Rafting the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

By Joey Castro.

A five-day river-rafting trip offered a lifetime of memories for 19 Gay Outdoorsers/Chilternites who spent nearly a week rafting the Colorado River through 190 miles of the Grand Canyon. Lead by Dan Nelson and Chuckcockshaw, the group consisted of Chiltern members from New England, California, and Texas.

Many of the gang had a pre-trip weekend excursion to Las Vegas, meeting up with several other Gay Outdoorsers/Chilternites to spend three days sampling the life of a city that the an airlines pilot described as the Lost Wages, the city of sin"! Las Vegas offered a variety of sights, sounds, and tastes: hotels that were "cites" beneath each roof – many offering thrill rides requiring you to remove "any loose objects" lest you loose them, $1.99 margaritas available to cool your palate in the dry heat of the day, nicely landscaped pools with a steady flow of satellite music to sooth the soul, and plentiful buffets galore! Slot machines appeared in the airport terminals and continue at virtually every turn. Members of this group ranged from novice to near expert on the Craps and Black Jack tables, many posting profits before leaving for the canyon on Monday afternoon.

Yavapai Hotel, situated on the South rim in Grand Canyon National Park, was the official meeting place for all who traveled by plane, across country by car (John), and/or by following the railroad (Tom). For most, it was the first view of one of the world’s "Great Wonders". Shortly after sunset and a quick meal, Mark, a Canyoneers representative who was to lead us on the early morning hike to the river, met with the group to give an orientation to the trip. He had our undivided attention either by subject matter or pure appearance . . .

4AM came early the next morning as we all received a wake-up call to assemble at the bus by 5:15 to go to the trail head for a 6.5 mile hike down to the Colorado River and our raft. The sky was clear the air was cool and full of anticipation. Many back-packed their own gear down (limited to 30 lbs. AND 2500 cubic inches), while others took advantage of a mule service that would deliver belongings to the raft ahead of time. The downhill hike took roughly four hours, consisting of spectacular views, passing mule trains, many switchbacks and multiple photo opportunities. Eventually, all crossed a suspension bridge and arrived at the riverbank of the muddy brown river (near Phantom Ranch) where the raft and its crew of three awaited us.

It was at this point that Mark delivered us over to the Canyoneers rafting crew. Jed, the raft Captain and River Guide, was 27 years old and versed well beyond his years with the knowledge of the canyon, and the river more specifically, after eight years on the Colorado River. Tim, in his late 20’s early 30’s, was a raft "Swamper" – one of two crew assistants, conversant in the Canyon’s geology and agriculture (his fourth trip in this role). Amy, the other Swamper in her mid 20’s, was on her eighth trip as a rafter, learning the ropes to Captain her own crew someday. She was both surprised, and pleased to learn the premise of Chiltern, as she too was gay, though not out to her crewmates (a status that changed by the end of this trip!). Dan had informed the Canyoneers office as to the group’s "specificity", yet the crew was under the impression that this was an "internet group" Needles to say, all doubts were removed early on . . . !

The raft for this trip was 37 feet long, weighed 14,000 lbs, and was powered by a 30 h.p. motor. A spare motor and seven extra propellers were also onboard. Our immediate task was to organize our belongings to fit the raft’s configuration. Each were given a heavy gray dry sack containing a sleeping bag and a top sheet – all personal gear was to fit in this bag and would not be accessible until arriving at the evening camp site. Each person also had access to an ammo (ammunition) can that contained a fork, knife, spoon, and a Canyoneers mug ( . . . Jed stating that the trip was actually free, but the mug was the reason for the trip fee!). Each ammo can was marked with a name that had a particular significance to historical persons or reference points along the river. In addition, each person was allowed a ricksack that could hold cameras, sun block, and etc. for easy access during the day.

Once the raft was packed and the final instructions were given, we were off down the cold, brown Colorado River. The days on the river were consistent with endless views of cliffs and rock formations. White water was present yet not predominant. Rather, the river experience was more calming in nature removing city life, cell phones, and email from the daily-grind, replacing it with clear blue skies, waterfalls, and river stories that walked a fine line between fact and fiction. Chuck caught the geologist Tim crossing that line, which became a running joke that Tim will not soon forget!

The days started approximately 5AM with Jed’s voice echoing "COFFEE!!" off the canyon walls. Each person was expected to break down their individual campsites, repack the dry sacks, get their silverware and head to the beach to eat. As a group, an organized chain-line would form to load (or unload) the raft. Life jackets were worn at all times while on the river. We were asked not to swim, but rather wade in the river water when we made "pit stops" whereas the water’s current was dangerously strong. The rule of thumb during the pits stops to maximize privacy when "nature called" was that women went up-river, men down-river (skirts UP - pants DOWN as we were told). "The DUKE", a portable commode, was available when necessary to truly return to nature. . Few people wanted to ride in the front of the raft in the early morning hours. The air was cool and dry, and the splashing cold water made teeth chatter until the sun rose above the cliffs. The temperature ranged from 50’s to 100’s during the course of the day.

To beat the mid-day heat, we had scenic stops where, after lunch and a mild to moderate hike, we would arrive at crystal blue waterfalls and wading pools to cool off. Mesh drag-bags tied to the raft beneath the water line kept a supply of beverages cold. An occasional water fight would erupt along the river when our raft would encounter another raft and crew. The competition would be a simultaneous fierce, flooding, and refreshing frenzy. The National Parks Service limits the number of rafting permits within the canyon, so interactions with other groups was not too common, adding to the overall peace and solitude of the surroundings.

The last stop for the day was usually around 4PM. The river guide would beach the raft and deliver instructions. Each person would choose their respective campsite and mark it with a life jacket (once Jed said which direction The Duke would be located). The chain-line would reform to break down the raft and set up camp forming food prep., cooking, and dishwashing stations. The raft crew prepared fantastic meals including grilled steak, chicken, and taco salads. While the crew was cooking, we were busy setting up camp for the night. The parks service required that rafting companies provide tents for their groups, although many followed the crew’s advice opting to camp out under the stars and bright glow of the moon. Each campsite ed was unique either by its layout, or by the result of a site decorating contest held during our third night. Each night had its own special memories: the celebration of Dan’s 40th birthday when he was presented with his "Action Man" doll which became the raft "Mascot", the late night hike where Mark gave an informative impromptu lesson about the various star constellations while surrounded by rock formations dating back 1.4 Billion years, the Lounges created by indirect (flash) lights against the canyon walls. But most notably was the final nights’ "Talent Show", complete with three acts, a water fountain, and Dame Edna (brilliantly performed by George) as the M.C.! It was enough to have Jed proclaim "No more Straight Trips!" at its conclusion. We’re sure that the Canyoneers crew will long remember the Gay Outdoorsers/Chilternites especially after they fell for our practical joke of faking Group-Food-Poisoning, complete with imitation granola and pink lemonade vomit, amongst other episodes . . . you had to be there!

The trip sadly concluded mid-morning Saturday. A speedboat met our raft on the river to transport us to the take-out point where a bus was waiting to return us to the South rim of the canyon. A bittersweet goodbye was said as we thanked them for a great trip while regretting its conclusion. The words, "Down and In!" "Good Hand Holds!" and "Back in the day . . ." echoed in our heads, as the individual thoughts of Jed, Tim, and Amy brought forth smiles and stories sure to be repeated for years to come. After a closing dinner at the Bright Angel Lodge, the group dissipated in various directions.

Contact the Grand Canyon River Trip Information Center if your interested in rafting the Colorado River, which we have a link to in the right margin.

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