Voyages: A Grand Adventure
Ten years ago I distinctly remember a patroller from the valley telling me that if I ever got invited on the Grand Canyon to just say yes, quit my job and do what I had to do to get on the trip. Two years ago I didn’t get invited on the Grand, but I was told to apply for a permit when I bumped into an acquaintance at the Snowmass market. I remember feeling like a deer in the headlights at the idea of organizing and leading a trip. My friend said she would lead since she had done it twice, and that I would have more points in the lottery compared to someone who has already been down. She told me I had two days to do it and that I should just go for it. I was nearing my 40th birthday and I wanted to check the Grand Canyon off my bucket list. I applied — and I won a Sept. 3, 2017, launch. I was ecstatic, but we did have a year-and-a-half wait before we launched.
Our wolf pack was comprised of 16 people and six rafts. We were set up by Moenkopi outfitters out of Flagstaff, Arizona, and they provided the gear and enough food to spend 20 days on the river. We rafted 280 miles, launching from Lee’s Ferry and taking out at Pearce Ferry. I believe a lot of people stop at Diamond J, but why not do the full experience if you get the opportunity to? We had to bring our own beer, personal clothing and sleeping arrangements, which to my surprise felt very easy to pack for. Everyone on our trip was from the valley, and eight of the people were trained raft guides through Blazing Adventures. These people knew how to have a great time, but when it came to scouting rapids and keeping things calm and cool when the rapids approached, they were dialed in and kept the rest of the clan calm and safe.
After settling into river life and seeing the commercial J-rigs blazing by with motors, I realized how few private trips there are, and I had one of those rare moments when I felt that money does not get you the better seat — instead, friends do. I would not want to be propped up on a large tube on a motorized boat barely getting a splash from the Class 8 waves. We had the freedom to choose who we invited, where we camped, where we hiked and who we shared our beer with — and it felt glorious.
A typical day was rafting 12 to 18 miles, and depending on the section, you could be running several Class 7 and 8 rapids and also stopping along the way to do side-canyon hikes, check out waterfalls or see Pueblo granaries or ancient artifacts.
One highlight of the trip included the Little Colorado River, which is a tributary to the Colorado. I believe it’s typically blown out with mud, but we had crystal-blue warm water. We were able to walk up, give ourselves a mud bath and float down it with our personal flotation devices.
While camping at Deer Falls and having a layover day, we ran into a group of Native Americans from the Hopi tribe hiking to a sacred site and giving their offerings. Even if you are not a spiritual person, being on the Grand Canyon and knowing it’s the eighth wonder of the world puts you in tune with nature. You’re seeing dragonflies, butterflies, birds, snakes, lizards, deer and bighorn sheep on a daily basis. There was a silhouette of a ram on top of the canyon while camping at Deer Falls that will forever be ingrained in my memory.
The night sky is unforgettable. We had a full moon at the beginning of the trip that passed through the canyon and made it feel like a very large, natural nightlight. The stars and Milky Way against the rock silhouette surround you 360 degrees against the river — take this scene with a few shooting stars, and I had the most amazing feeling of serenity I’ve had in my life.
After running Lava Falls, which is rated the hardest rapid in the Grand Canyon (Class 9), we stopped at a beautiful sandy beach called Tequila Beach. We had no boats flip in Lava, so once again I was beyond ecstatic. Just then, a group of women on a commercial trip came to the beach; eight of whom were Air Force pilots. They were getting helicoptered out the next day (I can’t make this up), so after swigging some of their chilled prosecco and swapping stories, they threw us five bags of wine — maybe in trade for some of our men? — which justified my feeling of being a pirate.
What is pirating, you may ask? It started when we began singing a tune to passing commercial trips for free bags of ice, and I believe we might be the record holder for receiving 41 bags. We also were diving to the bottom of a waterfall trying to find the top to a flask that went missing when we found a man’s wedding ring, and one of the pirates from our wolf pack slipped it on his finger. We started drinking at 9 a.m. — not just beer but whisky — telling jokes, and our language became filthy (or maybe that was our clothes). Cutting each other’s hair, spray painting our hair red, we told ourselves we were getting tattoos and ran on the beaches naked … I believe all of this falls under pirating.
The society I have known for at least 20 years is gripped by their cellphones and consumerism and, to be honest, it did have me extremely anxious to take a trip where I was removed from all these things. I knew I would not have stores to go to and purchase things if I needed them, and I wasn’t going to be able to check in on social media, but I quickly fell into a place where none of that mattered, and you don’t even think about it. Indoor toilets started to seem foreign and computers or anything motorized seem odd.
We are creatures of habit, but I do think everyone should experience removing themselves from their society of technology and buildings and be in nature to get back to how your true inner soul feels; it makes you realize what’s important in life and that the little stressors society throws on you are not anything to stress about.
I realized I’m easy to pass judgment on people without knowing them depending on what career they have. I realized some people who may struggle in the Monday-to-Friday, cookie-cutter world can excel and have a much different skill set that doesn’t get displayed. I trusted my personal safety and well-being to the person at the beginning of the trip that wouldn’t have stood out as someone who had the best skills at reading water and rapids. I ended up being in a small, mini max boat in large rapids with this person and feeling very safe about it.
You are only allowed to raft the Grand Canyon once a year unless you are a commercial guide, and roughly only 30,000 people get to do it annually. I think it’s something, as an American, everyone should experience in his or her lifetime. We travel all over the world trying to find the best new experience, especially people from this valley, and this is something sitting roughly 10 hours away. People are afraid of dying in the rapids, but we get in our cars every day, which I bet is far more dangerous, especially now with all those people in cars holding cellphones and checking in at every stoplight.
Final gratitude goes out to Katie McKirahan from Snowmass Village for being a very steady, assuring cool captain, and Cody Webb from Aspen for never making me swim.
Maria Wimmer is distribution manager for The Aspen Times.
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It was inevitable, right? Wine in space.