Four years ago we embarked on what is still the best trip of our lives.
In what we now clearly recognize as a prelude to our current travels, in July 2008 we set out for a seven-day, six-night Grand Canyon rafting excursion. Before that trip, we had never pitched a tent under the stars; never rafted; and certainly never experienced whitewater of any kind. Yet there we were, flying off to confront some of the biggest whitewater in the country, on a trip that once started had to be seen through to its end. The only way out of the Canyon for us would be by medical helicopter.
That assumed we made it into the canyon in the first place. We almost didn’t.
In a foolish attempt to conserve vacation days we scheduled our arrival so tightly that a canceled flight almost cost us the entire trip. Waiting in line at Newark Airport for an alternate flight, we knew that if we didn’t get to our departure point in Flagstaff, AZ, by 5:30 AM the next morning, our boat would leave without us.
The good news: we got on another plane almost immediately. The bad news: that plane flew not west to Flagstaff but south to Washington, D.C. From there we hoped to catch a flight to Phoenix and from there, the last flight of the day into Flagstaff.
We had one canceled flight behind us and two connections in front, with very little room in between. Everything had to go perfectly with each of our next three flights. No cancelations. No delays. No lost bags. No nothing. We weren’t feeling terribly optimistic.
We landed at Dulles International Airport only slightly delayed and with only a partial sigh of relief. Feeling a bit like contestants on the Amazing Race we began forming contingency plans. From Dulles, we thought we had a good shot at getting into Phoenix but maybe not in time to make our connection.
Without the aid of a smart-phone (this all happened a technological lifetime ago) we went old school and dialed 411. We tried airport car rental agencies first and then bus lines. The latest option we could find was a midnight Greyhound bus that got into Flagstaff at 3:00 AM. That was our drop dead time. If we could get to the Greyhound terminal by 12:00 AM, we’d raft the Colorado. If not, we’d have a week to kill in Phoenix.
We arrived at our Flagstaff hotel long after our appointed safety briefing but still with enough time to catch a couple hours of sleep and, most importantly of all, to get on our raft in the morning. Whitewater, here we come – for better or for worse.
Groggy but excited, we met our Canyoneers rafting guides for breakfast at the appointed time, geared up, and boarded a shuttle van to our waiting raft. (We really can’t say enough good things about Canyoneers. When we raft through the Canyon a second time, we’ll definitely go with them again.)
I have to admit, the first hour or two meandering down placid water had me worried. This was the first of seven days on the river. From here on out, we’d have no T.V., no cell phones, no newspapers or any contact with the outside world to entertain us, just floating, floating, floating. I thought I might get bored.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Our trip leader, Brandon, set the tone early for the entire outing. His oft repeated slogan, “Go big or go home” originally referred to how he planned to take the rapids. Instead of charting the easiest possible path, he’d take them “Big” and head right into the roughest water. The slogan soon became the motto of our entire time in the Canyon – and perhaps our life, thereafter.
We found the extreme desert conditions to be an even greater challenge than the rapids, though. July heat that routinely reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit on the Canyon floor was only half the story. The freezing cold Colorado River was the other half. Chilled beneath several thermal layers behind the 700 foot tall Glen Canyon Dam, the water released into that portion of the Colorado is icy cold. Even in early July, the water temperature was only in the low 40’s.
In those first few hours, Brandon challenged us to “take a bucket” of that frigid water over our heads; something we’d need to do routinely in the coming days not only to battle the scorching heat, but also if we wanted to bathe. He had a pacifier necklace to wear for anyone who demurred or cried out in shock. To her credit, Shannon volunteered first and took a bucket with a stiff upper lip. No pacifier for her!
“Go big or go home” and “get the pacifier” were refrains that bookended our rugged adventure through the canyon. Proving himself to be eminently fair, Brandon even gave himself the pacifier on the third day of our trip for reasons known only to a few of us and the Canyon.
But not all was hardship. We ate surprisingly well for being so far removed from civilization. In fact, it was the first time we’d ever heard the word “snack” used as a verb. And at Brandon’s direction, we were “snacked” early and often to make sure we kept our energy levels up.
In addition to all the snacking, the prepared meals were out of this world. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were different and fabulous every day. From prime rib to camp-kettle brownies, fresh fruit to halibut steak, we ate like kings in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
To be continued . . .
(Things are just heating up. Follow this link for Part II of our Grand Canyon Rafting Adventure)