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Photo credit: —Story photos by David Holcomb

Evan, lunch

Scouting Lava Falls Rapid

Readying the boats

Henry enters Horn Rapid

Rafting the Grand Canyon with old people

—Evan Belknap

A friend of mine from Flagstaff dropped me off in Williams, the “gateway to the Grand Canyon,” and drove off with my car. I sat there in that dusty little town waiting for my next ride to come and take me closer to the river. Two old dudes from California eventually arrived, I loaded in the back, and we headed north to the rim, arriving right as the sun set—that red-orange Grand Canyon glow seeping through the juniper trees. I slept in a corner of their hotel room, and early the next morning, we started our ten-mile hike down Hermit Trail to the river.

The day before, I got a satellite call from my dad, who had already been down there on the water with our group for about six days. He said, “Bring tomatoes and avocados, oh, and granola, and hand sanitizer, and hot chocolate.”

I responded, “How about a watermelon and a few frozen chickens while we're at it.”

After a couple steep miles on the trail, we were slowing down dramatically, so I offered to take a bit more of the weight. This continued until my lightweight little daypack was traded for a sixty-five pound backpack full of fruit and vegetables, and clothes, and what else, I couldn’t imagine. The desert was in full bloom, and a cool breeze kept us in jackets until the full sun hit us later on in the day. I put on some music and jogged ahead, dropping down through the Neapolitan layers—all the vanilla, into the abundant strawberry, high above all the chocolate down there at the river.

About seven hours later, on the last stretch down Monument Creek I heard someone call my name, and looked around, seeing no one. Again. I spun in a circle, and finally saw my dad up on a sketchy hillside full of cactus and scree. “Are you lost?” he asked.

“No.”

“Oh, good, because I am.”

He took over my backpack for the last half mile, exclaiming, “Jesus, what’s in here?”

Soon enough, I was on the bank of the river, right above Granite Rapid, the glassy green water reflecting the mile of canyon and the sky above. I stripped down and took a short, perfect swim in the freezing water.

At dinner, I found out that this crew of geezers was in rough shape. Already, they’d had several people thrown from their boats, a major shoulder injury, back problems, and to top it off, there was a whisper of mutiny on the wind. Our food for the remaining 17 days was scattered in a dozen boxes in compartments throughout the seven boats, ice was low, and river-chair piracy was running rampant. This was going to be an interesting one.

But cracking a beer, there in the sand on the bank of the Colorado, I felt nothing could ruin my good mood—what an incredible thing to be able to do, hike down into the canyon and hop on a float trip for two weeks down the grandest of all canyons.

Not only that, but I got a boat to row, given the dire need for uninjured boatmen. The next day, I had about thirty seconds to remember how to turn and pull and pivot, before the water picked up and cascaded down through some of the biggest whitewater in North America—Granite, Hermit, and the always terrifying Crystal Rapid.

At the top of Crystal—a surging bend in the river that pours into a recirculating monster of a hydraulic hole that could swallow a bus—the confusion began. One of our party pushed off alone and, botching the sneak to the right, went straight into the maelstrom hole, ejecting both driver and passenger, and coming within a swallow’s touch of flipping the sixteen-foot rubber raft. Having no one there to throw a rope, they were lucky to be able to self-rescue, and collect themselves in an eddy downstream.

The rest of our runs were smooth, people mostly pulling like hell and scraping along the rocks of the right bank. My dad and I took our boats down the left side, through a mighty roller coaster of house-sized waves, just glancing by the left side of the killer hole. This was going to be a fun trip after all.

One day our inscrutable leader, with his moose hat, very solemnly explained the slot canyon hike he had planned. As the climber, I was supposed to free solo up the crumbling wall, belay people up onto ledges, and lower these septuagenarians into dark chasms of rushing water. He showed me his self-made rope ladder—its rusty sharp edges of steel tubing, duck-taped with garden cord and coiled up into a twenty-pound ball.

Luckily, that part of the adventure never happened, and the trip flowed on, day after day, as we settled into our roles as a little river family. The food was good, we had plenty of coffee and beer, and people were getting along for the most part.

In the mornings, as I waited for the others to finish rigging, I would watch the swallows skit along the water and eat bugs. Sometimes the smell of the river would waft down the canyon and blow lightly against our faces, and in the early morning light, reclined on my boat, the reds and yellows and golds of the canyon were those of a heaven I didn’t know. The coral orange of the desert Globemallow and the hillsides of Brittlebrush—an eruption of yellow—and the magenta pinks of barrel cacti: all you could say, lamely and in awe, was that, boy, was this a place of color.

We’d push off, and for an hour or so we’d just float on the still water, everyone spinning in little circles and staring; sometimes, depending on who crawled on your boat on that particular day, it could be so quiet, only the rippling of tiny waves along the shore and the mating whistle of hummingbirds.

Then, usually the peace would have to end because the time would come to stop somewhere, “eddy out,” or scout a section of the river. Panic would rise up like roar of an upcoming rapid, and everyone would, for some reason, get up on the edge of their moving boat and totter there. Throw bags would be chucked in odd directions, and everyone would yell instructions at one another simultaneously. “Pull it in!” “Boat coming!” “Look out!” Catch the bag!” Get out of the way!”

For the most part, I’d sit back and be impressed by all those old men, attempting to perform sudden acrobatic movements. I’d think, ‘you can tell a lot about who people are, and who they were, by the way they move. There can be a certain fluidity and lightness, but more likely, there was an awkwardness, tightness, and a chaos to those movements.’ In some of these moments, I would imagine each of them back in their prime, and you could even see snippets of who they were, as they startled you by jumping from one boat to the next, or as they helped pull one another up into the boat after being crushed by a wave and tossed to the drink. Sometimes, after a long day, they beached themselves in the sand like bull sea lions or draped themselves onto chairs and fell asleep.

I wonder what I’ll be like in forty years, and I hope to be floating down the Colorado River from time to time, in any style. I guess the beauty is in the thing itself, the canyon, not necessary how good you look doing it.

Eventually, we took out and packed up and drove out of the canyon. Despite any of the drama we’d been a part of, or the general disorderliness of the whole ordeal, or that the tailgate of our trailer broke off and scattered our gear for miles of rough road behind us, my dad and I really had nothing bad to say. By the next day, all we could talk about was how great the whole trip was

 

 
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