Rafting through the Grand Canyon


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I think of myself as a westerner. My great-grandfather mustered out of the Calvary at Fort Whipple near Prescott Arizona, the first capital of the Arizona Territory.  He owned lot number two in town.  My grandmother and my father were born in Prescott Arizona when Arizona was still a territory.  Later my older brother was born in Prescott.  My mother grew up in Miami, Arizona, a mining town.

When I came along the family was on the move and I entered this world in Los Angeles.  That is west but not quite the same.  By now of course I have bounced around so many places that I’m sort of homogenized.  But I still think of myself as a westerner.

Over the years I have spent a great amount of time in Arizona.  I have lived in Flagstaff, Kingman, Casa Grande, Scottsdale, Phoenix and spent time in Yarnell, Prescott, Globe and passed through almost any town you can name in the state.  And during all these times one thing  I wanted to do was raft down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.  So . . . that is what were are going to talk about today:

  Rafting Through the Grand Canyon.

Colorado River

Into the Canyon

In 1996 I had moved from Florida to Phoenix.  At that time we had a friend who published coffee table picture books of the national parks.  We had talked with her about how much we would like to go down the River.  Our friend had rafted the river several times getting photographic material for her books.  In doing so she came to know several river captains.

There is a subculture of men and women who make their living piloting rafts of people through the turns and rapids of the Colorado River.  They know each other; they know who is on the river and where they are; they all hang together.  It is a close-knit group.

Shortly after we moved, our friend contacted us inquiring if we would want to go with her if she could put together a trip.  We agreed we would.  And so it was.  She chartered our own private raft.  The trip was to take seven days  If I remember, our party was twenty people;  fifteen women, three men and two crew.  We went in May to avoid the worst of the heat.  In June, July and August it is common for the temperature to range from 105° – 115° F.  May gave us a slight break.

We each were instructed to bring a sleeping bag, toiletries, several changes of clothes, good hiking shoes and something waterproof to cover up in.  It was suggested that we bring a camp shower.  This is a long black hot water bottle with a flexible hose and shower head.  It is filled with water in the morning and left exposed to the sun during the day, which heats it up.  At the end of the day you can have a warm shower, which believe me, was something your wanted. .

The two-man crew brought the food and drink, porta potty, cooking equipment and fuel and tables.

Lee’s Ferry

Our party assembled at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona.  Here the terrain on both sides of the river slopes down to the waters edge.  This is one place  which allows passage across the river.  For the most part the rest of the river cannot be easily traversed because there are cliffs on both sides. The ferry was established in 1871 by John D. Lee at the direction of the Mormon Church.  John and his wife Emma ran the ferry.  If you see how isolated it is today you can imagine how alone they were then.  John was involved in the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857 and years later brought to trial.  He was executed in 1877 by firing squad and Emma ran the ferry by herself for two years before selling it to the church.

Anyway, that is an aside.  Lee’s ferry was our jumping off spot.  We spent a good part of the morning loading our stuff onto the raft.  Now you gotta know that to carry twenty people and supplies for a week you must have a BIG raft.  This was about as long and as wide as a Greyhound bus.  In the middle and piling to the rear were  mounds of stuff.  The captain and his one person crew sat higher in the back and the rest of us sat huddled in a mass at the bow, though a few sat on our gear.

The boats at Lee's Ferry

The boats at Lee’s Ferry grandcanyonhistory.clas.asu.ed

About mid day we pushed off.  Here the river is wide and slow.  Very tranquil.  We drifted slowly down and little by little the cliffs began the close in on the river and rise above us.  Soon we were moving somewhat faster and with some turbulence.  Occasionally the bow would dive into a rapid and cover us all with spray.  COLD!  Wow was that cold!  I had taken a place at the very front so I could see better and I was regretting it.

Before the Glen Canyon Dam was built creating Lake Powell, the Colorado River ran free through the Grand Canyon.  In times of storm it could be raging and thunderous.  In times of calm it would be tranquil and tepid.  Not now.  Since the dam was built water has been released at a constant rate so the river is much more controlled.  The water is released from the lower levels and because it comes from the deep, it is cold, a constant 47°F.

Our day ended uneventfully.  At dusk Captain John moored the raft near a sandy place.  He and his helper scurried around setting up tables, cooking equipment and the  porta potty.  The latter was enclosed in a yellow tent for privacy.

At the Dinner table

At the Dinner table

We ate well.  This being our private charter we had specified we did not want burgers and hot dogs.  We wanted good fare.  So we had shrimp creole, steaks, roasted chicken etc.  It was amazing how good cooks these guys were.  And how hard they worked.

Each day the two of them would make breakfast, clean up, breakdown, load the raft, pilot the raft for six to eight hours, unload, setup, cook, cleanup and prepare for the next day.  They were unstoppable.

As the week went by we could study the rock layers of the cliffs and see when there were dramatic changes in the earth, volcanos, earthquakes, inundations of the sea.  The colors in parts were stunning.  Because the river is controlled, there were only a few miles where there were significant rapids and at those places the crew knew where to drive the raft to avoid the worst.

grand canyon

Several times we would dock the raft mid-day and hike up into the canyons.  Never saw another person that was not part of our group.

Little Colorado River

We had one scare.   The Colorado River is joined by a tributary known as the Little Colorado River.  It runs freely and, being shallow, it is warm.  It is also a brilliant turquoise blue whereas the Colorado River is dark green, almost black. Because it is warm, shallow and fast, rafts will stop there and let the people swim and play.  There are rock slides and turbulent pools.  Great fun.

Little Colorado River rock slides

Little Colorado River rock slides grandcanyon2011.blogspot.com

Our Captain John decided to join in the fun and came swimming.  None of us saw what happened but suddenly my wife saw John floating by unconscious with a gash above his eye.  She was able to grab him and with the help of others pull him from the water.  This was a serious matter.  At the time there were no radios that could transmit out of the walls of the canyons; no phones either.  In an emergency one’s hope was to wait until a commercial jet passed overhead and try to make radio contact.   Now we had John injured,  a workable crew of one and eighteen people who didn’t have the skills to be of much help.  We weren’t certain what was going to happen.  Fortunately John came to and directed his helper to take the raft and all of us down to where he thought we would find another raft.  When we got there  the Captain of  this other raft stitched up John’s wound.  And we continued down river.  By the time we moored for the evening, John was up and about and doing all the things he would have normally done.  Amazing.

Captain John

Bow symbol

That night I painted a face with an “x” over the eye on the bow of the boat.  As we continued the next several days, all the rafts plying the river knew John had hurt himself and they looked out for us.  They thought the symbol on his raft was great.

Drying out wet clothes

Drying out wet clothes

As you can imagine, the women were a little sensitive to issues of privacy and grooming.  They would group together away from the men and erect a screen of blankets, behind which they had their “spa”.   And they would have their showers and do their hair etc.  One of the men became quite unpopular because he always seemed to be around there.  Eventually he was pretty much by himself.

The other two of us guys would head the other direction to do our thing.

The porta potty was also an issue.  Since it was one to be used by all, the polite thing to do was to stay far away from the tent in which it sat until you were certain it was not occupied.

The last night of our trip, we moored along a narrow sandy beach behind which were some  hills or mounds backing up to vertical cliffs.  Since the beach where we would sleep was narrow, the porta potty and tent were set up on top of one of the hills.  That night we had terrific winds.  Howling winds.  The sand flew into our eyes and mouth and stung our skin.  In order to deal with it, I crawled deep inside my sleeping bag and zipped it closed like a cocoon.  The winds went on for hours, but eventually died down.  When I awoke I was half buried in sand.  As I worked myself out of the sleeping bag I looked around to see how everyone fared.  And there, on the top of the hill, with the tent nowhere to be seen, on the porta potty sat one of the women surveying the sleeping group below.  Queen for the day.


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About Thomas L. Tribby

Professional artist: painter, sculptor, print maker. Maintains a studio in West Palm Beach, Florida
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