Toil and Danger
Our third day on the river promises the biggest, most dangerous rapids of the entire trip. But that morning only the guides know what we’re really in for. The rest of us are busy settling into the routine of camp life. There’s the conch horn and shout of “Coffee is ready!” and the reluctant stirring of people in their warm bedroll nests. Soon someone heads down the path into the bush, a steaming mug in one hand, the toilet ticket—a cushion emblazoned with the words “Help Me”—swinging from the other. Other campers squat or stand thoughtfully by the rushing water for a moment. Some fastidious souls already scrub at their teeth, organize their gear or sort through laundry drying in the bushes. In the camp kitchen by the tied-up rafts, the crew is busy mixing massive amounts of pancake batter and cracking dozens of eggs.
The wildest string of rapids on the river are preceded by a deceptively calm and aptly named Furnace Flats. Prepped for a frigid deluge in our rain gear, we roast unhappily across this wide section of canyon where there is no hiding from the desert sun. We keep cool by dunking hats in buckets of river water, even pouring the stuff down our backs. Some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded on the continent have happened right here. I’m convinced one of them is happening right now.
Once we pass the confluence of the Little Colorado river, we have entered the Grand Canyon proper. The water gets muddier, the challenges more serious. Our captain reads us a quote from the Powell Report by John Wesley Powell, the original western explorer of the Grand Canyon. While eyeing the same walls that now rise around us, he said:
August 5, 1869 – “With some feeling of anxiety we enter a new canyon this morning. We have learned to observe closely the texture of the rock. In softer strata we have a quiet river, in harder we find rapids and falls. Below us are the limestones and hard sandstones which we found in Cataract Canyon. This bodes toil and danger.”
The four largest rapids of the Grand Canyon lie before us, ferocious one and all, but none more so than Hermit. This is a steep drop of water falling away smooth as giant jade sheets of silk in a breeze, followed by the ricocheting waves of its power against the granite floor. From there, the cold water builds and builds, rearing into nine tremendous waves.
The first four build slowly, and we crash through swiftly. The fifth towers 20 furious feet above us, swallows us whole, bends the boat into thirds and spits us back out. We’re sluicing water like a breaching whale of blue rubber with human-shaped barnacles.
Waves six and seven are gentler and deceptive, for to relax now is to fall victim to the mighty power of eight which makes five look downright tame. There is barely enough time to catch a breath before nine rolls over us with the final, raging fury of water that for an instant turns the 37 foot raft into a submarine.
We move through it all with by-now-practiced ease, gripping and bending to the commands of our guide’s shouted commands as she counts out the waves and what we need to do to get through them, blow by blow. Gloved fingers claw at ropes and straps as bodies go airborne and butts get slammed. We emerge screaming with triumph born of terror, pumping our fists into the face of the fate we defied.
Crystal rapids is our last serious challenge of the day. It’s a class 10 maelstrom of water that foams and rears, building into glittering walls that leap out of the depths like giddy children jumping from corners. Fingers of water reach for flotsam and rafts as though grasping for balls and toys.
This might have been intimidating just an hour ago. Now, after Hermit, we boogie through this watery fun house, laughing all the way. We’re old pros now. We’re taking what the canyon is dishing out, and we’re surviving to tell the tale.
Not only that, we’re also surviving the less-than-ideal camp site we’re stuck with just past the comparatively tame Tuna rapids. While it looks blissful at first glance, we quickly comprehend its greatest flaw. There is only one place where the shore is sandy and that is fully occupied by the rafts bobbing in the rapid’s backwash. The rest of the shoreline is cluttered with treacherous rocks, often loose or slick or both, lying in wait to snare a shoe, an ankle, a sense of balance. It’s absolutely not the sort of shore one wants to bathe on or, worse, relieve oneself at in the middle of a dark night.
But somehow we manage this, too. And that night, with my camp site efficiently organized, clothes hung up to dry, and layers tucked beneath my pillow, a curious thought crosses my mind.
I am capable of adapting to far more than I ever imagined. I might even be turning into a creature of this untamed place. Maybe I always have been. And while I may have been a wimp going into this adventure, I definitely won’t be one coming out.
Some truly stupendous video shot over the rapids mentioned herein…