By Maria Cimonetti
The beach at Lee’s Ferry on rigging day resembles a “fun-hog” yard sale: piles of colorful waterproof bags, inflatable kayaks, tents, sleeping pads, fishing gear, tables, collapsible chairs, and teetering pyramids of canned beverages. Pro Outfitters supplied drop boxes stuffed with food, coolers packed with ice, and a three-ring binder detailing the impressive food plan: 63 meals for 16 hungry people. Within a few hours our seven rafts were rigged and loaded, everything stuffed, rolled, and strapped down. Ranger Peggy, taser securely strapped to her hip, meticulously checked our ID’s and lifejacket buckles. After delivering a stern lecture on scorpions, rabid mice, rattlesnakes, and Indian artifacts, she reminded us to leave no trace behind. As in, everything gets packed out.
Waste disposal is a fact of life on the river. Food waste is burned, dirty dishwater is strained, and human waste has its own protocol as well. Grand Canyon rules dictate all pee goes directly into the river – convenient, albeit shockingly chilly on the feet in the middle of the night. Everything else is packed up, sealed tight, and carried out every day. A typical powder room in the Grand Canyon is outfitted with a hand wash system, a pee bucket, and the “groover,” a 20mm ammunition can, the name of which is derived from the grooves left behind after sitting on the narrow can. Luckily, on our trip we had both a comfy toilet seat and Buddy, our #1 go-to-guy for #2.
With vast river experience, and a wry sense of humor, Buddy was a master, always providing the penultimate groover experience. A clearly marked path, beautiful views, and a complimentary shade umbrella bore Buddy’s signature. Upon each day’s arrival at camp, the groover was the first piece of equipment to be set up and the last taken down, making Buddy’s “Last Call!” and “Last Last Call!” a predictable daily ritual. A purple fly swatter hanging from a tamarisk bush signaled availability, often resulting in long lines and good conversation as the second pot of coffee percolated on the camp stove each morning.
Kitchen duty rolled around every few days, with teams of four in charge of food preparation, delivery, and clean up for a 24-hour period. Even the most inept in the kitchen were assigned a job, ranging from setting up the four-bucket dishwashing system to dicing and peeling the many vegetables that filled our pots. Hopping from boat to boat shopping for essential ingredients required focus, a good memory, and nimble feet, made somewhat more challenging by the arrival of happy hour. Adhering to the maxim, “idle hands are the devil’s playthings,” our motley river tribe dedicated themselves to camp chores. Daily can crushing, fire pan maintenance, and water filtration were vital to the success of our trip. Chores completed, tents erected, and enchiladas bubbling away in Dutch ovens, there was often time for a few quiet moments of fly-fishing, or a hike up a side canyon. The hula-hoop proved to be an excellent source of entertainment as well as a sure-fire way to warm up after a frigid river bath. Boisterous river bravado, the clinking of horseshoes mingled with strumming guitars, and the ever-constant reappraisal of the day’s running of the rapids provided the soundtrack of our journey.
Later, circling the toasty fire, head lamps illuminating steaming bowls of food warming our laps, we watched the stars appear in the inky sky framed by the jagged canyon walls. One by one, weary campers stumbled to their beds as the last of the melon rinds and avocado pits burned on the grate over the fire. Clandestine marshmallow smuggling and moon shadow interpretation were trademark activities of the after-hours crowd, second winds brought on by the dazzling full moon illuminating the canyon. Whiskey and hand salve were passed, lubricating bodies parched from adventure-filled days in the wild river and arid desert. Down by the river, we were doin’ fine.