It was beautiful. I mean it. Everyone should go and take a Grand Canyon river trip. The rocks, cliffs, the feeling that everything is so old, and that time has moved so slowly, makes everything else seem insignificant. Then on top of that, if you come closer to death than you ever had before (twice), well, it makes it a trip to remember.
The boats were big. There were about 15 passengers & two crew members per boat. It just so happens that my family & I were on the boat with the smokers. One was an Italian guy, Sergio, who didn't speak any English. His wife Paola knew English, and that's how they'd communicate. The other two smokers, Mark & Tom, seemed to smoke a lot as well. I had stopped 2 days before we left, hoping that a week on the river would get me over it. However, at the preliminary meeting the night before, the lead guide said that no one should quit any bad habits on his trip. He wanted everyone to have a good time, and no stress. So of course I freaked out and bought 2 packs right after that. The two crew guys on our boat, Christian & Ryan were smokers as well.
It seems that there is a whole culture to being a boatman on the Colorado River. They all seem to talk about the rapids like a surfer would talk about waves or snowboarders about the powder. They love it, and the live to push it to the edge. They'd read stories & poems to us along the way and in camp. They were about the dangers of the river & rapids, who died, who almost died, and who came out intact.
So my mom was the only swimmer in the whole group for the trip. This means she fell off the boat in a rapid. She fell off on a big wave while riding the side pontoon. She floated along side all along (no more than 30 seconds). Ryan was there in no time flat to get her out of the river. Just like they said my mom said she was too startled from falling in to notice the cold. The river is 47 degrees Fahrenheit, you see. She only broke a fingernail!
We went on one great strenuous & nearly vertical hike in a bend in the canyon. There were Anasazi granaries in the cracks up on the canyon wall above the tailings. After we got up there, you could see about 5 miles down the canyon. As we hiked down, our boat's pilot, Christian, told me about a time that he was there and heard a loud cracking sound. He had looked up and saw a cloud of dust, and a boulder falling down from the high cliffs across the canyon. I told him that it must be great to see erosion in action since it is such a slow moving process.
It rained every now and then, usually in the afternoons while we were on the river. It was the end of the monsoon season. The rains would usually last no longer than a half hour, however.
We were on the second boat, which meant that we wouldn't get campsites as good as the first boat. One night, about Friday or Saturday, we found a nice site: lots of open sand (about 15 by 20 feet, 5 feet deep), some bushes, & some rocks to dry stuff on. It also had a little wash next to it. You could see the dip in the canyon wall where the waterfall would be. Nothing unlike anything else we had camped at along the trip. All the campsites are washes. They're areas where the canyon erodes into the river. They have boulders, rocks, bushes, & sand that stick out into the river. Otherwise there would be nowhere else to camp, since the canyon walls are so tall & steep.
Towards sunset, we could hear a thunderstorm in the distance. This was also full moon night (or maybe a day later). So needless to say, we set up our tents, my brother Mike & I in one, and my parents in another about 15 feet away. By the time we laid down, it had started raining. It was awesome. The storm was coming from the direction away from the moon, so the rain was moonlit. The canyon wall across the river was lit up in an incredible glowing way. Mike & I could see this because we had our tent set up in such a way that the rain didn't come in, and we were protected from the storm's hard wind.
So we sat in the tent with the doors open so that we could watch the show. There was no way that we were going to get any sleep anyway with all the thunder echoing up & down the canyon. Soon the wind picked up even more, and rain started coming into the tent. So we closed up the doors to sweat. You see, down by the river, it is nice & cool. If you go up about 10 feet, it's about 10 degrees warmer. We wanted the tent open if we had to sleep in it. Once the wind picked up, I was glad that I had tied my wet bag to one of the sides of the tent to keep the fly away from the tent. Our other stuff was scattered around the campsite.
Soon we could hear water in the wash, and a little in the waterfall about 30 feet or so behind us. Since we had been in rain before, and it hadn't lasted long, I wasn't worried. But every now and then we'd peek out of the tent with our only flashlight to see what was going on. Mike peeked out and said that there was little rivulets in the sand around our tent. So we decided to run out of the tent & move it out of the way. We jumped out, moved the tent something like 5 feet over, and jumped back in soaked. I jumped in first, then Mike jumped in, and quickly zipped the door shut. The zipper messed up, as it always does when you need it most. Mike was all frustrated, so I tried to close it. I fiddled with it for what felt like 5 minutes. Meanwhile it's still raining, even harder now. The water in the wash is barely visible from the tent & louder. The waterfall behind us is louder still.
So I get frustrated with the zipper, and ask Mike to take a turn. I'm in the front of the tent, away from the canyon wall & the waterfall. Mike is in the back, closest to the wall & waterfall. As he moves forward, the tent starts shaking violently, like a sudden strong wind came up. But we were out of the wind, beside a big boulder. Mike yells, "That's not wind; it's water!" We jump out of the tent in sandy water flowing fast towards the river above our ankles! I yell out, particularly to my parents, and to anyone that can hear in the camp, "It's a washout! Washout! Run up the rocks! Run up the rocks!" I grab a couple life jackets nearby, because if I'm about to go down the Colorado River, I'm sure going to have a life jacket. All Mike & I have on is shorts. My parents scramble out of their tent yelling as well.
We run up the rocks away from the river & the wash, but towards the canyon wall & the waterfall. The rocks are sharp & they cut my feet up. I see my mom fall down, scraping her leg. My dad & brother got scraped up as well. We get together about 20 feet away & 10 feet up from where we were. It's thundering, and the roar of the waterfall is intense. We had to run away from the rest of the camp because they are across the wash from us. I keep yelling, hoping someone in camp will hear us before we go down the river.
Mark & Tom, some of the smokers on our boat, meet up with us. They were camping down by the river on the same side of the wash as us. The six of us are the only ones on this side. They weren't as washed out as us. They have 2 tarps with them. Tom is an ex-Marine, but I don't think of him as the Marine type. Anyway he used to train Marines for survival behind enemy lines or something similar. So he's as calm as can be. We aren't. He gets us all in a circle, huddling under the tarps. He says that we can't be running around, and that we have to get somewhere where we can get some shelter. I don't remember who goes out and finds it, nor how long it takes, but soon thereafter we move about another 20 feet to shelter. It's a huge somewhat flat boulder at an angle with lots of room under it, about enough for someone to lie completely underneath. Its back is to the canyon wall & the waterfall. In front of it (relative to the canyon) is another huge boulder. Across the top is a big log. We all get in there wrapping the tarps on either side of the opening as best as we can.
So now that we're in shelter, we can relax a little. At this time is about when we realized the loud thunks & cracks were boulders falling down the waterfall a little ways behind us. They were louder than the waterfall! My mom (and all of us, for awhile) were afraid that we'd be buried! But after some scouting in the rain, we figured we were safe from the boulders & water. We figure out what we have amongst ourselves: a couple flashlights, tarps, life jackets; a wet blanket. Not much. We start talking about what we lost down the river: nearly everything we brought with us.
Mark goes out soon because by this time (if not before), we see flashlights on the other side of the now 20 foot wide rushing wash, complete with rapids & rocks. I can tell without even walking over there that our campsite is under about 7 feet of water now. Mark yells across as loud as he can. I can hear them yelling back, but I can't understand a thing. Mark comes back and tells us that they said something like, "There's nothing we can do now. How many are there? Is anyone hurt?" Luckily we've come out fairly good.
Once the rain died down, I left the tarp shelter since I didn't know what to do. I found my parents' sandals. I also found our tent, wrapped around a boulder, full of sandy water. The fiberglass tent poles had cracked in many places. My wet bag was still barely tied to it. Our sleeping bags, pads, and my still dry (!) shirt were in the tent. Mike found his ammo box, still dry inside, but covered in sand. I'm feeling more relieved the more stuff that is found. At this time, Mark has found some dry cigarettes, so we smoke them. It was past my limit of 2 per day, but I think I deserved one by then.
After what seemed like hours, but may have been only one, we can walk across the running wash to get back to the rest of the camp. The guides give up their tents & some sleeping bags to us. Once we lay down to sleep, all the tension breaks for me. I thought about what had just happened. I almost lost my whole family at once. We were so lucky! I was crying. I think I slept about an hour and a half that morning.
Once the sun comes up we go back to see the campsite. All the sand we camped on is gone. In its place is a pile of rocks, boulders, & muddy sand. The low area of the wash is about 4 or 5 times wider now. The wash created a 20 foot delta into the river, creating a little ripple in the river. I think we were all feeling better about this by now, because we joked that they'd name these rapids after us. The shelter that we found looked to be the best place we could have found, and we found it in a near panic, minutes after the flash flood started.
I had seen erosion take place. I just wish I had before pictures to go with the after pictures. There was a geology professor on the trip as a guest, and he told us that by the rocks around the area, it looked like something like this had last happened something like 200 years ago.
The guides said that this was probably only the second worst flash flood they'd been in. Apparently there was one in a canyon that occurred in a side canyon during a day hike. People were in the canyon, and I believe that people might have been hurt. Perhaps they were even evacuated. The guide had a hat on for the trip signifying the event. They also said that there was a chance, but not much, that we'd find some stuff that had floated down the river.
As usual, we were the second boat. Soon after we start off, Mike yells that he sees one of his shoes, so we go get it. Just a few minutes later, we find the other one! We also find a jacket. The front boat found more. They found Mike's & dad's bag, a bag of my mom's, my dad's ammo can, my ammo can, and my bag of wet stuff from the night before, including my shoes!
My ammo can was bone dry. When I was stressing the night before, I had decided that when I wrote about this adventure, it'd be titled "I Have No Pictures of the Grand Canyon." However, my camera & pictures were fine! Also by this time, everyone was out of cigarettes, but in my ammo can, I had about a pack left. I took them out held up the cigarettes high and said, "We have smokes!" I pass one out to all of the smokers. Sergio smiled big and said, "Che culo!" while pointing both of his fingers at his behind. I looked to his wife Paola and asked, "What does it mean?" She laughed, looked a little embarrassed, and said that in Italian it is a saying that means you're really lucky. So I asked her what it really meant. She said "Big Butt."
From what I remember, my mom lost her wet bag with all her clothes, her wallet, and their plane tickets home. I lost my sandals & a water bottle. My dad came out pretty OK. Mike lost one sandal. My parents lost their tent & sleeping bags. So the next night we camped as far from the main wash on that night's campsite wash as we could. We also packed all our stuff into the 3 wet bags we had left, closing them tight. If it happened again, we figured the wet bags did alright when they were closed. We may come close to death again, but we weren't going to lost any more stuff!
So there were about 3 days & 2 nights left in the trip after the near death experience. It isn't easy to get out of the canyon before the trip is over. Apparently getting evacuated by helicopter runs about $2500, and none of us was seriously injured. To hail a helicopter, they have to radio a plane that might or might not fly overhead. Then all they can do is give their outfit, location, and the nature of the injury. It take hours to get out. Apparently more outfits are getting satellite telephones nowadays.
The last rapid on the canyon is called Lava Falls. It is the biggest rapid. Over its fairly long length it drops 3 stories. The waves & holes are enormous. My parents had done this trip before, and had told me that going through this rapid was like getting dunked underwater. This time we were the first boat; the other boat had the geologist, who had a video camera to tape us going over the rapid.
Going through the rapid was great! It was like the log ride at Great America times 10,000. Fast moves & dips & danger & water, lots of water! After it, we land on the side of the river to wait for the other boat. After everyone is safely off the boat, the guides are saying "Ohmigod! I can't believe it. I'm going to church tomorrow. We're so lucky! You guys (meaning my family) are so lucky." I ask what are they talking about. You see, our boat had run perfectly throughout the trip. No problems, but I guess that after going over the first small wave, the throttle broke on the stick that controls the outboard motor! The engine was still running, but they couldn't control it. We had floated over the biggest rapid on the Grand Canyon. This is the fastest navigable water in the world, and we floated it! Apparently the time I (and many other people) were dumped on by water, our side of the boat had hit a big rock in a hole in the rapids. It was sort of caught there, and tipping our side of the boat up, apparently almost straight up. All this time the other side of the boat is in the hole with water rushing down that side. This could in effect push down one side and push up the other side, flipping the boat. I had no idea this was occurring. To me there was just water everywhere. Neither guide had flipped in Lava before, and just before we got to these rapids, they told us another story of death in these rapids. So I told Christian, "No not, 'We're lucky!'; 'Che Culo!'"
All told I'd do this again. Next time I want to go on an oar trip. I can't believe that I was having a hard time getting excited about the trip before we left. It was amazing.