Twig Adventures

GC Day 1: A Wakeup

Monday February 19th, 2024,
Lees Ferry mile 0 to Hot Na Na Camp mile 16.6,
16.6 miles, elevation 3018′

I didn’t sleep very well, worrying over all the things that could go wrong. Would we flip a raft? Have a medical emergency? Get raided by bears? Ok, the last certainly wasn’t a concern but we were pretty worried about little bears…mice. Previous reports said they were out of control but we didn’t notice their presence at this camp. It was about the only thing it had going for it…I was glad to pack my things at first light. Except that it wasn’t just my things that needed packing. This first morning of many more to come, was the wake-up to what a monumental endeavor packing a full rafting camp is. I will never again complain about packing my own thru-hiking camp. It was especially chaotic since we didn’t yet have a system for where everything should go. Somehow, after hours of carting stuff to the rafts, all the things found a place and were strapped down tight in the event of an unexpected flip. The rule of thumb is to always be prepared for the worst, even if no really large rapids were expected for the first day.

The people in our group also found a logical place to ride, both captains and crew. Our 5 raft captions were Rob, Magnus, Cleave, Charlie N, and Chris. All had some rafting experience, and lots of small boating experience in general. Rob and Magnus had rowed the Grand Canyon before and Cleve was a professional sport fishing guide. I rode with Chris this first day, expecting that the crews would probably all rotate among the rafts as the trip proceeded. But whose personal gear went on what boat became rather set on the first day, as well as some other stuff. Charlie’s raft had most of the kitchen supplies and Rob’s cataraft held the toilet cans. As a result, his was the only boat that would become heavier as time went by, while the others would theoretically become lighter.

A rafting party’s toilet apparatus is known as a ‘groover’, for the grooves it used to leave on one’s butt prior to the addition of toilet seats. They’re just another series of ammo cans, all painted bright yellow to distinguish them from food boxes. Back in the days, my parents’ private trips used to employ a screw-top type of container that we affectionately called Lil’ Johnny…not sure why that system fell out of favor but I guess our system made most sense for a larger group. Ammo cans seemed to be the going currency for modern rafting trips but I constantly wondered if there wasn’t something better. An empty can probably weighs 10 lbs and so when full, they are very heavy. They’re also not watertight, so things still needed to be packed in heavy duty trash bags. Nothing we seemed to be using was truly watertight, including the drybags. If a raft were to flip and submerge its contents, many things would likely get wet. Surely we could design some lighter, more watertight containers but I suspect durability and cost would be the offsetting factors.

The light was brilliant as we set off. It was pretty chilly at dawn, in the upper 30’s, but quickly warmed. Soon we were even lamenting that it was a bit too hot in the full sun. The walls of the canyon steadily grew and the Vermilion cliffs faded in the distance. I reminisced about my hike down Buckskin Gulch and the Paria river canyon the fall before, sad that the rest of my party didn’t at least have a chance to check out the old Lee’s Ferry townsite before we left. About an hour into the trip (4.5 miles), we passed under the Navajo bridges 470 ft above, where we’d crossed the Colorado river the day before. They were a very pleasing sight and the weather seemed to be welcoming us into the reaches of the canyon. We wouldn’t see another bridge until the footbridge at Phantom Ranch.

At mile 8, we stopped to scout our first significant rapid, Class 5 Badger Creek Rapid. The Grand Canyon uses a scale of 1-10 to classify rapids, so a 5 is really only a medium-sized rapid. I climbed the rocks with some of the boat captains to look at it, then came back for a quick lunch. Chris was helping to set up the lunch supplies, so he didn’t have a chance to go with the first scout group. I felt confident guiding him into it, so we proceeded without a second look. This was a mistake I guess. We were the second boat to go into the rapid and to me it looked like the first boat was too far right. But I had oriented on the wrong rock and we were way too far left. Chock it up to a rookie mistake and this being the first rapid, but I pointed Chris down the wrong tongue. Immediately we headed into a big hole and the raft kind of violently folded like a taco as we went through, so I think it was under-inflated as well. After dodging a few rocks and taking a few more big waves, we made it through. Ironically, this would be the most unstable and close to tipping I felt in a raft the whole trip, even through the much bigger rapids.

I felt really bad about this series of mistakes, much my fault, but at least there was only one more class 5 and just some 2s and 3s the test of the day. It was yet another wake-up to how challenging a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon can be. We were also passed by 3 ranger boats, with 4 rangers total. They were doing the whole canyon in just 12 days and looked to be traveling pretty light. Our boats probably weighed a couple thousand pounds each. I tried rowing during a couple calm stretches and could feel the boat barely respond whenever I took a stroke. It was frustrating compared to my sea kayak.

We made some very reasonable miles and stopped at a really nice camp. Unlike the night before, this one had a great beach, nice sand, and a beautiful tentsite in the mesquite just big enough for my one-person tent. I invited Rob and Lucas to set up nearby, as there was space for more and I didn’t want to hog such a nice location. We had time and bit more organization in place this night, so the stage was set for some fun carousing. I learned that Leo was quite the singer and guitar player, while his good friend Magnus complimented his chords with a harmonica. Then a nearly fully moon crept over the tight canyon walls and created the most amazing halo. I couldn’t stop taking cool night photos with my new Pixel phone camera.

The first real night on the river felt magical, but as a result, I went too heavy on the box wine and payed dearly later. Falling asleep was easy but I woke with one of the worst migraines I’ve ever had…the kind that make me nauseated. I was trying to hold down my migraine medication but ended up feeding the fish. So I went searching for another pill, only to discover that my primary supply was not with my vitamins. To my great dismay and disappointment, I pieced together a probable explanation. I’d had to break into my supply several times preceding the trip since I was having my menstrual cycle, which always brings about an increased incidence of migraines. In my unexpected opening and shuffling of things, my 20 day supply became separated from the rest of my stash. I unknowingly left it at Jon’s house.

Never in all the thousands of miles I’d spent on trails, far away from home and pharmacies, had I ever run out of or misplaced my migraine medication. How could I be so careless to do it now, with so much riding on this trip? Like most chronic migraine sufferers, I always carried an emergency stash, both in my wallet and first aid kit. Now I went straight to my first aid supply and was disappointed to find only 3 pills. I thought I had a least 4. Just 3 pills for 3 weeks…that wouldn’t do. Already I knew I needed to take another because I had thrown up the first. But I was in rationing mode, so I refrained, suffering through the pain until morning. To be continued.

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