Rafting the Grand Canyon is an expedition, more than a “trip.” One crosses most of northern Arizona, east to west, through the rugged and remote wilderness of the Grand Canyon, taking weeks to do so. Even with our group of only seven (on average), the meal planning alone accounted for 57 meals, or 399 portions. It’s worth overpacking a bit, since weight is less of a consideration than the possibility of needing something you don’t have.
River life has its own pace and rhythm, both day to day and hour to hour. You haven’t truly arrived in the Grand Canyon until you’ve settled into the rhythm of rafting life. You wake early, pack your things, then gather around the morning’s first pot of coffee while a hearty breakfast is cooked (most trip participants, myself included, reported eating better on this trip than at home–good food being one of raft life’s many pleasures). With breakfast dishes done, camp is packed, boats are rigged, breakfast beers are cracked, and we push our boats into the current. We raft the day away, stopping for delightful and often expected hikes, rapid scouts, and lunch along the way. On a good day, we reach camp by 2:00 or 3:00 pm (before the afternoon’s strongest upcanyon winds), set camp, open books, and enjoying the evening meal and conversation around the fire under darkening canyon walls. With fair weather, you sleep under the stars, wake under blue skies, then gather around the morning’s first pot of coffee.
Time on the river itself, typically three to five hours per day, passes at a highly irregular but predictable tempo. Mostly, time passes languorously, the hours floating by in quiet contemplation of the canyon walls, chit chat, beers, music. These long idle hours are punctuated by interminable periods of intense anticipation, in which time passes in slow motion. The big rapids can sometimes be heard from a mile away, building anticipation fifteen or twenty minutes before they can be seen. The pulse quickens and languorous senses are quickened, brought to attention. The ten minutes between when a rapid is distinctly audible and that moment in which the raft passes into the rapid can last longer than the two hours of flatwater prior. This sensation of time slowing down is augmented by the physical reality that water often pools and the current appreciably slows above big rapids.
The largest rapids are often scouted from the river bank prior to being run, increasing anticipation further. The heart pounds in the chest. Then, at the culmination of the anticipation, when the rapids roar their loudest and the entire horizon is filled with the heaving tumult and crashing spray of the rapids, at that very moment when the raft passes beyond the point of no return, the tempo changes again. The raft perceptibly picks up speed and momentum. Things happen faster now. The anticipation evaporates in an instant, and one becomes fully and immediately present in the moment. These moments of river running–the most chaotic of any–produce in me a Zen-like state. The roar of the rapids recede. The water’s heave and tumult is taken in stride. All that exists for those few precious moments in the reading of the water, the anticipation of its push and pull on boat and oars, and the strokes necessary to keep one’s line.
And then, sometimes, “oh, SHIT!” bursts the Zen balloon. The river snatches oars and passengers away as swiftly and deftly as a cat bats a mouse. SUV-sized boulders appear from no-where, collision is eminent, waves crash over and fill the boat, it’s two-thousand pound mass tossed about as a teacup in a tempest.
While scouting Lava (the largest, and perhaps most fearsome rapid on the canyon), we watched the party ahead roll the dice and ply the oars. One, two, three boats–clean, successful runs. Then, boat four enters with its passenger at the bow and captain at the oars. Halfway through, a rogue lateral wave plucks the oarsmen from his boat–one instant rowing his boat, and then in the next instant gone from sight entirely. The boat and its passenger continue on, oblivious, oars bouncing wildly in the waves. The river is merciful, and the raft passed head-on through the towering haystack waves at the bottom of the rapid. Only then, when the worst is over, when time-lapse once again becomes real-time, does the passenger look behind to discover his safe passage has been delivered by a phantom oarsman!
It’s impossible to say if time quickens or slows when one enters the tongue of the rapid. Perhaps it does both. The fifteen seconds its takes to pass through a rapid is over in an instant, yet lasts an eternity. Then, one fights through the eddy at the bottom of the rapid, and life resumes its former tempo of languorously soaking in sun and trying to fathom the size and height of the surrounding walls.