Into the Unknown
On day one of my six-day Grand Canyon rafting adventure with Western River Expeditions, I’m still a tourist. On the early morning flight from Las Vegas to Marble Canyon in a small, noisy prop plane, my face is stuck to the window. The immense emptiness of the craggy desert landscape poured out below is shocking after the flashy frenzy of Vegas.
A short ride to Lee’s Ferry finally brings us up close and personal with the river. Here, just south of Glen Canyon Dam, we meet our sturdy blue rubber pontoon rafts. There are two of them, an
d they are already loaded down with gear. The four crew members who are triple-checking everything are as sun-baked as the surrounding cliffs. They greet their passengers with smiles and quiet confidence. They’ve done this countless times before, it’s obvious. River water runs in their veins.
The “expedition” in the tour operator’s name is there for a reason. We’re about to do in six days what in 1869 took John Wesley Powell three months of death-defying hardship. We’ll be carrying many modern conveniences, but we’ll still be venturing into the same hostile wilderness, going on the same “expedition.”
And nobody here is going to be “just a tourist” along for the ride.
Our first challenge: finish loading the rafts.
Enormous waterproof sacks are laid out on the beach with numbers on them. We pick one each, stuff our still-clean duffel bags into them, seal it and commit the number to memory. These willbe our closets for the next week.
We form a fire line to transport the pile of sacks to the edge of the raft. The crew takes them from there and stows them under a tarp. We climb on shortly thereafter with varying degrees of grace and find a seat. Several options are available, ranging from regular-drenchings-guaranteed to dry-ninety-nine-percent-of-the-time. I go for an in-between with superb views of the river ahead. I’m none too keen on getting splashed. The water, fresh from the depths of Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam, doesn’t even hit fifty degrees and is a painful shock to the senses after baking in the hundred-plus degree desert heat.
We shove off and leave civilization behind. The jagged walls soon rising around us are red like steel firing in a furnace. The river is smooth and green and hisses as it slides along its banks. In the days to come, we are told, the river will be everything to us. It transports us and will challenges us. It will lull us asleep or keep us awake. It’s a refrigerator for beverages hanging overboard in a net. We will bathe in it, pee in it, and in a couple of days, even drink it with some help from portable but industrial-strength filtration systems.
The river is now the center of our existence.
But first…we pee in it. For more serious business we carry camp toilets that are deployed on shore at night. But in order to preserve the pristine environment, the only place we can relieve ourselves of number ones is in the river or, at most, the wet sand.
The pit stop rules are simple. Men downstream, ladies up, baring it all or—for the more reticent—submerging in our bathing suits in the can’t-feel-anything-from-the-waist-down cold water. This communal awkwardness is referred to as a “smile break” since we’d be smiling innocently at our neighbors at the time.
We are exhorted to drink water and lemonade like fish, or enough to require a “smile” at every stop. It’s not hard to see why. The desert sun is brutal and chases us from cliff shadow to cliff shadow like a cat chasing mice. Keeling over of dehydration—or even heatstroke—is a real and dangerous possibility.
Our first smile is predictably uncomfortable. At least for the women. At least to start. We shuffle around for privacy, our feet ankle-deep in river muck. The sand in the canyon is talcum-powder-fine. Add water and what you get is quicksand. Stand in one spot for too long and what you get is stuck.
When I try to walk out, the river bottom claims one of my water sandals. I dig for it, heedless suddenly about the water’s biting temperature or what’s been newly added to it. I know I can’t continue this trip with only one shoe! I get it back, but now one of the other women is stuck completely. We swarm around her and get organized. Some of us grip her arms and pull. Others get behind her and shove. Someone else digs at the mud around her feet. Finally she pops free and flies forward, belly-flopping into the shallows, shrieking and splashing water everywhere. Both her shoes are still on her feet. We are engulfed in uproarious laughter and return to the raft feeling less like the complete strangers we were only minutes before.
For lunch, the rafts pull up on a tiny beach in the cool shadows of a cliff. By the time we have completed our smiles, a table has appeared together with a tray of fresh fruits. We gather like wolves ‘round a fresh kill, passing along the single knife to peel and slice as needed. Sweet juices drip from fingers and chins.
Meanwhile, the crew produces all the trimmings for a sandwich buffet, including the standard cold cuts and cheeses as well as every kind of topping and sauce imaginable. We learn how to make a “sandwich cone” by rolling the tortilla wrap into a cone, plugging up the hole with an olive, and loading the result with the desired ingredients. They make it look so easy. None of the cones we construct are anywhere near so beautiful; some resemble nothing so much as overstuffed pillows. But that’s not the point. Sitting among the sagebrush at the river’s edge, we eat as if we haven’t eaten in days. Our messy sandwiches, dribbling juices all over our sweaty shirts, have morphed into the best meal. Bar none!
We chew and smile and let our gazes wander the immense vista that cradles us. We feel smaller than we did just a few hours ago when we tumbled off that tiny plane. We feel more fragile, too.
And we feel the awesome thrill of knowing that our journey has only just begun.