Tales from the Gnar

Tales from the Gnar: Rafting the Grand Canyon

“When you are in the Canyon, we ask you to leave no footprint. That means you can’t even leave crumbs.”   I was listening to a mandatory talk by a Grand Canyon Ranger.  “If you leave crumbs, or any food, you will attract scorpions.  That means that when other groups camp on the same beaches later on, they will have problems.   And there are scorpions everywhere.  Be careful!  Scorpions are no joke.  You will be totally out of contact for two weeks and unable to get help, so don’t get bit by a scorpion.”

We were on a 16 day trip that had begun 20 years ago, when my friend Mark, entering the Grand Canyon lottery for people who want to do a private, noncommercial, rafting trip .  After so many years, he finally won the lottery for a trip that departed on May 30, 2017.  He had spent an entire year planning this trip, hand picking each of the members of our group, planning the meals for each day, and organizing what amounted to be a huge expedition.

  He even checked-in about the astrological timing.  “How does it look astrologically” Mark asked.  “Do you want the truth?” I said.  “Mars is opposite Saturn during the entire trip, and the trip begins with the Moon in a conjunction with Rahu.”  “Is that bad? Mark asked.  “Let’s put it this way”, I said.  “If a client asked me about a good time to start a trip, I would definitely not recommend starting at that time.  That said, you don’t have a choice about the starting time, and you will never get another chance at this.  It will probably be just fine.  The Moon’s conjunction with Rahu on the starting day could possibly cause someone to flip or to swim a rapid, but that is normal for river trips.  We will also have to be cautious about rattle snakes and scorpions, since Rahu symbolizes snakes, spiders, and poison.  But Jupiter is also creating a protective influence,   So I’m in!”

We began at Lee’s  Ferry, a boat ramp access point where all of the big rafting trips start.  During the sixteen-day trip there are only three points that are accessible from the outside, and only by a long, steep, and very hot trail.  The rest of the trip is more than 200 miles of totally inaccessible river, bounded by sheer cliffs.

Our group was made up of twelve guys.  We had a geologist, a Biologist, two Aerospace engineers, Four teachers,  and,  believe it or not,   two Vedic astrologers.  The oarsmen were very experienced, two of whom having world class resumes that included the Zambezi River in Africa, the Sun Kosi in Nepal, and the Bio-Bio in Chile.  There were four oarsmen/guides, each rowing one of the four, eighteen-foot rafts. 

Besides our camping gear, kitchen gear and food, each raft could carry two passengers, who rode in the front of the raft, which meant they would hit each wave directly, head on, as the raft crashed through the gigantic rapids.   I rode in a raft, along with a friend, Brent Becvar, a well known Vedic astrologer/counselor, who works with the Deepak Copra center, and Chris Old, the river guide who worked on the Zambizi and the Bio Bio rivers in the past. 

How can I describe rafting the Grand Canyon?  First, since rivers run down-hill, it is a journey into deeper and deeper parts of the canyon.  That means, that as the trip proceeds, more and more ancient layers of the earth are exposed, showing a perfect time line of geological history.  Starting out with layers that are around 500 thousand years old, the route climaxes with a layer called the Vishnu Schist  that is 1.7 billion years old.   The overall experience was literally like a journey back in time. 

And then there were the faces!  Now I don’t want to let my imagination run too wild, but everywhere you look in the canyon, every wall and every layer has what look like ancient human faces looking back at you from the rock.  I supposed it is like seeing faces in clouds, but the faces in the canyon are all over the place.  This is mixed with patterns in the rock layers that give the impression of ancient temples, pyramids, forts and other architectural wonders.  Taken together with the ride through ancient geological history, the total effect gives the distinctly eerie feeling that you are viewing the remnants of ancient civilizations  that have risen and fallen multiple times. 

The Colorado River itself is big and muscular.  Most of the trip is like floating on a glassy lake.  This is punctuated by white water rapids that range from Class 1 (gurgling ripples) to Class 10 (huge, wild and menacing).  Besides big white water, the river is full of eddies (places where the river runs backwards and in circles) and boils  (places where the water erupts from below and seems to literally boil over).  This makes it a complicated mess for oarsmen, who find themselves constantly getting pulled out of the current and into one of the River’s many hydraulic side-tracks.

Of course the size of a rapid, from a subjective perspective, is completely relative to the size of your boat.  Mark, and three other guys, were doing most of the rapids in very small kayaks.  While a class 6 rapid would seem big and exciting, but not scary,  to those of us in the rafts, to Mark, in his  little kayak, it seemed enormous and intimidating.   Combined with all of the crazy hydraulics in the river, Mark was getting bounced around and flipping upside down much more frequently than he liked.   Most of the time, when a Kayaker flips, he can roll the kayak back upright by doing a maneuver  that combines a motion between his paddle and his hips.  In big,  complicated water, however, this becomes much more difficult, sometimes forcing the kayak to stay upside down as the water rushes downstream with kayaker’s head potentially exposed to rocks.  The kayaker’s last resort in this situation is to execute what is called a wet-exit, which involves removing the spray skirt that is holding him in the kayak, and exiting under water.  Free from the kayak, he can get to the surface for air, and then take his chances swimming the rapids. 

Swimming a rapid doesn’t have to be dangerous, but it is definitely an experience that requires one to be focused.  The first rule is to float on your back with your feet pointing down river, so that if you hit a rock, you will hit it with your feet and not your head.  In the Colorado, however, swimming a rapid has another risk.  The water is icy cold.  It is released from the bottom the Glenn Canyon Dam on Lake Powell.  Since the Dam is 700 feet deep,  the temperature of the water is only 47 degrees.  In water that cold, after 10 minutes, you lose the ability to control your muscles and to swim effectively. Even with the temperatures at 106 degrees outside,  many people have died of hypothermia after their kayak or raft flipped in the Colorado.

So when Mark, whose kayak was up-river from our raft,  flipped at the beginning of a very long and  complicated Class 6 rapid,  it was concerning to everyone.  As Chris navigated the rapid in our raft, I watched to see if Mark would be able to roll his kayak, but the water was too violent and unpredictable.  After about 45 seconds, Mark emerged, having wet-exited his kayak.  Now he would have to swim the rapid, and try to get himself to a raft as soon as possible. Our raft was the likely candidate.

Part of the physics of floating down a river, is that larger, heavier objects, like river rafts, full of people and gear, float more slowly than smaller, lighter objects like swimmers.  This is part of the reason why it is good to have a raft down stream of a kayaker in a big rapid.  If a kayaker has to swim a rapid, and if he  is downstream from the raft, then it will be impossible to catch him, since he is going faster than the raft.  He will be on his own and will need to swim to shore.  In this case, mark was upstream about 100 yards, on his back, feet-down river, bouncing through the huge waves and moving  slowly towards our raft.  By the time he arrived at the side of our raft, he had been in the water for about 6 minutes.

He hit the raft with a thud and grabbed a strap on the side, while I simultaneously got my hand under his life jacket just above his shoulders.  I could see the bluish hue of his face and lips that were starting to show the first signs of hypothermia, so it was very important to get him in the boat as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, he was on the side of the raft next to a metal frame, so with the turbulence created by the white water, combined with the awkward position of his body, the best I could do was to simply hold on at first.  Brent quickly pitched in and, after about 20 seconds of trying to drag Mark,painfully, over the metal frame, we managed to get the bulk of his  body onto the raft.   Mark slowly dragged himself the rest of the way into the center of the raft and sat on the gear box  between me and Brent. He sat there without speaking, cold, spent, completely exhausted and obviously shaken.

Mark wasn’t the only person to swim a rapid on this trip.  Jeff, the biology professor,  who was also kayaking like Mark,  swam a rapid at the beginning of the trip.  In his case, he held on to his  kayak after  he wet exited,  but the kayak was quickly wrenched out of his hand by a huge wave, spraining his thumb badly.  That was the end of kayaking for Jeff, who rode in the raft for the rest of the trip.  

Probably the most exciting was a classic swim by Mike, the youngest member of our team, who was one of the rowers.  Mikes swim occurred on the biggest rapid in the canyon, Lava Falls, which is possibly the most famous rapid in the country.  Sometimes rivers have big menacing holes, where the water pours over huge rocks into a large depression, and then churns up violently on the other  side.  Some of these are called  “keepers”,  meaning that if your raft goes into one, it will probably flip and you could easily end up being bounced around in the bottom of the hole, like a tennis shoe in a washing machine.    Lava Falls, contains one of these giant holes at the very beginning of the rapid. It is followed by a series of huge, complicated waves, any one of which can easily flip a raft. Needless to say, the entire group was on edge, in anticipation of day 13, the day we would run that rapid.

When the moment arrived, we did what we had already done with 4 other big rapids.  We beached our rafts  just above the rapids, and hiked down the rocks on the right side of the river so that the guides  could scout the rapid, and to decide what line to use.  Our four river guides, Mike, Will, Chris and Jeremy,  stood on a big rock, just above the giant hole in at the beginning of the rapids, to work out their strategy.  Rivers are always changing, so this is an important part of rafting big white water.   It is easy to get seriously injured or even die if you don’t have a strategy for dodging the river’s big and dangerous hydraulics.  With an experienced river guide, however, the risk is greatly minimized so that, even if the raft flips and you end up swimming the rapid, you will probably not be injured.   All four guides stood on the rocks and watched as four commercial boats, from another group, went before us, running the rapids one at a time.  Ultimately, each one of the guides would have to make up his own mind about which line to run.   But seeing the other boats do the rapids first, helped them get a clearer idea of what to do, and more importantly, what not to do.  

 “How are you going to run it? Mike asked Jeremy. Jeremy had run the Grand Canyon three times before, so the other guides deferred to him for advice on the big rapids.  “I’m going to enter there, river-right, just on the edge of the hole.  You want to stay just to the right of the big hole, but you still need to stay to the left of the big rapids further down on the right side of the river.”  Jeremy said, “It is very important that you enter the rapid at just that spot on the right of the hole.  You don’t want to enter any farther left, or you will be sucked into it and will probably flip.  Any farther right, and you will pay the price by getting slammed into the rocks farther down.  The problem is that you can’t see the hole when you are approaching the beginning of the rapids.  All you see is calm, glassy water until the last couple of seconds.  By the time the hole becomes visible, it is too late to change your mind.  So you have to line up on those bubbles that are forming at the right, just before the top of the rapids. As long as you stay close to the bubbles, you should be okay.”

We all watched from the rocks as Jeremy’s raft went first.  He glided slowly out into the river, and then he did exactly what he had described, entering the rapid  just to the right of the big hole.  His raft bucked up and down as the huge water crashed  over the top, but Jeremy and his two passengers were upright, and still in the boat, as the eddied out to the left side of the river at the bottom of the rapid.

Next, Mike, with his one passenger, Mark, who had  elected to not Kayak this rapid, rowed out into the calm water and edged toward the white water.  He also lined up on the bubbles, and entered the rapid just to the right of the big hole.  However, as soon as he cleared the hole, he was hit from three sides by three big curlers, causing the raft to disappear temporarily as the waves smashed over the top.  When the raft emerged, it immediately did a tube-stand, tipping on its side at a 90 degree angle.  Normally, this results in the raft flipping, but in this case, the raft miraculously righted itself.  As we watched from the rocks, we could see Mark at the front of the raft sitting upright and putting his head down as the raft crashed through a series  of huge waves.  The only problem was that Mike, the oarsman, was not in the boat.  After about 30 seconds, Mike, who had been under water, holding on to a strap on the side of the boat, emerged, put his arm over the tube and muscled himself back into the raft.  Mark continued sitting in front of the raft, facing the oncoming rapids, completely oblivious to the fact that he had just run one of the biggest rapids in the country, without an anybody rowing the raft!

Finally, it was our turn.  Jeremy’s words echoed in my mind as Chris rowed our raft slowly out into the glassy water that leads up to the rapid.  Even though my job was simply to hold on and not get blasted out of the raft, I watched with interest to see how Chris would make his approach.  I looked for the bubbles as we glided forward, but couldn’t see them.  Jeremy was right. From this perspective it was very difficult to imagine where we were, relative to that big gaping hole that was waiting up ahead.  I certainly couldn’t see the hole or the rapids below.  I could only see the perfectly calm, mirror-like water, as it moved silently towards an innocent-looking "infinity" edge, twenty five yards ahead, and then disappeared.   I adjusted my position, dug my feet in under the tube in front of me,  and tightened my grip on one of the boat straps  as we came nearer to the edge.  

Then suddenly there it was, a raging, snarling, boiling pit, 8 feet below us and slightly to our left.  The raft dove into the beginning of the white water just clipping the right side of the massive hole.  It lurched violently, as we hit a series of huge waves coming from multiple directions.  I put my head down and held on, as the wall of foaming water crashed over our heads.  The raft tipped to a 45 degree angle and then righted itself as it moved to the crest of a giant wave.  From the top of this wave, I looked down, what seemed to be about 6 feet, to the bottom of the next one.  My mind became totally silent, as we rode the raft into the bowels of the river, seemingly in slow motion.   I tightened my grip as another giant curler  smashed into the bow of the raft.  I held on with all my strength, and somehow, we emerged from the most violent section of the rapids.

 “Whooo!!!”  Brent and I shouted,  as we emerged from the frothing chaos. The raft continued down the rapids through a series of enormous rolling waves and finally eddied out on the side of the river.  All four boats rowed ashore and we took a few minutes to celebrate our survival at “Whisky Beach”.   Apparently it is a tradition for rafters who survive Lava Falls, to mark the occasion in this  way.   Jeremy broke out a special bottle of whisky that he had brought for this occasion, and everyone took a drink.  And even though I don’t drink, I took a token sip,  as we swapped our stories of surviving the giant water. 

After our brief celebration, we continued floating down the river.  Around 2 p.m. we found a vacant, sandy beach where we offloaded our gear and set up camp.  Not being on the cooking detail for dinner, I took advantage of the late afternoon to wash my clothes in the river.  I found a nice secluded spot up river, rinsed the cloths out and laid them on a rock.  Then I took off my clothes, got out my soap and put it on a rock.  I was looking down river as I started to get into the water.  When I was just ankle deep, I heard a big round of applause coming from out in the river.  I looked up, and saw two huge commercial rafts, each with about 12 people on board, floating down river, about 20 yards from shore.  They all cheered,  hooted and laughed as I stood there in my birthday suit.  What could I do?   I laughed, and took a bow and they floated by.

That night I went to bed around 8 p.m.  The temperature had been above 100 degrees during the day, as it was for most of the trip, so instead of using a tent, I was sleeping on a river cot.  I had dried my clothes on a bush that afternoon and later I had put them in a nylon bag.  That bag was sitting on my river cot.  I reached for the bag, and as soon as my hand touched it, I felt a sharp pain on the top knuckle of the ring finger of my right hand.  I had been stung by something.  The pain throbbed in the finger for several seconds.  I looked around to see if I could find the culprit, but saw nothing.  After about a minute I started to feel the pain throbbing in my lower arm.  Two minutes later the elbow started to throb with pain.  Then the upper arm started to hurt. 

Remembering this to be a symptom of a scorpion bite, I went to find Jeremy, who had more experience with scorpions.  Together we returned to my cot, and Jeremy carefully dumped the cloths out of the bag.  “There he is!”  he said, as an etheric looking, light brown, Bark Scorpion scampered off the cot and onto the sand. 

“You know the drill.”, Jeremey said.   Scorpion bites usually will go away on their own in 24 hours or so.  In the mean time, they can be very painful and have a wide variety of symptoms, depending on the person.  On one trip I did, a guy got bit on his hand and it caused his whole arm to go numb, up to the shoulder.  On another trip, however, a lady got bit and she had a much worse reaction.  Along with pain and numbness, she lost control of her bladder and had some other neurological symptoms.  We will just have to wait and see what happens with you.  In any case, you should go to bed and we will see how you feel in the morning.  If you develop any serious symptoms, come and wake me up.

I went to bed, but was not able to sleep.  My body was reacting to the poison, and my adrenals were sending out the alarm.  By 11 p.m., my symptoms had worsened.  Not only was my whole right arm numb, but it felt like the pins-and-needles experience of coming off of novocaine,  after a trip to the dentist, only much more intense.  By 2 a.m. the symptoms had spread to my whole body.  I got up to pee and my foot exploded with the pins-and- needles feeling, giving a sensation that was similar to receiving electrical shocks each time I took a step. I took a sip of water, and felt the electric pins and needles all the way down my throat as I swallowed.  At 3:30 I rolled over to look at my watch, and I was seeing in triplicate.  I sat up to get check my vision, and my eyes were moving uncontrollably back and forth making it impossible to focus.  “I guess I’m having a stronger than average reaction”  I thought. 

Even though I was having a dramatic reaction to the scorpion sting, I wasn’t really worried.  The experience was uncomfortable, but not really painful.  And I knew it was just a matter of time until the poison would run its course.  I managed to fall asleep around 4 am. When I woke, about an hour later, I noticed that my vision had improved.   I got up, and by 11 a.m. the numbness had left my feet and legs.  By 8 p.m., I was back to normal.

The final couple of days of the trip were easy.  The big water was behind us, and the trip ended smoothly.  In retrospect, I can only say that it was one of the most amazing and unforgettable trips of my life.  Even though I am an astrologer, I try not to use astrology out of fear.   In spite of the negative astrological indications and the small dramas that occurred as a result, the trip was a great success.  I’m not suggesting that it is a good idea to plan important activities so that they begin or take place during negative astrological influences.  In fact, a big part of my work centers around helping people to set positive astrological times for beginning important activities.  If we had any options that were better, we would have definitely chosen a better day to start.  But we didn’t have any options, and the aspects didn’t look like anything too dire.  You have to live your life without fear.  It is way too easy for astrology to become an obstruction to your life, rather than a helpful tool.   So would I do it again, even if I knew that I would be stung by a scorpion?  No question.  What an amazing trip!   I’d do it again in a heartbeat!

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