The cascading call of a canyon wren echoes hauntingly throughout the chasm. Droplets falling from my oar blades make ripples on the water, the only movement on its glassy surface. The entire canyon turns a muted pink as the river reflects the surrounding sandstone.
In the stillness of this moment, a life-jacket-clad passenger in the front of our four-passenger rubber raft turns around and looks at me, sitting in the oar seat, with an expectant expression. I anticipate questions about the wren’s singing, the mighty Colorado River or the towering cliffs of the Grand Canyon, through which we’re floating. Instead comes the question: “So, what’s for dinner?” Earlier that morning, this same passenger asked a co-worker and me to pick the blueberries out of his blueberry pancakes.
After growing up white-water rafting in my hometown of Gardiner, Mont., I quit my career in journalism in 2008 to become a Grand Canyon boat guide. I’d completed a two-week, work-your-way trip through Grand Canyon and was hooked. My life soon channeled itself a different course.
My savings went toward CPR and wilderness first-responder training; leisure reading became studying the geology, biology and human history of the Southwest; road trips doubled as transportation to swiftwater rescue clinics. A skill set nobody told me I’d need, though, was how to interact delicately with the occasional challenging client.
Thankfully, these clients are few. Most people who sign up for a two-week river expedition are delightful, fun-loving individuals. They arrive wide-eyed and excited to experience the raw nature and adventure of Grand Canyon rafting.
And I mean all of it: the life jackets that cause annoying chin rubs; the furnace heat of the surrounding desert; icy splashes from the Colorado River; the sunburns; the chafing sandals; the splash pants filled with water; the constant packing and unpacking of equipment; getting sand in every orifice . For them, the payoff is completely worth it.
This payoff can be both powerful and subtle: the sublime beauty of sunlight hitting still water; the silence that comes with being completely removed from society; delicate dragonflies perusing turquoise-colored sidestreams; bighorn sheep enjoying cool shade and riverside greenery; broken pottery shards left behind by ancient civilizations; towering cliffs looming far overhead; a canyon exposing nearly 2 billion years of Earth’s history.
Most passengers adjust quickly and love their experience. However, there’s the occasional one who’s just not getting it. Some arrive expecting the luxury of a cruise ship and are let down when they don’t have five-star accommodations. Some try to help with the boats or around camp but unintentionally become a hindrance to guides. A repeat visitor with suggestions can come across to fellow travelers as a know-it-all. Having seen a lot of it, I can offer these tips to transition well and maximize the Grand Canyon river experience — for you and your tripmates.
Don’t talk politics. Nothing kills a wilderness experience faster than focusing on what’s happening back in society and allowing it to detract from what you’re experiencing in nature. I’d make an exception when it comes to discussing political alternatives to best protect our vulnerable national treasures such as the Grand Canyon.
Be flexible in your diet. I remember an undeclared vegan who became upset because many meals involved some type of dairy or meat. Your guides can work magic with the menu, but only if you let us know about food preferences in advance and remember that we’re cooking for more than 20 people in a wilderness setting.
Lend a hand around camp. But remember that we have certain rules to follow when it comes to safety and sanitation. Guides appreciate passengers who are willing to hop in and wash dishes or help others set up tents, but please ask before moving dinner tables or throwing out food. I love passengers willing to wash their hands and help chop salad.
Avoid tinkering with the boats. I’ll never forget the time a passenger, trying to be helpful, adjusted a bowline without asking and we turned around to see the boat floating away. I’ve also seen passengers take an unexpected dunk while hopping off the boat too soon when we arrived at camp in an attempt to tie us up.
Explore your own ways to stay entertained in nature. Don’t expect others to do it for you. Journaling, painting and meditating are ways to deepen your immersion. Watch a heron tip its head and look for fish. Smell a creosote bush after a storm. Notice the cool, desert breeze as it tickles your sun-warmed skin. I remember one passenger who brought a yoga mat and did stretches on the outskirts of camp in the morning.
Listen. Your guides have reasons for asking you to tighten your life jacket, to wash your hands thoroughly, to avoid using soap in waterfalls and sidestreams — and to pee in the river instead of in camp. These rules help keep you and your fellow passengers safe and help to protect the natural environment we’re experiencing.
Try not to compare your current trip to a past one. At least, not out loud and often — lest your guides and fellow passengers cringe. Every trip is different and each has its ups and downs, its variable weather, new people and experiences. Some months are better for hiking slot canyons, and some times of year are better for certain camps. By starting sentences with, “Well, on our last trip we . . .” you might unintentionally minimize the experience for yourself and others.
Push your limits, but don’t compromise your safety. I fondly remember a passenger taking a front seat for Lava Falls, one of the trip’s biggest rapids, after overcoming her fear of water. Not so fondly, however, I remember another passenger who insisted on hiking a trail well beyond her ability, requiring a co-worker and me to carry her piggyback the last mile and a half.
Share some time at camp with guides. But remember, this also doubles as their downtime in some instances. Nothing’s better than sharing a cold beverage down at the boats and reliving the day’s adventures, but if the guides are trying to organize gear or take care of personal hygiene, give them space.
Please remain seated and don’t fiddle with technology in the rapids. I remember a passenger who was asked to sit down and hold on for a particularly ornery rapid called Horn Creek. The passenger remained standing — unbeknown to the guide, who was facing forward — trying to snap some footage with his GoPro when the rapid started. The raft dropped and the passenger was thrown into the air and had to be flown out of the canyon with a broken collarbone. By sitting down and holding on, you can safely enjoy some of the biggest white water in North America and not stress out your guides.
While these tips can ease your transition into the group setting in the Grand Canyon — as well as make you a favorite with fellow passengers and guides — I’d say far more important is your openness to the friendship and self-examination that accompany the Colorado River experience.
The remote nature of the Grand Canyon, paired with a lack of access to the daily distractions of technology, causes strangers to interact with one another in a way few of us would otherwise experience. The friendships you’ll form and the experiences you’ll have on these expeditions are often the most lasting impression you’ll walk away with.
That said, enjoy the trip — and the blueberry pancakes!
DeWeese is a writer based in Gardiner, Mont.
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