The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River

My big trip in 2008 was one I had dreamed about for about 40 years, a 13 day rubber raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. When I decided to go in early 2008, I knew I was in no shape to undertake such a difficult trip. I enrolled at the JCC and promptly got myself a trainer. I lost weight and more than a dress size over the first few months of the year as I was working hard to build up my legs for climbing and hiking in the Canyon. I recently reread my journal that I kept on the trip. I am sorry now that I didn’t write more than I did. But I can tell you that even for an outdoorsy girl like me, this was one tough journey. There were 19 of us in 2 rafts on this photo trip sponsored by Friends of Arizona Highways. Forty years ago when I drove to the rim of Grand Canyon I had picked up a copy of that magazine and had kept it all this time because I knew that someday I would return to experience the river.

 
Rafting Down the Colorado
The trip is arduous because while you are on a river, you are also in the middle of a desert. The humidity is just 5%. Staying hydrated is not easy and staying warm is also a challenge. The temperature of the river water is about 46 degrees. You bathe in the river, you pee in the river, they add chlorine and you drink the river water, and you travel down the river. Every time you pass through a rapid, you get drenched. But it is so dry, the air sucks the moisture right out off your body. Your hands and your feet just crack open no matter how much moisturizer you put on them. Each person is issued 2 blue bags with the same number on them. They are waterproof IF you pack them and seal them properly. They are tied onto the bow of the boat and the black cases you see in the photo are waterproof Pelican photographic cases you bring for your camera gear. Waterproof, that is, if you seal them tight in time for the rapids. I didn’t and a brand new wide angle lens I had just bought for the trip was ruined on about the 2nd day. I had to replace it when I got home.
 
My fellow travelers were a diverse group but mostly older. Some were retired and able to take the time for such a long trip. One younger man had made a bundle being early into more than one internet or software company and was now pursuing photography with gusto. A few were professional photographers; some were serious hikers who were now able to take the time for this long trip. Almost all were men. One older woman was there to make her new boyfriend happy but had no idea of what she had gotten herself into. She was along for the ride but it was far more “ride” than she had bargained for. Once you leave Lee’s Ferry, there is no way out, so she was making the best of it. She and I wished each other Happy Mother’s Day on our final day. There were two younger girls on the trip who were changing jobs and searching for a career path. Another gal was an MD with a husband in Iraq as a private contractor. She was sharing the trip with her Dad who had just survived a nasty bout with cancer but is happily still fine. He was the best and fastest hiker in the group. He had been an inventor at Bell Labs in its heyday, a CEO, and an entrepreneur of a highly successful company that went bust with the tech bubble. It was an eclectic group that found me hard to fathom. I came alone, slept without a tent and was older than most but not all of the group.
 
The food was excellent. Coffee was served at 5:30 but you could smell its aroma wafting over the campsite long before they rang the morning bell. The food was healthy and they made every effort to cater to the needs of allergic souls or people with specific menu needs. There was plenty to eat and a lot of variety. The cold river water allowed their coolers to keep thing frozen a long while into the trip. Steaks, chicken, bean salads, potatoes, pasta, fish; and all very tasty. We sat in a circle each night for dinner in one large group. We all shared in setting up and washing up after. Some nights we took evening photos but most were asleep by 9 p.m. or soon after.
 
To me the most glorious part of the experience was that during the first week we had no moon, no clouds, and no humidity. If you can imagine star watching in that pitch black environment you will understand why I opted to sleep just in my sleeping bag and without a tent to obscure my view of the sky. I can’t imagine when I will I ever have the opportunity again to just lie someplace in a sleeping bag and look up at a zillion stars that you can never see in an urban environment due to the light pollution.
 
My CampsiteThe only problem with forgoing the tent was that several nights between about 2 and 4 in the a.m. we experienced sand storms. The sand is the texture almost of talcum powder. It is so fine it gets into everything including your fingers and toes that have cracked open. If you try to write with your pen, it gets into the roller ball. If you wash your clothes and hang them on a tree to dry almost instantly, they look dirty the minute you put them on again because they are covered with sand. What I wrote in my journal is that it “gets into your hair, your ears, your nose and your mouth.” That is why they recommend that you come with a variety of bandanas you can pull up when needed.
 
It gives new meaning to the concept of waking up and rubbing the sand out of your eyes. It gets into your sleeping bag and your blue bags. It is hard to keep your camera gear clean, too. Above is a picture of my campsite one night. I learned not to unroll my bag until I was ready to get into it to minimize the sand problem. One blue bag is for your clothing, the other for you sleeping gear, bag, tarp, and liner if you need it at the beginning of the trip when you are at 7000 feet and it is very chilly. They stop for the night at what are essentially sand dunes along the river. There is some competition among rafting groups for ones that are flatter or more protected from the winds or that are not dangerous if rainstorms flood the myriad side (slot) canyons and the run-off flows through an area where you might be camping. They also warn you not to keep a morsel of food in your blue bags or the animals will come and find it. They cook and clean up immediately and then the food is stored in lockers at the bottom of the rafts where the cold river water enables them to keep the ice and meats frozen for the long trip.
 
All of my efforts to get into shape paid off. My trainer Thomas Williamson had me really towing the line before I left. By the end of my training period, he had me going to the third sub basement of the JCC and walking up 12 big flights of stairs to the roof with a 15 lb. bar on my shoulders to simulate my photo back pack. I was really glad he did. There were a few extreme Joan Lappin in the Grand Canyonhikers on our trip who understood the tricks of the trail. I had to master how to place your feet so that you are anticipating where the next foot has to go as you are scaling the rock walls. Rico, the boat driver in the photo below had been a rock climbing instructor in the past and he took me on as his project. He was enormously patient and really encouraging that I could go further than I thought I could. For me it was a revelation to scale up the sides of some of the canyons and not be out of breath…something I had never ever been able to do in my life before my heart was fixed 6 years ago. I didn’t go as far or as high as most of the others but I really enjoyed improving my climbing skills each and every day. Rico hovered nearby and gave me a hand when that was my only way higher.   
 
Rafting in the Grand CanyonAll in all, the trip was very hard work. The conditions were rough and demanding. The photography was amazing and I am ever so glad I went. Would I do it again? Maybe if I were younger but I think now I want to continue to have new experiences and not repeats of things I have already done. It took 3-4 weeks for my hands and feet to recover. In the end, we had floated down 232 miles of the Colorado. We saw billions or years of geological history. We experienced breathtaking landscapes.
 
They say you don’t come out of Grand Canyon as the person who went in. My life has changed dramatically since I took that trip. My office is now at home. I’ve sold my too large apartment and moved to a rental in the same neighborhood. I have launched Sail Long Island to teach folks to sail on the North Fork of Long Island and I have embarked on JoanLappin.com. 

 

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