Three Weeks at the Bottom of the Grand Canyon
It was July of 2020 … you get it and most likely want to forget it so I’ll jump right to it. There I was with a fresh handlebar mustache, loading my truck for the two-day drive from the Pacific Northwest to Northern Arizona. A year earlier, my cousin won the lottery for a river permit for eight of us to row a 20 (ish) day, self-guided raft trip down the Colorado River in the heart of the Grand Canyon. This is after nearly a decade of getting friends to submit their names (a “permit party” if you will), in hopes that someone would get their name drawn and bring the rest of us along on an adventure of a lifetime. Well, we finally pulled one … and it was in the year when it all went to shit.
We had no idea if our permit would get pushed or even worse, canceled. There were stories of outfitters picking rafters up from the takeout in April of 2020— after they’d been on the river with no connection to the outside world for 30+ days. They had to explain the global pandemic, lockdowns and social unrest to groups of river runners that just spent the last month fending for themselves in one of the toughest environments in the world. Long story short, they were given an air high-five or elbow bump and were told not to touch anything or talk to anyone until they got home. Welcome back to life above the rim!
A familiar phrase kept popping in my head throughout prep: “Conquerors of the useless.”
I was packing my truck not knowing if we’d even be able to get on the river, as the rules and knowledge around the pandemic were changing daily. And even if we were able to launch, what world would we come back to? But I was committed. We were all committed. As a lifelong river rat, this was the pinnacle of my bucket list to-dos. Taking 20+ days away from life and dogs and responsibilities, in the middle of a global shutdown, seemed like an insurmountable feat. One that felt equal parts necessary and ridiculous. A familiar phrase kept popping in my head throughout prep: “Conquerors of the useless.” It’s a saying popularized by Yvon Chouinard, and used by every adventurer out there to describe their endeavors that bring meaning out of life. This seemed to touch on what I was seeking. That is the American spirit. To wake up before sunrise. To have a cowboy coffee while washing your face in a river. To row a raft 20 miles through rapids that can f lip your boat at will. All to experience one of the last great places in this country where one is truly in the wilderness. In the great unknown. Unsure of what’s around the bend. Unsure of what’s on the mesa above. Just getting to the next camp. Just conquering the useless.
To understand what it’s like to row the Grand Canyon, an essential read is Kevin Fedarko’s The Emerald Mile. He sums up river life about as good as one can: “[These dirtbag river runners] have preserved an aspect of the American persona that is uniquely vital to the health of this republic … to uphold the virtue of disobedience: the principle that in a free society, defiance for its own sake sometimes carries value and meaning, if only because power in all of its forms— commercial, governmental, and moral— should not always and without question be handed what it demands.” And that’s precisely the point. To allow nature and the awe of this landscape to put me in my place. To know I’m not in control. It’s about escape for escape’s sake. We are owed nothing in the world so we need to follow our gut and now and then just chase those ridiculous pursuits.
I made it to the put-in at Lees Ferry, met up with the rest of our group, and exchanged awkward air hugs and those semi-removed nervous conversations that were a sign of the times. We weren’t sure if the energy seemed tense because of what lay ahead, or the world we were leaving behind. After rigging our boats, tetris-ing the 1,200 beers and personal gear, we embarked on the 18-day journey (winter trips can run up to 45-50 days) down one of the biggest whitewater rivers on the planet. It’s a test of one’s own mental fortitude and a social experiment to test the boundaries of any group. There’s no time for bullshit. No news, no Instagram, no politics. There’s just a river, your crew, and what is coming around the bend.
On launch day, you get a colorful, two+ hour information session from the park ranger. Did you know that 99 percent of visitors to Grand Canyon National Park never go more than 100 yards from their vehicle? Now you do. That’s just 60,000 of nearly 6 million visitors annually that actually venture below the rim. For the next three weeks, this ragtag crew of folks from Colorado, Idaho and Washington would make these 18’ x 7’ rafts our homes in one of the oldest crevasses on earth. We would see only two other groups in those 18 days, something that is a rare and special thing in the Covid-led outdoor recreation boom.
Each day is filled with the unknown and greeted with the understanding that the river is in control. It’s the endless puzzle of organizing your gear on your raft every morning. Racing the slowly creeping sun that would instantly make any metal searing to the touch. It’s the 20-foot waves you have to pivot your 3,000-pound raft straight into after using every muscle in your body to move past a hole above that would flip your boat into said wave. It’s the 120-degree heat and 50-degree water. It’s the endless map-watching, tide-monitoring, bat-dodging, scorpion-finding, and cleaning sand out of areas in your body long forgotten. But it’s also the sea of stars at night, endless cribbage, fresh warm swimming holes, evening light down the canyon walls, campfires, and Tequila Beach. It’s the yin and the yang of this 240 (ish) miles of river. Every turn contains unparalleled beauty and a scale of our planet’s history that can’t be put into words. The next bend may test you and your group’s resolve. The one after that might mean it’s time for a beer. After all, one day we will all become as mythical as the petroglyphs that showcase the first civilizations. in this canyon.
If there is a point to being in the canyon, it is not to rush but to linger … for as long as one possibly can … savoring the pulse of the river on its odyssey through the canyon, and above all, to postpone the unwelcome and distinctly unpleasant moment when one is forced to reemerge and reenter the world beyond the rim …”Kevin Fedarko, The Emerald Mile
Eleven hundred beers later, with maybe some mind-expanding alternatives slipped in now and then, the group emerged intact and in a groove. The long drive out of the takeout—fitting that it’s through Havasupai land—is your first sound of a car engine in weeks. A noise bringing you back into a world of screens, ice cream, political gaslighting and modern reality.
At the end of the day, whatever brings you personal joy or a sense of achievement—whatever it may be—is in itself not useless. But it’s something that is uniquely human, no matter where you are from. To seek pleasure in things that challenge you physically and emotionally, for the promise of a reward greater than money or power: achievement. Just doing something for the sake of it. No financial incentive. Just conquering a “useless” achievement for the sake of achievement. And sometimes that should be enough.
There seem to be fewer peaks than valleys in the world these days, but hopefully, you’re taking time to see how beautiful it can be out there. Like most good things, you’ve gotta work to find whatever stillness you can. And in the words of Bob Weir: ”Only a river gonna’ make things right.”
Ready for your own river adventure? Learn more about how you can win the river permit lottery yourself here.