One of my favorite parts about river rafting is the life in the canyon. When you’re on the river at the bottom of the canyon you are completely isolated from the rest of the world. You don’t have to worry about taxes, bills, work, or the obnoxious drivers on the road. On the river you eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, get wet when you’re hot, and dry off when you’re cold. Life is more simple. The people you are with become your tribe. Everyone does their part to help one another. This post describes the day-to-day life on the river, as well as some of the logistics of planning and executing a safe and fun river trip. For more details relating to this, see my dad’s blog.
Our private rafting permit through the Grand Canyon allowed us to have 16 people. Layne was the one lucky enough to score the permit early in 2019. But that also meant Layne was the one unlucky enough to have to deal with people joining the permit and dropping out last minute. This year was especially crazy with the pandemic. There was so much uncertainty about whether the canyon would even be open, or whether everyone would be healthy for the trip. In the end we ended up with 20 great river rats, with 4 of them exchanging at Phantom Ranch.
A Day on the River
A typical day on the river begins with waking up when it gets too light or too hot, in our case this was about 5AM. I like to get up and pack up my belongings before the sun reaches camp, because once the sun peaks over the tops of the cliffs the temperature instantly rises 10+ degrees. Everyone packs their own beds, cots, and personal belongings into dry bags. Whoever is on breakfast duty has to wake up extra early to do all of their packing in addition to cooking breakfast. We eat, wash all the dishes, then finish packing up the camp, including all of the kitchen.
Then we load the boats. We make sure everything that can’t get wet is either in a dry bag or a dry box. We make sure everything is tied securely to the boat. We often remind each other to “rig to flip, dress to swim.”
We then have a pow-wow and discuss what rapids and attractions we are planning to hit that day. It was very useful to have an ex-Grand Canyon river guide with us who knew all the ins and outs of the canyon. We make sure everyone knows which rapids we will scout, and how to run the ones we will not scout. We then say a prayer for safety and shove off.
For this trip, we averaged 16 miles on the river every day. Some days were relatively calm, with few, easy rapids. Other days had multiple big rapids with a lot of scouting. Some days included several hikes up side canyons and to waterfalls. Regardless, we enjoyed floating along in our rafts and soaking in the beauty of the canyon.
When we scout a rapid, we pull off above the rapid and walk down to look at the rapid from shore. We point to things (rocks, waves, landmarks, etc.) and discuss the safest route through the rapid. We send 2-3 boats down at a time so that there is always someone close by to lend a hand if needed. This also gives us a chance to get cool river video from the shore.
Mornings on the river are usually quite pleasant. We travel as many miles as we can before getting too hungry, or until we find a nice shady spot for lunch. For lunch, we pull one or two Roll-a Tables from the boats, load them full of food, pray, and then it is every man for himself. Then we pack up the leftovers (if any) and garbage and get back on the river.
The upstream wind (don’t say the W word on the river…it’s jinxed) usually shows up uninvited in the afternoons. This makes rowing and staying in the current much more difficult. I found that the afternoons were a great time to give Steven and Eric some practice time at the oars.
When we reach camp for the night we unload everything from the boat that we so carefully strapped down in the morning. Depending on the time, we either nap in the shade until the sun dips below the cliff, or we start setting up camp. There was a lot of napping, especially towards the end of the trip.
When the sun sets we get busy setting up the kitchen, the hooter, and our personal camp sites. Whoever is assigned to dinner prepares the meal, then we eat and clean up dinner. We often sit in a circle telling river stories until it gets dark. The younger kids play in the mud, collect bugs, and hunt for scorpions. When we get tired, we brush our teeth and hope that we can fall asleep in the heat.
Our group had four 16-foot rafts, one 15-foot raft (mine), and one 16-foot cataraft. Each boat has a metal frame that is strapped inside. Then dry boxes, coolers, and dry bags are strapped to the frame. Ideally, everything is strapped and sealed so that if you were to flip, you would not loose anything or get anything wet that should stay dry.
Since this trip was so long, we had to be very careful with how we packed. Each boat was assigned 3 days’ worth of meals. That is 9 meals for 16 people, or 144 meals. That is a lot of food. To add to that, we had to bring a lot of ice to keep the food from spoiling. These coolers are much bigger than your typical camping cooler (165 qt compared to 48 qt). And then we had to keep the ice frozen as long as possible in 100+ degree heat. We had some food get wet in the ice water as the ice melted (Ziplocs aren’t good enough!). But fortunately, we had enough food to keep everyone happy the whole time. Rafting is great because we get to eat real food the whole time. Among other meals, we had meatballs, fajitas, grilled chicken, pork sandwiches, and dutch oven birthday cake twice. Try eating that while backpacking. 😛
We couldn’t possibly bring enough water for everyone for 17 days, so we brought several water filters. We had 2 that were pretty high-capacity and fast, then a few smaller ones that we carried with us on day hikes. These were literally life-savers.
The Hooter, aka the Groover, is the portable toilet system that we use on river trips. The Grand Canyon, like all river corridors, requires rafters to pack out anything and everything they bring in, and that includes poop. Each boat in our group provided a toilet tank. Some had greater capacity than others. Nobody liked using the smaller tanks when they got full. All were quite stinky by the end of the trip.
A good Hooter location is separated from, but not too far from, camp. It is set up with a beautiful view of the river. There are few things quite as liberating as taking a dump while enjoying breathtaking views. We even had a hand-washing station to stay sanitary.
To ensure no one walks in on you during your Grand morning constitutional, we use a Hooter key. This is a spare paddle that marks the path to the Hooter. You take it with you when you need to go, then bring it back to its place when you are done. If you forget to put the key back, you risk the wrath of 15 unhappy campers.
The Personal Gear
I slept on a cot without a tent for the entire trip. The cot was nice because it keeps you out of the sand and scorpions. As long as the weather is nice, a tent is not necessary and would actually make things uncomfortably hot. There were very few annoying bugs, so that wasn’t an issue either. The hardest part of sleeping was the blow-dryer hot wind that blew frequently. It wasn’t until half way through the trip that I discovered that dipping my microfiber camp towel in the river made a great cooling blanket. This brought my core temperature down significantly, and made sleeping much more comfortable. It would dry off around 2-3AM when the temperature finally became bearable.
As far as clothing goes, I mostly rotated between 2 sets of swimsuits. The air was hot but I like to not get sunburned, so I would usually wear a “Howard” shirt or my NRS sun shirt over my swimsuit. These were lightweight, breathable, and offer good sun protection. I also wore my wide-brimmed cowboy hat for sun protection on my face. I would put that in a dry box and pull out my helmet for the bigger rapids though. I had a wetsuit, paddle jacket, and hydroskin top that I would put on for the bigger rapids when I thought it more likely I would swim. I also had a good pair of Chacos. I love my Chacos! They’re very comfortable and good for water, hiking, sand, rocks, everything. They even give you a cool tan line! Some people prefer to change out of their water shoes and put on dry socks and shoes, but I didn’t do that very often. I brought some normal dry clothes for camp, but I didn’t usually wear them until I went to sleep because it was too hot to change out of my damp swimsuit. I brought shampoo and conditioner to wash my hair every week or so. I also brought a lot of lotion which feels really nice after days of dry wind and sand.
We had small waterproof and sandproof cases to hold our phones. It was nice to easily access our phones for taking photos and journaling. We also brought several gatorades, drink mixes, and electrolyte boosters to keep us well hydrated. We kept the drinks in a drag bag in the river to keep them cool, which was refreshing. Snacks, sunscreen, and minor first aid were readily available in our small dry boxes.
The Canyon Tries to Kill You
We continuously discovered the many ways the Grand Canyon tries to kill you. A few of them are listed here:
- Heat stroke
- Heart attack (the ranger said that the shock of falling into cold water can cause heart problems)
- Flipping and getting stuck under the boat
- Flipping and hitting your head on the boat
- Getting impaled by an oar
- Starvation (better bring some emergency chili)
- Red ant bite
- Velvet ant bite
- Tarantula hawk sting (these things are freaky!)
- Scorpion sting
- Snake bite
- Fish nibbles
- Falling rock
- Falling off a cliff
- Falling off a waterfall
- Getting lost
- Slipping on the floor of the raft and getting your leg stuck under the dry box
- Slipping and falling as you step off the raft and onto the beach
- Tripping over a rock on your way to the Hooter at night
- Falling into the river as you try to pee into it at night
- Accidentally drinking from Dee’s pee jar
- Sleeping on a boat that wasn’t tightly secured to the beach and going through a rapid unawares
- Leaving your boat unsecured at camp and having to hoof it out
- Heaving a fully-rigged boat on top of yourself while trying to un-beach it at low tide
- Any plant (there are a gazillion different types of cactus)
- Extreme sunburn
- Ledge Hole
- Crystal Hole
- Hitting the Bedrock rock
- Hitting the Killer Fangs
- Let’s just say all the rapids
- Having a bat pee in your eye (apparently this really happened)
- Bubonic Plague
- Flash flood
- Glen Canyon Dam breaking
- Volcanic eruption
- Getting stuck in sinking mud
- Getting stuck in a cesspool of filth in a slot canyon
- Bathing in pumpkin springs
- Breathing ripe Hooter fumes
- Breathing ripe B.O. fumes
- Having your breath taken away by the shear beauty of the place
Here are some of my most memorable quotes from the trip:
“There’s a bat in my boat.” -Harold (spoken in a tone of 90% monotony, 9% mild amusement, and 1% moderate surprise)
“And on day 15, Russ goes crazy.” -Eric (in reference to Russ’s fly swatter attack of a red ant army)
WWWWWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! -Steven and Eric (once realizing we came out of Crystal Hole alive… also if you listen to the video closely you can hear Steven groan when the boat lands)
Nicely done! -Ed (always)
Trust the bubble line. -Everyone (cardinal rule for making it through Lava alive)
Ahhh! -Jason (I could watch him scream in Lava all day)
This trip was an absolute blast! It’s been 4 months and I’m ready to go back…