Last month my husband and I rafted through the Grand Canyon -- a grueling, gripping, six-day, 188-mile wild ride through some of the biggest rapids and most spectacular scenery in North America. This kind of "Wahoo!" trip isn't for everyone, but it had been on my list for years.
"This is not Disneyland"
As we gathered at Marble Canyon on the morning of launch, we were warned that our bodies would be working hard on the river. "Eat and drink, eat and drink," became our mantra.
As if to prove the point, one of our companions -- a very fit fellow who was a part-time lifeguard -- became ill with heat stroke and dehydration and almost had to be med-evac'ed out. His illness merely reinforced what our Arizona River Runners trip leader told us repeatedly -- this is not a theme park. People do get injured here. People die here. With daytime temperatures on the canyon floor well over 100, his point was well taken. And no one ever has to remind me to eat.
In addition, wilderness rules would be in effect. We would pee in the river. We would carry in everything needed for the entire trip. And carry out everything -- ashes from the barbecue, paper trash, unused food, empty cans and bottles, human waste.
Most days began shortly after 5 a.m. with "Hot coffee!" being yelled down the canyon. We ladled cowboy coffee out of a steaming cauldron and poured it through a strainer. We then had about an hour to get our gear and ourselves together before breakfast. We launched about 7 a.m.
"Will we need our rain gear?"
Because we were getting drenched with frigid water several times an hour in rapids, full rain-suits were required equipment. We'd stop once or twice during the day for a hike, a swim or lunch. We swam in the turquoise water of the Little Colorado River and Havasu Creek. We cooled ourselves under the falls at Deer Creek.
"It's only half a mile"
Hiking in the Grand Canyon means going up the side canyons or up the canyon walls themselves -- "up" being the operative word. Our young guides sprinted in flip-flops. I wore sensible shoes and crawled on all fours. Sweating and gasping my way up to the Nankoweap Granaries and to Saddle Creek Falls, I was determined to do every hike, but at my own pace. After thousands of years, the granaries and falls would still be there when I arrived.
"I hate camping in sand"
In mid-to-late afternoon, we'd pull into a clean sandy beach. Happy hour would begin when our gear was off the rafts. We'd set up our own little campsites and perhaps risk a bath and a brain-freezing shampoo in the 48-degree river before supper.
Every night brought its own challenges. With temperatures only cooling down into the 90s, just getting to sleep took effort. Some folks wrapped themselves in a bed sheet they'd soaked in river water, creating a personal evaporative cooler. Too hot to sleep inside tents, we weathered blowing sand and almost welcomed the raindrops brought by passing storm cells. And being a natural environment, ants and scorpions live there too. They even held a buffet on my backside one night. The bites have nearly healed.
Although I've been camping my whole life, this was the roughest camping I've ever done. The heat and exhaustion sometimes made even a trip to the open-air latrine seem like work. I was glad to have professionals there to drive the boat, feed me, and make sure I didn't get hurt. I never would have taken this trip without them. Never.
"To paddle or not to paddle -- it's still your choice."
The variety of river-craft and tour options surprised me -- from paddling your own kayak or raft, to a full-service motorized raft trip like ours, and everything in between. However, the future of those choices is in question. Some people believe only non-commercial rafters should be allowed on the river.
Sadly, this would eliminate most of us, as we have neither the equipment nor the expertise necessary to make such a potentially dangerous trip. Commercial, licensed rafters provide a relatively safe and environmentally conscious adventure. The National Park Service is taking public comment on the Colorado River Management Plan until Sept. 15. Just go to www.nps.gov/grca/crmp to learn more.
Did I have fun? Was it worth it? You bet! And in spite of the at times mind-numbing fatigue, I felt a profound sense of appreciation and accomplishment. And I came away with two important lessons from our boatmen that I think work well both on and off the river: "Face the danger" and "Power out of trouble." Words to live by, I'd say.
Lorie Schaefer is a reading specialist at Seeliger School.