Life on the Colorado River

Grand Canyon walls reflected on the Colorado River at sunset.

Grand Canyon walls reflected on the Colorado River at sunset.

Entire books are dedicated to the experience of rafting down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, yet somehow, even after much prior research, I found lots of surprises once I myself was on the river. Some were serendipitous gifts – running into my first chuckwalla, being stunned by the reflections of gold and purple on the water as sunset reflected from the surrounding red rock, or discovering a hummingbird nest above my tent. Other “surprises” were the result of experiencing first hand the thrill of splashing through large rapids, the magic of exploring slot canyons, or the serenity of garden oases tucked among the cliffs. These are the kind of revelations that inspire one to take such a journey in the first place, but there were a few experiences that I would’ve preferred not to be surprises. I wished I’d been forewarned about the sandstorms, for example. Or the fact that my hands were being mandatorily bleached with every washing, a detail that wasn’t exactly hidden but nor was disclosed and was far more detrimental to my cracking hands than the environment itself. It is these types of less than pleasant surprises that I hope to help you avoid.

In this blog I provide a general overview of guided rafting trips but more importantly, I detail potential areas of frustration for anyone preparing to go on one of these Grand Canyon rafting trips themselves. For a more detailed overview of Grand Canyon river rafting, the best resource I found was the book by Holly Stedman: Grand Canyon River Rafting; What to Expect & How to Prepare For Your Guided River Trip.

Choosing your Trip:
The rafting season runs from April to October, but elements vary within this period. Early in the season, there are fewer people, cooler (verging on frigid) temperatures, and pretty nasty sandstorms. Later in the season it gets quite congested with people (despite trip quotas), temperatures get hot (and stay that way into the night), and the water becomes increasingly muddy. Trips at the tail end of the season may be cancelled for lack of water.

Rafters on a self-paddled tour.

Rafters on a self-paddled tour.

There are different boat options, ranging from large motorized rafts to trips where guests paddle for themselves, or guides paddle while guests ride. Travelers truly looking to connect with nature best avoid the motorized versions. Literally. Not only don’t take this type of trip, but when on the river stay as far away as possible from passing motorized tours. They carry the most people; the crowd is noisy and from all appearances just there for a quick joy ride; the trips take the fewest number of days so allow the least amount of time on the river; passengers are stadium-seated higher from the water than in paddling rafts; and the motors are loud and resource-guzzling. On trips designed for self-paddling, the boats are smaller and passengers paddle together under the instruction of a guide. On these trips the gear is carried separately on larger rafts (the same size as we were on) that are manned by the guides. Guests can occasionally rotate out of the paddling duties for a break, but should expect to paddle most of the trip. If you don’t want to paddle, either at all or for long periods of time, take one of the trips where the guides do all the paddle work. This was the style of trip I was on because it was photography-themed and not having to paddle left hands free for potential picture-taking at all times. While this was perfect for capturing images, I did find myself wishing for more paddling opportunities. Our guides were willing to let us paddle when we chose (except, sensibly, on big rapids), but I found managing these large rafts by myself to be unwieldy. I just didn’t master it sufficiently to paddle for reasonable amounts of time. Trip length varies from a couple of weeks for a full-river paddle trip to as few as three days for a motorized trip down half the river. Keep in mind that if you do a half river trip, you’ll need to hike down to or up from the Phantom Ranch campground on the Colorado River to Grand Canyon’s south rim.

Me trying to paddle our guide-sized raft.

Me trying to paddle our guide-sized raft.

As I mentioned, I was on a photography trip so its leader determined which rafting company I used. There are other themed trip options (e.g., yoga, hiking, music), and, like me, choosing one of these may influence your choice of operator. Because I based my choice on theme and photography leader, I don’t have any advice on choosing among the available operators, and there are many. My trip was operated by Arizona Raft Adventures (AZRA) and all evidence suggests that they are among the best, though that’s not to say there weren’t areas where they could have been better.

Packing:
Probably all tour operators send suggested gear lists to their potential passengers. AZRA certainly did and it was a great starting place. Stedman’s book Grand Canyon River Rafting; What to Expect & How to Prepare For Your Guided River Trip was even more detailed and helpful. Here I’ll just mention a few items that were particularly pertinent, were omitted on gear lists, or merit comment based on my experiences.

Tour-provided dry bags for all your stuff. The white one is the day bag, blue are accessed at night and identified by your assigned number.

Tour-provided dry bags for all your stuff. The white one is the day bag, blue are accessed at night and identified by your assigned number.

How much to bring is always a question. Do keep in mind, as the guidance tells you, that everything gets packed into three relatively small, waterproof bags. They hold more than you might imagine, but the less you can get by with the better. Less gear is easier to carry over the often rough terrain between the boats and potential campsites; it allows bags to be packed more tightly against potential water leaks; it’s easier to shift through when you’re looking for that one essential item; and it means less time spent packing and unpacking every day. And you will be packing and unpacking every day. There’s little to no access to the two larger bags throughout the day and what you need in your day pack varies based on proposed activities. Rearranging gear is an endless task that is certainly helped by having less stuff to begin with. The challenge, of course, is making sure you’ve got everything you need (including back-ups for essential items) in the most compact format possible.

One way to reduce gear is to bring your own sleeping bag. The provided bags are not particularly compressible, so much space can be saved by bringing your own backpacking sleeping bag. If, like me, you get cold easily, you’ll want to bring your own sleeping bag anyway to stay warm enough early or late in the season when night temperatures may drop to freezing. Bringing a compressible mummy bag and thermal liner are a good way to maximize space and warmth. I also brought a backpacking air mattress for added warmth and comfort, but stopped using it after a couple of nights. The provided “paco” pads were sufficient.

If you’re going early in the season, be prepared for some extreme wind and associated sandstorms. A couple of our guides had sand goggles and it’s safe to say that everyone was jealous. If you wear contacts, bring several back-ups and consider switching to an extended wear variety for the trip. No matter how careful I was about cleaning my hands and contacts, putting in my “eyes” everyday was an excruciating task, and eye drops really didn’t soothe the pain. Bring glasses for some periods of relief, prescription sunglasses if you plan to wear them in the day.

Parachute line (or some equivalent light but strong rope) is another good idea during the windy season, to help secure the tent and anything else that might blow away. Even beyond the spring windy period, parachute line is useful to secure tents, hold up sun shades, create a clothes line or repair any number of items. A repair kit with parachute line, duct tape and super glue is practically unbeatable.

Rafters lined up for lunch, note the hand washing station at the end of the line.

Rafters lined up for lunch, note the hand washing station at the end of the line.

Using the bucket "sink" system.

Using the bucket “sink” system.

The companies are manic about infectious disease prevention, probably for good reasons. To limit disease transmission, everyone is required to wash their hands before each meal, which is quite a reasonable thing. But it turns out that bleach is added to the hand washing water to aid in this effort. While I appreciate the attempts to minimize illness, I wish we’d been informed about the bleach ahead of time and had been given alternative options. The bleach was destroying my hands as much, if not more, than the dry climate contrasted with perpetual wetness from the river. And one poor guy on my trip was allergic to bleach, suffering a red, itchy rash for several days before realizing what the issue was. I’m not sure of the regulations, but I recommend bringing a bottle of hand sanitizer (Purell, the like, or other hygienic alternative) to use in place of bleaching. Sanitation is undoubtedly crucial for rafting community health, but it certainly does not require bleaching, a process that is not revealed until days into the trip, if then.

For more generalized cleansing, I recommend baby wipes or something similar. The Colorado River is cold and, later in the season, silty. Not ideal bathing conditions in my opinion, so I relied on face and body wipes without regrets. Given the dry climate, I followed this routine with hefty moisturizing creams and Blistex. I actually even kept hand salve and Blistex readily available throughout the day (i.e., in a sleeve pocket on my paddle jacket), applying regularly to fend off and soothe cracking skin. One of the more sought after products on the trip was super glue, used to glue cracking hands back together. Even those of us wearing gloves and salving our hands ended up with cracked skin; one guide’s crack by his thumb came to resemble an inch-tall volcano. Skin cracking was a very serious matter, which was well covered in preliminary materials, but could still be scarcely appreciated in advance.

At cooler times of year, rain gear is pretty essential to keep from getting hypothermia after being drenched in the cold rapids. Paddle jackets provide extra resistance to water invasion around the neck, sleeves and waist. Stedman’s book Grand Canyon River Rafting; What to Expect & How to Prepare For Your Guided River Trip recommends full-zip pants to move quickly between water resistance and less warm layers in the heat of the summer. I found them useful in the cooler spring too, not so much for thermoregulation in the boat but for ease of changing from rafting to hiking attire and vice versa. I also used neoprene, waterproof gloves and socks. Between the frequent cold water splashes and the icy pool of water inevitably in the bottom of the boat, I was glad I had the gloves and socks.

Battery management needs to be planned. This issue was probably more extreme on my photography-themed trip than might be expected on a usual trip, but should be considered nonetheless. The guides provided a solar powered battery charging station, which was very much in demand and became a source of contention for some. I was grateful that I had back-up batteries and could more or less avoid the scene altogether. I definitely recommend bringing several long-life batteries and not waiting until the last moment to recharge. Be sure to keep all electronics in waterproof bags (even within the company-provided bags in case of leakage) or in a pelican case.

Bring several carabiners, including some with locking mechanisms. You can’t have too many. They are used to secure items in the raft. Anything left lying loose in the raft is fair game to be washed away in the rapids. Having extra carabiners on hand makes it easy to stash small items on the raft, water bottles and Tevas for example, while still having them easily accessible.

My trip did more packed lunches than the average so this may not apply to everyone, but I wished I had brought a reusable, easy to clean container for sandwiches and snacks.

Finally, I recommend bringing identification guides, particularly if you’re especially interested in a given taxonomic group (reptiles, birds, plants…). AZRA gave us all guides to the river that included pictures of some of the more common species, but it wasn’t sufficient either in extent or level of identification detail. The river guides did have a “library” along, but it wasn’t readily accessible nor did it include identification books for all taxa. If you know you’re going to want to identify all the wildflowers, for example, bring your own guide.

Daily Life:

Morning geography lesson and overview of the day's activities.

Morning geography lesson and overview of the day’s activities.

No matter what the exact list of activities for the day, each morning more or less starts with breaking down camp – stuffing sleeping bags, collapsing the tent, shuffling gear back into your bags and ferrying everything down to the water’s edge. It’s a process that couldn’t be described as a relaxing way to start the day, but does get easier over time.

Meal announcement left something to be desired. At some point a conch shell was supposed to signal that morning coffee was ready and at a later point, two blows were to signal breakfast. Or was it two blows for coffee and one for breakfast? Who knows. At all meals, sometimes the conch was blown and sometimes guides decided to shout instead. Sometimes, I doubt there was any announcement. Personally, I think not all personnel were sufficiently proficient in conch blowing and the fact of the matter is that shouts didn’t carry very far. I learned very early on that the best way to gauge what was happening in the kitchen was to just keep checking. And despite this, I managed to miss a meal entirely one time when my tent was particularly far away and the conch wasn’t used. It was rather disheartening to walk up starving, only to discover that the food was not only gone, but the entire kitchen operation was cleaned and stowed. The situation was quickly remedied and I was handed a sandwich not long after, but it was certainly a reminder to not count on being alerted to meals, nor to have staff notice that one of their 20 charges hadn’t  shown up.

Sink set-up. Left to right: bleach water bucket, foot pump, soap, faucet & "sink" bucket.

Sink set-up. Left to right: bleach water bucket, foot pump, soap, faucet & “sink” bucket.

I already mentioned a couple of times that pre-meal hand washing is mandatory. It’s a very wise policy, but do consider bringing your own hand sanitizer if you’re adverse to bleach. There’s also a bleach bath for the dishes as part of the dishwashing procedure, so you might also want to have a pair of rubber gloves depending on your level of bleach sensitivity. And do keep applying hand cream.

In terms of the food itself, AZRA did a great job of accommodating special dietary needs. They kept track of different restrictions for several people, were very clear about what was for whom, and there was never a lack of food. Overall, it was impressive how long they kept fresh produce on a camping trip, and the meals were generally healthy, balanced and tasty. It was solid food. It was not, however, gourmet and better than I eat at home, which were the descriptions I encountered time and again in preparing for the trip. Endless reviews praised the superior quality of the food, suggesting that I would simply be blown away by the gastronomic extravaganza that I would encounter while rafting down the Grand Canyon. The food was fine, but don’t expect it to live up to that level of hype.

The toilet set-up. Left to right: toilet paper container (front), liquids toilet, solids toilet, toilet supplies container.

The toilet set-up. Left to right: toilet paper container (front), liquids toilet, solids toilet, toilet supplies container.

Mornings were often the time when the toilet was most in demand as well. The toilet consisted of two containers – a bucket for liquids and a box for solids. The liquids were disposed of in the river each day while the solids were sealed in their container and carried out with us. These were placed in a relatively secluded part of camp with a hand washing station (same as at meals – a bucket with foot-pump-operated spout for bleached water) several feet prior, just out of view of the toilets themselves. A roll of toilet paper in a plastic container was the availability signal. If the toilet paper was by the sinks, the toilets were open. No toilet paper, wait in line.

We were very wisely informed at the beginning of the trip that privacy was a gift you gave others. It was relatively easy to oblige when the toilet was properly set up, but the statement was much more pertinent during the day when everyone was obliged to pee in the river and there was often no visual barriers. I read ahead of time that you’d quickly get used to peeing in front of the group. I confess that I never did. Peeing in the woods doesn’t bother me, but squatting amidst crowds was as uncomfortable after 14 days as it was on day 1. I strived for cover and would walk whatever distance necessary to get it, but there were the few beaches where the only water access was right among the rafts and other passengers. One of these times, after doing my best to discreetly huddle between two of the rafts, the gift of privacy was denied me when another passenger commented on the color of my pee. Of course others were less needy of this gift than I. As we pulled up to the landing beach before Lava Falls, a spot where several different trips were converging as guides assessed these formidable rapids, I was chided by a man on the beach “Hey, watch where you point that thing!”. I turned to note that my large camera lens was aimed directly at his crotch as he was relieving himself, unobtrusively against a rock prior to our arrival. He didn’t seem at all embarrassed. He laughed and told me I’d have to send him a copy of the image if it came out well. Whatever the situation, it is important to remember that people appreciate differing levels of privacy and it is in fact a gift that you can give others.

Once the gear is loaded onto the rafts in the morning, and the ravens have moved in to scour the area for potential crumbs, the day’s activities (some combination of rafting and hiking) are dictated by the trip leader. The options, of course, are influenced by where you are on the river, what sites other groups claim and environmental conditions, but ultimately the leader decides. This is typical of group trips but as someone who generally wanders the woods solo, I tired of feeling herded. And, to be honest, my biggest complaint with AZRA was our trip leader. He was a well-respected professional photographer who’d been river guiding in the Grand Canyon for 30+ years. He was a wealth of information, particularly given that we were on a photography trip, but the reality is that he was too old to safely manage a raft, much less the entire trip. He would make a great resource person for AZRA, accompanying trips as a local expert and maybe paddling a gear boat, but certainly not paddling guests and not calling the shots. I learned early to avoid being on his boat on big water days because he seldom got through smoothly and very nearly flipped a boat when he trapped it in the one area he’d warned all the other guides to avoid. He still understood the river better than anyone, but waning physical capabilities and reaction times had robbed him of his edge. Perhaps the scariest incident happened on a minor rapid where accidents weren’t expected, yet he crashed into another boat (my boat) and broke one of his heavy wooden oars across a guest’s back. I overheard him confessing later that he hadn’t even seen our boat until right before we crashed despite our being right in front of him.

Toward the end of each day, it’s time to land and reestablish camp. My trip was early in the season, so the number of trips on the river was less than at peak season. Yet there still was competition for camp sites. The rule is first come, first claim. So there is a rush to get to the desired site, sometimes cutting the day on the river short for the cause. If a site is already claimed, the next one may be a ways down and certainly less desirable. All indications are that competition becomes quite fierce in peak season, an added stress that sounds unwelcome to me.

As the toilet discussion should’ve indicated, these are primitive camping areas with no facilities. They vary in size, extent and available vegetative or geologic cover but all are on a sandy bank with space enough for the group’s fleet of rafts. In a perfect world, the rafts would all arrive around the same time, the trip leader would outline his (or her) camp layout and show where the kitchen and toilets are to be placed, and everyone would help unload all the gear, after which everyone would fan out to find their own ideal tent site. None of this ever happened. In reality, our leader rarely gave a clear plan (or changed it when he did), the rafts often varied in arrival times and scramble competition for camp sites was the norm. As soon as the rafts touched the sand, folks raced off to find a tent site, staking their claim with day bags and life jackets. In fact, anticipation of this race for nightly comfort inspired twitching muscle sinews and team coordination as the rafts made their final approach. Mostly couples, one member (generally the woman) leapt ashore to assert title to a home site while the other assisted with boat unloading. While the latter may sound like community service, it was also a good opportunity to unobtrusively scour tent numbers to procure one of the functional few. Make no mistake, as the trip progressed there was increasing competition for decreasingly functional tents and the community service facade was the best pretense for access to this coveted commodity.

An example of one of my preferred (protected and isolated) tent sites.

An example of one of my preferred (protected and isolated) tent sites.

In my opinion, an ideal tent site was protected from the wind and offered some privacy based on vegetative cover, physical distance, or some combination thereof. I was good at finding those spots. Unfortunately, my criteria were also those desired for the toilet and, in windy conditions, the kitchen. It became a running joke that the toilet would be placed wherever I chose to set up camp. My tent neighbored the “outhouse” almost nightly, not by my own choice of course, as I was there first. Several times I was asked to move my set-up for either the toilets or kitchen. There was no remorse, no apologies for not having been more clear about where communal areas would be (or about the leader changing his mind), I was simply evicted at a time when only tent site dregs remained. On the plus side, I got lots of extra exercise from walking further than anyone else – even clamoring over boulder fields in my pursuit of a more isolated wilderness experience. On the downside, the extra physical distance was part of why I missed any meal call that didn’t use the conch shell. This was my own choice of course. Many people on the trip were content to live in “tent city”. It just would have been less frustrating if communal areas had in fact been outlined upon arrival, as promised.

Newly fledged Canyon Wren.

Newly fledged Canyon Wren.

What about wildlife? To be honest, I was a bit surprised that we didn’t see more. There were the occasional mountain goats (somehow I missed the one morning when two rams fought within view of camp), side-blotched and yellow-backed spiny lizards were generally in the area, and with a little effort birds could almost always be found flitting in the bushes. It seemed to be nesting season while I was there and I discovered nests or newly fledged birds by my tent more than once, which was always a treat. I guess I’d also expected more small mammals – squirrels and chipmunks maybe – but I only saw a couple on the bank as we floated past. A little more lizard diversity would have also been nice. I knew they were rare, but my heart had been set on seeing a gila monster and I failed. Even scorpions were few and far between. During the day, only one was ever seen and our nights of searching were only successful at one site. Although at that site, scorpion density was astonishingly high! Under a black light, the privacy boulder by the toilet came alive with eerily glowing neon green scorpions and I was forced to marvel that no one had been stung.

Rafts lined up on the beach at the end of the day as a storm passed by.

Rafts lined up on the beach at the end of the day as a storm passed by.

Of course, in this account, I’m relaying what to watch out for. Overall though, the positives far far outweighed the negatives on my Grand Canyon rafting trip. I mean, really, being surrounded by breathtaking scenery on all sides every moment of the day is hard to beat. And there’s no better way to intimately appreciate the gradual shifts in the canyon’s geology as you wind through its timeline recorded in ancient stone. My goal here was to highlight the potential frustrations, to point out details that might help others both physically and mentally prepare for the trip so that even more of the focus can be on the incredible experience of rafting down the Grand Canyon.

Happy rafting!

If you haven’t already, be sure to read my Rafting the Grand Canyon travelogue for an overview of this trip.

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