Painted Toe Nails and Other River Rules… Rafting the Grand Canyon

On a private trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon National Park, everyone pitches into help. Here we are rigging the rafts. Straps and more straps! (Photo by Don Green)

It is time to make the leap from life on the road to life on the river. Laptops, cell phones, good clothes and the other accoutrements of modern civilization are stuffed into bags and dumped into the van.

Plus I have to paint my toenails. It’s a virgin experience. Grand Canyon boatmen are a superstitious bunch. Many believe their boats will flip if a person is on board with naked toes. And it’s true; boats have flipped under such circumstances. It makes no difference if the opposite is also true.

We were required to paint our toenails so our rafts wouldn’t flip. We didn’t. Maybe it worked. I don’t think, however, that it made our feet prettier.

Tom lectures me. “I will not let you on my boat unless your toenails are painted.” He’s serious. Peggy dutifully applies blue polish on four of my toes. Does this mean we will only half flip?

Two acres of paved boat ramp greet us when we arrive at Lee’s Fairy. The transport van disgorges us as the gear truck makes a quick turn and backs down the ramp. Another private party is busy rigging boats.

From off to the right a longhaired, 50-something man emerges. I think 60’s hippie or possibly the model for a Harlequin Romance cover. The pirate flag on his boat suggests otherwise. A ‘roll your own’ cigarette dangles from his lips. It’s Steve Van Dore, the last member of our group and a boatman out of Colorado.  No one in our group has met him but he comes highly recommended.

“Please let this be the truck driver,” Steve later admits is his first thought when he meets our green and purple haired trip leader.

He also confides that Tom hadn’t told him we were a smoke-free group. “On the other hand,” Steve confesses, “I didn’t tell him I am on probation.” Somehow this balances out in Steve’s mind. There is no time to become acquainted; we have work to do.

The dreaded pirate Steve threatens our mascot Bone with a knife and demands to know where he has buried his treasure.

There is an unwritten Commandment on private river trips: Thou Shall Do Your Share. No one is paid to pamper us. Not helping will lead to bad things, like banishment from the tribe.

The truck we loaded in Flagstaff demands unloading. Everybody does everything. There are no assignments. Peggy and I become stevedores. Piles of beer and soda and wine and food and personal gear and ammo cans and hefty ice chests quickly accumulate around the truck.

There is no shade and the desert sun beats down ferociously. It is sucked up by the black asphalt and thrown back at us. We slather on sun block and gulp down water.

The rafts are unloaded last. Rigging our five rafts is technical but relatively easy, assuming of course one is mechanically oriented. I make no such claims. Steve’s Cat (catamaran) is already set up and in the water, its pirate flag flapping in the breeze. Our other four boats are self-bailing Sotar Rafts with aluminum frames. Tom owns his own, a blue 14 footer named Peanut. The three we have rented are yellow, 16 feet long and nameless.

Work also requires that we get our feet wet. (Photo by Don Green)

Tom is the last to rig his boat and it is approaching dusk. I hike down the river to find a campsite for our group while the rest boat down. Peggy and I are totally exhausted. We struggle to set up our new tent in 30 MPH winds. A van is coming to pick us up for dinner and we are late.

The walls of the restaurant are covered with photos of rafts and rafters being trashed by rapids.

The windstorm has changed to a dust storm as we crawl into out tents. It covers everything and gets into my eyes, ears, nose and mouth. I pull out a handkerchief to cover my face. I finally fall asleep with the wind ripping at our tent.

We are awakened at five AM the next morning, as we will be every day of our trip. There is personal gear to pack, breakfast to eat, and boats to load. Any thoughts of a leisurely trip down the river are dashed in the cold reality of the early morning’s light.

We also have a lecture on the Grand Canyon’s numerous rules by Ranger Peggy. Somewhere in the middle of rigging boats the previous day she had stopped by to check our equipment. Life vests had been dutifully piled up; stoves and bar-b-que were unpacked. Even the groovers, which I will describe later, stood at attention. You don’t mess with Ranger Peggy.

She knew Tom from other river trips and was amused by his hair-do. He introduced me as the permit holder. “Tom’s in charge,” I noted. The smile dropped from her face. “You are responsible,” she said icily. “I’ll try to keep Tom under control,” I replied meekly. Yeah, fat chance that.

Bells, whistles and alarms started going off in my head. I will face heavy fines if any of our party misbehaves. Dang, why hadn’t I read the fine print?

Our second encounter with Ranger Peggy begins after the boats are packed. Tom starts off with a discussion on river safety. Naturally we are required to wear our safety vests any time we are on the boat.

Tom, with his interesting hairdo, and Ranger Peggy check their lists to see which of the many rules they have forgotten to inform us about.

What’s the first rule if we fall overboard: Hang onto the boat. What’s the second rule? “Hang onto the boat,” we chant in unison. And so it goes. Tom saw his wife, Beth, go flying by him last year as he bounced through a rapid. He caught up with her down river.

If the raft flips, what do you do? Hang onto the boat! “Easier said than done,” I think.

“Your head is the best tool you have in an emergency,” Ranger Peggy lectures. Right. When the river grabs you, sucks you under the water, and beats you against a rock, stay cool.

For all of the concern about safety on the river, the Park Service seems more concerned about our behavior on shore.

Over 20,000 people float down the river annually. And 20,000 people can do a lot of damage to the sensitive desert environment. Campsites are few and far between and major ones may have to accommodate several thousand people over the year.

Picture this… 20,000 people pooping and peeing in your back yard without bathroom facilities. It isn’t pretty. So we pack out the poop. And we pee in the river…

Packing out poop makes sense. But peeing in the river, no way! I’ve led wilderness trips for 36 years and for 36 years I’ve preached a thousand times you never, never pee in the water. Bathroom chores are carried out at least 100 yards away from water and preferably farther.

The first time I line up with the guys I can barely dribble out of dismay.

The rules go on and on. Mainly they have to do with leaving a pristine campsite and washing our hands. Normally, I am not a rules type of guy but most of what Ranger Peggy is preaching makes sense. Sixteen people with diarrhea is, um, shitty.

And I enjoy the fact our campsites are surprisingly clean. The least we can do is leave them in the same condition we find them, if not better. The rules work.

Finally… we are ready to launch. Eighteen days and 279 miles of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon lie ahead. Ranger Peggy has checked our IDs and we are who we claim to be. The boatmen have strapped down the gear… and Tom is anxious.

The same up-canyon winds that whipped sand into our tent last night are threatening to create a Herculean task of rowing. Headwinds of up to 60 MPH are predicted.

Next blog: Our first three days on the river.

The group, ready to launch. Wife Peggy, as opposed to Ranger Peggy, is holding her and my purple life vests.

8 comments on “Painted Toe Nails and Other River Rules… Rafting the Grand Canyon

  1. Wow, lots of work goes into rafting all to be thrown from the boat..Lot of good “hang on” would do me because once I out of the confines of the raft I would be a babbling mess…Another nice peek into this awesome trip!!

  2. Wow… 20,000 annually? I can’t wait to hear if they’ve managed to maintain the region (ie, keeping it clean). Love the superstition — that’s a new one for me!

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