Wednesday, May 10th, 2023, 0610-1800
Nankoweap to Cardenas via raft and Beamer Trail
12 miles (plus 9 miles hitched on raft), elevation 2600′
It would be hard to top the previous day, but we still managed! As I said before, I’d hiked through the GC on the AZT but hadn’t had the pleasure of camping in the canyon before. I slept well but did wake up with a pretty bad migraine. The day before had been excellent but also tough. The heat and exertion had cooked my brain. Thankfully my prescription medicine kicked in quick and we were ready to tackle another hard day. We needed to go about 9 miles along the river where there was no trail. It would likely take us all morning and into the afternoon, picking along the boulders and smashing through the brush. Our arrival at the crossing point would likely be well after all the rafters had passed, at least all the ones camped nearby. It would have been better to get there mid morning, but we had no energy to go further the day before.
We set off hopeful anyway and quickly stumbled into the middle of a rafting camp…in our defense, the use trail did go right through it. But our timing couldn’t have been more perfect…almost as if we had planned it. Our backpacker appearance immediately gained everybody’s attention. The pile of frittata and avocado toast on the breakfast table immediately gained mine. The usual questions followed: where did you come from, where are you going, how long, etc. I’m well-practiced in amplifying the significance of my journeys but I guess in this case, our ramblings did seem pretty impressive. I’m also well practiced in the art of yogi-ing, so shortly we were sitting in chairs eating avocado toast, pancakes and frittatas and drinking coffee. We’d arrived just as the kitchen was wrapping up, so the food was going to get tossed anyway. What better a garbage disposal than a thru-hiker?
We made friends and learned some names as best we could among the group of 12. They were one of the few private groups on the river, all long-time rafters and friends. I learned that they were also from Colorado, even as a hint of herbal remedy wafted through the air. Ahhh, my people. This played to my advantage, as I made clear my common ground as a fellow CO native and my rafting heritage. This group reminded me so much of my family’s group from the 90’s…some of them probably even knew each other. They brought back such fond memories… literally the proverbial feeling of being a kid again. Perhaps one of the guys sensed this reverence in me and offered to give us a ride all the way to the Little Colorado! Monty couldn’t have known the extent of happiness this would bring me…I beamed with excitement. Rafting the Grand Canyon was the grand-daddy of trips. My parents and I had drooled about the prospect back then, but it never happened. Our friends had eventually gotten permits but by then I was away working as an adult and my parents too old. Life gets in the way but sometimes we find a way back to our roots.
The group rustled up some life jackets while we tried to be useful in helping pack and load stuff. Mostly we were helpful in squirreling away more leftover food to turn into our lunches…at least it was less trash for them to carry. I was also invited to make a deposit in their ‘lil johnny,’ as our raft group reverently used to call it. Only do you truly become part of the group when you add to the pile…ok, I just made that part up. Lastly, they provided trash bags to cover our packs. I changed into my camp\RIVER shoes (Plants!:) and soon we were away! Best. Hitch. Ever.
Actually, just before setting sail, Double Happiness and Weekend (the Hayduke couple I met in Kanab) walked by. We smiled sheepishly, more so from feeling guilt that there wasn’t more room (or jackets) than from feeling guilt over our aqua-blazing (doing miles on a river). I’m not sure they would have taken the ride anyway… I think they wanted the full experience of walking the route along the river. We chatted with them briefly. We thought they were a day ahead of us but they’d taken a part of the official AZT route from Jacob Lake, which was longer and slower due to snow. We were happy to bump into each other again. Ironically, Sky had been in touch with them before the hike but this was the first time they had met on trail.
The raft ride was short and sweet. Of course the only time there was cloud cover during our 4 days in the canyon was this morning. It even seemed as if it might rain. The first set of rapids doused us pretty good and from then on I was rather cold. I hadn’t even thought to put on my rain jacket. The water was shockingly cold, as it comes from the bottom of Lake Powell. Without the sun to counter, we were shivering. Then the wind really picked up and I got even colder. But we were still very happy as we watched the miles slide by effortlessly!
Perhaps the biggest benefit to rafting down the canyon as opposed to bushwhacking along the shore is that we could look up at the canyon walls instead of staring down at our feet. I later realized that a combination of rafting and hiking was the best way to see the canyon. Rafters can really zone out on their surroundings, with interludes of excitement from the rapids. But they are limited to the inner canyon, which can sometime feel like a deep channel, hiding the layers that tower above. Hikers are able to climb higher on the mid-level trails, seeing the canyon from multiple perspectives. We got the best of both worlds this way!
After only an hour or so, we stopped at the Little Colorado River confluence. Many rafting parties stop to check out the LC, which is sometimes a vibrant chalky blue color. Not this time though. With all the snow melt, it was just dirty brown. I’d hiked past the headwaters of the LC the year before on the MRT, way up in the White mountains of Arizona. The name never sat right with me, since the river has nothing to do with Colorado, other than flowing into the real Colorado River. It should just be called the Arizona River, or something like that.
Sky and I pondered if it was crossable (it was, Worm and the AZT hikers had done it), but we had no need to try since Monty offered to take us past it. We jumped back on board for our last few minutes in the boat. Monty picked a great spot for us to get off and we were suddenly back in hiking mode. We thanked him profusely as he was pulling away and he remarked that he felt guilty leaving us on the shore. In our minds, we were actually eager to hike, as it meant we could finally warm up. Besides, hiking the trails was what we were really there to do. I’d like to think that what he was really trying to convey, was that he would miss our company. We’d greatly enjoyed talking to him, too. My only regret was that I didn’t get anyone’s contact info. I would have at least liked to send Monty a thank you card and who knows, maybe he or someone in his group could use a spare deckhand in the future…I had some boating skills after all.
We watched all the boats slowly drift away as we waved Bon Voyage! I already missed them. But we were excited to start hiking the Beamer trail along the south side of the river. I’d heard mixed reviews about this trail but it ended up being my favorite trail inside the canyon. We climbed higher to a ledge, where we remained for most of the afternoon. Our wish of warming up came all too true and shortly we had switched to seeking refuge from the intense rays under our umbrellas. Sky just picked one up before starting this leg and boy howdy was that a good call. Now in addition to being Thermodrop and Schnozzel soul mates, we were sunbrella buddies. I took to calling ourselves Sky Rover and T Rover.
We took a lunch break along the ledges, where the only shade to be had was that which we provided. This was perhaps my best lunch break of the whole trip. We feasted on the leftover frittatas and guacamole while perched high above the river, enjoying the views. I felt so great from these 2 large meals later in the day, my energy restored from a short mileage day to boot. What a great day all around!
We continued along the Beamer trail, sometimes winding into small gullies and having to scramble up or down little ledges. It was really pretty easy, fun even. Sometimes there were big drop offs down to the river, but this only added to the appeal of the trail for me. I enjoyed peering down, looking for more rafts. We never saw any more all day, which didn’t bode well for Weekend and Double Happiness, who still needed a ride across. Temperatures in the shade of my umbrella jumped into the upper 80’s but I still felt great! I was able to take off all my layers and hike in the cool comfort of just my dress. All hail the Mighty Sunbrella!!!
Sadly our shady time came to an abrupt end in the late afternoon when the wind picked up again. I worried the gusts might damage my precious umbrella or blow me off a ledge, so I put it away. At least by then, it had cooled down a bit. We passed our permitted campsite (Tanner) in favor of pushing onto the next. We were actually already a day ahead of our permit and hoped it didn’t matter. We’d been shooting for Cardenas campsite, because that’s where Monty had said his group might be stopping. We mused about all the reasons we’d be stoked to see the rafters again. They were great company, had ample delicious food (avocado toast!), a comfortable toilet, a supply of good filtered water, probably some alcohol, and chairs! What’s not to love about all that. But I didn’t want to seem too greedy. We were most grateful for everything they had already given us and didn’t need anything more.
At the end of the day, the rafters were nowhere to be found. There were footsteps on the beach but no boats. We searched around like 2 lost puppies. Did they check it out and find that it was too windy? Or did they want to be out of reach of any more backpackers? Did Monty confuse the names of the campsites? Perhaps they were right around the corner. Whatever the case, we were all alone. We found a very protected nest among the mesquite and settled in. I finally had to cave and collect CO river water. Surprisingly, I found it to be quite good, just a little silty. We pre-filtered it with Sky’s bandana and the taste was nice and cold.
I did feel sad about not seeing the rafters again. Was it all those nice things they brought to the table? Not really. More than anything, I was sad I wouldn’t get to thank Monty again. I really wanted to convey how much the trip had meant to me. I’d been reflecting on my family’s rafting trips all day, remembering my dad who I lost in 2020. He loved rafting and kayaking so much. It was his dream to raft the Grand Canyon, so I know he would have been proud and excited for me to have this opportunity. Monty didn’t just give me a ride on his raft, he rekindled my childhood memories of my family and their friends. In those moments, we were living a carefree life outdoors, a significant chapter that sparked a passion that I later perfected in thru-hiking. I was so grateful to be back alongside the Colorado River, the waves lulling me to sleep. It inspired a deep sense of peace and belonging.