May 24, 2013. 5:15 p.m. It was a quiet afternoon in the office where I was furiously putting finishing touches on staff training and answering the continuous stream of parent emails that tends to flow that time of year. I had Facebook open on my computer and this message pops up:
“I don’t know what you’re up to on Dec 11, 2014, but Shannon and I will be launching at Lees Ferry. Let me know if you’re interested!”
What did this mean? I had just secured an invitation to raft 226 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
For the second time.
Redwall Cavern at river mile 33.3
My first trip down the Grand was just prior to my beginning the position as Program Director at GRP. When I worked as Mentor at camp in 2012 prior to that trip, one of my goals was to “become more hardcore.” I wanted to be ready for spending seventeen days camping in the wilderness alongside the banks of the Colorado. No washing my hair. No flush toilets. Unknown degrees of cold temperatures. When the invitation for my first trip happened in 2011, my initial thought was “I have to say no because there is no way I can do that.”
“I have very little boating experience.” The self-doubt continued. “What happens if I flip? I am not a very good swimmer. I can’t camp that long. I never have. It’s just too long. How will I ever get all the gear I need? What will we eat? What if something happens? Who is going to take care of me? What if something really bad happens?”
As I look back on those feelings, I realize that all those thoughts I had before my first trip are just like those of a first time camper. “I’ve never been to overnight camp. I’ve never been away from home that long. Will I have the things I need? What will I eat? What if something happens? Who is going to take care of me?”
As the trip grew closer, I asked a lot of questions of our trip leader and others who had been on the trip before and soaked up any opportunity to see pictures of video from previous trips. I googled specific questions I had, often ending up reading the FAQ section of various commercial river runner company’s websites.
Over the summer of 2012, I took pride in going on Campout and living off of only the items I could carry on my back. I practiced my outdoor cooking skills along with hygiene and relaxation. I have always felt relatively comfortable outside but I wanted to feel the comfort of home. That fall when I returned to my outdoor ed program, I refused to turn on the heat in my cabin to get used to sleeping in colder temperatures and practiced going days without showering (and acquiring the perfect hats and bandanas to cover my dirty hair).
And then before I knew it, we were camped at Lee’s Ferry and the sun was setting over our rafts that we had hastily learned to rig at the put in. All but one person on my first trip was new to this experience and we all couldn’t help but stand in awe and stare at the mighty canyon walls surrounding us and the beauty of the river at the put in.
The first day we had one bigger rapid, a five on the ten-point rating scale of the rapids of the Colorado. I volunteered to give the rowing a go on this rapid because I felt relatively confident in my skills or at least in my ability to learn by doing. Every time I approach a rapid in the Grand, there is a moment just before the current grabs my raft and throws in it into the throng of whitewater and hydraulics that I simply accept that I have done what I can do to set up and that the ride through this rapid will be over in a minute or less. At this point, I grip the oars a little bit tighter to try to prevent them from being ripped away from my hands and the river taking total control. What’s funny is that the river is always in control of us. I can only make slight adjustments to make the ride a little more smooth as we progress downstream.
I feel resistance on my left oar and it is no longer held in place because our boat is too close to the left bank. I am scraping rocks with the blades. The whole boat jolts forward and then swings around to the right. My two passengers drop to the middle of the raft as the craft comes to an abrupt halt. I look down and the majority of the oar is in my lap and we are not moving. We are stuck.
My first thought is, “Oh no. I broke the raft.” I try to paddle but the river is too shallow and my oars are ineffective. We looked around in a panic and with no imminent danger to us, we decided to surrender and wait for help.
A minute passed and one of our kayakers appeared around a boulder and at our side. He calmly put the left oar back in its proper position and looked me in the eye and said, “Y’all ready?” I nodded hesitantly as he gave us a fierce shove and our raft floated back into the current, scraping rocks along the gnarly left bank that we continued to graze through the duration of the rapid. I don’t remember much of what happened next other than finally pulling in to camp in the eddy at the bottom of the rapid and my friends saying, “What happened to y’all? Little too far left there?”
As we unpacked the raft, I replayed my errors, still not knowing entirely how to process the experience because it was my first time ever navigating an 18-foot oar rig raft down a whitewater rapid. I didn’t even know what to do to correct what I had done wrong or if I had really done anything wrong at all. A friend later provided sage advice about steering the boats. “Remember to look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go. Your raft is going to tend to head in the direction where you are looking.”
My first inclination was to say, “Nope. I am not rowing anymore. Did you see me get stuck on those rocks?” I wanted to give up and set myself up to never have the opportunity to fail again. But as we sat around the campfire that night eating our dinner and watching the moon cruise across the night sky, my friends reassured me, “It’ll get easier. You’ll get better and we have about 200 more miles of rowing to do. Don’t sweat it.”
An extreme polar bear opportunity
At summer camp, there are lots of firsts. A first time to shoot a bow, a first time to try kale, a first time to canoe, a first time to make a new friend, a first time to sleep under the stars, a first time to eat a smore. Sometimes we are brilliant the first time we try something. Sometimes we mess it up and get totally stuck, even to the point of needing help.
Without having gone to summer camp as a child, I probably would have never agreed to go on that Grand Canyon trip. I may not know how to paddle down the Colorado, but I had gone on a few canoe and tubing trips where I learned the basics of reading the water. My favorite night at camp was the night we got to camp out and sleep outside under the stars. I had lots of experience as a counselor cooking food over a fire and on backpacking stoves. I went in to the trip with lots of inexperience but I also went in to the trip with a love and passion for the outdoors and a curiosity for seeing new environments and pushing my own comfort zone. I went in to the trip with the seeds of the skills that I needed.
I went in to the trip with the knowledge that I can do hard things and get through discomfort. I went in to the expedition certain that no matter what was thrown our way, eventually the time would pass and we would emerge on the other side of the rapid, hopefully upright, and no matter what, with a grand story to tell. I learned on that trip that sometimes you just have to go with the flow and open your eyes up to the surroundings and just try to take in as much as you can because the land will challenge, question, rejuvenate, feed, and heal you.
Ancient drawings at Whitmore Wash
My one piece of advice that I cannot stress enough whether you are returning to GRP or new to our camp family, I encourage you to try to look beyond your fears and insecurities and look downstream to where you want to be. Once your focus is there, take a deep breath, grab a hold of the oars, and enjoy the ride.
The other rafts parked at the takeout as we have our last minutes on the river