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!).
When we pulled ashore in camp, one of two things happened. If the day had been relatively placid, we immediately unloaded the kitchen gear and personal luggage. If it had been a trying day, we invoked the one-beer-rule, a few moments when a can of something was consumed quietly.

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)
The day's cooking crew picked their campsites and then set up the kitchen. There were four aluminum tables, a strongbox with pots and utensils (a heavy monster), a four-burner propane stove, and the "rocket", a propane blaster the likes of which I've never seen before. It could boil a couple of gallons of water in minutes, and I suspect it could have gone airborne if inverted. And under it all, a nylon pad designed to catch errant bits of food. A hand-washing station was set up, and was used constantly.

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.
One night we spilled some uncooked rice grains, and a drama unfolded as an ant discovered the treasure and passed word. Within a few minutes the cook area was crawling with ants looking for more. We could easily follow the trail back to the nest.
If we were cooking steaks or using the dutch oven, we lit charcoal in a fire pan. The ashes were collected and added to the organic waste. Ashes can also pollute a campsite, as can fire rings. If you want a fire, you have to bring your own wood, although on off-season trips, you can burn driftwood, but only in the firepit. That's the very first cake I've ever baked, below, a German chocolate. I am relieved to say it came out okay!
After the efforts of the cook crew bore fruit (and meat, and vegetables, and dessert), we sat down to a feast. River menus are the stuff of legend, and ours was no exception. We enjoyed shrimp and linguini, salmon steaks, tri-tip, pork loin chops, chicken fajitas, rib-eye steaks, butternut squash ravioli, curry stew, jambalaya, and enchiladas, along with all manner of salads and vegetable sides. And the view from our restaurant was marvelous!
Breakfasts were equally tasty, with omelets, pancakes, french toast, and lox with bagels. Even cold cereal once or twice, on busy days.
Once the cooking was done and meal served, it was time for cleaning up. Although the cook crew was ostensibly responsible for cleaning up as well, most nights volunteers jumped in to help. The wash station, below, consisted of four buckets, one for washing off food particles, one for a hot soapy wash, a hot water rinse, and a soaking in a bleach solution. Dishes and utensils then air-dried in nylon bags attached to the tables and were then put away for the night. All dishwater was strained of food particles and dumped into the river. All food was put in strong boxes or back on the boats to keep the ringtail cats and various rodents from making a mess of things. The nylon pads were cleaned off in the river. All food waste was put into the large ammo cans and put on the rafts. Paper and metal waste was bagged and stored on the rafts as well. Ultimately and ideally, no food particles remained in camp when we left.
I was surprised and pleased to say that it worked. Not one of the camps we occupied had trash beyond the stray bit of paper (which we picked up). When we arrived after a rainfall, there was hardly a sign of human presence in the camp at all, not even footprints. For all I knew, we were the first to see these incredible places!

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.
 Solid waste was trickier, but the system worked. What you see above is the handwashing station, and the "key", which you took with you when you went to do your business . That way, no one would interrupt you. All solid human waste and toilet paper went into the large watertight ammo cans called "groovers". They were called this because in the olden days of rafting, there was no toilet seat, so you had a pair of grooves on your posterior after doing your business. When an ammo can was filled, it was closed up very tight, and stored on a raft. It would not be dealt with again until we offloaded at the end of the trip (I'm happy to say that the company we rented these from did the cleanup).
The system worked, and the river and camps remained protected from raw human sewage. When we were loading up the rafts in the morning, someone would ask if we were all "groovy" so they could take the toilet down. It was a bit of trouble to use the system, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

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!


Gaelyn said...

I remember all those processes, plus doing a walkabout before leaving camp to pick up any trash, ours or someone elses. People who haven't been on the river probably don't understand just how important all this is.

Celia Lewis said...

Thank you for all the details! I've always wondered how well the daily clean-ups were, from food to feces! Very very admirable system! Thanks again - I'm certain others were happy to find out all this too. One day...

intaminag said...

Crapping into an ammo box--that's luxury! ;)

Thanks for the details, sounds like it was a tightly run "ship".

jrepka said...

As I recall we didn't carry a multiple-day water supply (other than personal water bottles) -- one of the assigned jobs each day (cooking, clean-up, groover set-up) was to pump enough drinking water for the group, for cooking and drinking.

The big storms at this time of year were amazing! In late May-early June the river was mostly clear, so the wash water was mostly clear enough to use in minutes.