Going back to civilian life after twenty-four days rafting the Colorado River felt even stranger than I imagined.
I went from beautiful red rock canyons and miles of whitewater rapids to a Chipotle in Kingsman, AZ. What a buzzkill.
Existing in the outdoors for an extended period of time does something to your body and mind.
This was the trip I had been dreaming of, and it could not have been better.
Planning the Trip of a Lifetime
I went on this adventure with sixteen people, half of whom I had never met before. Some were good friends that I started paddling with back in college and some were people that I’ve met along the way.
In total, it took about three years since we started putting wheels in motion to obtain a permit.
There’s a lottery system for obtaining a permit. And since one permit, was good for all sixteen of us, we each applied separately to up our chances. It worked!
Because the people who organized the trip were all “river people,” we wanted to offer this experience to our friends and people who wouldn’t normally do something like this. It was so cool introducing people to this! Our group included experienced rafters with twenty years of experience to people who had literally never been rafting before.
Teamwork is Key
I know sixteen people seems like a lot and it could have easily turned into Lord of the Flies if we weren’t careful, but this group made this trip go off without a hitch. You have to get along and work as a team, so it’s important that everyone has a job and they stick to it.
Part of what made things run smoothly was going with people who had experience and knew the river. It also helped that most of us knew each other really well. But the novices that we didn’t know beforehand were down to listen and help out with whatever.
With a little bit of direction from one dude that had been down the river around eleven times, everybody fell into their roles seamlessly! The leaders really stepped up and even the newbies were killing it; rowing these crazy, huge rapids. It was so cool to see everyone work symbiotically.
Never Underestimate a Theme (Even in the Wilderness)
The teamwork started well before we even got there.
Two rafters in our group, Christie and Brendan, decided that they were going to put together all the themes. We had a theme for basically every night. One night was an alien disco night club and another was a yacht club theme (captain’s hats and all). We all dressed crazy and learned all these great river games to pass the time. It was a total blast.
I would never have thought to make themed-days, so I’m very grateful to the experienced rafters who knew to plan ahead to make things more fun and exciting each day.
Related: 10 Best Hikes Near Bend, Oregon
Sleeping Under the Stars
It was perfect weather. At night, it was almost always warm enough for shorts and a t-shirt so you could just sleep on the boat under the stars every night.
I didn’t even set up a tent. I posted up on my boat with my paco pad, which is a little waterproof sleeping pad, and let the water rock me to sleep.
Having everybody be so “all hands on deck” and eager to help out was one thing, but what was really special was dealing with sixteen different people with unique emotions and perspectives all seeing the trip in a different way. It definitely expanded the experience to share it with old and new friends from all walks of life.
Highlights & Close Calls
One of the first special moments was at Red Wall Cavern, a giant cave that you can hang out in. It is one of the spots that you’re not allowed to camp at, but we spent the whole day in the cavern.
Another one of the most memorable locations was further down at Deer Creek Falls right along the river. You can actually float right up and see it, it’s hard to miss.
We decided to go the hard way, which started upstream and then became a ten-mile hike up and over to this other crazy waterfall feature before coming down. After this giant hike up and over, you end the hike by walking down through this little crack in the top of the waterfall.
But the most memorable moment was after that excruciatingly long hike. You can walk right up to the base of this little pool that the waterfall is pounding into. The wind that’s coming off of the bottom of the waterfall is so strong and there’s mist blowing in your face and you’re doing everything that you can to get closer and closer, but it’s too powerful. It lights up all the senses being that close to nature’s intensity. It made me feel so alive.
We had a dicey moment going canyoneering down a very narrow canyon when we made the mistake of taking more people than time allowed for. We ended up having to keep setting up and resetting repels then passing some gear back up. We all assumed we can repel if we can climb. We just didn’t think through having eight of us in this little slot canyon with limited equipment and time!
We ended up being in this slot canyon called the Twenty Nine Mile Canyon until after dark. The sun went down and we only had lights from our cell phones. We definitely weren’t expecting to be out there that long and we didn’t come prepared with lights.
Some of these canyons have stagnant water. So, we were literally swim-walking around trying to find where our feet could touch. Mucking through that disgusting, stagnant, moth water that was pitch black and not being able to see the end of the tunnel, I definitely had several “mind over matter” moments, but we made it back. It was just a little later than we expected.
Talking yourself into diving into the water with zero visibility is a mental test in itself. By the end of that though, I was pretty comfortable with diving into the abyss.
Related: Camping in Oregon: A Guide to Bend & Central Oregon Outdoors
The Bigger Picture
Being on the river each day is something I’ll never forget. The whitewater was awesome; a total rafter’s dream.
I took a Grand Canyon Field Guide with me to learn more about the area, which was a really awesome book to have at the end of every day. We would all try to remember the bugs, the lizards, and the birds to look them up in the field guide.
Learning about the geology and the layers in the canyons made me appreciate it all so much more.
When you start at the head of the river, you start at the top layer and as the river carves down, each new layer is exposed and you get to spend a couple of days in a different “time period” of the rock formations.
Anytime you’re in this setting where the only important things that you have to do each day are to get down this river safely, set up the kitchen so that you can eat, and set up the toilet so that you can go to the bathroom, everything else just fades away. In the “real world,” it’s easy to take life’s necessities for granted.
Rafting a total of 280 miles of river and hiking upwards of 50 miles in 24 days was truly the trip of a lifetime.
Sure, using a normal toilet is pretty cool, but I could’ve easily stayed out there another 24 days.