The Eye-Opening Month I Spent Rafting the Grand Canyon
In praise of sand in your eyeballs, no cell service, and pooping in a box
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This is the tenth year of my blog at Semi-Rad.com, and since I started it, I’ve been fortunate to get to do some pretty wonderful adventures. Throughout this year, I’ll be writing about 12 favorite adventures I’ve had since I started writing about the outdoors, one per month. This is the sixth in the series.
If you do any research about Hermit Rapids before you go on a river trip in the Grand Canyon, you might see it referred to as “a roller coaster” or “a wave train,” or you might find out it has “perhaps the strongest hydraulics and biggest waves in the canyon.” You might find out it’s rated Class 8 on the 1–10 Grand Canyon scale of rapids (ten being the biggest).
I didn’t know any of that. My friend Forest had invited me to fill an empty spot on a Grand Canyon river trip, and I had the time and good sense enough to say yes. But in advance of the trip, I didn’t do any research on the river itself—I assumed that with zero rowing experience, I would just be a passenger on a boat, never given the responsibility of doing anything of consequence. If I had known anything about Hermit, I still would have assumed that I would not be rowing a raft through it in my lifetime, let alone on my first trip there.
As I untied our boat a few hundred feet upstream from Hermit on day ten, Ray Pitman, a third-generation Montanan and owner of a tile-setting business, said, “You could probably row it if you wanted to.” As the boat slid away from the shore, I had a few seconds to decide.
That morning, I had puttered around camp for the last half-hour before we got back on the river, waiting for everyone on our trip to finish pooping. I had volunteered for groover duty for our entire 28-day trip, which is a somewhat bold move, and also kind of gross. Every evening, when we pulled the boats out at our beach camp, I grabbed the groover from a boat and scouted a spot for it: private (hidden from view from our party), hopefully scenic (ideally a nice view of the river or at least the canyon walls), and lastly, photogenic, because I had also decided that I would photograph every day’s groover spot and potentially turn it into some sort of art piece after our trip was over.
The groover, technically, is a repurposed army surplus M548 20mm ammo can, 19 inches tall, 14.5 inches long, and 8 inches wide, with a toilet seat perched on top of it. When sealed, the ammo cans are air- and watertight, making them an ideal way to carry human excrement down one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. When unsealed, of course, they are very simply a box full of poop. Every day, I found what I thought was the best spot, sometimes taking a couple minutes, sometimes the better part of a half-hour, and every morning, I waited for everyone to finish. Then I’d put on latex gloves, do a quick clean of the toilet seat, seal up the ammo can, and carry the box of poop to our designated groover boat, discovering that “airtight” doesn’t quite mean “smell-tight,” as a slight odeur de poop seeped out with every step I took toward the boats.
There are two takes on the idea of volunteering to take groover duty for an entire river trip: one group of people believes it is a disgusting job (hard to argue with), and the other group of people believes it is a smart move—usually, if you do groover duty, you are exempted from cooking and washing dishes for the entire trip, which is a nice trade-off. You get to camp, you spend a few minutes setting up the box of shit, and then you get to do nothing for several hours. I hadn’t thought of that before the trip—I just assumed that since I had almost no whitewater experience, I’d be the most useless member of the group, so I thought I’d make myself useful in other ways, since I wouldn’t be rowing boats. And then, the first morning of the trip, after I had locked in my position as the groover guy, someone said, “Oh, you’ll do some rowing. It’s 280 miles.”
I forget who first introduced me to the fact that normal people go on Grand Canyon river trips more than once in their lives. Whoever it was blew my mind. People apparently did two, three, sometimes more than ten trips down the Colorado River through the most famous canyon in the world. Why?
I love the Grand Canyon. Even before I ever went on a river trip, I’d seen enough to enamor me on a couple backpacking trips and Rim-to-Rim jaunts. River trips, though, were at least a week, at minimum—and at least two weeks if you wanted to see the whole thing. I was sure it was great, but with two weeks, you could go a lot of places on Earth. Why keep going back to the same place over and over?
Kevin Fedarko, former Grand Canyon river guide and author of The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon, has talked about the two rivers you experience on a river trip in the canyon: the Colorado River that is a constant as you boat down it during every day and camp next to it every evening, and the “river of stars” between the canyon walls that you look up at from your sleeping bag at night.
Add to this the luxury of camping on river trips: you have the solitude of a backpacking trip but the ability to pack almost anything you want to bring, because the raft is carrying your stuff. Some items we brought:
- 25 gallons of propane
- Six boxes of charcoal
- One six-burner stove
- A steel two-gallon coffee maker
- 18 five-gallon buckets
- 1,600 cans of beer
- Several solar panels
- 15 tents
- 15 camp chairs
- Food for 27 dinners, 28 breakfasts, and 28 lunches for 15 people
- A guitar
While we were packing and rigging the boats on the first day, we decided to leave behind a mannequin (female, unclothed) that someone had brought at the last minute. Most of my camping up until that point had been backpacking and car camping without a cooler, and I was astonished that I was able to put half-and-half in my coffee every day of the trip, even on day 28, when we hadn’t seen a store, or even an automobile, for four weeks.
In the years following our trip, the thing I say most about it is that it’s the best camping trip you’ll ever go on. Every night a new campsite, Fedarko’s river of stars rolling by above you, the Colorado River rolling by right next to your campsite.
The first day, I found a spot on one of our fully loaded 18-foot rafts with Ray, whose father had given him his whitewater baptism at age two. Ray knew what he was doing and also let me pepper him with questions while he rowed the calm sections the first few days. He had piloted boats down plenty of whitewater, but this was his first time on the Colorado in the Grand Canyon. I, on the other hand, didn’t know anything, including where to sit on the boat, how to read any part of whitewater, what an eddy looked like, what to do if the boat flipped, how deep the river was, how anyone knew where the rocks were, what the difference was between a wave and a hole, what a hole was, why you wanted to keep the boat out of holes, that it was OK and sometimes even preferable to go sideways or even backwards down the river, and that the Grand Canyon had its own rating system for rapids, 1 through 10 instead of I through VI, and that there were 40-plus rapids rated Class 3 or higher.
By the second day, Ray had me take the oars and give him a break from rowing during the calm sections, and I realized right away that a) turning a fully loaded 18-foot raft on a big river was more akin to turning a pickup truck with no power steering than turning, say, a bicycle, and b) piloting the boat safely down the river was more about reading and reacting to hydrodynamics than having big muscles to push and pull the oars. I sucked at everything, totally unable to read whitewater and clumsy with the oars. But I slowly figured out how to move the oars, at least, and Ray was very patient with me.
A few days later, he let me row through some baby rapids, telling me where to aim the boat, giving me calm instructions to adjust the trajectory a little left or a little right. I began to get the hang of it a little bit and, by my estimation, would only need to put in 200 to 300 more river hours behind the oars before I was ready to row one of the big rapids in the canyon.
Until then, I sat at the front of the boat while Ray rowed the big stuff, getting drenched in my drysuit as we plunged through churning waves of clear water. The water in the Grand Canyon comes out of the bottom of the Glen Canyon Dam, so it’s all a consistent 42 degrees Fahrenheit, and our trip, putting in November 11 and taking out December 8, was cold. Every day, we pulled on drysuits in case of accidental or nonaccidental submersion. David, our trip leader, called them “more like slowly-getting-damp suits,” and they weren’t comfortable, but the trade-off of doing a cold, late-season trip was that we saw almost no one else on the river the entire time.
By the time Ray and I pulled over to scout Hermit Rapids on day ten, he had safely rowed us through all of the big rapids so far—House Rock, Hance, Sockdolager, Grapevine, Horn Creek, and Granite—not to mention dozens of smaller rapids. He had let me take the oars through gradually bigger rapids, coaching me from the front of the boat with a few instructive words and hand signals. I felt like I was learning a little bit. Above Hermit, I tied up the boat and let Ray walk over to check it out from upstream, figuring I still didn’t know much about reading whitewater.
When Ray came back to the boat, he said, “You could probably row it if you wanted to.” I said it was up to him.
He laughed and said, “I know, but I really want to row it.” I said, Sure, whatever, totally your call.
Ray sat for a second, looked at me, and said, “You should do it.” We switched positions, and I scrambled around to take the oars. Ray had at least twice as much confidence as I did in my ability to keep the boat upright.
It’s worth noting that at this point, I had not seen a raft flip, so I didn’t know what happened when people fell out, where the cargo went if it didn’t stay strapped in, how long it took to get people out of the water, how involved it could be flipping a raft back over, what happened when a raft got pinned against a rock by tens of thousands of cubic feet of water per second pushing against it. I also hadn’t read anything about the rapid in the river map that was strapped to the cooler at my feet.
We drifted out into the current, and as it caught the boat, I gripped the oars. Ray leaned into the front tube of the boat and started to give me directions. “Point the nose that way.” I pushed the left oar forward, then the right one. “Aim for that big wave.” I leaned into both oars and pushed them simultaneously. Ray pointed left. I pushed the left oar a little bit.
In a few seconds, all we could hear was water crashing into itself, where the walls squeezed together and thousands of gallons funneled into the constriction that was Hermit Rapids, and Ray just pointed with one hand, his other wrapped around straps on the front of the boat.
When we hit it, the boat bucked, and I was jostled in my seat like I had unexpectedly backed a car into a curb. Ray disappeared under a rush of water for a second, and I pushed with the right oar, then hard with the left oar, which totally missed the water, and I almost fell out of my seat with surprise. I dug my left oar in and watched the river push the oar into the side of the boat. Then we hit the big wave, the bow of the boat popping up until it felt like the raft was going to stand straight up, Ray suddenly above my head for a half-second. The boat rolled back down the wave, and shockingly, we were still upright, pointed straight ahead and moving downstream. Ray let out a little WHOOP, so I did too, and before it was out of my mouth, he yelled, “One more!” and I hung onto the oars through the last big wave. The boat rolled over the top of the wave, and then over a series of smaller waves and into the calm water below, where we spun a little in the water. Everything in the boat, including Ray and me, was drenched, but I hadn’t blown it, so we high-fived.
I continued to get a little better at maneuvering the rafts but was very slow at reading water. I messed up pulling into eddies, sometimes only saved by someone in our party running downstream from a beach to grab a line we tossed out of the boat just in time before we went beyond the point of no return.
It doesn’t take long to understand why a river trip in the Grand Canyon is a bucket list item for so many people and a repeat bucket list item for others. The water is huge, the location—at the bottom of the 4,000-foot-high walls of the canyon—is awe-inspiring, and the solitude is almost unparalleled in the lower 48. There’s no cellphone signal after you leave the put-in, and the only two ways to communicate with the outside world are satellite phone and the pay phone at Phantom Ranch if you stop there at river mile 88. Once you put in, you say goodbye to your email, texts, phone calls, social media, your commute, and sitting in traffic. The bottom of the Grand Canyon is already mind-blowing to begin with, but the requirement of pausing your entire life to experience it makes it unforgettable.
We settled into a rhythm, getting along well for 15 people spending 28 consecutive days within 100 feet of each other with no way to really escape besides a very expensive helicopter rescue. Everyone helped with something, when boats needed to be unloaded in the evening and loaded again the next morning, picking up driftwood for an evening fire, cleaning up the campsite, cooking, washing dishes, tying up boats, untying boats, and filtering drinking water. We never flipped a boat in any of the rapids, but we did help rescue some lost gear from a party who flipped two boats in Upset Rapid. We had no major arguments, but we did chat with someone from another party whose trip seemed to have unraveled into chaos because there had been no set plan about who would cook each evening and who was actually leading the trip.
Sand got into everything, eventually. My toothbrush felt fine until maybe day 14, when I started to notice a little grit when I brushed my teeth. I successfully shaved my face twice, but the third time, somewhere around day 20, I realized the one disposable razor I had brought had become so dulled by sand that it no longer cut my facial hair. Which was fine, except that I had shaved about a third of my face when it stopped working. Around day 18, fine sand had somehow contaminated my contact lens case, or the lenses themselves, or the solution I was using, or just my eyeballs, because every morning when I sat up to put the lenses in my eyes, I had to sit for about 60 seconds and wait for my eye to stop burning.
But every night, I slept on a thick paco pad on soft sand, almost never inside a tent, the river of stars above me.
On our third-to-last day, we had 29 river miles to go to the take-out at Pearce Ferry, and instead of breaking it into three days of similar lengths, we chose to row as much as possible, hoping to avoid high winds sweeping upriver. Many parties choose to bring an outboard motor for the final, flat section of the river where the water from Lake Mead has pushed upstream, burying former rapids, slowing the flow of the river. We did not bring a motor and rowed the flatwater, covering 26 miles in one day passing oars back and forth in teams of two. We entered “Helicopter Alley,” where the Hualapai Reservation begins and helicopter sightseeing tours begin. After 26 days in the calm of the canyon walls, without the noise of cars or almost any nonnatural noise, helicopters began to appear overhead, landing on a pad just above the river, where tourists sat at tables with umbrellas for the quick sightseeing trip advertised on the Vegas Strip. They zipped in and out all day as we pulled the oars of our slow little rafts along the river below, none of us having had a shower for almost a month, and loving it.
The canyon walls gradually lowered and opened up into views of the high desert, easing us out of the deep chasm and into the realization that we’d have to go back into society in a few hours, and eventually back to our bills, emails, work, and the real world. But also loved ones, pizza, ice, ice cream, espresso, running water, showers, and toilets. Those are some of the things you miss when you’re out for several weeks.
But, I discovered, once you’re back in the real world for a few weeks, and you have had the joy of not having sand in your toothbrush and contact lenses, and not having to go to the bathroom every morning in a rapidly filling 19-inch-deep box, you start to miss being in the canyon. And you start to think about maybe going a second time, or a third time, or a tenth time, and you understand how people might go back to the same place over and over again.
Brendan Leonard’s new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems: More Funny Shit in the Woods from Semi-Rad.com, is out now.