Encountering Nature’s Force
My kids and I are off on a weeklong rafting trip through the Grand Canyon on the mighty Colorado River. I have done it a half dozen times and love it. I take the “luxury” experience (yeah, right) on a big, sturdy raft that holds up to 15 people and has two guides known as “swampers.”
The swampers cook, clean up, set up the portable toilets (yes, thank you Lord), and run the raft, which has a small outboard motor at the stern. The motor is used primarily to direct the raft through rapids. Of the top five navigable rapids in North America, three are on the trip. The biggest is Lava Falls and…. oh wow!!
The raft embarks from Lee’s Ferry. Paddling isn’t necessary; you drift with the river. The swampers use the motor when needed. As the Colorado flows downhill, the raft quickly descends to a mile below the rim. The farther the descent, the farther behind is civilization, literally. The solo link is a radio that can reach line-of-sight airplanes flying directly overhead.
During one of my trips, on the third day a man broke his leg. Since the injury was not life threatening, the park service would not send a helicopter, which is very dangerous due to whipsawing crosswinds. The swampers put him in a temporary cast and gave him aspirin. He had to gut it out for the rest of the week.
Another year, I joined up with three other men and organized two rafts with almost 30 guys. One of the friends, a former Wall Street colleague, invited a bunch of them. It was a mistake. In the modern world, they were masters-of-the-universe. In the canyon, they were useless. The Wall Streeters were in lousy shape, bailed on the many wondrous side-canyon hikes, did not help around the camp and expected four-star treatment from the swampers.
The other group, mostly from California, enthusiastically embraced the hikes, screamed through the rapids and generally acted like weekend Rambo’s.
By Day Three, the group had divided into two: the sissy raft and the Rambo raft. As one of the organizers, I divided my time between the two. When one of the East Coast contingent had an especially obnoxious temper tantrum, I moved permanently to the Rambo raft.
Heights make me uneasy. On the hikes, there are plenty of precipices. There also are plenty of waterfalls where you can jump from great heights into ponds. I will not go near any of them, ever. I will watch my son and his friends jump and applaud like a good father, but from a distance.
On another trip, I took my oldest daughter, then 13. We went through one mild rapid with her sitting astride the left outside pontoon. I sat behind her on a perch. Suddenly, the raft was caught in a whirlpool and started spinning. The loaded raft weighed three tons. It was going to spin-crash into a rock canyon wall with all three tons accelerating into the spin.
My daughter’s leg was dangling exactly where the left outside pontoon would hit.
“Put your left leg into the boat now!” I yelled. She did, rather nonchalantly, and promptly forgot all about it. The man sitting in front of her did not forget. His leg would have been crushed too and he could see it coming but was frozen. When I yelled at my daughter, he unfroze and pulled his left leg in also. Later that night, he came over to my campsite with a tumbler of whiskey to say thanks.
That is why you come to love the river and the canyon. Its current carries you backwards in time, into the face and force of nature. For better or worse.
Here is the postscript: cousin Max survived quite the adventure overboard.
Michael Ray grew up in CdM and now lives in Laguna Beach. He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits.