GRAND CANYON, Ariz.
Six months of planning for a Grand Canyon river trip, then bam! A scorpion sting the first night! What did I do to deserve that? At 3 a.m. I’m wide awake. My left shin felt seared by a red-hot poker.
Darkness was coming on and we’d been forced to camp on a narrow beach under a rocky ledge that offered protection from rain, but made perfect habitat for nocturnal scorpions – Centruoides sculpturatus. When it started to sprinkle, one of the straw-colored, 3-inch Arizona bark scorpions must not have liked raindrops. He took it out on my leg, giving me a dose of his 30 nerve toxins. One guidebook labels the sting “often painful but rarely lethal.” I can attest to that.
By noon the next day the venom had traveled up my groin and into my hands and head. It felt like five volts arced from fingertip to fingertip. I distinctly sensed each nostril, and the tops of my ears.
Luckily, we had more rain and cool weather during the July trip. The day after the sting I was continually splashed on the paddle boat, and 50 degree water anesthetized my leg. But trying to sleep the second night was almost impossible as the shin pain rolled back. By day three, I was able to enjoy our six-day, 90-mile Rocky Mountain Public Broadcasting System trip with Arizona Raft Adventures. Our trip leader was fellow Durangatang Nate Klema, a physics major at Fort Lewis College and an excellent river guide. He offered sage advice and said, “White water is almost the safest part of the trip. Swim. Dip your hat in the water. Keep that bandana wet and eat salty food.”
We’d planned on an upper canyon hybrid trip, meaning we had rafts and a paddle boat but no motors. We wanted to experience the Colorado River the way the original explorers had, though they certainly didn’t have our steak, salmon and burrito dinners or beer kept cold in wet gunnysacks and a drag bag.
There were deeply colored canyon views at sunrise and sunset, bighorn sheep, California condors circling high above us, ospreys, herons, canyon wrens, and ubiquitous ravens. Klema warned, “Down here on the river the ravens have a higher IQ than most raft guides, so keep everything zipped up. Ravens will steal anything, and they’ve even carried off daypacks.”
One of the most popular destinations on the planet, Grand Canyon National Park annually receives four million visitors, yet only 10 percent hike below the rim and only 1 percent make it to the river. We were part of the lucky 26,000 river runners each year who enjoy one of the wildest stretches of rocks, cliffs, canyons and beaches in the world. There were 20 of us on the trip with five guides and a swamper or helper.
We hiked into ancestral Puebloan ruins near Stanton’s Cave. We drifted past the lush green vegetation at Vasey’s Paradise and lunched at the Marble Canyon dam site where the Bureau of Reclamation planned in the 1960s to put a dam in Grand Canyon and reduce the river to a “scenic trickle.” Stopping that dam and another at Bridge Canyon helped to galvanize the environmental movement.
At Redwall Cavern I gave a history lecture on the damn dams and we practiced yoga. We learned about saving endangered fish like the humpback chub, and later we were stunned by dark red runoff from the Little Colorado River, flush from summer monsoons. Anyone who had not yet washed their hair or clothes gave up.
The hikes up South Canyon, Saddle Canyon and Carbon Creek left one in awe because of the geology. The guides enlivened the trip with historical and scientific anecdotes, tales of river runners, and ongoing threats to Grand Canyon’s ecosystem. We learned that Bert Loper, known as the Grand Old Man of the Colorado, died at 24½-Mile Rapid in 1949, and that the hiker who found Loper’s skeleton 16 years later took a bottle of whiskey, poured half on Loper’s bleached bones and then sat down to drink the rest.
My role was to tell historical stories to put our trip into context and to provide details on famous folks like John Wesley Powell, Buzz Holmstrom, the missing George and Bessie Hyde, the Kolb Brothers, marathon canyoneer Harvey Butchart, and architect and designer Mary Colter. At Nankoweap we hiked high into the cliffs to photograph Anasazi granaries. At Unkar Delta we explored the largest prehistoric Indian site in the canyon.
We ran the big rapids in the inner gorge – Hance, Sockdolager and Grapevine – and came face-to-face with the 1.7 billion-year-old Vishnu schist, ebony rocks so old they are the earth’s twisted, ancient roots. At night stars rose over the vivid, jagged silhouette of the inner gorge.
Then came morning, without a cloud in the sky, and the daunting 7.6-mile hike from river to rim with a 4,460-foot elevation gain. We landed at Pipe Creek and thanks to our boatmen, we were on the Bright Angel Trail by 8 a.m. Two hours later the thermometer at Indian Gardens registered 104 degrees. We had six hours and 3,400 feet to go. Local Durango river runners Antonia Clark and Maggie Bowes had urged us to take long-sleeved cotton shirts in Ziplock bags and keep the shirts soaked in cold water. As a shirt dried in the intense heat we switched to the next one and thus walked up the trail literally wearing water and acting like evaporative coolers.
Finally, after eight hours of hiking and numerous whiffs of the sweet-sour scent of mule poop, my wife and I set our 25- to 35-pound backpacks on the South Rim.
Dr. Aaron Hoffman, development officer for Rocky Mountain PBS, told me they were grateful to partner with Arizona Raft Adventures, which provided not only an excellent trip but made a generous donation to Rocky Mountain PBS. “For public TV we clearly have an adventure-hungry, physically active audience.”
Trip participants ranged in age from 16 to 78. Bill Murray from Colorado Springs said, “Great time, great people, great adventure,” and Cheryl Mobley from Fort Worth added, “I found the canyon vastly different from anything you see from the rim.”
Am I going back? Absolutely. Rocky Mountain PBS has a complete canyon raft trip already reserved with Arizona Raft Adventures from July 19-Aug. 1, 2013. There are rapids I have yet to run, hikes to take, slot canyons to explore. To see Grand Canyon is one thing, to float through its heart is another. The canyon calls to me.
Only next time if we’re camped on a rocky ledge, it rains, and scorpions come out, I won’t be lying in moist sand. I’ll beg the boatmen to move over so I can sleep on a raft.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College.