Flying in small planes made me nervous. I didn’t have a problem with being enveloped in the cocoon of a large airplane, but bouncing above the earth in a cramped cabin barely larger than a car grated on my nerves. A view of open sky and earth close enough on three sides to reach out and touch raised the risk factor a few notches. Though I flew out of necessity, I would rather not be higher than I could safely fall from factors outside my control. Like engine failure, or smashing geese or buzzards, or storms, or wind shear. In larger planes, pilots in the front cabin took care of these details while I sat back and relaxed. Having flown as co-pilot a few times in small planes didn’t help my attitude. Flying involved so many more variables in three dimensions than driving a car in two dimensions on flat ground. A stick aimed the plane up and down, as well as tilted wings into rolls. At high altitude, an artificial horizon gauge provided a reference to keep the plane level, regardless of what my eyes perceived with changing clouds and landscape. An altimeter also had to be minded because the ground elevation might change the height even if flying level. Two rudders steered the plane left and right, with each foot moving a different rudder. Flaps lifted and lowered the nose of the aircraft. So many things to watch. My mind strained with information overload.
Such was a price to pay to reach destinations in lessor-traveled areas of the world. Like my flight in a Sky West Cessna 421 over the Nevada desert in the summer of 1985 with long time friends Harry and Janis Hudson and Ronnie and Prissy Kirkwood. Not long out of college, we had decided to rough it on a rafting vacation before we settled down to family life. As a matter of fact, my wife, Susan, had recently become pregnant and did not accompany us for a rambunctious vacation. We had flown into Las Vegas for urban entertainment for two days. Then we left the civilized world to float down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon for three days on a Western River Adventures raft.
River rapids are rated on a scale that began with Class 1 on calm water and ended with Class VI for impossible to run rapids and waterfalls. We could have chosen a seven-day trip with 60 plus Class III - V rapids on the Grand Canyon’s upper reach. However, we had no experience on big water, so I had chosen the lower 100 mile three day voyage with 15 Class II – III rapids for our adventure.
Our pilot dropped the plane onto a stretch of desert cleared of bushes at the Bar 10 Ranch a few miles from the Canyon. Dry heat parched my lungs when I stepped into a tan world of scorched scrub brush and sand. Looking at Bar 10’s log cabin and covered wagons transformed me back in time to days of cowboys and Indians. We could have chosen to spend a night roughing it around a campfire, but being from Texas, we had camped under many stars. We passed on the dude ranch experience and quickly changed transportation modes for the second leg of our trip. After we packed our allocated twenty pounds of gear into waterproof duffle bags, we loaded them into a helicopter and hopped aboard.
The pilot greeted us. “Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Strap yourselves in tight.” He laughed at our serious faces. “Don’t worry, I flew in a lot worse places in Nam.”
With that, he fired up the loud engine. Rotor blades sped to a blur and we rose off the ground. Again I depended on an engine to keep me alive. My core being squirmed at a higher danger level than in that little airplane. Adrenaline surged through my veins. No wings meant no glide ratio. We would drop like a rock if we had a mechanical failure. The pilot’s perverse way to deal with falling too far was to stay low to the ground, which was cool as long as we flew over the desert. My excitement built as we approached the rim of the Grand Canyon. When I looked for the other side, I found my preconceived notion of a canyon with vertical walls was totally incorrect. The drop from the rim of one of the largest gorges of the world to water far below gradually stair-stepped across forty-five miles of orange and tan sand, with a spider web of large and small dry streams and canyons that plunged to the Colorado River 2,500 feet below. Cries from passengers rang out as the chopper pivoted forty-five degrees into a left turn and fell like an enormous roller coaster riding a series of drops and rises that ended a short distance above the brown water. Up the sinuous river we flew, banking from side to side between wide canyon walls like a helicopter in battle. An exhilarating rush of viewing the magnificent canyon from a low level left me no room for fear. However, I could see from Prissy’s wide eyes and white knuckles that her idea of fun was different than mine.
Soon we slowed and circled over a raft beached on a sandbar. Our pilot gently landed on a flat outcropping next to the water. We unloaded our gear and carried it to the campsite. We passed a sun burnt crew that had just completed a dangerous seven-day run on wicked waters up river.
“How rough was the run?” I asked one of the travelers.
“Incredible,” he murmured in exhaustion. “One of the rapids stood the raft straight up and we almost flipped. Really hairy man.”
I looked at the raft and blinked. Yes, the lower stretch of calmer water suited me just fine. Another uncontrollable journey was not needed. I wanted to chill and recharge for a few days. The weary crew eagerly boarded the chopper for a flight back to comfortable hotels and restaurants. Two guides, Mark and Bill from the seven-day trip, continued on as our guides. They looked strong and happy, glad to be paid to have fun. I inspected an enormous raft that would be our home for three days. Actually, it didn’t qualify as a normal raft because it consisted of five, three-foot diameter, fifty-foot long rubber tubes strapped together. Lashed on top of the tubes were rows of crates full of gear, while at the rear a twenty horsepower motor dipped into brown water. What a serious raft. I didn’t see any paddles. This was going to be fun.
Mark and Bill impressed me as they rapidly set up tables and prepared fresh sandwiches and salads for lunch. Our meals would be way above Boy Scout level. Soon the helicopter returned with additional passengers to fill out our crew of twelve tourists plus two guides. We had an All American group with people from New York City, Michigan, Los Angeles, and Texas. It turned out that other than our Texas bunch, the others had not camped before. This would be a good initiation for them.
Mark instructed us on the basics of running the river. He would steer the raft with the motor. Life jackets were to be worn at all times on the raft. Five passengers would ride on tubes at the front, four on top of boxes in the middle, and three on tubes at the rear with Mark and Bill. Those in front would each straddle a tube and receive frequent baths when riding through rapids. Short ropes hung at strategic locations around the raft to hold onto when in rough water. We would rotate seating positions to allow everyone the excitement of riding up front at water level. In slow water, we could move around the raft and hang out where we wanted; but when we approached rapids, Mark would yell “Assume the position,” the command to scramble to our designated seats, grab ropes in front and behind us, and bend forward like riding a bucking horse. Mark assured us there would be numerous opportunities to “Assume the position” each day.
After introductions, we loaded our gear, pushed off the sand bar, and began a voyage of discovery through incredible canyons.
“Harry and Janis. Why don’t ya’ll take the front positions first,” I said.
“Alright.” They grinned and settled on tubes.
Each turn of the river revealed another spectacular view of harsh, tan canyon walls 70,000,000 years in the making. In areas of softer dirt, erosion had laid back gentle slopes from the water; but in many areas hard rocks reached vertically hundreds of feet. Frequent rock slides created difficult rapids and sharp turns along the river’s course. Harsh sunlight pounded me with 110-degree heat so dry that I didn’t sweat. The first time the river splashed on my legs, I jumped with shock from 60-degree water released from the bottom of Lake Powell. The temperature differential between air and water turned into a physical blow that smashed me like a hammer. For the remainder of the trip, rapids brought a mixture of rough water excitement and cold water pain. Most of us developed a headache from the hot versus cold extremes. A small price to pay for incredible fun.
Often we floated gently through smooth, silent water untouched by winds far above. We felt too intimidated to carry on conversations that might disturb the vast canyons that watched with indifference as our tiny boat intruded upon their kingdom. I’d never felt so small and easily fell into total relaxation, forgetting about the world’s stressors. They couldn’t touch me out here.
With each bend of the river I marveled at side canyons or stair-stepped bluffs reaching skyward to blue topped ridges in the distance. Striated colors along the walls revealed different geologic layers, each with it’s own stories through the eons. I couldn’t imagine the power of a river that cut so deep into the earth. Each side canyon brought a new marvel. Some only flowed with flash floods, some carried small trickles of water, and others ended in delightful waterfalls dropping into pools that overflowed to the main river. Mark stopped at select falls to let us climb through cascades of warm water that brought smiles to all.
My favorite part was when Mark yelled, “Assume the position,” and we settled into our assigned location, grabbed straps, and bent forward to ride wild waves of rapids that plunged between boulders and swirling pools. A few of the runs threw the raft around like a cork and drenched us with punishing cold water, but Mark steered with expertise that kept us out of trouble. I was glad we had passed on the upper stretch of dangerous rough water.
Later that afternoon, we beached on a sand bar to set up camp for the night. Bill opened the large boxes and we formed a line to unload voluminous camping gear. We pitched tents while Bill lit a charcoal fire. No firewood was to be found in the desert. A few of the crew bathed in the cold water, but not I. Mark and Bill cooked marvelous steaks, potatoes, and apple pies in Dutch Ovens for our eating delight. Food always tasted better when cooked over a campfire.
After dinner, I explored and climbed up several bluffs to escape from any trace of mankind. I sat on a rock and watched water that had traveled hundreds of miles, listened to the canyon silence, and thought about early Indians that called this place home. Life was truly hard back then and only the tough survived. With my eyes closed, work stress of the world left my heart, and the river filled me with serenity. I loved this vast desert’s silent allure.
Our novice city slickers showed uncertainty in their eyes as the sun fell early behind the rim above and shadows crept across the canyon. Under a moonless night, we gathered around the fire and listened to stories from our guides about early river runners and days gone by. Campfires are an essential part of life outdoors at night, where mindfulness merged with an age-old ritual.
Ronnie and I didn’t last long in our hot tents. We took our sleeping bags close to the water in search of a cool breeze. Lying on my back, I watched myriads of stars sparkle above, occasionally interrupted by red and white flashing lights of airplanes. I wondered about the plane’s destinations and if passengers saw the massive light show from Vegas in the distance. We, fortunately, could not from the bottom of the dark canyon.
The sun peeked over the canyon rim to wake me the next morning. Our outdoor chefs cooked a splendid breakfast and away we floated to more sights and rapids.
When we drifted around a bend at one point, Mark pointed to a ledge high above us.
“Look, a Mountain Goat. We are on an Indian reservation and goats are protected from hunting. We’ll see more of them.”
A lone ram with curled horns watched us glide by. His fur matched the canyon color and I would not have seen him on my own. Cool. My first mountain goat.
Around another bend and Mark’s, “Assume the position,” command sent Ronnie and Prissy to the ropes as we traversed rough rapids effortlessly on the long raft. When we occasionally passed small kayaks and canoes, I thought about my own kayak and was glad not to be paddling it through these challenging rapids. The neophytes among us had no idea how lucky they were to be on a Cadillac raft.
At lunchtime, we stopped at another picturesque waterfall. I wondered about the source of water in the desert and realized canyons must cut deep enough to reach groundwater.
A rock ledge above us protruded over the river.
“I dare you to jump off that rock,” Ronnie challenged me.
“Let’s go,” I replied.
We climbed to the top and I back flipped into cruel cold water. No more jumps for me.
I decided to explore further and slowly walked up a steep rise. When I stepped over a hilltop, I surprised a mountain goat with curled horns just fifty feet away. He stared, head high in defiance. I froze. He froze. I stepped right. He stepped left. Back and forth we slowly danced in silence. This was a once in a lifetime experience to be close to a big ram. And I didn’t have a rifle. He stood his ground, so after a few minutes I crept backward and left the magnificent animal alone on his hill.
As the sun dropped, we pitched camp on another sandbar and enjoyed more western campfire food. The Texans in our group again slept out of their tents in order to catch a slight breeze. At three o’clock that morning, high pitched howling jolted the campers awake. More yelping close by. Across the river, a pack of coyotes gathered on a sand bar and sang to the moon. Our city slickers screamed in fright at their first encounter with these rarely seen canines.
“Sounds like being at your ranch,” laughed Janis.
“Yep. Music to my ears,” I replied.
The guides reassured us that we were safe, but our rookies stayed up all night, their flashlights searching across the river while the Texans turned over and went back to sleep.
After breakfast in massive canyons, we loaded our raft for the final time. At one last waterfall and pool we reveled in a warm water bath for the first time in two days. After a few more rapids, we left towering canyons and entered blue calm water of Lake Mead. When a boat sped across our bow, I knew we had found civilization again. Or civilization found us. After a lazy ten-mile ride across the lake, our voyage ended at a boat ramp where we loaded our gear onto a bus that took us back to Vegas.
On our ride back I contemplated the vast, dry desert interrupted by wonders of the mammoth Grand Canyon. My few days in the raw wilderness were but a split second in the eons of time that had formed this spectacle of nature that could only be truly appreciated in a journey by water.