I loaded my dry bags into an eighteen foot raft and used a pump to slowly fill an inflatable kayak, Duckie, with the dry Arizona air from the put in at Lee’s Ferry, fifteen river miles south of Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River.
In a way, spending three weeks in the Ditch was quite familiar. I had eaten my fair share of Grand Canyon sand on my previous two trips, as the wind whipped up the canyon making nearly every meal a bit crunchier than expected. I also drank MORE than my fair share of the Colorado River. I am not a skilled boatman, and my last trip, also in a Duckie, featured flips and swims on a near daily basis.
In another way, this trip was completely foreign. I stood on the banks of an ever-changing river with nine complete strangers, and five friends. I knew that over the next three weeks we would get to know each other as we spent our evenings around the campfire sharing meals and stories, and that even while sitting alone we would be sharing the same firetruck red ammo can labeled POOP with white spray paint. At the moment, I was struggling to learn the nine new names.
My bags were ‘packed’, but there was the incessant worry that I had forgotten something. I kept running through a list in my head. Sleeping bag. Check. Tent. Check. Hammock. I hope it doesn’t rain, check. Sleeping Pad. Check. Camera. Check. Battery pack. Double check. Maps. Check.
The maps I took down the Colorado River are more than a simple listing of river mile, and interesting sites to see. They are the maps that may granddad and grandma took down the river in 1983. They are a chronicling of that trip as my grandfather wrote notes about where they had lunch, where they hiked, and where they camped. At night, I would sit at the campfire and read about their trip. I would visualize the spots that they had stopped, and compare them to my own experience. I tried to imagine what it was like for them. Had it rained? Had they seen a rainbow? Did they fall out of the raft? Did they like the people they were rafting with? Were they scared, like me, at the big rapids?
I got off the river and immediately emailed my grandparents my favorite photo of the trip. Several days later, I asked them if they had any pictures or stories that they would like to share. Here’s my granddads response,
When we went down the river we left our good camera at home and bought a cheap one. On the first day of the trip Shirley was carrying the camera and she fell into the river. That ruined the cheap camera so we got no pictures. How’s that for a story?
I called several days later to get more stories. I asked my granddad about the trip, but he couldn’t hear me. My grandma, Shirley, translated, ‘he’s asking about the Grand Canyon trip,’ and with that he launched into it, below are my paraphrased highlights.
‘It was 1983, and we didn’t think that we would actually be able to go. There had been flooding in the summer, and the park service had stopped letting boats launch. We were one of the first commercial trips that was allowed to go down the river after the flood. There were five boats, and we rotated rafting with the different guides every day. On the first day grandma was hiking around a ledge when she fell in the water with the camera. We don’t have any pictures from the trip, which is fine by me, because we had to focus on what we were seeing every day.
Our guides unloaded the boats, and made us dinner. We set up a tent every night, but always slept outside because the stars were so beautiful. One of the days we passed two couples that were swimming in the river. Something looked a bit odd, and we realized that between the two women, they only had one bathing suit. One was wearing the top, and the other was wearing the bottom. We laughed, but never saw them again on the river. We got along with everyone that was on the trip, but there was one couple that Shirley and I really connected with. I wish we would have lived near them, because I think we would have been good friends.’
There are moments in life when you accidentally do the right thing, I was blessed with one of these moments and I didn’t realize it until after my granddad told me his story. Several years ago, I ended up with my granddads old Canon camera, his camera bag, and his camera strap. As I packed my bags at Lee’s Ferry, I attached his camera strap to my Sony a7 mirrorless camera, and packed it into his decades old camera bag. It was poetic, I thought, I would be taking his gear back down the Grand on my own trip. I now know that this was his ‘good camera’, and that it hadn’t made the first trip down the canyon 36-years ago. I would be taking his gear on its inaugural trip in the canyon.
I shoved my Sierra Designs tent into my dry bag. If all went according to plan it would stay there the entire trip, and I would sleep under the stars. The river was experiencing a three month long drought and the thanks to a Sierra Designs zero degree sleeping bag, the only reason I would need a tent was for rain. I hadn’t realized that my grandma and granddad were just as enamored with the stars as me. Their maps had even more meaning, because I knew the exact locations where they slept, the exact locations where they had looked at the stars. The world has changed a great deal in the last 36-years. Cars can drive themselves, computers now fit in your pocket, and you can watch TV on your phone. As for the Grand Canyon, and the stars. They are relatively like they were 36-years ago. I can’t travel back to 1983, but I can raft the canyon and see what they saw, I can look at the stars and imagine them right next to me.
It made me sad when my granddad said he wished he had stayed in touch with the couple they had met on the trip, because I knew how important those connections had been in my life. In 2012, I met Alan and Fran on Christmas Eve before our first trip down the Grand. Alan had won the permit, and was our trip leader. He planned epic hikes, and is the type of person who wakes up early every day to make coffee for the group, even though he doesn’t drink coffee. Fran was our radio. She knew every song, and was not shy about singing them as we floated down the Colorado in the cold days in early January. I visited Alan and Fran several months after that first trip in Asheville, North Carolina, and did my first marathon after Alan took us on a ten mile hike with 4,000 feet of elevation gain the day before. I visited them in Glacier National Park, when they moved out west. We summited the Great Northern mountain, and biked up Going to the Sun Road on my birthday. In 2015, we made our second trip down the Grand. We hiked to Cardenas Butte on Alan’s birthday, and shared Thanksgiving dinner on the river. In 2016, during my trip to visit all 59 National Parks Alan sponsored me with buddy passes to fly to visit the parks in Hawai’i and Alaska. In 2019, we stood, for the third time, on the banks of the Colorado River, at Lee’s Ferry. Alan had oared a raft the previous two trips, and on this trip he would living out his 15-year old self’s dream to kayak the Grand Canyon. We had shared birthdays, holidays, and childhood dreams. I knew the value and importance of the people that you meet on the Grand. I was sad, because my grandma and grandad made those connections. They had met their own Fran and Alan, but they hadn’t been able to stay in touch.
Most of the days on the river I was in my duckie, and couldn’t pull out my camera while on the water. I also didn’t get to sleep under the stars as often as I would have liked, because it rained seven of our twenty-one days on the river. I didn’t know about the camera, the stars, or the missed friendship when I sent my grandparents my favorite photo from my trip, but the picture I sent somehow brought it all together.
It was one of the rare times that I sat on a raft, and not in my duckie. It had been raining, and Fran, her brother and I sat on the raft singing Macklemore. The rain stopped, and the sun shone through the clouds. I pulled out my camera, with my granddads camera strap, and looked behind to see if we could get a rainbow. Nothing. Then I turned around. Alan was sitting in his kayak, with his arms raised toward a rainbow that spanned the silty Colorado River. My friend, was living out his childhood dream, and somehow I was lucky enough to be there, with a camera, to capture the moment.
For more stories by Darius Nabors you can visit his website, www.59in59.com. You can see his photos on Instagram @dariusnabors, or even take a virtual tour of his Grand Canyon trip Somewhere Under the Rainbow – Rafting the Grand Canyon.