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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It’s All About the SandIt’s All About the Sand

OK, Time for Our First Entry in SECRETS REVEALED!!!

#1  It’s All About the Sand

Approaching a Grand Canyon rafting trip, all you think about are those thrilling rapids, the blazing sun, and the electrifying/drenching thunderstorms. Your packing list is heavy on waterproof gear, quick-drying clothing, sunblock, and hats.  But at least half of your time is spent in the Kingdom of the Sand Demon, and you will be reminded of that for weeks to come, as you find sand in yet another impermeable item.

Think of it this way:  the glistening white sand beaches along the Colorado River are formed of particles eroded from a mile of rock—much of it sandstone, no less, and almost all of it the product of eons of marine sedimentary deposition—with the grinding-down happening over five or six million years.  All those thousands of thousands of years of tumbling in the river yields sand so fine that it blows right through your tent walls.  Yes, really.  You will snuggle down to sleep in your little tent with the windows and doors zipped tight (because you did notice all that sand out there and were even sharp enough to notice that the wind tends to shift its direction and roar turbulently down the canyon every evening).  And you will wake up with a layer of dust-scale sand all over your gear, your sleeping bag, your mat, and your face.

Yes, beautiful sandy beaches!

Yes, beautiful sandy beaches!

So—once you think about it, there is no mystery.  Ultrafine sand plus forceful winds equals sand in everything.  Most of the time it is a minor annoyance, an opportunity to bond with your travelmates: “Yep, I have sand in my beer/cocoa/coffee/soda/water, too.” Sometimes, it’s just another technical chore, such as brushing the sand out of your waterproof camera housing.  But sometimes, it’s a way to mark yourself as a seasoned river-runner:  the clean, safe water supply at Phantom Ranch was “turbid” (nanoscale sand, yes?) when we stopped by—so Billie advised the crew to pump water through the team’s super-filters for refills, instead of simply using the Park Service’s ready-to-use water, in order to avoid giving the new arrivals an unpleasant surprise on their first day.  We old hands merely filled our bottles at the tap and chugged the wetness gratefully.

On occasion, it’s more than annoying (see my Day Two Morning whine-session).   To quickly recover from the more-than-annoying times, bring the following:  an eye cup and a tube of liquid tears.  If you have any dry-eye issues, make sure to bring your medication.  If your weight allowance allows, tuck in a bottle of pH-balanced eyewash.  If you don’t need these supplies, fine.  But if someone else does, you will make a friend for life!

And to save those supplies for being a hero, apply an ounce of prevention.  If you’re a side-sleeper, face away from the tent walls.   Tuck a headband in your gear—if you find yourself waking up with sand in your face, use the headband as a night-time eye covering and wash your face in the morning.  Shake the sand out of your sleeping gear before packing it away in the morning.  Try to keep your hands reasonably clean—humans are always putting their fingers in their eyes, but you sure notice it more when you rub sand into them!  And if you must sleep under the stars, tent-free, choose a less-comfortable spot out of the sand-blow.  (You’ll realize the guides don’t concern themselves with tents—but they are usually bunking down on their boats.  On the water.  Away from the sand.)

Keep in mind, this is no excuse to Avoid The Trip.  Just one of the Secrets they don’t tell in the literature.  To paraphrase one of Clark’s favorite poets, Robert W. Service, “It isn’t the river ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your eye”.

Want to read the real quote, and more?  A good place to start is Goodreads.  Yes.  Pun intended.

And remember, add $10 to your budget for:

A proper eye cup.  Bring your old glass version if you have one--this the the best out there now.

A proper eye cup. Bring your old glass version if you have one–this is the best plastic one.


Kinder than water and sand-free.


Helpful dose for irritated eyes…not the stinging “red out” stuff.


Day Zero: Get Thee To FlagstaffDay Zero: Get Thee To Flagstaff

There is no simple way to orchestrate the travel here.  Yes, planes fly to Flagstaff, not the same airlines as fly to the big airports but their small-scale partners.  There’s a shuttle bus from Phoenix, and if you were facing a long layover the van could even be faster.

A view of the Grand Canyon we did not see on our flights (courtesy of Google Earth)

But we arrive in Phoenix with plane tickets in hand and actually welcome a half-hour flight delay, because it allows us a chance to buy lunch.  I even have time for a stroll through the overpriced-souvenir shop, where I hand over $2 for a pair of elastic bands someone in the shop has put out to support a fundraiser for improving water supplies in Haiti.  Seems appropriate. And the chance to put up our feet for a half-hour is welcome, as we’re already tired.  We actually began yesterday, on Day “-1”, with a five-hour drive to rendezvous with Clark’s friend, who lives near Reno, so we could all travel together the whole way.  Our Day Zero expedition consisted of a drive from the pine forests of Plumas County to the desert flats of Reno’s outskirts, a freeway jaunt to the airport (chauffered by another friend), a big plane to Phoenix, a little plane to Flagstaff, then a search for the airport shuttle.  We will have a powerful case of deja vu on Day Fourteen.   You’ll see.

Flagstaff’s airport is a fabulous, small airport.  My favorite kind.  One baggage claim zone.  No trouble meeting a shuttle bus right outside.  As it happens, the other folks sharing the van are another couple going on our trip.  And they have obtained an intelligence report from the rafting company, OARS, that we five will be the only “guests” staying on the raft trip for the full fourteen days.   The rest of the group will leave halfway (and hike out), to be replaced by a new batch of folks for the second week.  So we will actually get to spend a full fifteen days with Todd and Eliza.  Oh, yeah, and until such time as the members of our trip group authorize me to use their names, I will be using fake names, just in case I goof up and say something upsetting or someone turns out to be in Witness Protection.  I won’t do the same for the crew, since I want to actually give them the props they deserve.  In fact, I’d hope this whole piece could be considered a humungous letter of reference for each and every person on the crew.  I’d initially given myself permission to use my own and my husband’s names, but he protested, so here goes.  He is herewith dubbed “Clark”.  And what to call Childhood Friend?  How about Lana?  And surely that makes me “Lois”.  The only funny thing about this, is that I actually have a friend called Lois–so, hey, Lois, you can tell people this is you.  (Fair warning, though, I’m not the heroine of this story!)

The key element of Day Zero is the evening briefing from the Trip Leader.  We gather in one of the Radisson Hotel’s conference rooms.   (The Midway guests also will have a briefing, but not by the Trip Leader , as she will be a mile downhill at the time.)  So we meet our first authentic River Guide.  This is Billie Prosser, who’s been whitewater rafting since she was a teenager, over fifteen years now, much of that time in the Grand Canyon.  These days, she chooses to do only a few of these Grand Canyon trips a year, giving herself the chance to work on other rivers and also to have time for a private trip, as time permits, to enjoy the Canyon without having to take care of people like us.

At the meeting, we also get our first glimpse of our fellow travelers all together.  We are heavily loaded with Californians and Canadians.   There are three women from Canada—their menfolk didn’t want to come.  There’s two father-son duos: one a dad and his athletic teenager, the other a Bechtel project technician taking a voluntary layoff to make the trip with his dad, a (putatively) retired actor and writer.  The Fab Five (Todd & Eliza and the three of us–Lois, Clark, and Lana) are all from California.   The actor, who takes care during the meeting to firmly establish that he’s the most-senior member of the troupe, has also brought along a childhood friend—a woman he hadn’t seen since high school.  While he keeps us entertained, I get the vague feeling he sort of expects someone to recognize him.  Then there’s another triad…a husband and wife and one of their friends.  Is that sixteen?

We get a quick summary of what to expect in the morning.  The crucial item is to have our gear packed and in the lobby by quarter to seven and be ready to leave by seven.  There’s a little last-minute advice on what to be sure to bring.  In case something’s been forgotten, there’s a WalMart in walking distance.  We’re advised to bring lots and lots of moisturizer.  I ask for a definition of “lots”, which it seems is a 16 oz bottle per person per week.  Oh, my goodness, I didn’t bring that much, so we have a trip to WalMart in the plans already.  We’re issued our “drybags”, each labeled with our own personal real names.  (Amazingly, they don’t know to use the fake names I will make up in the future for this blog.)  And Billie gives us a five-minute seminar on how to seal the drybags.  This is important, as all of our clothing and personal items go in this bag, which will then be tied onto a raft and frequently doused with water.  We’re each also issued a small drybag.  The big bag is inaccessible except in camp.  The day bag serves to keep dry what we need to keep dry but have access to during the day.  And we’re allowed to bring whatever we like in our daypacks as well, provided we understand that these will get drenched in larger rapids or if it rains.  The drybags don’t have our personal names on them.  Instead, they each have an identifying name written in Sharpie,  to individualize them.  We just each have to remember our bag’s name.  Mine is “Turpentine Broom”.  Lana’s is “Grease Bush”.  And Clark selects the distinctly memorable “#73”.  Mine is the best.  Here is all about Turpentine Broom  and Grease Bush.  I expect we’ll encounter these plants on our journey.  In the meantime, the names help, as the bags come in only a few colors.

I’m relieved to hear there will be a bag for boots, as this will make room in my kit for all that moisturizer.  Others are relieved to hear that their beer and wine orders have been filled.  Some are anxious to double-check on that after the meeting.  Billie has the checklist.  Evidently, this is a common anxiety.

Then we are off to WalMart.  Yes, our first act upon crossing the moment into our trip environment is to walk down a suburban city street, past a dark and quiet Home Depot, an active supermarket, and a Bank of America with lights glowing invitingly above its ATM, to shop in the megabehemoth of a store that was launched just a few miles from Clark and Lana’s home town.   But oh, they do indeed have It All.  More sunblock.  I must have more sunblock.  Moisturizer, per Billie’s recommendations.  Handy dry facewash cloths to get all that sunblock off.  And a tripod.  What was I thinking, leaving home without a tripod?  And a little mini flex-tripod for Clark.  Sweet.  Now all we have to do is haul this all back to the hotel and get everything crammed into our bags.

And, well, the bag-cramming takes a little while.  Maybe more than a little while.   Part of it is deciding which things are OK in the backpack (maybe in a Ziploc bag, maybe not), which need to go in the daybag, and which can be done without and stuffed in the main drybag.  I have the extra variant that I really have 2 daypacks. One is a one-shoulder sling pack that keeps my cameras and other hiking essentials from bearing down on my healing shoulder and when not in use tucks into the main pocket of my large daypack.  The main daypack takes my raingear, a dry set of fleece sealed in ziplocs, my tripod, and other handy items.  It’s big, it’s bulky, I will make Clark carry it as much as possible.  But it all fits.  And while I fancy myself adept at this sort of thing, it is Clark who is already proving to be better at sealing the big drybag.  He says it is just that he can squish it down better, being a bit heavier, but I think there is more to it than that.  I will keep insisting on doing my bag myself for about four more days.  Then I will give up and let him do it for me.

One last shower and a thorough hair washing.  It will be 2 weeks without a shampooing, at least for me.  I do not want to look at the setting on the alarm clock.  It is just too awful to contemplate.


Day One: From Flagstaff to Lees Ferry ( Mile 0)Day One: From Flagstaff to Lees Ferry ( Mile 0)


Redbud at dawn, Flagstaff

Redbud at dawn, Flagstaff

Patience, patience.  It will get better.  There will be pain, terror, comic interludes, amazement, all that.  Soon enough.

So today we think we are getting up early.  How naïve we are, believing ourselves totally on-the-ball as we deposit our overstuffed drybags in the lobby at 6 a.m., first ones ready.   And first to the breakfast buffet as well.  I have a strong hankering for a lovely waffle, but we all decide on the no-waiting buffet.  So.  Well.  There is a great big pan full of sausage.  English muffins.  Hard-boiled eggs.  This could work.

The other folks filter into the dining room.  We don’t know each other yet, one meeting with the trip leader last night was not enough for bonding.  And with my personal brand of dysnomia, we’ve been together far too little even for adequate identification.  At least some people make a bit of an effort to be memorable.  Isn’t that the wise-cracking guy who made sure to poll the group to establish he’s the oldest among us?  But who are those people he’s with?  Thank goodness we are only a group of sixteen.  And I already know three of us.  Of course, that’s counting myself.

We are all in our carefully assembled river-rafting outfits, so we are now instantly recognizable to the hotel staff as Those OARS Guests.   What’s that uniform like?

Quick-drying pants—seems to me pretty much all the passengers are in long pants, and those of us with new gear are sporting the sun-protecting fabrics.

Quick-drying shirts—experienced types have layered short- and long-sleeved shirts.  Me, I’ve structured a Nerd Look, with a white long-sleeved “base layer” (ultra-comfortable, some fancy brand, UPF 50 fabric, and snagged off the REI heavily-discounted Outlet page) under the polo-style shirt I had on yesterday.  (Already counting days.  Each shirt gets 4 days.)

Everyone has a hat.  Shade is the name of the game on the water, anywhere.  Doesn’t matter if you’re revving one of those horrid Personal Watercraft across a reservoir or balancing the outrigger on your 20-foot ocean-going catamaran, the brain requires protection from Sol.   Most everyone has gone for the wide-brimmed Ranger Rick hat.  At least one has chosen the Sahara-style cap with the side-drapes to protect the neck and ears.  It looks comfy.   I debate.  Should I dig my backup cap out of my bag or stick with the wide-brimmed one?

Footgear is a mix.  Some of us are wearing our hiking boots;  others are already in their boat sandals, anxious to get their toes wet in the Colorado River.  Most of us have purchased Teva-style water shoes, some have added neoprene socks, a few have simply packed neoprene booties—a low-mass choice, but requiring a shoe change for even a short hike.  Again, I am full of myself for having found a pair of Keen sandals for 25 bucks.  There are some benefits to knowing one’s size in children’s shoes.

And, given it’s 7 a.m. in Flagstaff on the first of April, virtually everyone has layered on a fleece jacket.  A few have their rain jackets on top of that, too, serving double duty as a windbreaker.  The raingear is mostly tucked in our “day” drybags, as suggested at last night’s pre-trip meeting.  Later on, when we are all tucked into our rain-suits, it can be difficult to tell each other apart, as most have gone with basic black.

The 14-Day Five: Clark, Lois, Lana, Eliza, Todd

The five of us who will be taking the full 14-day trip: “Clark, Lois, Lana, Eliza, & Todd”

So, as we gather in the lobby, stuffing last-minute additions into our daybags and packs, the river-guide crew begins to appear.  Either that, or there’s a new robbery scheme in which people dressed in shorts, tee-shirts, and flip-flops drop by hotels and make off with fully-packed drybags.  Which brings us to the uniform of the river guide:

Pants?  Nay, shorts are the required day wear.  In the event of actual severe weather, say, a cold day with heavy rain, neoprene pants may appear.  And a very cold early morning may prompt a brief stretch with an outer layer, but not likely, no.

Shirts?  Optional for the men. (Well, keep in mind that on the river everyone, absolutely everyone, wears a life vest every minute.)  Most of the time, it’s a short-sleeved shirt or a tank top.  Our wise Team Leader previewed her clothing choices by advising us (at last night’s briefing) to choose clothing over sunblock whenever possible, will be found wearing long-sleeved shirts and fingerless gloves on sunny days, but this is the choice of a nonconformist.

Shoes?   Optional, though often sandals are chosen.  Well, not really  sandals, but flip-flops. It is rumored that the guides own hiking boots.  More on this topic later, when hiking becomes a factor.

Coats?  Well, maybe a shirt for a little while on a chilly morning.

In short, there is no chance that one would mistake a guest for a guide, or vice-versa.  In each party, we will have one person who fits in rather well with the guide class, but attire keeps them distinct no matter what.

While we are staring at one another and fiddling with our backpacks and daybags, the crew have arrived and are lightly tossing our lumpy twenty-five-pound drybags up to the top racks of a pair of white passenger vans.  One van also has a trailer with a big yellow thingy on it.  So we have our first glimpse of a raft.   We all sort of wallflower-it, clumping around the benches in front of the hotel, taking pictures of each other.  But eventually we have to wriggle into the vans.

Our van and raft, at Cameron Trading Post

Our van and raft, at Cameron Trading Post

So it’s a long drive to the put-in at Mile Zero, aka Lees Ferry, so we are promised a “rest stop” at Cameron Trading Post.  This is a wonderful combination of a tourist trap, an art gallery, a grocery store, hotel, church, and post office.  Basically, it’s a town.   Cameron’s perched on the edge of the gorge of the Little Colorado River, where the original founder of the trading post launched the business by building a bridge over the Gorge.  Now, there’s a standard highway bridge, but there’s still also an older suspension bridge (no, not the original one).  At this hour we have the place pretty much to ourselves.   I find a bracelet and a couple of T-Shirts in the shop before stopping in the grocery for a tub of Vaseline.  But first, of course, I have to run down and snag a photo of the bridge.  The older one, of course.


The old bridge at Cameron Trading Post

Old Cameron Bridge, over Little Colorado River Gorge

The rest of the drive is longer and affords a chance for naps.  Billie’s friend Krista is sitting in front of me.  She spends the time carefully braiding her barely shoulder-length hair and tying off the ends with colorful yarn–all without being able to see what she’s doing.

A peek at our first rapid, Paria Riffle, from the Lees Ferry Campground

A peek at our first rapid, Paria Riffle, from the Lees Ferry Campground

Finally, we pull in and stop at the campground above Lees Ferry.  We learn that a traveler with another group which had used the campsite facilities down at Lees Ferry had turned out to have rotovirus, so we’re going to avoid those places.  The Campground has a set of restrooms we can use before we go on down to the put-in spot.  While we wait for one another, we can take some photos of the the Colorado river below us and Vermilion cliffs glowing above us beneath the deep blue sky.

But we are finally rounded up and pile into the vans for the half-mile drive down to the water.  Finally, we’re at the River.  Time for more lectures!

Gearing up at Lees Ferry

Gearing up at Lees Ferry


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