It’s a hot and beautiful summer day at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as I stand in line for a sandwich. Our rafting guides have set up an amazing spread of fixings. There’s even vegan cheese for me. All that’s missing are plates and napkins. After washing our hands with river water and soap in a foot-pumped bucket sink, we put our bread on one hand and try to layer on all the sandwich ingredients with the other. Scooping out avocado is especially difficult one-handed. It’s clumsy, but admirable when you realize we are generating no paper or plastic trash. Then we sit at the river’s edge so that the rainbow trout can eat any of our food.
Plateless lunches are just one way that rafting outfitters like Wilderness River Adventures (WRA) keep the national park pristine for the approximately 27,000 people who raft the Grand Canyon every year.
I was on a seven-day motorized trip covering 188 miles and braving 67 named rapids. Our party included 17 passengers (three family groups and two couples) and four guides on two rafts. We all met up at WRA’s headquarters in Page, Arizona, then boarded a bus for our put-in spot at Lees Ferry. From there, it was all up to the guides, the river and chance.
The biggest chunk of each day was spent on our 35-feet raft, which weighed about eight tons fully loaded. Traveling in a motorized raft that big was relaxing. I’d only ever been on smaller, oar-powered boats before. I always dread that part of the safety speech where the guide says, “And if it’s totally dark, that means you’re trapped under the raft…” Not this time. These behemoths are very hard to flip and give a smooth ride. It was still plenty wet and exciting, but free of terror and back strain.
We stopped now and then for side hikes and waterfalls, or just to get some shade or play Frisbee under rock overhangs. Our trip leader, Richard Adkins, picked the camping spot each afternoon. Since camping is first come, first served, we never knew where we’d end up on any given night.
Our guides stressed the importance of leaving no trace at our campsites. Since humans are constantly eating and digesting, this can be a challenge. All our food leftovers were packed out in plastic bags inside metal boxes. As for the digesting part, well, that involved a lot more toileting instructions than most adults are used to getting. We learned that we were only allowed to pee directly into the river, or in a designated bucket kitted out with a toilet seat. This prevented the frequently used campsites from smelling like kitty litter boxes by midsummer.
All the solid waste and toilet paper went in a mini camp toilet that was packed out. This toilet was called Oscar. Why Oscar?
“Oscar was named after a very difficult passenger. And the name just kind of stayed,” said Adkins. “Since then we have made some acronyms for Oscar. Such as Ostensibly Superior Culinary Alleviation Receptacle. Or Outstanding Crapper Around Rivers.”
We could only use biodegradable soap in the fast-flowing Colorado River. No soap was allowed in smaller tributaries. One beautiful campsite, Olo, had a lovely natural waterfall with water much warmer than the Colorado. We had to resist the temptation to shower in it. Some very prepared campers brought a solar shower, which was a good solution for a nice end-of-day cleansing while standing in the Colorado River.
One of my trip highlights was being on a raft run by two native American women. Shyanne Yazzie, part of the Diné tribe (AKA Navajo), was our boat pilot. Kim Bighorse, an Apache, assisted her in the role called “swamper.” This team shared another side of the Grand Canyon, as learned from their families.
Eleven tribes once made their home in the Grand Canyon, Yazzie told me. But their stories are often overshadowed by those who came later.
“I feel like some people forget that the native people were here first,” Yazzie told me. “And any [explanation] that we do down here it’s always about John Wesley Powell, who was this great explorer. And a lot of the names, like side canyons and everything, are always about the people who were here after the native people.”
We visited a couple of sites that are important to the original people of the canyon. One hike took us up to a place where Ancestral Puebloan people once stored grain. At the Unkar Delta, we saw broken pottery shards that have been there for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, Adkins noticed there were fewer shards when we visited than he’d seen on a trip a week earlier — even though visitors aren’t supposed to touch, let alone take, these artifacts.
“It’s leave no trace,” Yazzie said. “Just take pictures and memories. I feel like a lot of people always just want to like take, take, take, take, rather than give back or just enjoy it.”
In addition to our mid-day sandwich stops, our guides cooked hot breakfasts and dinners for us at camp. They accommodated a variety of diets, including vegan, vegetarian and diabetic. I was constantly amazed by the amount and variety of supplies they had tucked away on those two rafts. As the sole vegan, I greatly appreciated they’d stocked up on delicacies like vegan cheese, eggs and sausages, in addition to fresh fruit and vegetables. This couldn’t have been easy, as their headquarters is in Page, Arizona — a nice town, but not exactly a vegan hotspot.
An ever-changing experience
Adkins has been taking passengers down the Colorado River for 29 years. Yazzie is in her seventh year with the company. Both agree that it’s never the same trip twice. The river changes, and so do the guests.
“You get to see the guests change throughout the trip,” Yazzie said. “You get to see them do things they never thought they would do. It brings out their sense of adventure as a kid out, even though they’re full adults. I feel this canyon definitely has a way of changing people.”
Before I went on the trip, I wondered what it would be like to be on a raft, in a canyon, day after day. But I didn’t get tired of the river or the canyon’s gargantuan rock formations. Or the chance to see bighorn sheep coming down from the heights for a drink, and darling lizards scurrying around every campsite. Yazzie mentioned the joy of “seeing things you don’t get to see in, we call it the rim world. Above the rim. I feel like everything down here is simple. But yet you can see how strong the force of Mother Nature is.”
Photography by Teresa Bergen