehouse. The day before you leave for your trip, you’ll spend a solid day of labor at the warehouse packing coolers full of frozen meat and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Kyle – the whole reason I went on this trip. We met back in 2000, when I went down the Colorado with my family as a 16 year old. Now Kyle’s been guiding so much, he’s trip leader, calling all the shots – like where we camp and what hikes we take. He also takes all the rapids first. Now he’s a young dad, still lives in Flagstaff, AZ. He’s also an amazing photographer: www.kylegeorgephotography.com
Datura, otherwise known as Jimson Weed. They say it makes you feel: “blind as a bat, mad as a hatter, red as a beet, hot as hell, dry as a bone, the bowel and bladder lose their tone, and the heart runs alone.” And the Navajo had their own saying about this plant: “Eat a little, and go to sleep. Eat some more, and have a dream. Eat some more, and don’t wake up.” Your pupils will dilate, you’ll get a nasty case of dry mouth, you won’t be able to pee, your heart will race, and you might jerk around a bunch. Eat a little more and you might get hypothermia, go into respiratory arrest or have a seizure. Dangerous little flower.
Just past mile 179, Lava falls, a class 10 rapid, one of the most feared rapids in the Canyon, totaling a 37 foot drop over a quarter-mile of ancient volcanic flow. The entrance on this rapid is everything. Boatman have it down to a science. You cannot run right because you will be destroyed by huge waves farther downstream. You cannot run left, because, it’s too shallow and rocky and dangerous. Somehow you have to avoid this initial huge hole, by following what they call “the bubble line”.
Lava Falls has flipped even the best boatman. It always feels like you are going to drop right into the huge crunching hole in the middle, but somehow the guides manage to miss it and hit the V wave just to the right of it. Bianca and I went through dead last of our crew of 6 boats. As we entered, I wanted to scream: “go right! go right!” but I swallowed my words. I was sure we were going to fall right into that crushing hole and told myself it was a good way to go, good as any.
We disappeared from view for a little while, got washed up on Gambler’s rock, the big rock to the right of the rapid (not visible here) and we sat up there for a good 10 seconds with water rushing all around us. I thought the moment we spun off that rock we would get flipped simply by the inertia of the water hitting us sideways as we pivoted off the rock, but somehow we made it through.
I spent most of my time with this lady – Bianca, an old soul. I was on her boat everyday carrying all the gear and the toilets. Bianca is 23 and does this for a living. I’m pretty envious. It is a dream of mine.
This beach is about the size of a football field inside a cave. I want to get married here. We set up the volleyball net and Bianca flossed her teeth and spoke about the importance of oral hygiene.
Leisure time after camp is set up is usually spent talking, strumming the guitar, drinking a Pabst or Tekate cold from the river, and playing Dominoes. All activities take place on the boat, including sleeping, if you are a crew member.
Jimmy Hendricks is a legend. That’s his real name. James Hendricks. One of the oldest guides on the Colorado. Lives in Alaska not far from where Christopher McCandless passed away (the guy they based Into the Wild on), has run many a river in Africa, and can show you a nice munch scar on his leg where a hippo got the best of him. All around hilarious person, a pleasure to be in the river with. Famous for standing up when going down lava falls, a class 5 rapid, and probably the most dangerous stretch of water on the Colorado.
THANK YOU to the wonderful boatmen and women that work in the Canyon.