Pushing out of the eddy above Lava Falls, the final and biggest rapid on the Grand Canyon, the roar of the violent water downstream seems to amplify the nervous silence present in each of our 6 rafts. We’ve scouted the rapid, studying the nuances of each hole, wave, current, and boiling eddy line we can perceive from shore. We’ve picked our lines, stretched our shoulders, and talked our riders through our plans. I’m not sure if the weight in my stomach is heavier than when we were entering Hance – our first big rapid on this trip, now that we are being carried towards the last one. The boat in front of me lines up for the first crashing wave, and I know it’s my turn. Taking a deep breath, I flex my fingers and wrap them back around my oars. The chaotic nerves, the voice talking me through my line and questioning it at the same time, fade away. I make my first big push, seeing where the current will take me.
I’m fascinated by everything about water in all of its forms, from rafting challenging whitewater to watching ripples in a pond to the winter drizzle in the woods. My favorite way to experience water though, is on multi-day trips. They combine flowing rivers, majestic canyons, and great company while traveling downstream with everything you need packed in a boat. Multi-day river trips don’t just immerse you in nature, but immerse you in a new connection with yourself and those around you. Most multi-day river trips range from 4-7 days on class 3-4 runs, making a 25 day trip down the Grand Canyon with its notorious rapids a really big step up.
As it turns out, I could have stayed out there much longer. It took until the 4th day for my normal thought patterns to shift from work projects and events back home to beginning to really experience the connection with the Colorado River and the Canyon, which was interesting as many multi-day trips are only 4 days long. It made me realize the value of taking things slower and spending a bit more time on things. I loved the rising and setting of the sun, the days on the water, the conversations on the rafts, the hikes, the silly moments, and watching the changes in both the canyon and the people in our group day by day. One of the things I loved most though – and was most nervous about going into the trip – was being a boat captain.
An 18 foot NRS gear boat is a barge of a boat, weighing in at nearly 2000 lbs fully loaded. My initial reaction upon getting in and pushing off the bank at Lee’s Ferry was how large they were, slow to gain momentum, and nearly unstoppable once they get going in a direction. Over the next few days, I began to understand how they moved and how to use that to my advantage. I fell in love with rowing these big boats. They could plow through impossibly big waves while still responding sweetly to my gentle feathering of the oars, and taught me that it didn’t take a bulky upper body to be able to maneuver them.
My boat also became my home for the month we were on the river. I not only spent the days on it as we pushed downstream, but also spent my nights on it, lulled to sleep by the rocking of the current. I built forts on it when there was dew, rigged lines to dry laundry, invited friends in for quiet conversations, sunbathed at camp, and read books into the wee hours of the morning. It saw dance parties, fits of laughter, hopes and dreams voiced, friendships formed, tears shed, and knew better than anyone else both the moments that made me hold my breath and the ones that took my breath away. For me, stepping off life on my gear boat was the hardest part of leaving the canyon.
As much as I savored each moment on the river and in my big ol’ boat, there is so much more to multi-day whitewater rafting trips than running rapids and gazing at canyon walls while lounging on a raft. We stopped almost daily to go on hikes, each one holding its own unique wonders. Many of my favorites were side canyons, some carrying water turned a beautiful opaque light blue by travertine, others a scramble up rocks smoothed by centuries of erosion to find a trickling spring to drink from, and others still that seemed impossibly deep with layers upon layers of rock jutting out. While some were a quick lunch break and others a full day adventure, it was incredible to see what secrets each held.
Many of my favorite memories were also in the small, seemly insignificant moments shared with others on the trip. We spent rainy days playing games, afternoons giggling quietly in the sun, and running rapids with 5 people on an inflatable kayak. Jokes formed that most wouldn’t understand (DRAGONNNN!!!), we did absurd hikes and photo shoots in glittery costumes, and wore fleece animal onesies almost more than our normal clothes. More so, many of us formed the deeper relationships that come from the type of time spent together on a trip like this. We saw the things that made each other light up with glee, the weird routines we all have, the odd things that frustrate us, the ways that we operate on a day to day basis, and the ways we could support each other in that. Many of us grew close enough to love each other for not just the things that make us happy but also the things that make us upset, not just for the conversations but also for the comfortable silences, and for the quiet attributes that often go unnoticed.
Now that we’ve all returned home and are adjusting to post-canyon life, some of the things we brought back from the canyon still run through our everyday lives. The relationships, waking up with the light, and a renewed inspiration in venturing outside more often came back with us, amongst many other things. And while I may be at a desk as I’m typing this, you can bet I’m counting down days until I’m back at the oars this spring, taking in the wonders and experiences of another incredible river canyon.
P.S. We all made it through Lava Falls. Upright. And ecstatic.
Join us for your own multi-day experience with a 6 day trip on Idaho’s famed Main Salmon River this summer!
A huge thanks to Moenkopi Riverworks for the hospitality at their river house before and after the trip, the great gear set up, delicious meals, and amazing support staff.
Author Courtney Zink is a part of the Wet Planet guide staff and office team. Her fourth favorite thing about rafting is a tie between midnight runs and sandwiches.