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Trip Report Grand Canyon River Rafting Trip

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May, 2014
These are a few impressions from my recent (Early May, 2014) rafting trip in the Grand Canyon with Arizona River Runners. This trip, which had been on my bucket list for a long time, was amazing. However, it was a little tough for me, so i thought I'd also post some tips for future rafters. A caveat: I'm in my early 70's, and although fairly fit, I haven't done any camping since my Girl Scout days. So those of you who are more experienced campers might find my suggestions obvious.
There are several modes of transport down the river, but we chose a large motorized raft--not because it was less work, but because we would be able to cover a lot more of the Grand Canyon. There were two rafts, which held 13 passengers each, seated along the sides on storage boxes. On each raft was the main river guide, and a backup river guide or two "helpers". As expected, those sitting toward the front got soaked--and those near the back (the "princess seats") stayed relatively dry. "Relatively" is the operative word. We covered 187 miles and around 140 rapids during our 6 days on the river.
To get to our launching point, we had the option of flying into Las Vegas the day before the trip, where we would be picked up at the recommended hotel (the Desert Rose) and flown to Marble Canyon early on the morning we were to start--or--driving to Marble Canyon and staying the night before in the Marble Canyon Lodge there. I flew into Las Vegas from Chicago, where I met a friend who had also flown in plus my sister and brother-in-law who had driven from California. We enjoyed a couple days in Las Vegas before driving the rest of the way to Marble Canyon--about a 4 hour drive. At the end of the trip, we were taken out by helicopter to a ranch for showers before being flown by small plane either back to Marble Canyon (for those who had driven) or to Las Vegas (for those who were flying out of there).
Doing this trip in May has pros and cons. Pros were the clear, clean river water. It usually turns a muddy brown later in the summer. Also, the daytime weather was not as hot. And, the price was cheaper since it was the shoulder season. Cons were that the river was icy cold. However, I'm not sure how much warmer it gets later in the season. And--some of our nights camping were really cold.
Our typical routine was to awaken around sunrise with an announcement of coffee. While the crew was preparing breakfast, we packed our large waterproof duffels with our sleeping bag, tarp, sheet, small pillow and personall duffel bags and folded up (I finally got the hang of this toward the end of the trip) and packed our cots. Then came breakfast, finishing up at our campsites, dragging our heavy bags down to the beach and loading the boat by means of a "bucket line". Then the fun part--the rafting and rapids--resumed. We typically stopped a few times each day for hikes, lunch, and "bathroom" breaks. The river was used for the latter--men in one direction, women in the other. Of course, it wasn't always so organized and never really private. While on the raft, there was an open spot back by the motor which could be used in an emergency. The hikes were incredible but most were rather tough. Late in the day, we stopped at a campsite for the night. As soon as we disembarked, everyone rushed ashore to try to find a spot that was clear and flat enough to set up our individual campsites. The first thing the crew did was to locate a private spot to set up the porta-potty. Unfortunately, these spots always seemed to be far away and difficult to reach with such impediments as boulders, cacti, steep sand hills, etc. Then, we reformed the "bucket line" to help the crew unload everything from the boat--our large duffel bags, cots, all the kitchen equipment, drinking water, food, porta-potty, etc. As we set up our individual campsites, the crew set up the kitchen, and put out appetizers. Dinner was an hour or so later. By the time we had finished (and sometimes before) it was dark, so we made our way back to our campsites and got ready for the night.
Some tips:
Duffel: We were allowed only a 24X12X12 soft duffel--one that would fit into our large waterproof bag along with our sleeping bag, sheets, pillow and tarp. I didn't own a duffel the correct size, so I thought i was smart when I found a "seabag" (like a large laundry bag) that would hold my stuff, which I had packed into several 2 1/2 gallon plastic zipper bags. The only problem was that, when i needed something from my bag, it was almost always toward the bottom of the bag and I had to unload everything on top. Then, there was no good place to put things other than on the cot because of the sand, so I had to put everything back. When I got cold the first couple nights and needed more clothes, it was too much trouble to unpack my bag in the middle of the night to get at them. So--use a typical duffel that zips across the top and opens wider. If it's a little too large in size, it will still fit in the waterproof bag if you don't pack it too full.
Shoes & gloves: The company said to bring two pairs of shoes--water shoes for the raft and gym shoes for hikes and around camp. I only wore the gym shoes a couple times, but it was probably good to have them as a backup. I wore Teva sandals with neoprene socks most of the time, including on hikes, because we almost always had to walk through some water. The neoprene socks didn't really keep my feet warm after they got soaked, but they served as protection from stones, etc. while hiking. Be sure your shoes have good traction! I bought a new pair of Tevas just for that reason, and I'm very thankful I did, because some of the hikes involved climbing up on slippery boulders or rocks. The company recommended gloves, and I brought along an old leather pair, which my companions said would not be good for water. So I bought a cheap pair of gloves made specifically for rafting in the shop at Marble Canyon. You will probably be able to find any clothing or supplies there (such as an extra water bottle) that you forgot to bring. I didn't wear them on the first hike, which was a big mistake, because I had to grab on to boulders which were really sharp in some places, and got a couple cuts on my fingerpads. This was the beginning of my finger tips starting to crack because of the dry air. The company had mentioned using a lot of lotion, but I didn't really realize how important it was. My fingertips were in such pain that I found it difficult to even get dressed! After 2 or 3 days, I ended up wearing those gloves at all times, which helped to buffer the pain a little and hold on the antibiotic cream that I put on them. I wasn't the only one with this problem, as my friend, my sister and several other people also complained. My fingers didn't feel better and begin to heal until I got home and put liquid bandage on them. Be sure to include this with your medicines, because the company didn't have it in their First Aid kit. The gloves will also keep your hands from getting sunburned (as mine did the first day) on the raft.
Other clothing: Bring things that dry quickly and a couple of everything so you have something dry to put on in camp. I didn't really need shorts or short-sleeved shirts because I always wore long pants & sleeves to protect me from the sun while hiking. On the raft, I wore a swimsuit (most hikes involved water), the lightweight pants and shirt, a waterproof jacket and pants (be sure they are waterproof--not just water resistant) and a sunhat (with a string so you don't lose it). If you keep your jacket zipped up and hood up, you can forestall some of the frigid water going down your neck. That is a real shock! Be sure to bring all the warm items, such as long underwear and fleece jackets that the company recommends. In camp, I learned to just change into what I was going to sleep in because it was always dark when we got back from dinner and difficult to change then. Some nights I layered on all my warm clothes in an attempt to keep warm. By the 3rd night, someone tipped us to put the tarp between our cot and sleeping bag to keep some of the cold air out. After that it warmed up, so sleeping was more comfortable. Trips departing later in the season probably won't have those cold nights. I had thought we would be sleeping in tents, and there were tents available. But they were too much trouble to put up--plus difficult to find a spot that was open and level enough to pitch a tent.
Nighttime needs: I brought a small flashlight which was really inadequate for doing anything after dark and even made it difficult to find my way to and from the porta-potty at night. In fact, I got lost when returning to my sleeping bag on the first night, and stumbled around other people's campsites for awhile before finding my way back to my own bed. It was also difficult to eat dinner in the dark while holding a flashlight in one hand. Better were the headlamps that some in our group had. I think a small lantern which could sit on the ground and provide a wider area of light when necessary would have been very useful. I found that getting to the porta-potty or down to the river (sand dunes and boulders often obstructed the way) at night was pretty difficult. And we were definitely not allowed to go behind a bush in the sand. So I came up with the idea of using a gallon- sized zip lock bag as my own personal potty at night, which I emptied in the river in the morning.
Cameras: I highly recommend getting a waterproof camera for this trip. I found a Pentax on sale for about $70, and kept it on my wrist at all times on the raft. It took some really good photos. I kept my regular camera in a ziplock bag inside the small personal waterproof bag which we each had on the boat for things needed during the day such as sunblock. I used my regular camera (a Panasonic) when I went on shore.
Hikes: I had brought along a lightweight backpack which I sometimes used for hiking, but I usually just carried my camera in a case and water bottle in a holder around my neck. Although the company didn't mention it in their packing list, I (and several other people) brought along a folding hiking pole, which I used for all the hikes. I don't think I could have done most of them without it. Don't try to use two poles, though, because you often need a free hand to grab hold of things for support. If you are afraid of heights, you will probably want to skip some of those hikes. I managed to do them all except onel
Food and Drink: The company provided drinking water and sodas, which were cooled by dragging them behind the raft in a net bag. If you wanted anything else to drink, you had to bring it. I like to have a glass of wine before dinner, so brought a box (no glass bottles allowed) of it along for sharing. Others also brought wine and cans of beer or other spirits. We were given an insulated covered mug at the beginning of the trip which we used for water, coffee, juice, wine, etc. I rather wish that I had brought a small plastic glass so that I could have had both coffee and juice with breakfast. The food was not gourmet but certainly adequate. Besides our three meals, they also had snacks on the boat--apples, Snickers, granola bars, etc. And water and gator-ade mix (to forestall dehydration) was available at all times. I require a gluten-free diet, and I found plenty to eat. Most lunches were make-your-own sandwiches, and they always let me go first so that I didn't run into wheat crumbs flying around. They even made a pan of gluten-free lasagna one night--and gluten-free pancakes for me one morning. There was also a vegetarian on the trip who seemed to manage the food OK.
Washing: The Colorado River was so cold, that it was pretty impossible to immerse yourself in it. A couple times, we went down in our swimsuits and soaped up and splashed ourselves a little. We hiked to some waterfalls and side streams that were a little warmer, but you are not allowed to use soap in those. In camp, they provided hand washing "stations" by the food line and near the porta potty. There was also a system of washing our dishes. i never did wash my hair or have a good shower until we were helicoptered back to the ranch at the end. Oh--did that feel GOOD!
Hopefully, some of these tips will help if you decide to do this trip. And I certainly don't want to discourage it, because the scenery along the river and on the hikes was really breathtaking. Not to mention the thrill of the rapids. However, there were a couple women on the trip who had difficulties walking and climbing into the raft, etc. One said to me on the first night "I think I bit off more than I can chew!" But once you start the trip, there is no turning back--you just have to get through it. Best to do it while you are younger and fitter.

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