After our son Jack graduated from Rye High in June, my husband encouraged me to take a trip with Jack before he left for college.
By Kathleen Durkee
After our son Jack graduated from Rye High in June, my husband encouraged me to take a trip with Jack before he left for college. He explained, “My mom and I took a trip together apart from the family when I was young and we always shared a special joy in our detailed memory of that trip.” Needless to say, it didn’t take Jack and I long to decide that we wanted an adventure, and we figured that the Grand Canyon was a good place to look for it, and the best way to see this remarkable national park is to raft through it.
Our trip began with a hike down Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River, a nine-mile hike and 5,000-foot descent to the bottom with 30-pound backpacks. At river’s edge, we joined our illustrious guides and the rest of our group, and sort of like “Gilligan’s Island,” we set off. Our cast of characters included the Professor, the British Mining Engineer/ African Adventurer and his surfer buddies from Cornwall, the High School Guidance Counselor, the Science teacher, the Paramedic/ Firefighter, the Infectious Disease Specialist, the Puppeteer, the Computer Scientist and her engineer husband Gordon (Jack’s new best friend), two nurses, and our accomplished guides, in other words, our family for the next nine days.
Then the weather started getting rough. The same violent storms that ripped through Colorado in early September, battered Arizona as well, and caused numerous flash floods and trail washouts. With so many of the river’s tributaries flashing, the color of the Colorado River transformed to the dark red/brown color for which it is famous, painting us with its silt, and all of our rafts and belongings, a deeper shade of brown with each successive rapid.
The first four days of our trip the storms came and went. Although we were waterlogged and freezing, we didn’t waste time worrying about the weather, but instead came to appreciate its sublime beauty and power. During the worst of the storms, we happened to be exploring an ancient Native American granary hidden in a cliff-side cave where we were sheltered and able to watch the storm whip through the canyon.
After the storm passed, we hopped back into our rafts and floated for miles, witness to scores of waterfalls that instantly appeared and cascaded several thousand feet down the sides of the canyon, and then disappeared as quickly as they had formed. The canyon’s beauty was ethereal in the sunlight after the storm. I was so spellbound, that I was unable to avert my view long enough to fuss with my camera and snap photos, knowing that a camera could never capture the beauty of what was before us.
I enjoyed the daily rhythm of camp-life, awakening at sunrise to coffee in my tin cup and heading back to the tent after dinner as the lanterns were dimmed. With the help of our headlamps, Jack and I read or played cards in our tent at night. After the stormy weather moved on, Jack slept outdoors under the stars, millions of them. Jack, as well as the guides and Brits, kept prodding me to sleep outside at night as well, but after hearing about scorpions sneaking into sleeping bags (Jack found a few in his bag), a mouse running up Gordon’s leg, and the science teacher spotting fresh Desert Bighorn and Ringtail Cat tracks skirting Jack’s sleeping area, I stayed put. My tent had windows and skylights for nighttime viewing, and it kept all away.
Amazingly, camp was dismantled and packed into the rafts by 8 each morning. Days were spent running the rapids of the lower canyon and hiking up slot canyons to discover enchanting waterfalls and pools. Each afternoon around 4, we’d paddle up to a beach, tie down the rafts, form a human chain and unload all of the equipment and set up our tents.
After we were settled, it was time for happy hour, a fun part of the day with a lot of story-swapping, horse-shoe throwing, corn-dogging (rolling down sand banks in wet clothes), reading books from our camp library (a waterproof box) such as “Death in the Grand Canyon,” or simply sitting in a camp chair and watching the river and its ever-changing currents and whirlpools. Dinners, and all of our meals, were surprisingly delicious, and one night we even had a shadow puppet show, complete with an improvised stage, lighting and curtains, based on an actual Grand Canyon river drowning/murder mystery.
After reading a little too much “Death in the Grand Canyon,” I became increasingly worried about Day 6 of our adventure, the day we were to run the Lava Falls rapid, a class five rapid, and the most infamous of all of the Colorado’s rapids. When I could hear Lava Falls more than a mile before we reached it, I was downright scared. Of course Jack wanted to ride in the front of the raft for this one, and trying to show him how adventurous I was, I went along for the ride through the rapid’s monster fifteen-foot waves and violent currents. The front of the boat smacked me in the forehead twice, but we made it through without flipping, which was all I really cared about. One of the Brits was swept from his raft and rode through Lava Falls holding onto a rope.
Everyone on the trip knew that our adventure was Jack’s last hurrah before starting college. For different reasons some of our fellow river runners seemed drawn to Jack, and a few of them, including Gordon, the professor, the Brits, the guidance counselor, and a couple of the guides, pulled him aside toward the end of the trip to offer advice about college and life. He was everyone’s son or student, and together, we were sending him off to his new life.
Last week, Jack began a new chapter in life. I am having a more difficult time beginning mine, but I will forever treasure the memories of our trip down the Colorado River together. My husband was right.