Take me to the river

Editor’s note: Over the next three weeks Shelburne writer Maria Cimonetti will take readers on a journey through the Grand Canyon. Start the New Year off on this exciting adventure.

By Maria Cimonetti

Unhurried and seemingly out of place, I wandered through the B Terminal for hours, skirting the crowds of rushing travelers and errant luggage wheels. Stepping out of the stream of humanity, I ducked into the gift shop scanning the sundries in search of the New York Times, a news fix for my current events vacuum. Cactus shot glasses, hot sauces, and authentic Native American jewelry made in China lined the shelves. I turned, narrowly missing the rotating stand of mini Arizona license plates with my bulging backpack still sandy from the silty Colorado River.  Startled by the clear sound of rushing water over the hubbub of shoppers, I focused my attention to the TV screen tucked into an alcove. A yellow raft bobbed across the monitor, carried downriver by the swift current coursing through the now familiar narrow walls of the Grand Canyon. Approaching the frothing rapids, the keen-eyed boatman stood, oars in hand, surveying the turbulent water below, his pounding aorta veiled by his calm demeanor. His passenger, crouched low in the bow of the boat white knuckling the chicken line, squared up to the impending danger. In the tranquil pause just before launching into the maelstrom, the oarsman took his seat, exhaled deeply, and guided his boat straight down the tongue of the legendary Lava Falls Rapid, perhaps the most difficult of the major rapids of the Grand Canyon, certainly the most terrifying. Mesmerized, I watched the raft enter the churn as waves of 50-degree water crashed onto the occupants. The oarsman’s skillfully timed strokes maneuvered his bucking raft to hedge right, avoiding the infamous ledge hole that, according to the deep voiced narrator, has claimed both rafts and lives. Bug eyed, I stared at the movie, thinking “Dude, so glad I didn’t watch that before my trip!”

It was almost two years previous that I had received the call from my brother.  “Up for an adventure?” he asked, knowing full well my answer. Granted, I was suspicious.  Once on a previous escapade my brother surreptitiously placed a large rock in my backpack at the base of a steep climb during a multiday hike in the aptly named Crazy Woman Mountains. We have history.

According to RiverMaps “Guide to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon”, nearly 5 million people a year visit the Canyon with only .5 of 1 percent of those people actually running the river, mostly as passengers on commercial trips. A much smaller number of swashbucklers tackle the river on their own with only 500 National Park Service permits granted each year. After several years languishing in the lottery system, brother Mike scored a river permit for a fall 2012 trip. Starting at Lee’s Ferry, the permit covered 16 people for 226 Colorado River miles, ending 21 days later at Diamond Creek takeout on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. With a quick calculation of time and dates, I realized the trip started a mere six weeks after the much anticipated “emptying of my nest.” What better way to celebrate my freedom than in the current of a fast moving river, heading down canyon with a bunch of strangers in rubber boats?

In preparation for the trip my main goal was to avoid any visual images of white water rafting. Not a thrill seeker by nature, I decided that ignorance was indeed the best policy. I carried on, occasionally remembering my departure date as the calendar pages flipped, slowly amassing a pile of essential equipment like splash gear, river shoes, and a collapsible hula-hoop. As the time of my departure neared, a friend texted me a picture of a kayaker digging in his paddle to stay upright in what looked like a Starbucks barista’s view of an enormous frothing mochachino. “Get pumped!” the text read. I packed the Rescue Remedy, a Bach flower essence and natural stress reliever, its use indicated for times of extreme terror and fear of death.

The departure date arrived and all flight connections to Flagstaff were made with nary a jog. Clutching my cell phone a little longer than necessary, I bravely powered off, severing the last strands of the virtual umbilical cord connecting me to my children: Mama was officially off duty. With my bottle of “liquid calm” safely stuffed into the pocket of my surf shorts, I bumped along the road to Lee’s Ferry in a packed van, shoulder to shoulder with my new colleagues in adventure.

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