(American Whitewater Magazine, July/August 2013)
Patience and waiting blend like GORP. One who waits expects something to happen. One who’s patient actively chooses a state of mind. You need both when pouring ketchup, registering with the DMV, or waiting for a Grand Canyon river permit.
One of those examples took nearly 18 years and I’m not talking about ketchup or smog-testing a car.
I was a passenger on Grand Canyon commercial raft trips in the early 1980s, around the time Heinz ketchup first capitalized with the “Good things come to those who wait” slogan. My Mom arranged those trips and earned credit for hooking me on river sports. I started kayaking in 1984 and have suffered clogged sinuses ever since.
I had my first opportunity in 1993 when a rafting friend scored a permit. I was 30, single, and had no possessions other than two kayaks, a lumpy couch, and a microwave. I considered my friend’s invitation for nine seconds. “I’ll be a back-up oarsman,” I said, “but let me paddle Lava.”
Our group launched on a steaming hot day. The river ran clear and cold. Flows ranged from 13,000 to 18,000 cubic feet per second (note: one cubic foot is roughly the size of a basketball). We passed our first major test, Hance Rapid, on Day 6. Confidence grew as we oared to Granite and Hermit rapids, two gargantuan washing machines stuck in perpetual rinse and soak cycles.
We ran Crystal Rapid at Mile 98 far right to skirt a school-bus size hole. I didn’t drop into it but still paddled the rapid twice to rescue swimmers. Our soggy group recharged for the night at Emerald Camp, Mile 104. We had traveled nearly half-way without incident.
I awoke Day 7 and swaggered to breakfast before gearing up. The group chatted over cowboy coffee and anticipated exploring Elves Chasm downstream. Today was not a big day for rapids. But Ruby Rapid, at Mile 105, soon rearranged my attitude. Compared to the rapids upstream Ruby was a yawner. I paddled the glassy tongue but was blind-sided by a lateral. I flipped in the trough and set up to roll. A crashing wave jerked the paddle and ripped out my shoulder. The screaming voice I heard underwater was mine.
My buddies rescued me but couldn’t reset the shoulder. They started emergency measures and hailed other raft parties. A commercial rig stopped and an orthopedic physician hopped off. He reset my shoulder in less than five minutes. It was dislocated for over two hours.
I finished the trip riding on a raft, my good arm leveraging me through Lava Falls. I still enjoyed the Canyon but my mood sank. I wanted to run the river in my own boat.
A year later, I registered with the National Park Service (NPS) and was assigned permit waitlist #4,338. I anticipated an eight to ten year wait, perhaps shorter if I claimed a cancellation.
Five, ten, and then thirteen years raced by when the NPS awarded me a launch date of June 2011. It was 2007. I had four more years to wait.
I was now married with two kids, had a mortgage, and was concerned about aging parents. Life was interfering with my wait. My dad, age 71, capitalized on the extended delay.
Dad and Mom have been married for over 50 years. They often drive each other crazy. The man needed a break. Mom did too. He planted the bucket list seed during one visit.
The house was full of estrogen – his wife, my wife, and my daughters. Dad and I were outnumbered and watched the banter like a tennis match.
“Too much commotion here,” Dad whispered, “Let’s go.”
“Where,” I asked, “to a bar?”
“To the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon River. They’re on my bucket list.”
We snuck away that afternoon, met a travel agent, and booked flights to Quito, Ecuador, our base between jaunts to the Upper Amazon and the Galapagos. We confessed our plot that evening. “What are you two thinking? What about the cost? And your daughter’s birthday?” “Hold tight,” Dad advised, “Say nothing.”
So, in 2009 we traveled in Ecuador. We caught piranhas and dodged army ants in the Amazon jungle, and sat next to blue-footed boobies at the Galapagos Islands. Dad reveled like a boy scout without a den leader. No rules, total freedom.
Now skip to early 2011. My Grand Canyon launch date was within sight. I was allowed to take fifteen people on a 16-day river trip. I was 48 and by now had two shoulder dislocations, one knee surgery, and was taking pills to combat a prostate the size of a condor egg. Otherwise I felt great.
The group’s size ebbed as plans materialized. Several friends cancelled. They couldn’t afford the time. Then Mom called.
“I’ll go if you have space,” she said, almost apologetically. Mom’s previous Grand Canyon experience included commercially guided motorized trips nearly 30 years prior. For this trip she’d be on my raft and I’d row. And she’d sleep on the ground.
“You and Dad went to Ecuador,” she lobbied, “I want to do a bucket list trip with you too.”
“Mom, you’re nearly 70. Once we launch the only way out is down river. Cell phones don’t work in the Canyon and we’ll be off the grid. Our toilet is a gigantic ammo-can. What about Dad?” I tried to be gracious.
“Your brother and sister can watch him,” she persisted.
My siblings agreed, urging to go for it. Then I called Dad.
“Mom wants to raft through the Grand Canyon with me. You’d be alone for three weeks. Can you get along?” I asked. “Take her, take her… put her in front!” (Dad later left a message to bring her back in one piece.)
Had I foreseen an 18-year gap between Grand Canyon trips I would have bailed. I had good reason to complain about the permitting delays but decided to focus on what I could control. In this case the bureaucratic headaches were blessings in disguise. Time marched on and the list of things I could control eventually became longer than my complaint list.
Had I gone sooner, I may have missed these opportunities with my parents. They are in their twilight years. I thought they were fizzling out. But they threw curve balls, like wanting to go to South America or raft the Colorado River. After spending time with them I now know why I’m who I am.
Special thanks to American Whitewater, Latin American Escapes (Chico, CA), and Professional River Outfitters (Flagstaff, AZ). Also, many thanks to videographer JoHn Gibson and to Stew Oakley for their tremendous photos.