I had initially set my sights on rafting the Colorado River in Grand Canyon back when I first saw it from the South Rim 15 years ago when we visited the Canyon with the kids on our “out west” RV trip. A thin ribbon snaking along the bottom of the Canyon, it inspired me to set a goal of rafting its length when I turned 50. But it was not to be: the full trip takes 2 wks, Lee doesn’t like rafting, and it was hard to justify spending half of our annual vacation time on separate trips.
So Gap Year seemed like the perfect opportunity to change all that! Knowing that we’d otherwise be spending the majority of 52 wks together, I realized that this would be a perfect time for the two of us to part ways for a few weeks, give the poor guy a break, and get ‘er done! So with the help of a good friend who had already researched the rafting companies (thanks Anne!), I signed up last April with Arizona Rafting Adventures (AZRA) for a 2 wk paddling trip this April, happily enlisted several of my Maine paddling buddies, packed the sunscreen, and set off for Flagstaff – and one of the most amazing adventures of my life!
To say it was an an incredible trip is most definitely an understatement. I’ve struggled to find ways to describe the trip, knowing that both my words and photos really cannot do justice to the Canyon and its magic. But such is my task, so I’ll give it a try…
As I thought about how to describe my experience, the image of “gift” came up often for me, along with an immense feeling of gratitude. I’ll start with my gratitude for the gift of the spectacular, incredible, breathlessly beautiful and sacred Canyon, with its ever-changing colors, soaring walls, blue green river, pure blue skies, and starlit nights.
I’m grateful for the gift of time and space to do the trip. I appreciate Lee’s willingness to recognize our differences, and spring me for the two weeks. I was initially (and admittedly) a little anxious about spending a full two weeks deep in the Canyon, totally away from family, cell phone, web, email, texting, Google (!), news and media, and all external contact – realizing it would be the longest period for any of those since the internet was invented! Happily it didn’t take long to get accustomed and accept the gift of pure and unadulterated space of this place, setting into the rhythm of the days free from cyber- and other distractions.
In addition to sheer grandeur and beauty of the Canyon, I was grateful that my 57 year old body still had the physical ability to do the trip – from paddling both the rapids and the quiet waters…
…to doing the many hikes up the Canyon peaks and into side canyons, scrambling up rock walls, over ledges…
… to jumping through waterfalls and pools, and even swimming a few rapids (on purpose!).
I likewise appreciated the ability to get through the daily routine of lugging our camp gear in and out of the boats daily, up sandy beaches and rocky ledges to set up our camp sites.
I’m particularly grateful for withstanding the challenges of sleeping on the ground for 13 nights running, including one night at “Dutch Oven” where we slept on rock ledges above (but at least felt perilously close to) the river’s edge.
I’m grateful for the gift of friendship, both with my Maine friends (long-time fellow paddlers Patricia H, Sue T, & Margaret W, as well as new Maine paddlers, Rebecca H & Nancy E)…
… as well as so many new friends in our group of 20. Not surprisingly, the rest of the group was overwhelmingly made up of folks from other northern climate who didn’t relish the idea of paddling in the summer heat of the Canyon, including an extended family from Alaska and several from Colorado.
I’m grateful for the gift of amazingly skilled, experienced, and entertaining AZRA rafting guides: Kevin, Ed, Brad, Joy, Steve, Kelly, and Cam. They were unarguably some of the most professional, mature, and supportive people I’ve ever encountered, generously sharing their immense knowledge of the history, geography, and lore of the Canyon, while managing to keep all 20 of us safe through a steady series of physical challenges over the two weeks, and having plenty of fun every day.
I’m grateful for the power, grace, and beauty of the Colorado River. Paddling its 226 miles in the Canyon, running between Lee’s Ferry and Diamond Creek, gave us the opportunity to see the river from many angles, from calm mornings and early light, to surprisingly strong winds many afternoons…
…from quiet waters to the rightly-famed series of the famous Canyon rapids – Hance, Sockdolager, Hermit, Upset, “the Jewels”, and many more, all leading up to the legendary and powerfully boat-drenching Lava Falls (and in the case of at least one boat, oar splitting!). That said, I’ll confess that my inability to shoot pictures while getting through a rapid admittedly means the photos don’t do justice to the rapids!
In addition to their river prowess, I’m grateful for the AZRA staff’s incredible cooking for two weeks, somehow managing to bring out a steady stream of fresh food out of their enormous coolers and putting together fantastically fresh and varied meals for 14 days straight – including dinners ranging from fresh salmon to beef stroganoff; hot breakfasts from egg souffle to orange zest French Toast; and extravagant desserts from peach cobbler to 3 Dutch overn perfectly-baked birthday cakes perfectly baked (who does that?!).
I’m grateful for the gift of flowering plants in the April dessert, blossoming exuberantly thanks to heavy spring runoffs following a good snow year in the west…
… and for the many herons, hawks, sparrows, ducks, kingfishers, and even the occasional peregrine falcon that kept us company in our trek down the Canyon, including the unbelievable sight of a flock of white pelicans riding the high thermals on one of our last days on the river (sadly, no pics of that!).
I’m grateful for the many opportunities we had to take a break from paddling and hike up into the many side canyons, exploring streams, waterfalls, caves, petroglyphs, and even the occasional jumping hole, including a hike into Havasu Creek that brought back many fond memories of our family trip down to the Havasupai reservation 15 years ago.
I’m thankful for the guides’ encouragement to take off my watch and settle into the easy rhythm of the days, starting with the soft call for morning coffee at early light, to a predictably incredible shot of “cowboy coffee” with breakfast, to the routine of packing up camp, including the daily battle with getting the sleeping bags into dry bags, taking down tents (including the obligatory emptying of sand), arranging and rearranging the content of our “blue” and “white” bags (at least until we figured out we really could wear the same thing every day), and loading the boats.
I’m grateful for Ed’s calm leadership as Trip Leader, pulling out the oversized Canyon map each morning and mapping out the plan for the day (or at least, “Plan A, fully subject to change”), followed by the daily call for paddlers, and the process of getting 20 variously experienced passengers safely into their boats before settling into rhythm of paddling the targeted miles for the day.
I’m grateful for the break in activity at day’s end, from the welcomed landing of the boats, to the exuberant search for choice camp sites for the night (affectionately known as the nightly “land grab”), to the relay lines to off-load the boats, to the soon-familiar set up of camp and tents. I’m grateful for the quiet routines of evening, to dinner prep with the requisite daily happy hour on the beach, leading to yet another amazing dinner, followed by the sun’s dramatic departure over the canyon walls, bringing a quick cool down of evening air.
I’m grateful for the evenings that ranged from quiet dinners and comfortable conversations, to cozy campfires with legendary river rafting tales, to rowdy birthday celebrations and silly “dress up” night.
We were all grateful (and eager!) for the nightly fall of darkness, as it set the stage for the welcome retreat to bedtime, quickly finding our headlamps and pretending to read for a respectable period of time (usually 10 minutes of less) before sliding into our sleeping bags and slipping off into sleep – or alternatively welcoming the endless opportunities for star-gazing before sleep comes.
In closing (and with apologies to you patient blog-readers that I may have got carried away with this one), I’m grateful for the gift of being able to experience the awe-inspiring, ancient, unique, and humbling beauty of this sacred place – while I still can.
(and after two weeks… I’m hoping Lee may even miss me by now!)