Cometary Tales Secrets of the Grand Canyon Day One: Lees Ferry to Paria Rapid

Day One: Lees Ferry to Paria Rapid

In this installment:  Secrets of Survival and Our First Grand Canyon Rapid

The process of putting-in took a long while with us rank amateurs.  We fumbled with water bottles and backpacks and struggled with the technique of squeezing warm sweaty sandy feet into neoprene booties.  Some of us rummaged in bags to find sunblock and carefully coated exposed skin and just as carefully adjusted hats and sleeves to cover as much as possible.  We waffled about whether to pull on the waterproof pants and jackets, given that no really fierce whitewater was in sight and that it was already getting rather warm.  Meanwhile, all the crew had to do was shift those little white bags with our tiny collections of supplies onto the boats and sort of arrange things and then stand around telling people to fill up their water bottles.  On top of everything,  Billie kept making us stop our preparations and listen to instructions.

For instance, there is the life vest lecture.  Vest will be worn at all times on the river.  Life vests need to be snug.  Yes, that makes them uncomfortable.  If you insist on sneaking around with a loosened life vest, you’d better snug it up tight when the guide announces whitewater ahead.   There’s some delay at this point while vests are distributed and made tight.  Like the daybags, the vests are named, so that we don’t need to repeat the adjustment process every day.  Clark draws one with two names:  “Western Fence Lizard” in faded marker and “Hot Pants” in darker ink.  Mine is “Lily”.  Actually, I drew “Oro” (named for an actual rapid) first, but the guy who is here on the trip with his teen son was standing there with “Lily”, looking awfully disappointed, so I offered a trade.

Reconvening on the topic of vests, we receive the safety-on-the-river lecture.  The most critical advice, naturally, is Listen To The Guide.  Like most Grand Canyon rafting trips these days, the passengers do not paddle;  instead, the oarsman (who is just as likely to be female as male) is in control of two large oars and the passengers are ballast which can move when told to do so.  In the ordinary course of events, the ballast may simply be asked to move from the rear to the front of the raft to improve the boat’s balance on the rapid.   The sentient ballast is expected to take care of tying itself down—by holding on with both hands—when necessary.  All of the ballast may be called upon to shift together when the raft may be getting in trouble, generally moving towards the big scary wave or the big scarier rock, as the point is to move the mass to the high side of the raft to force it back to level flight.  Ergo, the command to listen for is “High Side!”

And here is where the vests come in—should the ballast be unsuccessful in its assigned group task, the raft can flip, spilling the ballast (and the oarsman, too) into the river.  In that event, having a snug, well-fitted vest can be a true life-saver.  In the first place, a properly-fitted vest will help the person float through the rapid—whether they are conscious or not.   An alert floater can aim feet first through the flow, tuck in those arms and ride the waves like a piece of driftwood.  Not exactly relaxing, but it makes the adventure survivable.  On another day, we heard guide Christian tell of working on a film re-enactment of the Powell exploration trip where the filmmaker wanted the authenticity of having the oarsmen do their runs without vests—and the guides (and the Park Service) nixed that idea.  Bright idea #2 was to disguise life vests under wraps of burlap.  Christian tested out this kluge—a vest encased in soaking wet burlap failed to provide flotation.  So he wore two vests, a real one underneath the faked-up one.

Once through an unexpected swim of a rapid, Billie tells us, our job is to look for her (and we’ll see as the days go by that she is the first through every rapid and waits at the first eddy to make sure everyone comes through).  And at that point we’re advised to set aside “listening”, because the waves drown out any voices.  Instead, look for what she calls “positive instructions”.  That is, she won’t be signaling “no, no, don’t do that”.  Instead, she’ll signal “do this, go there”.  So all information is direct help, not useless warnings that would not mean anything to us.

And finally, once reunited with a raft, the vest has a final job to do.  It’s a handle.  A person aboard a boat can pull another person aboard using the vest as a handhold—but only if the vest is firmly snugged.  Otherwise, the person will slip down in the vest and be too hard to grasp.  It might seem this is only important if the person being rescued is unconscious and can’t help him/herself, but in fact it’s very difficult to climb onto an inflatable raft from the water level.  Even with a full-able floating person, it’s easiest to get them onboard by hauling them in from the back, using the life vest.

All of this information makes us understand the necessity of the tight vest.  It does not in any way make it comfortable.  Huff-puff, I feel I can’t breathe!

Now that we are all safety-conscious and sure that we are all on the verge of danger, it’s time to board.  We have six boats here.  Two are for gear and they are piloted by one guide-in-training, James (aka Jimmy) and one emergency backup oarsman, Will.  Guides Billie, Curtis, Christian, and Erika are stuck with passengers.  Billie’s friend Krista, who signed on as an assistant, rides with Will.  We try to sort ourselves out in groups of four passengers per boat, and end up with two groups of four, one trio, and one set of five.   Clark & I are on the “sweep” boat, with Eliza and Todd.  They hop on first and claim the front seats.  Christian’s boat is distinguished by a duck decoy tied behind it, bearing the surprising moniker of Mr. Duck.  The sweep boat is the last boat in the group, so we watch everyone else launch and then follow on down the river.

Yes!  We finally made it onto the river!

Mr. Duck follows the Sweep Boat

Mr. Duck follows the Sweep Boat

Around the first bend is Our First Rapid!  And it’s also our first lesson in how rapids are formed. Most of those we’ll encounter on this trip are the result of outflow from tributary creeks.  In this case, Paria Riffle arises at the mouth of the Paria River.  At this junction, the Paria is a sedate, open creek.  But if we travelled up that drowsy creek for a few days, we’d find ourselves in a fabulous slot canyon , one which rivals Zion for depth and beauty and also is the access to Buckskin Canyon, the longest and deepest of the slot canyons of the Southwest.   But we are ignorant of this uphill wonder and eagerly fire off our cameras at the waves and troughs formed over the rocky outwash of the Paria joining the Colorado.

Our first "rapid", Paria Riffle

Our first “rapid”, Paria Riffle


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