The Grand Canyon - What's it like?

A talk by a Canyon Veteran

So you wanna do the Grand Canyon, wanna be there? Want to see it from the bottom. When you stop on the rim and look down, its pretty awe inspiring. But from the bottom looking up, there's nothing else like it on earth.

Well, so let's get down to some of the basics. We're going to go on a Grand Canyon river trip. So, we are ready to leave wherever we live, whether its rainy, cold, Spring, Summer, nice days, foggy, hot and humid, or whatever. But, when you get to Lee's Ferry and start down the river, you can expect (and I'm only talking from experience gathered on runs from June to September,) daytime highs of between 105 to 110 for three weeks in a row. Never see a cloud. Ah, but you might get lucky and get some cool days with some cloud cover and maybe temperatures only around 100. There's not much humidity down next to the river, so when things get wet, they dry right out. It can be 100 degrees and people get hypothermic because the water in the Colorado is 45 degrees.

So the general climate conditions can be very harsh. Very hot air and very cold water, not conducive to casually going for a swim when you get to camp. You can go swimming sometimes, though. Before I go to bed, I generally go down and dip my body in the water, head included, to drop my body temperature. This makes it comfortable enough to go to sleep, because at 9 or 10 o'clock at night, it may still be 105 - the rock walls store and radiate the daytime heat. The Canyon can be very hot and uncomfortable. You feel sticky, not sticky in the humidity sense, but that it's too hot to sleep, so dipping in the water can really help.

About the wind and sand. Winds can blow any day or all day, every day; upstream, downstream, who knows what - 20, 30 miles an hour, 5 miles an hour, maybe no winds. And then there's the sand. I can almost guarantee you that by day three, you'll have sand in your ears, sand in your eyes, and sand in your nose. Sand in your food is a definite possibility. You just live with the sand. Its a wonderful place to be, but you have to be able to withstand the elements. In other words, to enjoy the beauty, you have to have a rugged attitude. Without that attitude, you're dog meat.

And I think I failed to mention the bugs. The past two or three times that I've been down there, when people have been asleep at night, they've somehow gotten bugs that have crawled in their ears. Sometimes, when we get up in the morning, somebody's sitting on the beach going "There's a bug in my ear!" and we have to take it out.

Now there's a bunch of different ways to get a bug out of an ear. And most of them are pretty painless, but if you get a bug in your ear, you have to be ready to deal with it. Don't be like one guy who ran screaming up and down the beach. The screaming must have helped because after a couple of hours the bug left this guy. Last trip, it was only day two or three when someone got a bug in his ear. Then I noticed that all these people were sleeping with scarves wrapped around their heads. But the beetles in the ears, that's ah...they're pretty harmless. Once they leave you, its no big deal. The eggs don't hatch anyhow because once you get out of the Canyon, they can't handle the change in the climate.

Its the red ants, people get stung by red ants quite a bit down there. And there are some kind of, like yellow jacket/wasp/hornet/gizmo guys down there that will tag you, on occasion, if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are some bumble bees down there the size of Volkswagens. If you leave them alone they'll leave you alone. But the red don't always know they're there, so you kind of pinch them, so they bite you to make you let them go. So bugs is another item to add to the general conditions in the Grand Canyon.

If I think of any other reasons why you wouldn't want to be there, I'll mention them, but let's move on to step number two. We've decided that we're going to go - bugs don't phase us. And we're going to sit there and we're gonna eat our food with sand blowing in our face. We can handle that too. We'll close our eyes and just kind of pick around with our fork and hold the plate close to our mouth. Wait, there's more. You're gonna just have to deal with being sunburned beyond belief even though you've put SPF40 on your body twenty times a day. You get up in the morning and you're sunburned, only to wake up to the sun creeping over the canyon walls. The rocks in the shade from the day before are still about 75 degrees and there is no real place to cool off other than that cold river. I know you understand that its hot and sandy and funky but you're gonna go anyhow because you want to see the Grand Canyon.

So now, if you're going to go, you're going to help, because everybody helps. Boy, that's another one. You're uncomfortable, you're burned out, you're fried, you just need to kick back and relax. And you pull into camp. Everybody on the trip needs to kick back and relax, catch up on their journal, read that book they brought along, walk back upstream and take a picture of that neat rock, spire or cave or whatever they saw, but somebody's gotta do the dinner. Somebody's got to unload the boats and set the kitchen up and put it all together and its amazing how it turns out to be the same people over and over.

And whether its guilt or acclimation to the Canyon, or who knows what, somewhere about half way through the trip, different people who haven't helped at all start wandering in to help. And what do you know? All of a sudden you reach for that spoon and its always been there and its not there! And you comment, " Where's the spoon?" And the person who was helping the night before or that morning, when they put the spoon away, they put it somewhere different. And they say, " Oh, the spoon's over in the blue bag." Or maybe the spoon's in the big gray box. But its not where it belongs, because that person wasn't paying attention early on and it took them a while to get into the way of things and begin to help.

So...I would recommend that from day one, when you arrive at the put-in, you should try to help load everybody's boat. You should be involved with packing the ice chests, you might want to be involved with everything. Join in! Do your best to know what is on every boat. What does each boatman have? Who has the dairy chest, who has the meat chest, who has the root cellar, who has the toilet, try to become familiar with everything. Find out who has the piano and the fire extinguisher.

For the next three weeks, you will wake up every morning next to the Colorado river. If you're one of the lucky people, you'll wake up early and you'll start the coffee water for other folks. You will be a hero! Coffee water, tea water, whatever, you'll get up early, you'll get the kitchen going. But each and every day, people will get up and there will be something to eat for breakfast and then it will be time to kind of...break down our gear, or clean up the camp and get ready to go.

While sitting on the beach with all these other people watching the boatmen load the gear that they've carried day after day; straightening their loads, rearranging loads because we definitely lose food and lose beverages as we go down river, you notice certain things. And of these things is they don't really want to hop off their boats and run up the beach to grab this or that. If you're paying attention, you'll know who gets what on their load, and when they get it.

Do the boatmen need something right away before they can put other stuff on or do they need a particular item later? Lend the boatmen a helping hand if you can. It's nice to sit around and enjoy the Canyon. Because you don't just come for enjoyment, you come for the experience of being in a kind of wilderness, and helping the others in your crew becomes more and more a part of that experience. Join in and lend a hand!

Try to figure out where stuff goes and take it to that boat. Set it by the end of the boat. If the boatman doesn't like what you're doing, he'll tell you. But most of them are happy to have people bring the things that go to their boat. And if they are ready for it, they might actually like to have these items handed to them on their boat. But its all a matter of figuring out what goes where. So you begin with knowing where the silverware goes when we are finished with cleanup, putting the clean silverware away along with the breakfast dishes, and you progress to getting these things to the right container, to whatever container that box goes in, or maybe it just rides loose somewhere. Who knows? But the general process is getting things in the right place and then getting them to the right boat.

As much as you're enjoying this journey, putting up with the sand and the heat, and ohh... the rattlesnakes. We saw a couple of rattlesnakes in camp last year. And don't forget that scorpion that we saw when we picked up our bedroll. Anyway, the boatmen are down there to have fun too. As I understand it, the commercial boatmen that work down here make over a hundred dollars a day. So lets see, if they do a 15 day trip, they get off the river and someone gives them fifteen hundred dollars. The boatmen you're traveling with are paying money to go, the same as you. And they're bringing a boat and their gear and everything else, so why not help with some labor?

Give your boatman a break- learn how to do a job. Its good if you learn how to do one thing or two things, and you do them well. You can learn everything there is to do on the river, and there's nothing to say that you can't do them all well, but its always nice to pick out one or two things, and they're yours! Some people pack lunch every day. They ask "What's for lunch today?" and they get the lunch chest out. They make sure that the garbage from the day before is gone, and they check the bread supply. They might say to themselves, "Are there cookies for today? Are there crackers for today? Is the cheese that we'll need later today in the Lunch box?" You know. "Do we want pickles today?"

Somebody has to look at what's for lunch and make sure that lunch is packed and ready every morning. It doesn't sound like much and if you do it day after day it isn't much, but if you do it occasionally, if you only do it three times and you say I'll do lunch today, you'd be surprised how difficult it is, and you'd be surprised at what might be missing because you don't do it on a daily basis. Other people deal with the garbage, and they sort out the tin, and they cut the bottoms out of the cans, and they crush the tin and keep it in one place. And they take the paper goods and they put them somewhere else because, maybe, at some point, they will burn the paper to make for less trash. It's just a matter of picking out different things to do and doing them well. But you need to watch from the start to see what's going on.

So now you might be saying, Ahh...I see how it works! And I'm gonna... what am I gonna do here? Lets see. I'll have to check out all the different things that need doing and I'll pick a couple that I like. And don't worry that, on day one, you say, Hey, look at all these empty beer cans and soda pop cans. I know, I'll crush beer cans and... I'll crush the aluminum and be in charge of the aluminum. And that's a nice thing to do. Somebody's got to do it every day. I'll cut the bottoms out of all tin cans! And on day 1 that won't be many, but on day 14, there'll be a ton of them.

Then part way through the trip, you think, " Man, I am bummed. I can't believe these guys drink this much beer! I can't crush all these cans!" Don't worry about it, you're not signing up for life. You're not joining the Army! If you get tired of doing what you're doing, let somebody know. Its not like that's your chore and you have to do it, but I think you will feel good about doing whatever you do. Most people are proud of helping. Anyhow, you're not stuck to any one job and you'll find your two things that you want to do, such as crushing all the aluminum cans and closing down all the stoves and propane gas stuff.

Well, hopefully, even though you've picked those 2 things to do, you are watching to see (when you have finished your two chores) what other people are doing and what the chores are, and hopefully everybody's watching you. Everybody should be watching everybody. Some of us know every nook and cranny of the trip, everything that has to be done, and those are your boatmen. They are the people who end up doing things when everybody else just kinda says, Oh man, Boy, was it was hot yesterday. I didn't sleep...Boy, did that rain keep you up all night? I didn't sleep at all. Ahh...You know. Its the boatmen that end up picking up the loose ends, and they know generally what needs doing when and you can learn by watching everything that goes on.

I know its hard because the Canyon is so much to look at. Its uh... its hard to explain, but its like brain input overload. To think that you could absorb, uh.... how would you describe it? Nature at its finest? Nature at its most awesome? Its like a trip to Mars... Its like being someplace that is beyond all comprehension. And at the same time, I'm asking you to pay attention to where does the silverware go? Hey! Where do the crushed cans go? Who's got the crushed this-n-that?

You know, this kind of life blends into our real, everyday world. Somebody's got to come to your curb and pick up your trash or, you know, somebody's got to pump your septic system. Somebody's got to come fix the leak in your roof. A trip in the Grand Canyon is everyday life mixed with a trip to another planet. And hopefully, if you've signed up for a Canyon trip, you're one of the people who are special enough to be able to do any of these kinds of things well. Somebody who can land the spacecraft on the planet, pull out a chaise lounge and sit down and, you know, have a cold beverage and check out the native life forms.

And that's, that's sort of what we're asking for. Its helping. Don't make 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 people do everything or everything but ten percent and you help a little. Join in!

© 1996 Michael Dooley

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