Ben David picked me up from the airport the other night with a bag of wine. It was 8 at night, I was spent from a day surrounded by people, and I was still figuring out the re-entry into not only society, but also America. Not only could I now order espresso, but I could also do it in English. There were no buses to hop on for a quarter, there were also people everywhere and cars and roads and buildings. My phone was back on and beeped annoyingly because I had cell service everywhere again.
After spending months split between the tree lot, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Grand Canyon, and then Alta, getting used to everything at once required a delicate touch. And a bag of wine.
I’m still processing most of what happened in the big ditch, so this summary is going to be a bit… distant. Basically, we flew into North Carolina at 6 in the evening, repacked and did a load of laundry at my mom’s, then drove straight through two nights to Flagstaff, AZ where we met up with Ceiba, rigged three rafts, and hopped on the Colorado River at Lees Ferry. It was January 21, sunny as hell and warm.
People told me a lot of things before we started the trip. “You’ll experience at least two days with no sun and bitter cold.” “You’ll learn more about yourself and everyone else than you ever thought possible.” “Take more alcohol than you think you can possibly consume.” All those things were correct.
Our trip was sixteen days. We had ten participants. We didn’t take any zero days; our longest day was 20 miles and our shortest was five (I think). We did side hikes together, raged together, pulled a raft off a rock together, bandaged each other’s hands, sang, did keg stands (sorry mom!) on a raft, peed together, ate together, had hard conversations and got naked on beach together, killed a bottle of tequila in less than ten minutes (wooooooo), kept three rafts upright, watched one of our comrades catapult himself off a raft, paddled through freezing cold rain, and basically lived together. We saw eagles, big horn sheep, and kangaroo mice.
On our 16 days in the ditch, we fell into a rhythm. Breakfast at 7, then packing up camp and loading the rafts. We would launch around 9 every morning, and go between 7 and 15 miles to our next camp. Sometimes we stopped for a quick hike around noon at places like Havasu or Elve’s Chasm, but normally we just kept trucking. We ate sandwiches on our rafts. Around 2 in the afternoon, we would arrive at camp and set up, then everyone would sort of do their own thing (some people went scrambling, I would journal, some people would attempt to bathe, etc). Around 4 or 4:30 we would start dinner, eat, clean up, and relax by our wood stove. Around 8 we would all be falling asleep in our chairs, so we would one by one sneak off to our tents.
One of my favorite side hikes was Havasu creek. We scrambled up the rock wall of this beautiful, crystal clear blue creek until we couldn’t avoid the water anymore. Jumping off ledges and swimming through small rapids, we slowly made our way up until we eventually found sunshine. Everyone else let, but Will, Ben David, Paul and I sat in the sun drinking beer and eating sandwiches until we had warmed up. When it was time to go, we floated down the creek, jumping off the bigger rapids and pin spots, back to the rafts. It was like the best lazy river in the world. Back at the rafts, we found the candy stash and ate chocolate as if we were burning twice as many calories.
As far as campsites go, there were two that really wet my whistle. Ledges campsite was super fun because we were all camping on rock ledges that jut out over the water. Shinumo Wash camp was also interesting. It was our first camp next to a wall and close together, and the sand was fun to run around in (it was early enough in the trip that I was still ambivalent to the sand).
There were a few things I was SUPER glad I took with me, besides the obvious things like a dry suit and lots of warm layers. These are things I hemmed and hawed about, and am glad I broke down and took. I bought rubber boots last minute the day before we launched, and they remain the best $30 I spent. Being able to get on and off the raft without getting wet, and keeping the sand out of your clothes at camp, was amazing. Buying a cheap chair with legs last minute was also clutch for at night around the campfire. Because I have short hair and my neck is exposed, my last minute impulsive addition of a scarf to my kit changed my life. When it was cold and windy, my neck stayed warm at camp, which made a huge difference in my quality of life.
I haven’t rowed since 2010, when I took an oar rig down the Green River in Utah for a week. Hopping back on a raft at Lee’s Ferry reminded me all over again why I’m in the outdoor industry and how much I love rowing. I love rowing almost as much as I love kayaking. Which is a lot.
I’ve loved kayaking from day one because the river makes sense. You feel the water and you react. You don’t have to think of a deeper meaning, or decipher its true feelings. No matter how beefy your arms and shoulders get the water is always stronger and is always going to win. So you learn to work with the water. You learn to read lines, to set yourself up to make moves using the force of the water, not pushing against. You use what you’re given.
I love rowing because you take this principle and apply it to a thousand pound raft. There is no way in hell I am going to power the raft on my own through a difficult rapid. I have to learn how to read the water, find the place I want to be, find the current’s path, and use it to get there. I can pull to get the momentum started and the angle set, but at some point the water wrestles the control away. And I have to be open to that, and ready for it.
I can’t power a last minute ferry in a rapid, I can’t move a rock that came out of nowhere and created a ledge hole. All I have to work with on the river is what the river gives me.
I’m still processing everything that happened down there, and making sense of it. I haven’t even begun to really wrap my head around the history of the Canyon. Sixteen days in the Grand Canyon (followed by an impulsive trip to Alta in Salt Lake City to ski) has a way of making you re-evaluate your priorities and almost every life decision you’ve ever made. I’m so grateful I had the chance to get off the grid with such wonderful people and explore one our nation’s most amazing wild places while it remains wild.