Life in the Ditch
Before embarking on my six-day rafting adventure down the Grand Canyon, I never spent a single night camping. Boy, when I get into something, it sure isn’t half-way. No, I have to try my hand at camping by disappearing into “the Ditch” for a week. There is no backup plan, no facilities, no way to change my mind. This is primal wilderness.
A typical day rafting with Western River Expeditions starts at dawn when the sound of pots and pans rattling in the camp kitchen is the first indication of a human presence after a long, dark night under the stars. Soon the lumpy sleeping bags begin to stir in the cots scattered among sagebrush and boulders. It’s the middle of August, and nobody bothered to pitch a tent.
A conch shell serves as the camp signaling system. The sound of the shell at different times indicates different items available in the kitchen—coffee, breakfast, appetizers, dinner. It’s the coffee signal that rousts people out of their sleeping bags. Plastic mugs in hand, they appear, wrapped in whatever layers they have. Just after midnight, the walls finally stopped radiating heat and the temperature plunged by thirty degrees. Just before sun-up it’s downright frosty at the bottom of the Ditch.
The coffee is prepared “cowboy style,” meaning it consists of grounds boiled over a gas fire in a huge, weary-looking pot. We ladle this through a strainer and add powdered creamer and sugar to taste.
While we revive with our mugs at the water’s edge or back in our cots, the guides prepare a breakfast fit for royalty—eggs and bacon, fruit, fresh muffins, pancakes, even pork chops. All delicious calories we will burn staying warm while crashing through icy rapids.
The conch sounds again, and we swarm the breakfast buffet as though we haven’t eaten in days. We’re always hungry. Every meal tastes like the best ever, from a lowly sandwich gulped down at lunch to a steak dinner savored at night.
After breakfast, the camp begins to break. People attend to personal needs and pack their sleeping bags, assigned plate and fork, and belongings into their waterproof sacks. On command, we form a fire line to swiftly transport kitchen items, supplies, and luggage to the raft where the crew securely stows everything.
The last things the crew collects are the two camp toilets. One is placed in a tent that bakes in the sun and fills with unmentionable fumes. It’s the facility of last resort for the painfully inhibited. The other port-o-let is deposited in a scenic spot down a winding path, well out of view and hearing. A sort of ticket system guarantees undisturbed visits, and a hand-wash station made of a bucket, foot-pump and camp-suds keeps things clean. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more picturesque bathroom—sage brush all around, and the river rushes past only a few paces away.
In the late afternoon, well before dark, the process plays out in reverse. We pull up to an inviting shore, form a fire line and unload. A land rush ensues as we stake out our chosen camp sites—not too far and not too close from and to kitchen and toilets and river, free of ants, and maybe with a little privacy. Then we are off on a guided hike into scenic side-canyons. Appetizers await when we get back, and the evening’s dinner roasts on the grill.
But before we eat, we head to the river with towels and Camp Suds. We’ve spent a day in hundred-plus degrees. We’re grubby, sticky, sunburned. Taking a dip in sub-fifty degree water is no longer unthinkable. At first, the shrieks are ear-splitting, the submersions swift and violent. But by day three, we’re hardened pros and barely notice. By the time the dinner conch sounds, we’re dry, clean and all smiles.
We eat dinner in camp chairs, plates balanced on our laps, surrounded by natural splendor. Some enjoy beer and wine that’s been chilled in river water. There’s always dessert, usually an irresistible cake fresh from the camp oven, dripping with icing. While we enjoy the treats, the lead boatman gives us a briefing of what to expect the next day—the rapids, the challenges, the hikes. Stories are shared, too, first-hand experiences as well as tales read from the books by early explorers.
As darkness falls, many of us linger in groups, chatting, laughing, bonding. Conversation ranges from sports to politics, arts to travel, and, as the days pass, more personal matters. Our group is a diverse one, coming from all walks of life and places, and ranging in age from teenage to well past retirement. There’s a couple of newlyweds, a nurse, a hair dresser, a computer programmer, an event planner, and an entire family reunion from Tennessee. Even a celebrity gossip columnist. Someone has brought a guitar and strums a mellow tune. The newlyweds disappear to their discreetly hidden camp early.
These are people who might never have said more than a polite hello to each other up there above the rim in the so-called real world. Down here, our backgrounds don’t matter, our facades fall away. Tribe mentality emerges. In a profound, unspoken way, we all understand that in spite of all the comforts we have brought, we are far from civilization. We are now part of a world that measures time in eons.
And all we have…is each other.