The Grand Canyon. Far more able people than myself have boated, hiked, written, photographed, filmed, painted, and researched the shit out of the place. There’s not much I can say about it that the annual tens of thousands who float it or the millions who visit the rim or the billions who have seen pictures of it don’t know already. But when you’re really there, standing in six inches of snow watching the last light linger on the Coconino Plateau, it’s easy to fall under the spell of the cliche. The Grand evokes superlatives ending in -est, feelings of inadequacy, monotony, sensitization, desensitization, desire to record and convey and live and relive the experience we vow will be repeated, one of these days.
Suddenly surrounded by eleven other people, Zak and I are forced to communicate in ways other than abstract philosophy, puns, and grunting. Everyone seems to understand. It must be strange to suddenly be on the river, away from the ubiquitous hum of cities, but the transition to River Time takes only a few days. You couldn’t ask for a much better group, willing to drop everything else to go sit in December shade.
There are drybags, dryboxes, ammo cans, coolers, and crevices stuffed with bacon, eggs, flour, vegetables, coffee, beer, wine, Crisco, spices, a stovetop oven, a dutch oven, and so on. The first few days I claim starvation, emaciation, and coming from The Source as reasons why I am entitled to extra portions of this feast, but the girls hold fast to their ration plan and soon my metabolism slows or the girls relent, I’m not sure which. I stop paddling and start floating, forget about the thirty mile days and paddling into the night and the wind and the schedule and we aren’t going from source to sea anymore, we’re just on one of the most popular rafting trips in the world.
We watch Zak and Forest’s raft suspiciously; something is not right. They both sit in the stern, reading, oars untouched. The rapid approaches; will they react to the roar and oncoming waves? The raft makes it through just fine. The river is benevolent. They call this Taoist rafting.
Later I climb aboard the raft to sample this emancipation from intentional direction. Out of principle as well as laziness the oar blades don’t touch the water for at least an hour. The boat follows the current, misses eddies, performs admirably. The Tao, they claim, beaming.
The test comes when we drift too close to a sharp limestone wall. All eyes are fixed on the impending collision of rubber, water, and rock. Cracks form in our new-found faith; surely we’ll miss it but- a foot kicks out, we scrape and bounce off, new scratches are carved. The river doesn’t give a damn about our theories.
With thirteen people around you don’t see much wildlife. The most frequent sightings are mice, prudent enough to live next to the best kitchen spots on every beach. For every four or five mice we feed one commits suicide in our dish buckets, perhaps depressed by this lifestyle. Ravens are also constant visitors, waiting patiently on the cliff until we forget about them, swooping down to peck apart a bag of M&Ms. The most welcome scavengers are ringtail cats. A few times they rustle around in the dark, waving long fuzzy tails. They could get away with anything out of sheer cuteness.
I float calmly in the surging eddy below Lava Falls, the biggest rapid on the entire river. The yellow boat appears briefly on the horizon and then disappears for too long. I wait until I see the bottom of the raft, then whistle three times as loud as I can, not the anyone could hear me over the noise of the rapid. Girls and snacks float by and I sprint out to pick them up. While on my way to help the half drowned rafters I pause to snatch a loaf of soggy bread from the river. I don’t know why I bothered to grab that old bread. An oar is broken and chocolate lost, but everyone is fine. I knew we should have eaten that chocolate earlier.
Two days before we exit the canyon there’s a blowout somewhere upstream and the water turns to chocolate milk, one last display of sediment transport before the reservoir. We float through the too-familiar silt banks as the gradient mellows, last rapids buried. As in Cataract, camps are scarce to nonexistent and we float into the dark. I spot a white shape across the river and we tie up to a floating dock alongside Hualapai Indian jetboats. The dock is barely big enough for all of us, but it’s the only flat place for miles and we make it work, leaving at dawn. Hopefully the owners will understand. The canyon opens up and we glide by collapsing banks left from high water in Lake Mead. Iit’s kind of nice to see the sky.