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  • Writer's pictureKatja

Rafting the Grand Canyon: Arrival and Day One

Note: One post is not enough to cover everything from the two weeks spent in the Grand Canyon (July 15 through July 30th). Please check back regularly for additional posts about the trip.

Day Zero (July 14th)

Our group of five arrives at Lees Ferry, the starting location for rafting the Colorado River. John, a veteran guide and our trip lead (TL), has been waiting for our arrival all day while we have carpooled in from Las Vegas with stops at Costco and Walmart to pick up last-minute items and all of our fresh/perishable food. John's son (Max) and grandson (Logan) will be in one oar raft, "The Hydra"; I will be in the second raft, "The Swan", with Max and my mutual friend, Steve. John will be in his dory, "Gitana".

We work into the evening and by headlamp after dark to get the boats as packed as possible. The rafts and big equipment (oars, coolers, dry boxes, water jugs, etc.) were provided by Canyon Reo, and we spend the evening loading everything up to be ready for final inspection by the National Park Service (NPS) in the morning.

As we work, we watch a huge storm several miles downriver. We see huge flashes of lightning and hear thunder. Only a little rain hits us, and we continue working. At this point, we are unaware of the tragedy unfolding downstream beneath that very storm. In the morning, we will learn that a group has been hit by a flash flood leaving one woman dead and resulting in the evacuation of five. For now, all we can do is race to finish rigging our boats so we can get a few hours of sleep at a lodge in the town of Marble Canyon before our journey begins. We wade into the river and secure the rafts to the bank then head to bed.

Day One (July 15th)

We are up bright and early and drink in the view of the Vermillion Cliffs as we sort through last-minute gear decisions and personal items and head down to the river. We pull the boats back to the boat ramp and continue to work on getting everything squared away before the rangers show up at 9:00 AM to give us a final inspection. A large commercial group sets up nearby and they inform us about the flash flood. It is sobering and crosses my mind that we can still turn back, but I know that whitewater rafting is not a risk-free sport and while the news of the death weighs heavily on us, we decide to continue.

As 9:00 AM approaches, we make final phone calls and send messages to our friends and families. While John talks to his wife, a hummingbird swoops down and hovers around his head, then flies over and flits around my face for a moment before flying away. I take this as a good omen for our trip and offer a small prayer of gratitude for being there and ask for protection for us all.

Our boats and lifejackets pass inspection by the NPS Ranger and we sit through a long pre-trip briefing with another group. I am surprised that the topics have little to do with the actual rafting and more to do with low-impact camping, conservation guidelines, and rules for protecting wildlife and archeological sites. Apparently, by the time you have your permit and pass inspection at Lees Ferry, the NPS assumes that you understand the seriousness of the journey you are about to embark on and does not invest a lot of time in covering the white water hazards and safety considerations. By being there on a private trip permit, we are way past the point of "you better know what you are doing."

A little before noon, we are all set and signed off. The vehicles are parked and waiting to be shuttled down to the takeout at Pearce Ferry (280 river miles away). I turn on my InReach tracker to activate the map for our loved ones to track us on, switch my phone to Airplane mode after a quick group picture, and we are off.

Our first day covers approximately 12 miles. We immediately enter the walls of Marble Canyon and are consumed with the beauty all around us. We row beneath Navajo Bridge, encounter our first rapids (Badger and Soap Creek), and Logan and Max catch the first and only two trout of the trip. On The Swan, Steve and I begin negotiating on strategies to survive being on a raft together for two weeks (most of what we think will work, especially around communication, soon becomes a frustrating series of "discussions" and some rounds of head-butting that would put the big-horn sheep to shame, but spoiler alert: we will figure it out and emerge with mutual appreciation and respect, and a solid system for working together to get through some intense moments and monstrous rapids that loom ahead).

Our first camp is at mile 12.4, Below Salt Water Wash. As we secure the boats and unload kitchen and camp gear, it begins to rain. It is hot and the rain feels good at first, but then the intensity builds and suddenly someone is shouting "flash flood!" The water level around the boats begins surging higher and Logan and I race to haul loose bags and camp gear higher into the dunes while Max, John, and Steve monitor the boats and watch the river levels. Our camp is not in a place that will be swept away from above, but the rising water could pose a problem if the water sweeps past the tree and rock anchors holding our boats in place.

I take a few minutes to watch the rain and take pictures and as I do, I witness the muddy fingers of the up-river flash floods creep into the crystal water. Within minutes, the sparkling water is consumed with the rich reds and browns I have heard so much about. We will not see clear water in the Colorado River again for the entire trip.

The storm quickly passes and we are able to make dinner and sleep under the stars. I set my tent up just in case but the rain stays away and I sleep on top of a sandy hill looking down at the river as the Milkyway glitters up above. It is hard to sleep as every sound is new and startling, but the night seems to last a few extra hours and somehow everyone seems happy and well-rested by the time we wake up with the sun.

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