April 14, 1989. I've driven to Flagstaff to partake of a 14-day raft trip down the Colorado through Grand Canyon, spending a sizeable chunk of cash to do so. Although the rafting company's brochure left me hungry for adventure, their orientation session does not bode nearly as well. Inside a small hotel room, giddy company administrators greet me and my traveling companions, answer inane questions about seaweed, then get down to the nitty-gritty--the hawking of rafting knick knacks: coffee mugs with the company logo emblazoned on the side, waterproof river guidebooks, first aid kits. The 12 other "guests" do not fit my concept of comrades. Ah well, perhaps I can stay away from them. I return to my motel room to await tomorrow's 6 a.m. departure, excitement welling up inside me nonetheless.
The Middle-Aged Hiker
Coming Into the AzRap
15th. A bus hauls us to Lees Ferry, where the river guides are already inflating and loading the rafts. With five inflatables to haul 13 people and five guides, elbow room will not be a problem. And now, the guides: Martha is trip leader (a/k/a chief boat hag); Suzanne is in charge of the paddle boat; Bob will row the snout boat, a pontooned catamaran that rides high over the waves; Wesley is the spiritual leader; and Peter, just a fledgling boatman (only 28 GC raft trips, will row the baggage boat. Jan, Bob's squeeze, along as a free passenger, will help with food prep and sundry set-up. Here's a bit of serendipity: Martha hung around with my Outward Bound mentor, Denis Luján, 10 years ago. Finally packed, I jump into Martha's boat, and we're off. I take a turn at the oars on the early flat water. Very nice. Hot sun, cold river. Many Navajo fisherpersons along the banks, some wave languidly. We plunge through some wet rapids, mostly cruise down the river as the cliffs rise up around us. Late in the afternoon, we stop for the night at Hot NaNa. Making camp is an art in itself. Marinas are plenty scarce down here, so everything must be carried in and, except for liquid bodily discharge, out. Every nook and boat cranny is utilized for storage. Hard to believe that the big items--kitchen prep tables, propane tanks, rocket boxes (14 of 'em) filled with food, stoves--all fit. After the boats are unloaded the kitchen area is assembled. Food prep follows quickly, and before you can find a word to rhyme with orange, dinner is served. Tonight: manicotti, salad, cheesecake. The wash-up system is equally impressive. There are five buckets in a row. The first contains a screen mesh into which dinner scraps are discarded. The second contains cold water for the initial rinse. The third is hot soapy water for washing. The fourth is hot water for the first rinse. The fifth is cold water for the final rinse. There follows a slotted drying rack. Cleaning products are liquid Ivory soap and Clorox bleach. I wash my utensils & plates, plus a few others that get in the way, then sleep untented next to a sacred datura, reputed to provide good dreams. Nearby, Wesley, who is part Cherokee, speaks--what, Navajo?--in his sleep.
16th First light. A stove is fired up, water is heated for coffee, the beans of which are freshly ground in a meat grinder. I wander into the kitchen area, chop up fruit for breakfast. Also available: yogurt, sweet rolls, milk, cereal. I wash dishes again, it just feels natural. The rafts are packed up and we're off by 8:00. I spend an interminable number of wet hours in the paddle boat maneuvering through rapids with Suzanne and five others. We stop at North Canyon and hike to a beautiful alcove where we eat a guacamole lunch. Later, we navigate the Roaring 20s--the rapids between miles 20 and 29--then camp at 29-mile rapids. Dinner: sweet & sour chicken, cous cous, fortune cookies. My fortune: You eat llama feces and all your pets will die.
17th. I was going to describe the toilet facilities here, but instead I think I'll let you find out for yourselves. Breakfast is elegant looking French toast, then we're off to Silver Grotto, a side canyon. The hike involves three swims in stagnant pools. A dead rat floats in one. My sneakers are virtually treadless, but I clamber around anyway. I make the final climb barefoot, which is marginally easier. Back to Wesley's boat, I row two miles to Vasey's Paradise, a beautiful waterfall. I switch to my over-the-hill Tevas, try to scramble around on the rocks, but their traction is equally poor and I slide everywhichway, & nearly into the poison ivy which grows abundantly here. Downriver another two miles, we stop at Redwall Cavern, another standard boat visitation area. It's a huge, deep cavern, plenty of room for contact sports. Or a chamber bagpipe band. I row through three more rapids. My scores: one quite good, one mediocre, one abysmal. Float past an Anasazi foot bridge, a 900 year old route out of the canyon. We park for the evening just past President Harding rapids. Tonight is Mexican Dinner Night, olè! Rowing blisters on my hands from today, a sore shoulder from paddling yesterday. No chiropractor on this trip, however there is an ophthalmologist, good news should someone's eyes fall out.
18th. Breakfast report: blueberry pancakes & bacon. Few clouds so far, no hint of rain. The wind, however, picks up from the south, makes life miserable for Bob on the snout boat, as he battles to row into the wind. His spirit never flags, however, as he regales Jan and me with prolonged, intricate puns. After eight grueling miles, we pull in below Nankoweap Rapid, then hike a half-mile up to some Anasazi storage granaries, high on the canyon wall. There's a breathtaking downriver view from here. Nope, words won't suffice, but staring open-mouthed will. Back on the snout boat, the wind abates, and the ride through Kwagunt Rapid is full of jounce and spray. We camp just below the rapid. Later, I assemble my fishing rod, pin my license prominently to my shirt, try to augment our supper. I get a bite, the fish battles hard, thrashing like all get out, but I'm slowly reeling it in, I reach down to pick it up, this 8" behemoth, momentarily let the line go slack ... bye-bye, fishy. Others, however, reel in some tasty trout, which complements the regular grub of orange roughy, carrots, peas & onions, a large green salad, and strawberry shortcake. Satiated, I turn my attention to the pinched nerve in my shoulder.
19th. First one up, I wash leftover dishes, fire up the stove. Breakfast is another feast: chili omelets & leftover trout. Back in Wesley's raft, we stop at the junction of the Colorado & the turquoise-watered Little Colorado. Wesley & others have in the past followed a path from here to the Sipapu, a travertine spring which is a Hopi holy place. The trek is not without peril, as scorpions & rattlesnakes are in abundance along the way. Onward to big water: Unkar, Nevills, Hance (mercy!) & Sockdolager rapids. I row a few riffles, park the boat above Grapevine. The inner gorge, which we have entered, is dark, foreboding, and primeval. Damage control report: my zip lock bags no longer seal hermetically and my soap bottle has leaked, my hand cream has leaked, my sun block has leaked and is gone. Coincidentally, my forearms, thighs & foottops glow an amusing shade of fire engine red. Ah well, what's for supper? Answer: immense beef steaks , a jumbo salad, chived mashed potatoes, and spice cake. A tough night, I floss a lot of sand from my teeth, my bed has turned lumpy ever since my Thermarest sprung a leak, my back is twanging like all get out, plus my inner ear equilibrium thinks I'm still abob on the raft. Still, better here than, well, anywhere else in the world.
20th. Why waste time? I'm up early, ready for action. Or at least breakfast. It's bagels, leftover spice cake, leftover potatoes, fruit. I jump into the paddle boat, Martha in charge. We charge through Grapevine, then stop at Clear Creek, where we hike to Cheyava Falls. Later, we plunge through Zoroaster, then cruise down to the bridge joining the Kaibab trails, pull over at Pipe Creek. We discharge three, pick up two: Slava, a Russian ER physician from Boston who hiked in from the South Rim; and Kimberly, a Santa Fe pastry chef & former Phantom Ranch cook. Then we run Horn, Salt, Granite & Hermit rapids, big yahoo runs all. We camp at Boucher, a haven for large & nettling tarantula wasps. Dinner is Baja tacos, filled with fish & shrimp. I begin to question the wisdom of my previous hikes into Grand Canyon with nothing but freeze-dried beans, dehydrated grubs and the ever-abysmal Klim to sustain me.
21st. Bright & hot morning sun with French toast, bacon & miscellaneous incidentals. I clamber back into the paddle boat. We cruise a mile to Crystal Rapids, one of the biggest on the river, scout it, tank up on adrenaline, then run it. Great jumping jehosaphat!, what a ride! We pull in to Tuna Creek for a mile hike & lunch. Across the river, a dory party vegetates. Onward through the jewels: Agate, Sapphire, Turquoise, Ruby, Serpentine, plus another unnamed rapid. More big hydraulics. During the last one, what's-its-name, a heavy wave slams my sunglasses into my forehead, leaves a welt. I christen the rapid Zircon. We camp at, I think, upper 114, which is better than it sounds. It is here that, as designated dishwasher, I'm awarded a designated name, Hobart. The designated dinner: Thai chicken. Another elegant 70 degree evening.
22nd. First up again, I light the stove to heat the water buckets, or chicky pails, for washing & coffee. Bodily inventory: my hands & feet are bruised, blistered, banged, bloodied & bashed. They hurt, too. The Canyon is wrecking my Tevas, my Tevas are wrecking my feet. Back in the paddleboat, which has been converted to oar-power for the day, Martha in charge. We stop at Elves Chasm, a beautiful waterfall. She leads me & another on a brief climb with some exposed moves--no acrophobia here, please. Later, we stop at Blacktail Canyon, hike to a resonant alcove where impromptu recitals sometimes occur. I fake my way through a medieval Alleluia trope, the Tapeats sandstone making a wonderfully acoustic space, then we have lunch, the contents of which escape me. There follows a quiet afternoon through minor rapids, some more sun poisoning, then Bedrock, a strong and unpredictable rapid. A big rock sits in the middle. The accepted route is to go right of the rock. I ask Martha what happens if you go left. She says you never do. OK, so we swoop into the rapid, there's a slight miscalculation, our raft slams into the rock, tries to climb it as we go nearly vertical. At last we carom off, but we're sucked left, around we go, bounced through a narrow slot like a bumper car, then we're shot out the other side, soaked but safe. Later, we plunge through Deubendorff , then pull in to a beach at the bottom of the rapid as another rafting party leaves. Dinner: jambalaya, salad, berry cheesecake, followed by an extended Hobart clean-up. I'm the last to bed down.
23rd. And the first one up. We hike five miles up a canyon alongside Stone Creek. The path is lined with cactus. My legs, blistered from sun poisoning, are easy marks for more lacerations and bruises. Still, there's another dazzling waterfall at the end of the hike. Back at the river, I climb into Wesley's boat. He rows through Tapeats Rapid, I row the rest of the way to Deer Creek, where another adventure awaits. Question: Do you want to sit in the shade and read a book, or would you rather rappel down a waterfall? I opt for the latter, never one to let good judgment get in the way of a good bashing. Deer Creek begins as a soothing, meandering rill. Half a mile from the river, it feeds into a lovely little lagoon area, excellent for lounging around in. But then it cuts sharply down through the rock into the Narrows, finally tumbles over a cliff as a big spray waterfall, an untapped hydroelectric generator. There are four of us willing to take the, um, plunge. We rope down into one of these cut-down places--it's really just walking down wet rock using Teva friction, harder mentally than physically--then begin following the rushing torrent of water through the caverns, scrambling over wet rock, bouldering moves, rock climbing, all with tons of cold water pounding down over us. Where we can't walk, scramble, wade, slip or slide, we swim. The second rappel is alongside another torrent, a fire hydrant gone mad. The plan: just ease on down next to it, swing onto a ledge, just don't swing out into the waterfall. Martha demonstrates. I follow her example, ease down the rope, swing onto the ledge, suddenly lose my purchase and swing back. Into the waterfall. Into a Maytag on extreme rinse cycle for a few horrible seconds. I think I'm gonna die. But I hang on, force my way out. And continue on, stunned. The others make it OK. Another swim, another boulder scramble, now I'm frightfully cold--precious little sunlight reaches into these depths. My knees are banged from slamming into rocks, but right now they're too numb to bother me. Finally, a leap off a boulder into a deep pool. But I hold back, too cold to continue. As the others advance, I hang onto my purchase, shiver for 10, 15 minutes. At last they return, and we retrace our slippery steps. Hard work, I'm pooped. On one boulder maneuver, I slip, fall, come within inches of slamming my head into the rock wall, again think about last rites in Grand Canyon. But eventually I make it up and out, sore & stunned still. There follows the ½ mile scramble back down the trail to the river. Wesley, still with a sore back, gives me the keys to the boat, I row another mile & change to the campsite, Football Field, between Pancho's Patio & Back Eddy. I feel beaten, bedraggled, and skip a turn at dinner prep--some spectacular lasagna. Instead, I do laundry, then my normal Hobart. Finally a somnolent chat around a campfire--they're legal till April 30th--before crashing into bed, unmindful of the sleeping bag full of sand.
24th. I hurt in many places: gashed thumb, lacerated shins, horribly burned feet, bashed knees. I climb aboard the snout boat. Instantly, the wind regroups, shifts, and picks up, and Bob again has to row into it. Near Kanab Rapid, the wind upstream is too strong and we pull over for 15 minutes, maybe longer. Just enough time for Bob to wend his way through a story, the bulk of which I forget, but the punch line to which is transporting illegal gulls across state lions for immortal porpoises. Eventually, we get to Matkatamiba, a minor rapid but a spectacular canyon, a paradisiacal amphitheater. While the other guests go quietly inert, Martha, Wesley, Peter and Suzanne take turns painting one another's faces. But the high, vaulted cliffs and gently trickling stream gradually force me into a state of serenity, too, and I find myself for the first time really sensing the Canyon's rhythms. After an hour silently passes, we leave. I transfer to the paddleboat. It's great fun until Upset Rapid nearly upsets us. But we survive, paddle downriver to Ledges, a campsite with no beach but plenty of levels. I help with dinner prep: beef Stroganoff and apple crisp, the latter remarkably prepared in a dutch oven. I brought along a tent, but thus far have had no desire to sleep in it, preferring to share the night with the inexorable magnitude of the Canyon.
25th. Another early rise for oatmeal and bagels. We don't dally this morning in order to have more time for Havasu Canyon, Land of the Blue Green Water. As we approach the canyon we pass alternative campsites, aptly named: Last Chance, Absolutely Last Chance, You're Shit Out of Luck, and You Must Be F**kin' Kidding Me. We tie up the boats, gather our lunch preparations, and get directions (just follow the creek). We have six hours to wander through this gloriously scenic canyon system. I accompany Slava, Suzanne and Kimberly (now Bisquick) to Beaver Falls, a great torrent of water 3½ miles from the river, fording waist-deep Havasu Creek a few times. The three of them stay, and I follow Wesley, who has sprinted from the boats, towards Mooney Falls. Try to. He's in his element here. He runs, glides, soars, often his feet don't touch the ground. Sometimes he spins around, dancing on the wind. Luckily, he occasionally stops to wait for me, a blob of sludge by comparison. At last we reach the last ford to the Falls. He races ahead, barely getting his feet wet. He plans to buy ciggies from the general store at Supai Village, another few miles north. Not me. I'm happy here in the rainbow spray from the massive waterfall, totally relaxed. So much so that I eventually realize that I'll be late if I don't race back. In my hurry-up mode, I lose the trail, then find an alternate route. It ascends onto a high bench overlooking Beaver Falls. Then stops. There's no way down. But, by tumbling down an arroyo, shredding my shorts in the process, I bushwhack a new route to the creek. Pete, Wesley and Martha are there, having watched my descent in amusement. I follow them, but nearly lose them, too, as they demonstrate how fiercely fast then can hike. We get back to the boats at a quarter to five, the last to return, and we cast off at once. A mile downriver, we stop at First Chance. Dinner? Not shabby: prime rib, mashed potatoes, cole slaw, loveburgers for the vegetarians. I find a great overhanging cliff, sleep deeply as I sink ever deeper into the rhythm of the Canyon.
26th. A late, leisurely morning, assisted by potato pancakes, eggs any way, plus oranges, yogurt, cold cereal, and another freshly boiled vat of exotic coffee. I go in Pete's baggage boat, and he lets me row till lunch at National Canyon, including through the mildly technical Tuckup Rapid. Later the wind kicks up and the first rain spatters down upon us. We camp just above Vulcan's Anvil, a volcanic neck which protrudes from the river a mile above Lava Falls. I have an idea for a river performance piece, a rap, and I begin writing down verses. I temporarily lose interest in dinner prep and consequently don't recall what was served, though I believe it had a Mexican bouquet. The rain vanishes, the sky clears, the stars gleam down brightly.
27th. We're up early again, raft loading commences before 7:00. We float nervously down to Lava, then pull over to scout it. This is an intense, giant maelstrom of water gone mad, serious business. The order is decided: snout boat, Wesley, paddleboat, Martha, then Pete and me. Bob shoots through perfectly. Wesley follows, his raft is bashed against a jagged rock and sustains a 6" rip in the bottom. The paddleboat slips through with much aplomb. Martha's raft is swept too far right, goes on the rocks, everyone is washed out. Our turn. I cling to the front of Pete's raft like a hood ornament. Into the rapid, we're sucked under, buried with water, but we surface and I begin bailing at once. I dump out 30 gallons before I have to hold on again for Son of Lava, where we almost but not quite kiss the cliff wall. Later, after another 30 minutes of bailing, we tie the five rafts together and float massively downriver. The rapids are no match now for this gargantuan floating innertube. We also make good time, adding 33 more river miles before we camp at Pumpkin Springs. The leisure time permits me to complete the rap. Dinner is a spaghetti in a delicious red sauce (will the meals ever pale?), garlic English muffins and German chocolate cake. Afterwards, to the accompaniment of percussion from tapped cups and pots, I perform the AzRap:
We're the AzRA boatmen, help us set up camp
We stay warm and dry while our guests are cold and damp
We suck down Tecaté, for us that is ambitious
You may help us cook our food and later wash the dishes
Fill up all our water jugs, smash down all the cans
Unload our boats, pick up the trash and scrub our pots and pans
Haul water to the kitchen, regale us with your stories
You'll eat more sand, bail more boats than those friggin' dories
We row the Colorado, granddaddy of them all
It's sometimes swell, sometimes hell, but mostly it's a ball
Our playhouse is Grand Canyon, the scenery's simply marvy
Come raft with us before the joint is bought up by Fred Harvey
Martha is the head hag, Kahuna to her cohorts
Her Tex-Mex chow is bueno, and so's her water spo-horts
Her big oar stroke is nasty, a regular King Kong
But not as fearsome as her famous wounded seal song
Wesley's full of magic, his feet don't touch the ground
He'll even row a boat sometimes, when his back is sound
He's expert on the plant life, knows all the canyon blooms
And knows where all his sand paintings are hung
in motel rooms
Bobby Bob is Melville, bwana of the snout
He slams his clients through the rapids, lets it all hang out
He captivates with river lore, and costumes are his credo
Discussing canyon politics in muu-muu or tuxedo
Peter rows the baggage, he has a canyon nose
He climbs rock walls with ease thanks to his ten prehensile toes
He used to drive the big boat, a Canyoneering tub
But now he hopes to join the upscale AzRA Boatman Club
This is Suzy's hundredth trip, when will it ever end
She's kitchen queen and waitress, and back in the paddle again
She's awesome in the water, a reg'lar river gypsy
And she can down six Shirley Temples without acting tipsy
Yeah we're the AzRA boatmen, we're happy, not forlorn
We don't want much, just river life and also your first born
We're the AzRA boatmen, we row the river road
We prepare the finest chow, like Spam cakes a la mode
We're the AzRA boatmen, our patience is all mental
But once we get back on the river, life is transcendental
Yeah we're the AzRA boatmen, we live the Life of Fup
And if we're really lucky, then we never will grow up!
Click for an audio performance of AzRap.
Fup, by the way, is the title character in a book that was read out loud during the barge float today, a popular story with this crew. Well, it's a big success--the rap, that is. Afterwards, Wesley teaches everyone the four dance steps to Heard it Through the Grapevine. But Suzanne and I steal the show with a particularly bizarre free-form pas de deux of our own. Boy, only in Grand Canyon!
28th. Well shoot, 12 miles and it'll be over. I get in Wesley's boat to help bail, but the water streams in as fast as I dump it out. Fifty gallons, rest, fifty gallons, rest. I do this a few times, then give up. There's no perceptible difference. The scenic quality of the Canyon refuses to diminish, and I'm still eager to see more when we round a bend and pull in at Diamond Creek, the take-out point. We wrestle the rafts onto the beach, help unload, dismantle, and deflate 'em, then load them onto a truck. Then we, too, are loaded onto a bus for the five hour ride back to Flag. The other guests turn rowdy, ready to rejoin civilization, but I'm still on Canyon Time, still immersed in the immensely satisfying--and easily habit-forming--Colorado River rafting adventure, a transcendental experience that will stay with me always ... and also forever alter my appreciation of baby wipes.
The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.
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