“ATTN: Breakdown on Day 5. Really wanted to go home last night. Feeling like I want a rattlesnake to bite me so I can get ‘coptered out. Sick of talking about RAFTING. ”
-July 29th, 2010. Grand Canyon Rafting Trip Journal Entry.
I’ve never ended up blogging about my eighteen-day raft trip down the Grand Canyon, even though I kept a journal full of notes and thoughts. I suppose one of the reasons I never did was because then I would have to honestly write about how much The River (meaning one and all rivers) can scare me and how little a threshold I have for long periods of intimacy with it. I do love The River. It’s powerful and raging, but one second later, peaceful and serene. I grew up throwing buckets of water on an upside-down raft to make a slip n’slide, swimming through rapids in a lifejacket, and hanging out with my dad while he fished and I would throw cold river water up in the air and watch it fall back down like raindrops. It’s a home to me, but also a terrifying mystery. I’ve always had a fear of being sucked into a hole or pinned on a rock and drowning. I heard the stories of deaths on The River and I’ve become super paranoid about it. This is exactly why I didn’t follow in my dad’s footsteps and become a raft guide, and my brother, who lives for the thrill of danger, did.
My brother Evan works on the Tuolumne River, near Yosemite, with a raft company called ARTA. The very same company that my dad guided with when he was a young and reckless 20-something. The Tuolumne is known as a “Wild and Scenic River”, as it winds through a deep, eighteen-mile canyon full of mergansers, bald eagles, rattlesnakes, and most importantly, class IV whitewater. Evan takes customers down the river on one, two, or three day trips a couple times a week and on his days off, he either kayaks Cherry Creek or comes home to Placerville to kayak the American River. With all that river time, it’s rare to get to spend time with him in the summer, so I asked if I could come on a Tuolumne trip. A two day trip was coming up, Evan would be rowing the gear boat, and I was offered a spot in it. I hadn’t done an overnight trip since the Grand Canyon…
The drive from Placerville to Groveland (where the guide house that my brother lives in is) is about two and a half hours. I spent most of that drive singing Elton John’s Greatest Hits at the top of my lungs, realizing that Elton John is a living legend, and noticing that I sound pretty bad when trying to sing Elton John songs. I passed through places called Fiddletown, Frogtown (where the famous Mark Twain frog races happen!), Drytown, and saw a road called Gun Club that veered off Highway 49 near a place wonderfully named The Glory Hole Center. My friends like to make fun of me for living in the sticks, but they have no idea that Placerville is a metropolis compared to what lies beyond. I don’t think I passed any town that had a population higher than 5,000. I hit the small town of Groveland (population:600) and pulled into the gravel driveway outside the wooden guide house and bakery. I could hear my brother’s voice from my car, most likely discussing his line (or route) in some rapid. I ran into the bakery, where my brother was talking with Sam, a river photographer, and threw my arms around him in a hug. He smiled and gave me a mischievous look. “Hey Han, you ready to go on a hike?”
The sun was setting and we were walking down a dirt trail to the river to pick up two cars from the put-in. My Chaco sandals were rubbing against the arch of my foot painfully because I hadn’t worn them since last summer. I was already feeling frustrated with the outdoors (and it wasn’t even Day 5!). I whined to my brother. “Ev, I can barely walk. These things are giving me major blisters, I can feel it. How much farther?” He had told me it was a short walk on a “road”, but in reality, we’d been walking forever on a rocky, canyon trail.
“Well, this seems longer than I remember. Basically, you’ll be driving this girl’s truck up a road along a cliff.” he responded over his shoulder.
“WHAT! Dude, I haven’t driven a truck in like, three years. AND ON A CLIFF!? Damnit, Evan,” I exclaimed while hobbling behind him. We made it down to the cars just as the night turned pitch black. This made driving along a cliff for thirty minutes less scary because I couldn’t actually see anything besides the road. For all I knew, we could have been on a regular old forest road. We got back to the guide house, where Mikey, Xander, and Kelly were packing the truck with gear for the trip, in which they would be the guides. Anchorman was on the television, playing to an empty, ratty couch, so I sat down and watched it, until it was time to roll out my sleeping bag and go to bed.
We were up at 6am and by 7am we were in the truck heading to take-out. Evan had waffles in one hand and a bottle of maple syrup in the other. The truck was parked up the hill from the river and I helped carry river gear down. My feet were killing me and going up and down the hill was brutal on them. The blisters on each foot had turned into some sort of bruise/wound. The raft guides with their rippling back muscles looked at me with a mixture of pity and incredulity, as I teetered while trying to balance oars and dry bags on my small and hardly sculpted back. The customers arrived and I was given a noob-looking helmet and lifejacket, just like them. We were given a safety talk from Xander, which covered using the California Lounge Position if you fall out, or sitting back in the water with your feet out of the water so that you don’t become trapped on any rocks and get held under, and basic safety signals. I imagined falling out of a raft, something that I’ve never done, and grimaced to myself. Most river people would consider it a sin, that after twenty years of raft trips, I’ve never been involved in a flip and never fallen out of the boat. I consider it major luck and a testament to my commitment to not taking risks on the river. When I told my brother that I’d never flipped, he looked at me with disgust and promised that he would make it happen. If I’d had a journal at hand, I would have written, “ATTN: Breakdown.”
The first rapid of the Tuolumne River is Rock Garden. Named so because it’s looks almost un-runable from far away when all you seem to see is rocks with little streams of water running between them. “So, this is going to be a pretty technical rapid” said Evan, “it’s low water, we’ve got a lot of rocks, and we’ll probably get stuck.” There was nothing I could do to help or hurt the situation, as I didn’t have a paddle. Three of the boats on our trip had customers and the other three were carrying all the gear. I was in my brother’s gear boat and since he had an oar frame, me paddling was not needed. I was free to sit on the “princess seat” in front and take in all the waves and the views without much exertion. Going through Rock Garden we hit a few rocks and got stuck for a bit, but Evan was able to knock us off. We went through about ten rapids, all with great big waves and some exciting drops, and reached our camp above Clavey Falls (the biggest rapid on the river) in the late afternoon. It’s a bit intimidating to hear the roar of the most mighty monster on the river, as you relax into the evening. For some it psychs them out, for others it revs them up.
“Get outta here. That’s nothing.”
My brother was looking at the bottoms of my feet at my maxed out blisters, which felt to me like death sentences. Our hike to Clavey River had hurt even in different shoes, but it had been nice to numb the pain in the waterfalls and cool pool beneath. The sun was turning the boulders into a frying pan, which made climbing out off the pool a bit hazardous, but all the pain was worthwhile because cleaning off the sweat of the day in a natural water park was a feeling of refreshment that you can only have on the river. We all felt alive again and there was big smiles on everyone’s faces.
This is a prime example of why, even though The River can scare me and roughing it for too long on its shores drives me crazy, The River owns a piece of my heart. It’s why I could have a “Day 5 Breakdown” on the Grand Canyon and still call that trip one of the best things I’ve done in my life. Bug bites, injuries, and brushes with death are balanced by the reward of going back to your natural state of chatting outside with new friends in the shade of rocks and not caring what time it is and not thinking about a computer, getting your energy not from coffee, but from the endorphins of a hike to a view that only those who brave the river get the chance to see, and the taste of a meal that you’ve earned and made together.
One of the guys on the trip brought a fishing pole and we all got to taste fresh-caught trout that night. People I’d known for less than 24 hours talked about their secret passions, the silly things they do when they are alone, and how much they loved being outdoors. After some beer and fish tacos, I laid my Paco or sleeping mat on the ground and went to sleep under the spotlight of a full moon. I woke up in the middle of the night and looked at the surreal roof that was the starry night sky. No matter what knives of fear I felt when we hit the water tomorrow, this moment was worth it.