Being in the Grand Canyon changes you. Stick with me, I'm serious. Eight nights under the sky surrounded by walls that have been carved by water for millions and millions of years does something to you. The first concrete time that you realize this is when you pull into Phantom Ranch.
Phantom Ranch is the only sign of civilization that you will come across during the entire rafting trip. It is at river mile 90 and it is the place where Bright Angel Trail and Kaibab Trail descend from the North and South Rims to meet at the Colorado River. There are bathrooms, campsites, cabins, a little store where you can buy beer and burgers. There is a post office where you can pick up mail and send letters that will be delivered by mule from the depths of the canyon 4,500 feet up to the rim.
You realize that the Grand Canyon changes you in this place because everything and everyone around you seems foreign. You want to be nice to the other people who are rafting, but they also aren't a part of your crew, they are a rival (albeit, with the same purpose of enjoying nature). The people that hiked down, you can kind of relate to, but the people that rode down on a mule...no way! They don't understand what it is like to take every step, or oar stroke to get where you have gotten. It's like they cheated. They didn't cheat in the way that you think. Sure, they cheated in how they got down, but I'm talking about something far worse. They cheated themselves of the opportunity to experience the canyon. It was made by slow moving water over millions of years, and we too should experience it in that slow way, speeding it up is impure, and steals from the experience.
Three important things happened on our ninth day in the Grand Canyon. The first, our brief reintegration with civilization and society was the first of those things. The second important thing happened early in the day right after we pulled into Phantom Ranch and saw two other groups that were also rafting.
It involved costumes:
Taylor - Panda suit
Eva - Zebra suit
Susan - leopard print suit
Annika - Cat woman suit
Darius - speedo suit
Fran - full spandex
Alan - American flag pants
Trevor - American flag onesie
Tim - American flag onesie
Jeff - refused to wear red briefs and red gloves
After this stop the other boats on the river referred to us as Team AMERICA. Considering that we called them Florida group and Pirate flag group, I think we were the winners.
The third important thing that happened on this day is something that we will later find was a fluke, a fluke that was both incredibly entertaining and perhaps a bit too much of a confidence booster. We hit three major rapids on this day, Horn, Granite and Hermit Rapids. I remember all of them incredibly distinctly.
Horn is a very narrow rapid. The walls of the canyon are high around it and all of the water is pushed into this small area and it creates HUGE water. Our plan was to have Tim and Jeff go first. They are the kayakers, I would go after them, so that they could pull me out if I flipped. After that, our three rafts would go and we had have kayakers in a position to support, grab a boat, or help people in case there was a flip. Tim and Jeff cruised through and it was my turn. Alan had told me get left. I thought I was getting left, but I wasn't getting left fast enough. The water was moving too fast. I was on the right side of the river near two massive waves, waves that could spit me out near some rocks. I went over the first wave and disappeared to everyone on shore. What I mean, is that the waves were so large, that when I was in their depths I couldn't be seen, because the crest covered me from view. I disappeared again behind the second way and miraculously skirted out on the other side, unscathed and largely untouched. To give you a sense of what these waters can look like check out this video...and watch it until the end. Keep in mind that I was in a duckie, or an inflatable kayak through the same water.
Granite was different than Horn. The river was a bit wider, whereas Horn was a very short rapid Granite is incredible long. A swim in Granite could mean that I would end up in the water for nearly a mile trying to get out of the fast water. Until Horn were there were two massive waves, it was continuous motion, waves coming from the side, in front, white froth EVERYWHERE. You look at it from the beach and you try and draw a line that you will take down the river, but regardless of the path you trace there is water that could take you down. Alan asked if I was sure that I wanted to do it. I said that I was. He said, that unlike Horn I need to paddle like my life depended on it and not rest like I had several miles up river at Horn, when I failed to get left. I shook my nodded in acknowledgment. I wanted to do this. We got in the boats, and this time, I was to go last. I squared up to the tongue of the rapid and went straight down the middle, up and over the waves, into the froth, I got moved and slammed by water, but I just paddled like my life depended on it, and actually made it look somewhat stylish. Here's another video, not of our group, but of a guy rafting Granite with the video from the pilots seat.
Our final big rapid of the day was Hermit. Unlike Horn and Granite there wasn't as much to worry about it in terms of where to direct yourself. It was simple. Line up in the middle and ride straight on till morning. At this point in the day the sun was no longer out like it was at Granite. It was cold and my adrenaline had already run through my bloodstream. It's that that it becomes less scary, it is still scary, it's that you become more used to the sensation and know how to deal with it. Hermit can have 14-18 foot waves. Yes, you read that correctly. Waves that are taller than a basketball hoop. Waves as tall as me standing on top of a basketball hoop. Hermit is kind of like a roller coaster there are 9 rolling waves, up and down and up and down and up and down. It's really that simple. You line it up, and paddle your heart out. The first seven waves were like a roller coaster, but on this turbulent and violent water. The last two waves I remember most distinctly, because as I was cresting the waves they crashed on top of me. Wave eight crashed on me as I was leaning forward and digging my paddle into the water to paddle it was like sprinting full speed and then running into a wall of jello, everything stopped. For a split second, I was suspended inside the wave, the water hadn't decided if it was going to tear me from my duckie, or just push me through, in the next second I was out on the other side about to get hammered by wave number nine. I went up the crest and WHAM again, I hit a wall of jello only to be spit out again, right side up. I had come through three of the hardest rapids completely clean, I hadn't flipped, I hadn't fallen out of my boat. My confidence was high and little did I know that the next day I would be humbled. In case you are wondering, here is what it looks like to be humbled on the Grand Canyon, again not our group, but hopefully illustrative of the experience.
I hesitate to use the word 'helpless', but there is something about being unable to control your fate. Sure, you can pick the right line, turn the right way, paddle your ass off and do everything that you are supposed to do. The river though, can have other plans for YOU. The most spiritual moments of my life have not been in places of worship, they have been in places where my surroundings overwhelmed my mind and understanding of the world. They were places that rendered me helpless and left me at the mercy of nature to decide my fate. You can think your hot shit and you know what you are doing and you have control, but when a 16-foot tall wave crashes around your body, you don't have control. You dig in your paddle and hope that you get spit out on the other side to enjoy the ride on the next wave.