It was time to make the leap from life on the road to life on the river. Laptops, cell phones, good clothes and the other accoutrements of modern civilization were stuffed into bags and dumped into our transport van.
Plus I had to paint my toenails. It was a virgin experience. Grand Canyon boatmen are a superstitious bunch. Many believe their boats will flip if a person is on board with naked toes. And it’s true— boats have flipped under such circumstances. It makes no difference if the opposite is also true. Tom lectured me. “I will not let you on my boat unless your toenails are painted.” In addition to being obnoxious, he was serious. Peggy dutifully applied blue polish on four of my toes. Did this mean we would only half flip?
Two acres of paved boat ramp greeted us when we arrived at Lee’s Ferry, some 130 miles from Flagstaff. It is the take off point for trips down the Canyon and the only bridge across the river in some 700 miles. The Mormons originally discovered the potential for the crossing and sent John Lee to set up a ferry, which began operation in 1873. Brigham Young was also hiding Lee. He had been a key player in the Mountain Meadows Massacre where some 120 eastern emigrants had been murdered. A practicing polygamist, Lee and his wives ran the ferry up until his execution in 1877.
The transport van disgorged us as the gear truck made a quick turn around and backed down the ramp. Another private party was busy rigging boats. People, gear and boats were scattered everywhere.
From off to the right, a longhaired, 50-something man had emerged. I had thought 60’s hippie or possibly the model for a Harlequin Romance cover. The pirate flag on his boat suggested otherwise. A ‘roll your own’ cigarette dangled from his lips. It was Steve Van Dore, the last member of our group and a boatman out of Colorado. No one in our group had met him, but he came highly recommended.
“Please let this be the truck driver,” Steve later admitted was his first thought when he met our green and purple haired trip leader. He also confided that Tom hadn’t told him we were a smoke-free group. “On the other hand,” Steve confessed, “I didn’t tell him I was on probation.” Somehow this balanced out in Steve’s mind. There was no time to become acquainted; we had work to do.
There is an unwritten 11th Commandment on private river trips: Thou Shall Do Your Share. No one is paid to pamper you. Not helping will lead to bad things, like banishment from the tribe. The truck we had loaded in Flagstaff demanded unloading. Everybody did everything. There were no assignments. Peggy and I became stevedores. Piles of beer and soda and wine and food and personal gear and ammo cans and hefty ice chests quickly accumulated around the truck. There was no shade and the desert sun beat down ferociously. It was sucked up by the black asphalt and thrown back at us. We slathered on sun block and gulped down water.
The rafts were unloaded last. Rigging them was technical but relatively easy, assuming of course that you knew what you were doing and were mechanically inclined. I made no such claims. Steve’s Cat (catamaran) was already set up and in the water, its pirate flag was flapping in the breeze. Our other four boats were self-bailing Sotar Rafts with aluminum frames. Tom owned his own, a blue 14 footer named Peanut after the Jeff Dunham character. The three we had rented were yellow, 16 feet long and nameless.
Tom was the last to rig his boat. It was approaching dusk when he finished— the end of a very long day. I hiked down the river to find a campsite for our group while the rest boated down. Peggy and I struggled to set up our new tent in 30 MPH winds. A van was coming to pick us up for dinner at a nearby restaurant and we were late.
The walls of the restaurant were covered with photos of rafts and rafters being trashed by massive rapids. I walked around and admired them with more than a little awe and trepidation. I would have preferred to see photos that emphasized the beauty of the Canyon, but this was a rafters’ hangout.
The wind storm had changed to a dust storm when we arrived back at camp. Finding our tent in the dark proved to be a challenge, and the tent provided little protection when we crawled in. I was reminded of Burning Man as the dust assailed my eyes, ears, nose and mouth. I pulled out a handkerchief to cover my face. Exhausted, I finally fell asleep with the wind ripping at our tent.
I had underestimated the amount of work involved. We were floating down a river, weren’t we? I was out of shape and had a generous belly. Peggy and I had been traveling extensively, mainly helping our kids with their babies. I’d been over-eating and under-exercising. I might have gotten away with it at 30, or 40, or 50— and had. But now I was 67, and my body had some serious words for me. Mainly unprintable. A few years earlier I had undertaken a much more difficult task, backpacking for 360 miles between Lake Tahoe and Mt. Whitney. But I knew how tough that was and had spent a few months hiking 5-10 miles per day before hitting the trail. Now my only excuse was ignorance. And that is not a very good excuse.
We were awakened at five a.m. the next morning, as we would be on every day of our trip. There was personal gear to pack, breakfast to prepare, and boats to load. Any thoughts of a leisurely trip down the river were dashed in the cold reality of the early morning’s light.
We also had a lecture on the Grand Canyon’s numerous rules by Ranger Peggy. Somewhere in the middle of rigging boats the previous day she had stopped by to check our equipment. Life vests had been dutifully piled up; stoves and bar-b-que were unpacked. Even the groovers, which I will describe later, stood at attention. You don’t mess with Ranger Peggy.
She knew Tom from other river trips and was amused by his hair-do. He introduced me as the permit holder. “Tom’s in charge,” I noted. The smile dropped from her face. “You are responsible,” she said icily. “I’ll try to keep Tom under control,” I replied meekly. Yeah, fat chance that.
Bells, whistles and alarms started going off in my head. I would face heavy fines if any of our party misbehaved.
Our second encounter with Ranger Peggy began after the boats were packed for our first day on the river. Tom started off with a discussion on river safety. Naturally we were required to wear our PFD’s (Personal Flotation Devices) any time we were on the boat.
What’s the first rule if you fall overboard: Hang onto the boat. What’s the second rule? “Hang onto the boat,” we chanted in unison. And so it went. Tom saw his wife, Beth, go flying by him the year before as he bounced through a rapid. He caught up with her down river.
If the raft flips, what do you do? Hang onto the boat! “Easier said than done,” I think.
“Your head is the best tool you have in an emergency,” Ranger Peggy lectured. Right. When the river grabs you, sucks you under the water, and beats you against a rock— stay cool.
For all of the concern about safety on the river, the Park Service seemed more concerned about our behavior on shore.
Over 20,000 people float down the river annually. And 20,000 people can do a lot of damage to a sensitive desert environment. Campsites are few and far between and the major ones may have to accommodate several thousand people over the year.
Picture this: 20,000 people pooping and peeing in your back yard without bathroom facilities. It isn’t pretty. So we pack out the poop. And we pee in the river…
Packing out poop makes sense. But peeing in the river, no way! I’d led wilderness trips for 36 years and for 36 years I’ve preached a thousand times you never, never pee in the water. Bathroom chores are carried out at least 100 yards away from water and preferably farther.
The first time I lined up with the guys, I could barely dribble out of dismay.
The rules went on and on. Mainly they had to do with leaving a pristine campsite and washing our hands. Normally, I am not a rules type of guy but most of what Ranger Peggy preached made sense. Sixteen people with diarrhea is, um, shitty.
And few things disturb me more than a trashy campsite in the wilderness. The least we could do was to leave our campsites sparkling clean.
Finally, we were ready to launch. Eighteen days and 279 miles of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon stretched out ahead. Ranger Peggy checked our IDs against her list. We were who we claimed to be. The boatmen strapped down the gear. It was time to climb aboard and Tom was anxious to get going.
The same up-canyon winds that whipped dust into our tent were threatening to create a Herculean task of rowing. Headwinds of up to 60 MPH were predicted.
WEDNESDAY’S POST: It’s back to the Amazon and monkey business. While Peggy gets the ‘good’ monkey, I get the ‘bad’ monkey.
FRIDAY’S POST: I learn a bit about cross cultural relations as a second grader— on a queen sized bed.
MONDAY’S POST: Fighting ferocious headwinds, we begin our journey through the Grand Canyon.