Rafting The Ditch
Ryan Summerlin February 3, 2013
I wiggle my toes, looking down at my feet to make sure they are moving. I try to separate each toe and give it an individual workout, encouraging my shivering body to pump blood through my cold, cramped legs to its final destination.
I should have put on another pair of socks.
My hands are tucked into my PFD, with my elbows cocked out to the sides in an awkward, immobile Chicken Dance. My fingers are warm but I tremble at the occasional draft from the slight but steady breeze that hugs the water. My arms are starting to cramp, so I extend them forward and thrash them in circles in a frantic-looking rowing motion that makes my fingers tingle.
I look up, and for a moment, the cold drifts away. High above me, a narrow strip of sunny, blue sky is visible, framed by the craggy walls of the canyon. Layers of rock stretch up on either side, shifting from billion-year-old schist to layers of granite, marble and red sandstone in their comparable infancy. A commercial airplane, no more than a tiny speck, arches across the sky, a fluffy contrail in its wake pointing an arrow to civilization, which seems impossibly remote from where I’m sitting.
Months of planning and preparation have brought me here, almost a mile below the rim, floating along the mighty Colorado River in the depths of the Grand Canyon.
As a private boater, it’s relatively difficult to pull a permit to run The Ditch – not as difficult as it used to be, but still a bit daunting. So when I got the call in March from a friend who said her name had been pulled in the lottery for a Jan. 3 launch, my heart fluttered. The Grand Canyon. I’d been there once as a child, cautiously peering over the edge as clouds rolled in and obscured the depths in a swirl of fog and mystery. What was hiding down there, encased in a seemingly endless tomb of rock?
January in Arizona is still January, but the 25-year low temperatures we faced were surprising, even for a group of relatively weather-hardened kids from the mountains.
On days when I had breakfast duty, I would emerge from the cocoon of my sleeping bag in the pre-dawn light, pile on layer after layer of thermals and fleeces and fumble with cold fingers to light the blaster for coffee or help my crew dish up a hot meal: bacon, eggs, sausage, hashbrowns, pancakes – some days it all ran together covered in a river of hot sauce, a placebo of warmth.
We would pack up the camp, don our dry gear and rig the boats. For the first week, we were greeted with frost-covered gear, frozen cam straps and icy water. Rigging was a lesson in patience, plunging straps and bow lines into the river to break up the sand and ice, only to have them freeze all over again a few minutes later. And then we would depart, rowing across the eddy line and into the gray-green channel of the river.
The 226-mile stretch of the Grand Canyon from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek is home to 160 named rapids and numerous riffles, wave trains and cobble bars. This piece of river commands its own classification system, with the churning water numbered on a scale from 1 to 10. But between the rapids, there are slower-moving glassy sections where the line of the current seems to disappear and eddies pool on either side, tempting our heavy rafts to linger.
We break free of the eddies and row downstream, floating past hulking boulders just below the surface of the water. Like giant shipwrecks from a deep-sea epic, these chunks of rock seem to lament their previous lives of grandeur, when they clung to the cliffs above. The silt-free water, filtered by the dam above the canyon, reveals the ghostly slabs under us as frozen waterfalls, and the occasional big-horn sheep keep watch from above.
Each rapid announces itself to our ears long before we see the foam kick up in sprays. The sound of the waves echoes on the canyon walls, a drum beat that’s both exciting and terrifying. After careful scrutiny from shore scouting the perfect line, we plunge into the chaos, waves breaking over the bows of our 18-foot rafts, swallowing them completely before spitting them back out again. We crest and dive again, smashing into giant holes and whooping with exhilaration when we emerge on the other side, victorious.
We shout wide-eyed expletives and share high-fives, cheering for the other boats. We’re warmed by pulls of celebratory whiskey and our own exuberance, and we laugh at the sky and at each other, knowing we are among the tiniest percentage of the world that has shared this experience.
And then the water calms again and I look down at my feet and start to wiggle each newly sodden toe, one by one.