A typical day rafting down the Grand Canyon with Western River Expeditions starts at the first hint of dawn when the guides start warming up the camp kitchen. The sound of pots and pans rattling around is the first indication of a human presence after a long night of the sort of darkness modern people rarely see anymore.
Soon the lumpy sleeping bags begin to stir in their cots and the charcoal cliffs re-ignite with blood-red sun fire. The furnace that is the canyon of the daytime churns back to life.
A conch shell serves as the camp signaling system. The sound of the shell at different times of the day indicate different events in the camp kitchen—coffee, breakfast, appetizers, dinner. In most cases, it is the honk signaling coffee that rousts people out of their sleeping bags. Plastic mugs in hand, they appear, wrapped in whatever fleecy layers they acquired during the night. Sometime around midnight, when the walls were finally done radiating heat, the air temperature plunged by 30 degrees.
The coffee—aka “rocket brew” for its effects on the digestive system—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. Also cold water. Fresh out of the pot, this coffee is a whole new definition of hot.
While we revive with our mugs at the water’s edge or in a camp chair or even back in our cots, the guides are busy preparing a breakfast fit for kings—eggs and bacon, fruit, fresh muffins, pancakes, and even pork chops. All delicious calories that will be put to good use in short order.
Our first full day rafting in the canyon is a “cold day”, not because of the early morning nip in the air, but because we spend most of it the running the rapids of the Roaring Twenties. This is a ten mile stretch of river that is almost non-stop rapids and represents the first true test of the all the practice drills from the day before. With gloved fingers, we grip the thick ropes on command, one hand in front, one behind or one to either side.
Those sitting on the pontoons at the front of the raft lean forward, riding the giant blue tubes like bucking broncos through virtual washing machines of icy water. The more reticent among us roost on the side or back of the rafts in areas appropriately called the chicken coops. There they can expect to remain relatively high and dry. At least today.
I opt for a spot in-between on the cooler’s where the view is superb and the risk of getting completely soaked is small. Nevertheless, I’m ever-so-grateful for my rain gear. The splashes are many and chilling, but most of me remains dry. The canyon engulfs us in its peculiar mix of fire and ice. The water still runs green-clear and frigid; the sun shines white-hot and blistering.
When we don’t battle wild water, we are mesmerized by the magical sights awaiting us around every turn. One of these is Redwall Cavern. Here, in a sharp bend of the river, rushing water has carved an enormous amphitheater out of solid rock. Thousands could comfortably fit onto its powder-soft sand slopes. But only the handful of us spread out in it. We feel the size of ants. The place swallows us up as we eat lunch, rest, explore, have fun. Frisbees appear and fly high through the cool shade, seemingly carried by laughter.
The young men enter into a friendly competition with the guides to see how far they can climb the back wall before gravity gets the better of them and they plop back to the ground in a cloud of dusty sand. And some of us poke at the far edges of the cavern for whatever mysteries the river has chosen to leave there.
Camp tonight is a gorgeous spot called Owl Eyes, so named for the two huge, round hollows visible in a distant cliff. The beach is wide and sandy and dotted with a multitude of private camp sites among the boulders and sage. A narrow desert trail leads through a sea of cacti to a slender ribbon of creek where tadpoles twitch by the hundreds and frogs the color of sand merge with the rock in the afternoon swelter. The beauty all around is stark, pure and overwhelming. I drink it in with every breath.
That night I make it to my cot before full dark and watch as the wandering light bubbles of my camp mates settle down. A chorus of “What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor” fades away as well, and the woman who has found some unwelcome creature slinking past her cot has regained her composure. A shadow play commences on the cliff face across the river, the canyon version of a movie. I try to follow the action from my sleeping bag, but then the sound of the river overtakes me and carries me off to sleep.