It was time to begin our journey down the Colorado River, or as John Wesley Powell put it, going down the "Great Unknown". In his day, no one had been down the river. But since Powell's epic trip in 1869, a half million people have made the journey, and there is an entire library of books, maps and guides describing each rapid and eddy in the river. Today the river is "known".
But to me it was still the "Great Unknown". To someone with absolutely no whitewater rafting experience, the Colorado River might as well have been on Mars. Book knowledge is helpful in setting a frame of mind about traveling down the river, but preparing you for the experience? One might as well try to learn Judo from a book. I was quietly apprehensive as we drove north from Flagstaff towards the take-in at Lee's Ferry.
One doesn't exactly drive up and jump into a raft. With so much traffic on the river, there are regulations designed to space groups out, so a trip begins with an afternoon rigging, a night on the banks of the river, and a morning briefing and inspection by a National Park Service ranger. Once cleared by the ranger, the expedition can begin.
As we drove along, we couldn't help but notice the towering cumulus clouds ahead of us. The Arizona monsoons were in full flower, and it looked like we were going to have some serious rain activity.
We arrived to find a flurry of activity as the rafters prepared their rigs. At this point there wasn't a lot to do except stand ready to hand over equipment and luggage, or fill water jugs. Oh, and cull down the stunning amount of stuff we had in our luggage. I pulled one item after another from the dry bags, and then pulled more, and when we handed them over to be loaded on the raft, they got lifted up, heavily, and eyes rolled. Rookies....
For future reference, Garry, you can get by nicely with perhaps half the stuff you brought this time.
The first storm hit with a vengeance. I was surprised for a moment that no one seemed upset that their stuff was getting all wet. And then I remembered that everything we had was expected to get wet. We were going down a white-water river after all. I took my camera and other sensitive stuff to the big shade structure to wait out the storm.
We would not know it for two weeks, but the series of storms around the beginning of our trip caused havoc in the region. Check out this video of the simply unbelievable flooding at Antelope Canyon and Page, Arizona that took place during these few days. Antelope is a slot canyon 50-100 feet deep, and it was filled over the brim. We would also see side canyons downstream forever changed by debris flows.
For us, the storms brought about beautiful waterfalls, and being the first rainfall of the season at Lee's Ferry, also brought out a veritable zoo of toads, frogs, lizards and bugs along the river. A beaver swam by (I finally realized why saplings around the riverbank had wire mesh wrapped around them).
see the picture in this post). I slept...okay.
The morning included an impossibly beautiful calm river with the brilliant Vermilion Cliffs in the distance. The cloud cover promised rain, however. We packed our gear, loaded the rafts, and rowed back to the take-in for the ranger briefing. Once could tell the veterans from the rookies at the briefing: the veterans looked like glassy-eyed airline passengers sleeping through the emergency procedures, while the rookies like me hung on every word with widening and fearful eyes. Scorpions? Rattlesnakes? Deadly Rapids? Flips and upsets? Norovirus? Wait, what the heck is Norovirus? Ah, the reason (among many) for the almost OCD-like compulsion to wash hands over and over in camp. What could be worse than a highly contagious intense gastrointestinal disease spreading through camp, short of broken limbs or death?