The party in the Grand Canyon started in the parking lot of Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe even before we left Bend. The group of nine of us gathered on the grasses near Geoff Frank's large passenger van, sharing beers and stacking gear and kayaks on top of the roof. Although we had a fourteen-hour drive ahead of us that Saturday night in late September, our spirits were soaring with anticipation of three weeks of rafting on the Colorado River.
Permits to run the Colorado are not easy to come by. I've heard stories of some rafters waiting 15 years to take their dream trip. Our trip leader, Kevin Carolan, was able to obtain one after being entered into a series of lotteries for cancelled permits. Luckily, when his number came up, it was for one of the nicest times of the year to be on the river: October in Arizona is not too hot, yet there is still enough evening sun to make dinner every night at camp.
We met up with the rest of our group at the put-in at Lee's Ferry in Arizona the following Sunday afternoon. An hour later, a Mack truck arrived with all of our rafts, gear and food provided by PRO (Professional River Outfitters). Although many people on the trip were raft guides and had access to boats, PRO's Sotar's were both longer and wider than most rafts, providing more stability through large rapids and allowing enough storage space for all the food and beer we needed for 21 days in the wilderness. PRO also shopped and packed all of our meals - a project that could have easily turned into a full-time job the week before departure.
Avid river runners Mark Schang and Karl & Jo Ann Koenig planned our itinerary and their experience combined with our extra days out on the river allowed for some amazing hikes and layover days.
One of our most memorable excursions was at Tabernacle, seventy-five miles into the trip. A few hours before we pulled into our camp just above Nevills Rapid, it began pouring rain and did not let up for nearly 48 hours. Geoff had brought a giant community tent that we erected as soon as we got to camp and proceeded to huddle under for the next two days as lightning and thunder boomed all around us in forty-five minute waves. A few of us from camp decided to brave the hike despite the extreme conditions, and once we reached the top of the Tabernacle, Chelsea Johnson reported that lightening struck so close, her hair stood on end from the electricity in the air.
The storm caused large chunks of rock on the opposite side of the canyon to explode into the water below, which we watched in awe like a fireworks display. Double rainbows appeared all around us, and from above we saw the river turn the color of deep opaque copper. Back at camp, many of our tents were almost washed into the river as newly formed creeks carved through the sandy beach.
Lucky for us, during the next few days we would run our biggest and most consecutive whitewater sections of the whole trip in the bright sun. The storm caused the river to rise by at least 5,000 CFS (cubic feet per second), which is roughly the equivalent of the entire Deschutes River where it meets the Columbia. The resulting conditions increased the intensity of Horn Creek, Granite and Hermit Rapids, all of which were already classified as Class 8s using the 1 - 10 scale for Western big-water rivers.
We were also fortunate to have no flips on the trip, and only one swimmer and one injury. There were two deaths on the canyon during the period we were out there and two tourists on the south rim were struck by lightning twice during the storms.
As with most river trips, it is always the memories of the people that stay with me long after visions of the scenery fade away. Living and working and playing with the same fifteen people for three weeks can be intense, but eventually camping and boating feels more like a lifestyle, and the crew you are with feels more like family. My reminiscing will always be punctuated by our nights around the fire singing songs, laughing faces illuminated by flames, my thoughts drifting from stormy to placid.