Posts Tagged Grand Canyon
Packing, as it turned out, meant getting together two sets of stuff at first. The first set going with Fred and the second set going with us.
Most of our gear was going with Fred. God love him, the man was driving his truck all the way to Arizona carrying his boat and camping gear, and, naturally, Kathy and her gear. Not so naturally, he was carrying all my gear, Mike’s gear and Jason’s gear. He may have even had some of David’s gear in there. I should point out here that ‘gear’ is a tiny and inadequate word for a big honking pile of crap. First, boats. Say it. “Boats”- another short word. But when you try to strap five of them to the top of a pickup truck, even one like Fred’s- one of those extended cab things with the big fiberglass topper on it- you start to wonder if their combined weight and complicated, conflicting aerodynamics will prevent the truck from going much of anyplace. More likely, you think, it’ll swing side to side in the breeze or even try to leave the ground. The whole arrangement would have put an aeronautic engineer into fits.
As a side note here, I’d like to point out that the number of straps used to hold five assorted sized and shaped boats to a truck rigged for a long trip becomes, if you’re not in charge of the strapping, entertaining to see. First and foremost, the straps have to hold the boats on the truck. Simple. An alarming thing to note is that when I say ‘truck’, I actually mean ‘the racks attached to the aftermarket fiberglass topper’. And when I say ‘the racks attached to the aftermarket fiberglass topper’ I mean a set of top-of-the-line Yakima racks. The racks themselves have seen a lot of service over Fred’s long and storied paddling career. They look good and sturdy. It’s the points at which the racks are attached to the topper that might worry you. Rather, it’s the sunburnt duct tape that’s wrapped around them that’s worrying. You can’t help but wonder what problem the tape is meant to overcome or obscure. Fred, after having been asked what the hell’s with the duct tape, tells us not to worry. He doesn’t say “It’s just to make sure the something-or-other doesn’t do this-or-that.” He just says not to worry. Fine. We’ll use extra straps, we silently agree. If one boat comes off this setup, they’re all coming off in a big lump- if they come sailing off the roof of the truck, there won’t be any missing it- or maybe not any missing the car just behind.
After making sure that the straps will hold the boats to the truck (and to each other) you must make sure that none of the straps will squash or abrade any critical part of the boats on this long and possibly (probably very) windy ride. Pull too tight, and somebody’s deck will finish the trip looking sort of wonky. Mike found that one strap was putting some odd tension on the cockpit of the Mamba. Not wanting to arrive at the end of the drive to find out that the cockpit would no longer make a watertight fit with it’s skirt, we start fine-tuning straps. Eventually, after tinkering with tension and location of straps, we just stuck an extra piece of closed-cell foam between the strap and the cockpit. It was Art.
The next thing is totally absurd and counter-intutive. You check the straps for ‘twist’. Normal brains, examining the arrangement, might assume that you’d want all the straps to lie flat and sleek on the boats and racks, and stretch neatly across the open spaces. Anal-retentive people might spend a great deal of time making sure that everything looks just that tidy. Those people would then get in the truck, drive away, and lose their minds. You see- neat, flat straps hum. They hum the same way that, say, a Cessna hums as it follows just above your truck for hundreds of miles desperately trying to land on it. If you let it get to you, the humming will actually make you to stop your truck on a busy interstate while shouting uncouth oaths, order everyone out of the back seat –traffic be damned– to put untidy, ugly, mercifully quiet twists into the straps. The final effect is that you allowed chimpanzees to tie boats to your vehicle, but in fact they were clever chimpanzees who, apparently, wanted a quiet nap in the back seat during the trip.
Then there are the paddles, which are at least lightweight and not prone to add to the wind resistance of the vehicle the way that five kayaks on the roof will do. No, the paddles are just a problem because of their length and uncanny ability to fit in the back of the truck until the very last second when they leap into the closing gap of the topper door and make a sickly crunching noise. Broken paddles are not much use on rivers. Broken topper doors are not much use on long trips when your truck is filled with giant, waterproof, expensive duffle bags. If you have ever tried to maneuver an armload of various kinds of rakes through a freshly painted room, then you understand how irritating handling lots of kayak paddles can be.
The dufflebags of choice were NRS Bill’s Bags. They are marvelous things if you want to make an extended journey in wet or disgusting places but you don’t want your stuff to get wet and disgusting. A Bill’s Bag (Named for Bill Parks of NRS) is a large waterproof duffle with a flat bottom and a top that rolls down then straps tight. It has backpack straps and handles on it, too. I think everyone on the trip had at least one. NRS made plenty of money off our expedition. By the time we were on the water, we looked like an advertisement for NRS, sporting the numbers of their logos we had. We’ll return to that point later, because… well, you’ll see. Just remember- NRS, Bill’s Bag, and the number of logos.
Now we’re all packed up. Fred and Kathy and our stuff are going on ahead. Jason, Mike and I are following along in Mike’s wife’s car. It’s one of those stylish HHR things, with low profile windows and sort of retro design features to its exterior. We’re going to do the whole drive to Flagstaff in one go. Haul ass, as it were. Straight through, boys! We had the drive figured at something like twenty hours, so we were going to start early one day and arrive even earlier the next. Good plan, right?
And the directions were easy. 1) Get on interstate 40, going west. 2) Stop 1378 miles later when you get to Flagstaff.
That is, let’s roll the next time I update this story. See you then.
I never made it to the Ocoee with the ancient boat. The Ocoee was a river I was perfectly happy in. Even on a bad day, I knew what to watch out for and where I could fudge the run. I’ve been nearly drowned there, and I’ve done some of my most controlled paddling there, and everything…EVERYTHING… in between.
So, I wasn’t going to learn anything there about paddling unfamiliar water in my long, obsolete creekboat. I’ll say now that it was a Savage Gravity. Savage was the brand name- and it wasn’t the only Savage boat I ever owned, just my least favorite. The model was called ‘Gravity’. It was a pumped-up version of their whitewater playboat, the Scorpion.
I don’t recall how I got it, to tell you the truth. I did a couple of deals here and there over the years for boats- some Dagger work in trade for one of their canoes, for instance; and I recall having worked on some Tshirt designs for Savage, though I don’t remember how the deals came about, and I don’t remember any of the shirts ever being produced. Also, there may have been some logo work done with Mike that went haywire. Anyhow, back then I was young, the economy was booming for advertising illustrators like me, and I didn’t yet have kids… so I had the time AND money to collect boats and weird stories about how they’d been got.
To get on unfamiliar water, I went to a river called the Cheoah with Mike, taking only the old creekboat so that I’d have no choice but to paddle it. I should have taken my reluctance to paddle the thing as a subconscious prompting that I just wasn’t happy with it. It nagged at the back of my mind all the way to the river. The Cheoah is one of Mike’s favorite rivers now. It was opened to recreational kayakers only a couple of years ago after its bed had been dry for decades. Mike was very complimentary about the run, and got me excited at the idea too, finally.
So. The Cheoah. It’s not the smooth, wide run of the Ocoee. The rocks in it are sharp and formidable. There’s a waterfall. It’s not Western Whitewater, like the Grand Canyon would be, but it wasn’t what I was used to, so it would serve a good purpose. Before we go farther, I should point out that the purpose it would serve would be to unman me, make me worry that I’d die either on the Cheoah, or in the Grand Canyon, and lead me to do something that would make Mike really, really mad at me. Looking back, I can’t decide how bad an idea it was; whether it was a truly horrible idea, or just a crappy idea that was just what I needed anyhow.
Fred and Kathy joined us for the run, and so did Drew Armstrong, one of the most amazingly competent men I ever hope to meet. He once pronounced that he knew of a dozen or so ways to start a fire without matches or a lighter, then went on to demonstrate six or seven, even allowing the rest of us to give it an unsuccessful shot. You’d think that the fun and camaraderie would calm my nerves about my old creekboat. Nah.
This old boat was long and straight, tippy side to side, and made to keep your knees low for a sleek profile. It was awful. It was so old, and the intervening years had seen boats with higher knee placement, much more volume, and shorter length come into style. The new boats were much more stable and yet easy to turn.
For a forty two year old like me, the low knees placements were murderous. In fact, I suppose they turned out slightly less than murderous, because I lived.
The run was a cramped, uncomfortable, unstable mess from the beginning. This thing was fast in a straight run, but there’s very little room for that on the Cheoah. What there is room for is ducking and dodging between things and sprints to nearby eddies where the length of the boat worked against me badly. I brought the boat to see if it was the sort of thing I could sit in for sixteen straight days out West. I discovered that I couldn’t sit comfortably in it for a single run down a new river.
The discomfort of the boat and my estrangement from kayaking resulted in panic upstream of the waterfall. The waterfall has a tricky lead-up to it, too. That didn’t help. Nor did the fact that I had to be lead down some sneak routes coming into the waterfall area. When I finally worked and sweated my way to the set up point, I guess I felt I had a handle on things. You were supposed to run toward the fall, aiming at a jutting rock. The water rushed across the rock and would sweep you to the right as you dropped over. That’s not as tricky as it sounds, and I could visualize it. Of course, I can visualize flapping my arms and flying around, too. I ran at the rock and instead of shooting nearly straight over it, pushed only slightly to the right by the force of water, I shot sideways to the right and plunged down where I didn’t want to be. I landed badly, fought for control, and lost it. I’d flipped the boat, panicked, bailed out, and swam for shore before good sense kicked in.
A lot of other people worked very hard to retrieve my boat for me. I lost a new water bottle, lost my pride and lost every bit of self-confidence I had. That was probably a good thing. I had become pretty complacent about the Grand Canyon run. Old memories of competence on unfamiliar water led me to think I could weather whatever I needed to. Not so. I vowed not to take my old creek boat, even though the cost of a new boat was out of my reach and I was so out of touch with kayaking that I had no idea what boat might suit me anyway.
Mike, as usual, came to the rescue. He loaned me a wonderful Dagger brand boat called a Mamba. I wanted to get back on the Cheoah and shake the fear I had of it now. So the next day I ran it in the Mamba, not entirely upright, but always in the boat. Rolling the Mamba the next day above a narrow run, I felt some control return. I was thinking while I was upside down, not just panicking. I rolled the boat and went on. That was what I needed: to learn that I could panic, and to learn that I could keep from panicking. My choice. I wasn’t ready to run off to the Grand Canyon, but it was as close as I was going to get.
Mike wanted to borrow the Savage Scorpion for a race during Memphis In May. I was glad to agree. In a fit of pique at the miserable, awful boat, though, I went ahead and listed it on Craigslist. I figured it would take a month or two to sell and by that time Mike would have raced it and that’d be that. It sold within hours. And another boat I had. Mike was rightly ticked off. I’d agreed to loan him the boat and then sold it. In my defense, I can’t think that Mike would have done very well with it. It was a wretched thing altogether. After letting me know I’d been a thoughtless (insert favorite rude name here) Mike forgave me, and I gave him the money from my two boat sales for the Dagger Mamba he’d loaned me on the Cheoah. I should have charged more for the boats… obviously they sold too quickly to be priced well, and if I’d gotten more money for them I could have afforded a camera to take on the trip with me. But I was now out of discretionary funds and it was time to pack.
Holiday photos are great, am I right? There you are, looking at your past self and recalling the good times and thinking “Who the hell is about to jump through that waterfall and tackle me into the freezing water?” Lovely.
This was taken on a kayak/raft trip down the Grand Canyon. I’m above Lava.
It was Mike, by the way. Splash!
I mentioned before that I might be invited along on this Grand Canyon trip because, it being a desert, there’s no TV there. I’m good for a laugh now and again. I mean, I’m a cartoonist. I write humor for a living. I tell stories. I’d like to think that kind of thing has value. I can be counted on to bring out a totally unexpected quip from time to time, and thus add some humor into what might otherwise be a simple drowning.
My father makes regular motorcycle trips with a rotating roster of best buddies. He earned the title ‘A Veritable Outhouse of Information’ early in one of his first long trips. On such long trips, I imagine the other old guys are, at first, happy to have someone along that can offer up anecdotes, aphorisms and at least one interesting fact about whatever’s at hand. I fulfill a similar role when in crowds of people my own age.
Lacking the sort of filters that the normal person has, and having filled my days reading or listening to the sort of stuff that normal people skip over, I can now play a wicked game of Trivial Pursuit, or, returning to the point at last, take the place of a television set. True, I’m a TV tuned to that station that most Nielson Families lie about preferring when recording their preferences, and my on/off knob was torn off and rolled under a sofa years ago. After a week in the canyon, though, I figure I’ll be as welcome as any three random TV commercials.
So now you know why I’m being packed along, we can return to what I’m gonna pack myownself.
I have three kayaks. One of them is for paddling down creeks, one is a tricky little boat for playing in holes and waves, and the other is a more extreme version of the play boat. And they’re all old. Really old. If they were cars, they’d be old enough to kiss goodbye and hand over to your sixteen year old who just earned her driver’s license.
Now, I had to figure out which one of these old boats to take. The idea is that you need a boat that is swift enough that you don’t struggle when trying to paddle flatter water, and big enough that the rapids won’t treat it like a tub toy. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re paddling a kayak with a low, flat stern. That’ll be fine for rivers in the Southeast, where you want to slew around and let that stern slice into a wave. The wave will force the boat to stand on its stern, and you get an entertainingly daring ride out of it. That same stern, if it suddenly has some Western water poured onto it, might leave you staring at the sky at just the time when you’d rather be getting a good look at the crashing, surging, pounding rapid in front of you. Clearly, which boat I was going to carry to the Canyon would take some thought.
Firstly, I went to CreekWeek. CreekWeek is a function of the non-club we paddled with. Once a year, the non-club (there are no officers, no dues, and no weird power structures, just the normal organic societal power structures you get when a BUNCH of alpha personalities hang out together.) meets at a particular state park that’s reasonably close to several rivers and creeks. Recall, also, that we’re mostly from Memphis, where ‘reasonably close’ is measured in hours of drive time.
We set up in ‘the group camp’- a large central building with an industrial kitchen and dining hall en suite surrounded by eight bunkhouses that’ll sleep three dozen people each in a pinch. Groups of people sort of form and disperse, coagulate and shift- like the goop in a lava lamp, or ants in a panic. Finally, these groups decide who they are in a sort of last minute mob rule and head out to paddle rivers and creeks. This year, I spent my Saturday with a group on Clear Creek in a kayak called an RPM (‘Revolutions Per Minute’… the boat is built to spin around on waves.) made by Dagger Boats. In its day, it was a radical design and much praised. Its day has gone by, and I was worried that mine has too.
I was very nervous. After a rapid or two, I realized that I was being too uptight and so I tried to relax. It helped. Old skills reappeared, and I paddled the entire river without injury or unintended exit from the boat. Still, it was a familiar old creek without the hazards that the Colorado River and its unknown perils would throw at me. So I figured that I should, if possible, try to get in another run on Sunday before I headed home. Maybe something totally unexpected.
Feeling like I knew enough to survive, I joined David, Fred, Kathy, and Elmore Holmes (A very extensively paddled boater. This is not, as far as I know, a commentary on his personal life.) on the Little Clear Creek (Not to be mistaken for the Clear Creek, as this one has the word ‘Little’ in its name.) on Sunday.
Supposedly, it was on the way home and supposedly would take us maybe an hour and a half. The guy who recommended the run was the same guy from whom we’d all taken swiftwater rescue classes. We should have known. He was probably looking for anecdotes to use in the next class. He threw us some useful information about the Little Clear rapids. We read the guidebook, and we set off.
Fred… can’t be trusted with GPS equipment, just so you know. We didn’t know, because we were less familiar with GPS use than he is. But it turns out that if you bookmark the wrong place as the ‘Put-in for the Little Clear Creek’ on Saturday, it’s still wrong on Sunday. Who knew?
The guidebook said that we should be able to do this run in 45 minutes with an expert guide along. We didn’t have an expert guide and (don’t try this at home, say the lawyers) we didn’t actually have anyone along who’d been on the creek before. Honestly, I can hardly stand to admit it. It sounds like we must have been brain damaged. We all knew Elmore to be a hugely accomplished paddler, and I suppose our own performances the day before, taken with the beauty of the day, the fresh air, and the large amounts of meat we’d had at dinner the night before combined like some kind of John Denver-grade natural high to make us think that we could make this run without consequence. And therein lies the problem. We did make the run without consequence.
It was wonderful. There were a couple of short falls at that level of water, and some sections that were dangerously overgrown with grasses and overhung with trees. We had some minor trouble in a couple of places. One place in particular stand out in memory. It was a hairpin bend in the creek, with a dropoff in the middle of it. Boats, once abandoned by their paddlers, tended to imitate swizzle sticks against the bank opposite the dropoff. That was a plus, as one alternate thing for the boats to do was to shoot off down the creek without their paddlers. Elmore and Fred negotiated those particular troubles, while David, Kathy and I risked twisted ankles by portaging our boats along the bank instead. There was much cussin’.
There was a LOT more to the run than the useful information our swiftwater rescue teacher had given us. In fact, I’d like to point out here that his quick recon of the run left off about halfway, at the bottom of the largest drop. Having spent an hour and a half getting to that drop, we naturally assumed that we were nearly done. When, an hour and a half after that, we finally rejoined the Clear Creek and, consequently, the take-out, it occurred to me that Swiftwater Teacher Jim had, in the broader scheme of things, lost the last seat on the Grand Canyon trip to… me.
Ah. He was, after all, trying merely to get me injured or killed so that the space would open up. I can’t blame him, but I can resent it like hell.
CreekWeek’s success allowed me to get very complacent about the big upcoming trip. I slacked on research and I slacked on getting a decent boat to paddle. I didn’t think I could spend all sixteen days in my RPM- it was a little uncomfortable for the two days of Creekweek. I had taken my ancient creekboat along to CreekWeek but hadn’t paddled it. I thought, since we’d all promised ourselves that we’d get to the Ocoee and put ourselves through some more paces, that I’d take my ancient creekboat THERE and try it out. I remembered, dimly, thinking it had, years earlier, gotten me down the Ocoee, not to mention the Gauley and the New River.
I supposed it’d be just the thing. It WOULDN’T be just the thing. And therein lies the next chapter.
“It’s difficult to know what to bung in when beginning a story”
When packing, you naturally come up with some questions, especially when packing for something people keep wanting to call “Once In A Lifetime”. For one thing, how much personal grooming equipment should you bring? For men, the answer might be “Not much.” If, however, there is even one woman on the trip, though, the dynamics take on an altogether more hygienic tone. You might not be in such a hurry to start a ‘whose nose hairs can become the most unruly in two weeks’ competition. Things like that just aren’t as amusing if one person “just doesn’t get it.” or “Throws up in her mouth when looking at you”. You might think that women could be included in the competition by letting them substitute her armpit hair or leg hair or whatever in place of nose hair.
If you are the sort of person who thinks this might work, you are likely also the sort of person who is baffled by his own serial divorces.
Packing for an extended river trip is tricky. Packing for an extended river trip in the Grand Canyon is made trickier by several details: You’re paddling on heart-stoppingly cold water. You’re paddling in the middle of one burning hot sonofabitch of a desert. That doesn’t even make sense, and yet you have to give it a shot.
In fact, you have no idea what you’re packing for. I, for one, had never done anything like this before, and what was necessary and what was frivolous was anyone’s guess. I try to personalize the generic list by guessing where my own failings will rise up to bite me… I should pack my vitamins, my glucosamine, lots and lots of antacids, more sunscreen than others might want. Heart medicine. That might grow in importance the three weeks I’m out of town.
Then I have to decide WHERE these things get packed. Where do they have to be for the drive there? Where will they have to be in camps? Where on the river? I have no idea, and therefore, must make guesses and pack with a broad latitude for moving things around, or as is a regular thing on my short trips- doing without at the most awkward times.
I can’t say that I was completely in the dark about what to pack. Along with the timetable for payments, we made lists based on Fred and Kathy’s advice. The list was the sorts of things that we needed- big floppy edged hats, sunblock, waterproof liquid bandage (superglue), aspirin, waterproof duffle bags… you get the idea. We’d gotten all that info at the meeting wherein we discussed the trip and handed off the first of three checks each to David LeMay- the totally lucky guy to whom we all now owe serious Karmic debt. The trip wasn’t going to be horrifically expensive, as far as the fees and food were concerned, but the total was broken down into three payments. We all quietly feared that someone would miss a payment somewhere, a deadline wouldn’t be met and the whole thing would fall apart.
There would be a second meeting, we were told, where we would have to carefully watch a 36 minute Park Service video about how to behave on the river, and we’d need to deliver another check. And we’d need to start packing.
Speaking of packing, this might be a good time to reinforce an important idea: The reason that I was brought along. Entertainment. I’m not kidding. You pack what you need. It will be pointed out, rather indelicately, that if some of us were smarter we would have packed along a member of the opposite sex. In fact, the way it was put was: “You want a woman, you gotta bring ‘er with ya.”
I’m not saying I was brought along to be someone’s party partner. I wasn’t brought for any vulgar reason.
I think I was brought along because there was no television in the canyon.
At some point early in your preparation for going to the Grand Canyon, you find yourself on YouTube.com. Turns out that everything that has happened for years is either on YouTube or is about to be. It’s insane. My father uses it to watch videos from heaven-knows-where of his favorite music. As his favorite music was written, performed, and saw its creators die long before there were music videos, much less computers, you have to wonder where the hell they’re getting these videos. I imagine that some were performances on obscure old TV shows being hosted by a Red Skeleton or somesuch. I admit to being baffled. At any rate, his own work now appears on YouTube. So the circle is now complete, we’ve all joined the Dark Side, and YouTube owns us and our kitty-cats that chase laser pointers.
So. Everything else being covered, YouTube, of course, has lots of video of whitewater rafts flipping over in a ‘hole’. A hole, as you probably know, is a spot in a river where you have:
1. A rock,
2. A steep decline in your feet above sea level, and
3. Water that momentarily and repeatedly smashes itself back upstream against the aforementioned rock.
If this sounds like the dumbest place in the world to put a boat filled with your food, dry clothes and the things that prevent you from being stung by scorpions in your sleep, then you’ll get no argument from me.
You know, it’s one thing to read about rafts flipping in holes. It’s another thing entirely to see video of someone’s boat flipping over in a hole. When you see it, you’re not seeing ‘it’. You’re seeing YOU. In your mind’s wide eye, it will not be that little video person, but yourself. You will, you know, be IN that boat when it does its drunken lurch to the upstream side. You will no longer be in that boat when the little video person is chucked out of that upended mess into the chocolate-milk-colored river. And as you watch the tiny little video person claw its way through the water, you remember the part about only having a few minutes to get out of the river before your body heat departs, leaving no forwarding address.
It’s best to take YouTube.com in small bites.
In the photo above you’ll see, at the top left, my old wetsuit boots. They were acquired for scuba diving. Tricky to get on, and meant to have flippers put on over them. They’re TIGHT. I tried using them for kayaking- it made sense, right? Wetsuit boots. Turns out that they slide around really badly on wet river rocks and you can (and I nearly did) crack your tailbone OFF wearing these things in a river.
No problem. I bought a new pair (next pair to the right) that had zippers! Zippers are good, as I was hurting myself trying to wriggle into those scuba boots. To keep the zippers from unzipping, they also have velcro straps. And •voila• they have felt bottoms that are amazingly good at letting you walk on slimy river rocks. Very nice. But the style quotient is so low as to open the wearer to public ridicule. I was young and my ego couldn’t take it. I got one of the first pair of Teva wethikers. They’re not pictured here as I ordered them online, and subsequently they didn’t fit well (there are advances that have been made and now getting a better fit is a high-tech thang on some websites like, I believe, Merril’s) Anyhow, they tore up my feet and they were early in wethiker technology and they came apart on my later.
The purple pair above were given to me by a buddy. He’d ordered them, they didn’t fit, he ordered something he liked better and I got the purple booties. I had to quit wearing them when all my gear wound up being purple at one point. Plus, these things were early in their manufacturer’s attempts at wetshoes, too. There were better choices.
The boats I was paddling at that time were getting smaller, too. (Savage Fury… anyone remember these boats? woo. Anklebuster. And I was part owner of a squirt boat.) so I started wearing neosocks, and just having to hobble on the stony ground. One pair had a sole of sorts. Number 5 above. They’re okay.
Then, of course, I broke down and joined the Sandal crowd. I mean, really… sandals are the original shoes after all. I got some nice ones, and found that the cheap ones would occasionally work out, but the more expensive, techy ones were probably worth the extra coin. There’s the pair I wore on the Grand Canyon, in the photo next to last.
The final pair of shoes I also got for the Canyon. They were some of the few pairs that fit me at the Outdoors Outlet store- my size is pretty common and they’re hard to find at outlet prices. I fear that these were in the Outlet store because they sold very poorly. Probably the only reason they haven’t come apart completely is that I don’t rely on them all the time.
I’ve mentioned another pair of wetshoes I used to have- those DID get used all the time. They were a pair of 5•10 Nemo shoes. Don’t go looking, they’re not still being made, despite being stylish enough (for wetshoes), cheap enough, well-wearing enough and dependable until the very very end. I proved that by wearing them hard and long until they actually disintegrated off my feet during a Whitewater Rescue Class- right after I’d been bragging that they were the thing I was most glad to have.
Soooooo… What do YOU like to wear when your feet have to be wet?
Things were coming together. It was time for the Memphis group to meet up and start making sure that we had our collective act together and our money paid- on time, so we didn’t lose our trip.
The money was for park fees, the rental of equipment from the outfitter, the purchase of food from the outfitter, supplies that the Idaho contingent would get and so on. At this point, I was still a little vague on some of the details. The outfitters name kept coming up, and it wasn’t made clear whether we’d arranged for a raft guide. Guides are the kind of people you hear about on these luxury commercial trips, the poor souls who do all the loading, unloading, making of food, and setting up of tents.
To me, this sounded like just the thing for a long river trip! You’ve read books or seen movies about climbing Everest, right? They’ve got Sherpas… Man, there’s nothing like taking people on your trip who are better fitted for, more skilled at and completely familiar with everything that you’ll go home and brag about having done. And I was told that we weren’t getting a Sherpa. “Damn!” I said, “You mean we have to dig our own toilets?” That’s when I was told that everything packed into the Grand Canyon is packed out again, no matter the form it takes during the trip. “Everything?” “Ev-er-y-thing.”
Ah. Poop. Clearly some reading needed to be done.
A little light reading
What do you do once you realize that you’ll be going to kayak or raft hundreds of miles on a furiously wild river in the gorge of a timelessly immense canyon? Well, whether you’ve been asked by a bunch of friends to go or whether you’ve contacted a commercial company or whether you’re one of the crazies that crops up in stories about people who can’t wait and sneak themselves onto the river, you buy a book. And you start spending time on the World Wide Web. Time on the WWW tends to spiral down into wasting a lot of time watching pixilated videos on YouTube.com, so let’s talk about books first. We’ll come back to the home movies of people getting smashed to a hash under their own rafts later.
First off, in the book store (I’m dating myself here, as most of you know that bookstores are disappearing fast.), you troll through the coffee table volumes featuring spectacular photos of Grand Canyon- exquisitely lit vistas of red cliffs blah, blah, blah… you’ll be seeing that stuff for yourself. Skip to the travel section and find things like ‘Travels With A Kayak’ by Whit Deschner. After reading Whit’s two chapters that involve the Grand Canyon, you decide that maybe you’ll check more carefully to see whether your travel books are factual and functional, or whether they’re filled with Whit’s wit- which will give you a sense of how monotonous the naming of Canyon campgrounds can be, but won’t tell you which rapid is most likely to kill you. So you go down the shelf a bit and find ‘The Rough Guide to the Grand Canyon’. Rather than whimsical photos of Whit dressed only in mud, this slim volume has maps in it. Maps! It must be useful. And it is, if you need recommendation for hotels, restaurants and the kinds of trails that photographers need when they’re preparing their coffee table books on Grand Canyon. There are no hotels and restaurants at the bottom of the canyon. As far as going down the Colorado River, The Rough Guide gives you eleven pages devoted entirely to good advice. Except what rapids will kill you. Screw the bookstore.
This is when you go online and order RiverMaps ‘Guide to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon’ subtitled ‘Lees Ferry to the South Cove’ by Tom Martin and Duwain Whitis. This book must be the perfect thing, since it is spiral bound, waterproof and tear resistant. (‘Tear resistant’ is like ‘wet paint’. You can believe it, or you can, like everyone before you, ruin a corner of one of your pages seeing if you can discover how much effort will tear it.) That book has maps oriented so that you can read them on the fly, has mile markers, side canyons, all the campsites and, more importantly, has all the rapids marked on it- with their difficulty ratings written next to them in blue/purple ink. On the opposite page are cheery descriptions of how to run the rapids that would otherwise kill you. Finally, you can start to relax and get more useful information.
Having ordered your book and checked that off your list, you search for online Canyon content. There is no shortage of Grand Canyon websites, and of course the easiest ones to find are those who run commercial trips down the river. Smart searchers quickly find a series of National Park Service podcasts that give you a radio-program style overview for 36 minutes and a series of videos that break the larger program into neat little two-to-five minute subjects. If you are more diligent in your search for useful information, you eventually run across things like http://oregonkayaking.net/rivers/grand_canyon/grand_canyon.html. This is a web diary of a trip that sounded a lot like ours. They went later in the year, and had two more days than we did, but hey, a day-by-day planner of what to paddle and what to hike? Excellent! You can begin making notes on your waterproof/tear-proof book before you’re even on the way to Arizona! Yes! Now we’re preparing for a trip! The writers of the oregonkayaking.com site even mention spots where members of their trip washed past eddy lines and then had to miss good side hikes. Sounds like just the sort of info one needs to study.
One of the surprising things about preparing for a trip down the Grand Canyon is the sheer number of things to be surprised by. The fact that the water at Lee’s Ferry is so cold that your legs go numb when stepping into it is arresting. It’s then alarming to learn that you have about ten minutes in such water before your muscles simply stop working altogether. Then you’re told that while in the canyon you can only urinate either standing in this water, (“What, the COLD water?”) or after climbing up a hundred feet away from any water whatsoever probably while doing the peepee dance. Once you have struck the subject of urine, it leads to more questions, which lead to frantic searches on the web as regards other bodily functions. We’ll come back to that. It’s far too disgusting and fraught to handle lightly, or, for that matter, politely. Plus there are some anecdotes that will change the subject entirely. You’ll want to hear them.
Next: More talk about Poop!
Here’s the background. Somewhere in the early nineties (all the younguns amongst us just sucked in their breaths and muttered something about being born around then. Shut up. One day, you’ll meet a kid that was born in 2010, and he’s going to think you’re a fossil. You think you believe that now, but just wait. It still hits you like a truck. I told a cub scout the other day that I was born in 1965. He looked at me funny and said that didn’t sound like a year to him. Years, you see, start with a ‘2’)
ahem. So. Somewhere in the early nineties, my buddy Mike called up and said that he was going to take a kayaking class at the local university and did I want to go, too.
I had canoed with the family as a kid, and my younger brother had stowed his kayak in my apartment for a time. I wanted to get back on a river or two and that kayak had been an attractive nuisance, to borrow a legal term. I’d promised not to take it out and wreck it (It was an old fiberglass Phoenix I think.) but it was a close thing.
So Mike and I took the class. It was once a week, I guess, but as we progressed, the teachers (Hey, Tony! Hey, Jim!) told us about the Bluff City Canoe Club and Roll Practice. The one was a group of paddlers with group trips to various and sundry rivers and the latter was the group’s time at the YMCA (sing!) to practice and perfect our boat rolls. For any non-kayaker reading- when a kayak or canoe flips over in whitewater, you don’t want to have to get out and swim around and dump out the boat and all that. More efficient to roll the boat back over while sitting in it. It’s a lovely skill to have. If you have ever referred to a kayak as “Them boats that roll themselves back up”, then don’t do it again. They don’t.
The upshot is, Mike and I immersed ourselves in kayaking. We were in boats, or meetings about boats, three and maybe four times a week. It was great.
Then, of course, we started going to rivers. As is usual and wise we started small and worked our way up to big. The Spring river outside Hardy Arkansas to begin with, and the Gauley in West Virginia later on with lots of stuff in between. The Ocoee River in the Southeast corner of Tennessee was a distinct favorite.
I’m putting all this in past tense because after ten years or so, I was able to make less and less time to paddle. Raising kids and doing family stuff and career choices moved me steadily away from all that lovely, exciting, time-consuming whitewater kayaking and all the people I loved being with who kayaked.
And then, one day, I became the luckiest person I know.
When you hear what happened, you might think that David LeMay would be the luckiest, but I beg to differ. It was me.
You see, private trips down the Grand Canyon are very limited. They can’t hand one over to anyone who wants one. The river would be clogged with people. I think it would literally be clogged with people and their boats, and were that the case, the people who had wanted to be on the Grand Canyon would no longer want to, and that’d be a shame. Anyhow, with demand so high, the park service limits the number of people they allow. It used to be a waiting list, the length of which was legendary and ridiculous. Another friend, Sonny Salomon, got on the list figuring that when his name finally came up, his grandson- who had not yet been born at the time- would be old enough to go with him. Sound funny? Not so much. The list had gotten to be about fourteen years long, if I understand right.
So the Park Service changed the way they do things. “From now on” they decreed, “we will have a lottery drawing. Those who have been on our list will have more chances than those who have not already been on the list. This is fair.” And there was much talk about it. I’m sure there were many people outraged and many very pleased and some of you never heard a damned thing about it. Sonny was irritated, I believe. He was finally getting close to the top of the list. Sonny has a generous spirit, though, and hoped things would work out well. They did, but not so much for Sonny as for David LeMay.
David, a warm-hearted, good person, about whom I’ve never heard a bad word, had never put himself on the Grand Canyon list. But some nice people who’d had him along on an Idaho raft/kayak trip called up and explained about the Grand Canyon Lottery. There are many rivers in Idaho that are on the same lottery system. You should put your name in. David, then, got online and put his name down in the Grand Canyon Lottery. About two hours before it closed for the season. He put down his first choice of trip dates on a prime couple of weeks, for the maximum number of people, and promptly forgot about it. Until he was notified that he got his first pick.
No kidding. Last minute. First time. New Lottery. Bam.
And that’s why you might call David LeMay the luckiest guy ever.
Except for this: There were sixteen slots open on the trip. Most of them were taken by David, the kayakers that’d introduced him to the Idaho raft group, the Idaho raft group itself, Jason Salomon (Son of Sonny) and Mike who was mentioned earlier. They offered the last spot to me. I’m not fooling myself that I was the only one they asked, but I was asked, and I accepted.
So, you see. I was the luckiest person I know.