We awake around 5:15 or so to dawning light and the soft colors of the various formations of rock laid down over successive millenia by the sedimentary actions of shallow seas, tidal flats, blowing sand dunes, river and stream channel deposits, layering and compressing to form layers of sandstone, limestone, siltstone, gypsum, and chert. We crawl out of sleeping bags to the roar of propane burners heating the water for coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. Then take turns heading to the “Duke,” situated at the end of the camp under a narrow overhanging cliff about fifteen feet above the river. The sound of the toilet lid dropping shut echoes between the cliff walls, barely fifty yards apart at this point of the river.
Breakfast is bacon and blueberry pancakes, an Omar specialty. We eat, wash dishes, pack up camp, and get on the river by about 7:30, early, but mainly because everyone has worked hard to pack up and help the crew load the boats, and not because anyone needed pushing by the trip leader.
On Day 2 we join Omar’s crew. I never really hear Omar talk about how he came to be a river guide, but he’s a lot of fun to boat with. His mother is Nicaraguan, a hospice nurse, and he grew up in Virginia and went to college at Virginia Tech. Omar is boisterous, cracking jokes and psyching us up for the rapids. At the put in, Omar had a pair of tiny plastic hands with handles, like doll hands to be inserted into a ventriloquist’s dummy’s sleeves. He kept them in the shirt pockets of his western style shirt with long sleeves and faux pearl buttons. When the trip leader Ethan would make a point Omar would give him an ovation with the tiny hands. Omar keeps up the guide’s, job of explaining the geology and history of the canyon. When we come to the bigger rapids, and we do see bigger rapids on day 2, hitting the “Roaring Twenties,” Omar, out of all the guides, looks the most like he’s having a blast.
Riding in the front is Don, a retired guy on his eighteenth trip down the river with Canyoneers. A Tempe/Phoenix native, he goes once a year, and knows all the guides. It’s reassuring that he found a company he liked on the first try, and kept with them for all those years. As we proceed down the river, I understand why he keeps coming back. He shoots a very nice camera with a variety of lens, which he breaks out in the calmer sections, and he keeps a waterproof point and click strapped to his life jacket to shoot in the rapids. In the past he’s set up on the scouting positions on the bank and filmed the boats running the big rapids. He stays in the boat on the lower canyon, but a few days after the trip ends he sends a link to his pictures.
Along with Don, we share the boat with Ken, an early fifties computer software developer from Florida. This is his first time in the canyon, but he is well traveled around the world, including Asia and Antarctica, and he spends his leisure time at home in Florida hiking the Everglades (wet trails where you wade in waist deep water) and sea kayaking. A friendly guy, Ken, but in the evenings he makes his camp away from the group, seeking privacy, which I understand. Were I alone I would do the same, but Julia Rose enjoys the friendliness of the group, chatting with the younger passengers and the guides, and they are a good group of people to camp with.
The second day is action packed. We hit a lot of good rapids–nothing really major or too difficult–but they are bigger than the day before and more closely spaced. Sheer Wall Rapid has a good drop of 9 feet, but it’s a straight shot and just some fun waves to wake us up and get us cold first thing on the river, especially since the sun is still behind the canyon rim and we boat in deep shade for the first couple of hours.
A couple of miles later we get to House Rock Rapid, another 9 foot drop, but a ranking of 4-7 and a pushy current that wants to drive the boats into a ledge near the bottom. We scout the rapid, so I’m guessing we’re catching it nearer the 7 level. Omar gives us some instructions, treating the rapids as a group effort, and, I think psyching himself up. He tells us that he likes to be aggressive in the rapids, trying to find the right line that will provide a big ride without flipping. Occasionally we will cheat the bigger “holes”–the areas where water recirculates back over itself due to the action of pouring over a big obstacle in the river bed. Holes can flip boats and hold swimmers. At these water levels they form powerful hydraulics–highly aerated, recirculating water–that can easily hold a swimmer to the point of exhaustion and, easily, drowning. I’m happy to have him cheat the holes.
We see a number of desert bighorn sheep alongside the river, including some babies, probably only a few months old. We also see a few collared lizards and a number of great blue herons, Or GBHs as we begin to call them, ducks and geese, bats and swifts, ravens and canyon wrens (which we hear more than see, but we hear them a lot).
In a slow spot Omar gives Julia Rose a turn at the oars, a chance she jumps at, and I can sense the “guide” wheels turning in her brain, a happy moment for both of us.