Saturday, August 17, 2013
Into the Great Unknown: Everything You Wanted to Know About Rafting the Grand Canyon But Were Afraid to Ask
Before we embark on our journey down the Colorado River, I wanted to discuss an aspect not always mentioned by adventurers and thrill-seekers: environmental protection of the river. Environmentalism is far too often attacked as some sort of elitist Marxist plan to make life difficult for corporate air and water polluters, but it is in the most elemental sense an attitude to keep our world liveable for the people and animals who are its inhabitants. Why foul the only nest we have?
We see this in microcosm on the Colorado River. There is the river itself, and the numerous animals and plants it supports that must be protected, but at the same time, the rafters and hikers who explore the river need protection too. Getting sick on the river is no picnic. Not only that, how fun can a river trip be if the camps every night are trashed up, with the threat of stepping on human feces every time you wander the edge of camp? Ever since the spillways of Glen Canyon Dam closed in 1963, the sandy beach camps of the river have been eroding away. In two hundred miles of river, there aren't more than 100 or so possible camps, and 800+ people will be spread out in these camps each night. The campsites have to be cared for.
So what is it like to practice lowest-impact camping?
It means that you start a trip with all the food and materials you need to live for 16+ days, and you bring everything out of the canyon at the end (transformed in some cases into a different kind of material...). You give constant thought to hygiene as well, because as pristine as the wilderness is, the river is not. The tributaries of the Colorado River upstream drain thousands of square miles, and dangerous pathogens are already present in the water (especially when the Page, Arizona water-treatment plant overflows during monsoon storms).
The rafts in our group were mostly about 16 feet long, and look like the simple pontoon boats one would use on a day trip, but these are made of tougher material (despite all the scratches and collisions with rocks, there was not a single leak on any of the boats during our trip). They are fitted with an aluminum framework (rigging) that provides the anchor points for carrying ice chests, dry boxes, waste cans, and the all-important oarlocks. They also provide seating (riding on the pontoons in a rapid is not generally a good idea). As a rule, ice chests and dryboxes never leave the rafts for the duration of the trip. When dinner prep is going on, the cook crew goes "shopping", getting the food items they need from each raft (there is a master list to follow; the cold food is highly organized because the ice chests need to be opened as little as possible. The ice has to last the whole trip!).
Once the gear was onshore, buckets were filled with river water. The Colorado carries an incredible amount of silt and clay, and the water can take all night to settle. We would add a few drops of a flocculating substance (hey, we had four chemistry professors on the trip), and the water would settle after an hour or so. This became the wash water (drinking/cooking water was carried in five-gallon containers; the flotilla had a capacity of 55 gallons, enough to last three or four days)
What happens if bits of food get left on the ground? The red ants move in, and ant bites hurt like hell. They don't normally nest on the beaches, but they can be attracted there.
And finally, a word about the other part of environmental protection and personal hygiene. What did we do with human waste? Simple: liquid waste went straight into the river. That sounds terrible, but a flow of 10,000-15,000 cubic feet per second dilutes liquid waste very quickly, and if we did our business on land, it would not be washed away for weeks or months, all along attracting flies and other vermin.
One positive aspect: the groover site was chosen as to have the most dramatic vista possible. The view was almost always inspiring.
And that's how we did it. Coming up next: what I saw on the river!