Rolling on the river

Published 11:21 am Friday, August 19, 2016

By James D. Howell

I check into the hotel in Page, Arizona. The day has been warm and sunny, as most days are in Arizona; the next week is forecast for more of the same. I’m happy with that; I plan to be outside for the next eight days.

It’s late in the day; I find food and check out a little of Page. It’s a smallish town, without a long and glorious history. It began as construction housing for the workers that built nearby Glen Canyon Dam. It’s an ideal base camp and gathering point for participants in our adventure.

We’re going to go river rafting down the Grand Canyon, starting near here. It’ll be a full week’s venture covering about 188 miles of canyon, several side trips to places of interest, arriving at Whitmore Wash, where we’ll be airlifted by helicopter to an airport for a return flight to Page. It promises to be an experience of a lifetime. Hatch River Expeditions will provide raft, crew and daily sustenance. My spirits are high.

We gather in a meeting room of the hotel for a trip overview and briefing. We see a short slide presentation of “things to see” and hikes planned. It will be a physically challenging week. I see that I’ve packed way too many clothes. We are encouraged to go minimalist and leave extras in the hotel storage room. Cameras and film are a must; there will be no local stores available. My rental car will be left at the hotel, through prior arrangement.

The first day will be raft orientation and drifting into Marble Canyon, the northern entry into the Grand Canyon.

Early morning finds us gathering in the parking lot close by the hotel entrance. Transportation has been arranged for the two and a half hour, visually interesting trip to Lees Ferry. This is the easiest, most popular Colorado River access point for commercial rafting companies and individuals alike. All traffic on the river and through the canyon must be registered with the Grand Canyon National Park. Commercial traffic is rigidly controlled to protect the canyon environment.

My group meets with the crew and helps load the gear onto the raft. It’s a tough-looking, military type, multi-air chambered, heavy cargo raft that exudes confidence and experience. The crew is more modern, but displays the same confidence and experience. We load camera packs and gear separate from clothing. Camera gear will be readily available at every stop. Smaller, water resistant cameras can be out and ready at all times.

Most participants, like me, have a tripod for the side trips. I have a backpack for hiking and spare film and camera tucked away with my clothing.

Our group loads up and the guide backs away from the shallow landing. We feel suddenly free from the world. The feeling doesn’t last long. Our boatman steers the raft about a hundred feet across the river and heaves to against the shore. The motor is shut down and the formalities of raft courtesy and camping hygiene are covered. Life vests are mandatory anytime the boat is underway, even in very shallow water. Water or Gatorade is available at all times on the raft.

Each passenger has an assigned cup with their name written on the side. It will be used for the entire trip. Persons nearer the water jugs will courteously fill and return the cup to its owner. If you’re not urinating about every two hours maximum, you’re not drinking enough liquid. It will be very hot and very dry during the day, nights will be cool, and the river will always be too cold for casual swimming.

Other calls of nature will be handled by a potty bucket made available each night and morning until the raft is launched. It’s the first thing off the raft and the last thing boarded. The bucket will be placed in a private area, with a boat cushion placed at the entrance to the path. If the cushion is missing, the bucket is occupied. Everything is packed in and out. Common courtesy prevails. Urination is only in the water or wet sand at the shoreline.

Expect to get wet; plan for it. The outrigger tubes on the raft may be used during quieter floating. Guests may sit astride the tube and drag their feet or other body parts in the water. In rougher water and rapids, the outer tubes will not be used. The guide will advise everyone when the outer tubes are available. Each guest will help unload and load the raft each night and morning.

It’s a lot to remember, with just one run through. I feel the current as we leave the shore; excitement is running through my spirit. It’s going to be a great week.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at