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  • Writer's pictureBlaine Hoppenrath

There’s This River

There’s this river and it cuts through this canyon. It’s pretty great. It’s also pretty ironic that the average visit to the Grand Canyon lasts less than an hour and fewer than 1% of all visitors venture below the rim.

I am so fortunate that I have lived close enough to visit at my own convenience and been able to use my vacation days to paddle the river on two separate occasions. I remember the first trip like it was yesterday. The side canyons, the rapids, my parents going for a swim in Sapphire were engraved in my memories. It’s also hard to forget running Lava in the Fourth of July and then camping out right below the rapid.

I also remember the people that I spent eight days with in one of the best places in the world. I remember the guides and the other guests, granted Facebook helps that a lot, but the fact that we all touch base every once in a while says something about how much we all cherished the trip and how it brought 32 strangers together. Besides, I would be disappointed if anyone forgot about the "Oh No, Kimono."

I had high expectations the second time around, but in the same breath I had little doubt that I would be let down. This time I was setting off with Anna, one of my best friends, hiking/backpacking partner, and “work wife” (aka best friend at work). The day before the trip we hopped on a shuttle to Marble Canyon Lodge to begin our adventure.

We had our pre-trip meeting where we met our trip leader Carl and it got cut short due to a storm, but nevertheless got me super excited to start the trip. Like super excited. We left the meeting, got some more beer (because, you know, you only run out down there) and packed our dry bags.

The next morning we went down to the river and I was so jazzed to get started I only halfway paid attention to the “how to paddle” meeting that the guides gave us. But soon enough we were on a boat. With our guide Sophie and the McClure’s. Sophie was perhaps the sweetest guide I have ever met. She was out of Jackson, WY and was on her 5th river trip. She somehow put up with me, Anna, and our new boat family for an entire day.

Which brings me to our new boat family. The McClure's, from Portsmouth, NH, consisted of Susan and Bill, and their daughter’s, Morgan and Lily. They became our family for the next four days, and full disclosure I was a little nervous about being in their boat for one day, much less four. Turns out, it was a great time. We quickly learned that we cannot paddle and talk at the same time. Like not at all. But what we lacked in paddling abilities we made up for with laughs.

But from the moment we put in the sights of the canyon were nothing short of amazing. We floated under Navajo Bridge which looks totally different from the water. And the river was lined with the most magnificent rock formations. We ran a few rapids, stopped for lunch and then made our way to camp. There was never a dull moment.

At camp that night all of the groups got to know each other a little bit better. We had some killer steaks whipped up by the guides and set up our camp. The group was made up of five small groups. There were the Germans (two couples from Germany), Anna and I, the McClure's, the Coast Gard Family (two brothers who were in the Coast Guard, their wives, and one of the brothers brought his two adult children and their spouses), and then a group of friends (two couples, along with two friends), and of course the McClure's. Pretty much no one stayed up too late that night as the first day of the trip tuckered us all out. But Carl asked Anna and I if we met online, and we were both a little confused by the question. Like is there a best friend app? Because that would make this whole moving thing super easy. But without clarifying anything, we informed the group that we, in fact, met at work.

The stars had comforted me to sleep and as the first light hit the canyon walls in the morning it was not hard at all to wiggle out of the sleep sack to get ready for a day of rafting. I found a boat with a new guide for Anna and I, and it turned out this group wasn't all game for mixing the boats up. Which was fine because it meant that we would spend the whole day with the McClure's. As I sort of had a grasp about finding a new boat for the day I was somehow dubbed the "mom" of the boat by Anna and the McClure's. We landed in a boat with Chris as our guide and set off downstream. We went through the "Roaring 20s" rapids. A series of rapids that are pretty much back to back through River Mile 20-30 (hence the name). It was similar to the Gems on the lower canyon trip, but we didn't have anyone go for a swim.

We made a quick stop for a short hike where we saw some Native American Petroglyphs and a dwelling above the river. It is mind boggling to thing about how people lived in the canyon. They lived high above the river and farmed the delta's below. There were also pieces of pottery scattered around. It was a pretty interesting short hike. Then we got in the boats and paddled downstream to Redwall Cavern to enjoy lunch. The was the perfect sandy beach tucked into a giant Redwall Cavern (hence the name). No camping is allowed here and it was a great place to stop for a and enjoy a bite to eat.

We hopped back in the boats and Bill hopped on the paddle board for a while to cruise down the canyon. We enjoyed quite a bit a flat water, and we didn't enjoy the slight breeze that was working it's way upstream. This is probably the point in the day where we realize that we were shitty at paddling, besides the fact that no one was in sync, we were also very good at either laughing or talking, which both seems to get us out of the demands of getting the boat downstream. But our guide, Chris, went with it. Chris has been down the river a time or two (or twenty-ish, maybe more, maybe less, I can't really remember), who knew a lot about the canyon and the geology that created it, the people who lived here, and the people who ran the river before him. It is the best to float with the guides who know so much about the canyon and to learn the history of it first hand while passing historic and natural sites that can't be learned in a book and Chris definitely didn't let us down. That afternoon was a little mellow as far as the rapids go, but Lily did eat it on one of the rapids on the paddle board.

Also, Susan literally was the MVP for the day. At one point, Lily was on a tangent, I have no clue what this tangent was but it was long. Also its important to know that Lily was looking directly forward out of the boat just chillin', chatting away. I was looking at Anna, probably giving a super passive aggressive "I am annoyed with this conversation" face when I turn to the back of the boat to Susan. And she is making the gesture with her hand, the one that's like a bird beak opening and closing, to indicate the Lily is rambling. And maybe it was because it was her own mother ratting her out for being chatty, or maybe it was my mood, but before long I was in tears. Morgan, Bill, and Anna all saw the gesture and I think that we laughed for a solid five minutes. Chris was doing his guide thing getting us down the river and missed it all, but it still makes me chuckle thinking about it. Susan won MVP for that, right there.

We made it to camp, and surprise, we had a really great dinner and turned in for the night. It started to rain and while I was almost ready to wait it out, the trip leader yelled "Tent Time" and it stopped raining just as we crawled in to the tent for the night. The next morning we got up, ate some breakfast, and hopped in the boat with Carl for the day.

Oh Carl, what can I say about him. He called me "Blaine in the membrane" all week (or at least thats what I heard), and was always good for a laugh. We got on the boat and Morgan (the older sister) hopped on the paddle board for a little bit. Which meant that Lily was the only sister left on the boat. Lily had just graduated Drexel with a degree in industrial studies and was brilliant. You could tell just by what she talked about and how she spoke. And she also chatted, a lot. About what I am not really sure, but she chatted. Carl had the line of the day when she briefly paused and asked in the most serious but sarcastic tone "How do you feel about that?" Ironic, because while we thought we knew everything about whatever it was she was talking about, she told us more. It was boarder line impressive, and gave us a good laugh.

Anna and I got to try our hand at paddle boarding the GC and we both did very well, if I do say so myself. After a while we pulled over to our hike/lunch spot. It was a place called Nankoweap, a location with Native American Granaries. It also provides for one of the most scenic views on the Canyon. The hike up was a lot of stairs, but the view was completely worth it. I could have stayed up there all afternoon, but we had to make miles down on the river.

After lunch we did a little bit more paddling where Carl would just yell "forward" when he got bored with our conversation. Carl also took us "surfing" in a hole, and for a ride on the "Conveyor belt from Hell", and I am pretty sure we ran one of the rapids to get Susan as wet as possible. After a while, we rafted past the Confluence and it was a bummer that a monsoon caused the river to turn brown instead of its normal turquoise color. The mixing of the blue green waters of the Colorado with the muddy brown water of the Little Colorado was a sight to see. It didn't take long for the Colorado to turn chocolate brown and it stayed that color for the rest of the trip. We passed the Hopi Salt Mines after the Confluence on our way to camp. We tied up at Lava Canyon and were treated to some amazing views for the night.

That was probably the best night at camp too. Everyone hung out after dinner for a bit. Chris played a little guitar and Lyles, brought out his lights as a makeshift campfire (which he also used to tan at night). On a side note, Lyles was the tannest man in the Grand Canyon, and he was a champ at taking a little bit of heat for it from everyone (and the tanning at night thing is a joke, to clarify). Eventually we went to bed, and good thing we set up a tent because it we had a three hour monsoon directly over our camp.

For our final full day of rafting we had Jen guiding the boat fam down the river. Jen is 100% my spirit animal, she was AMAZING, like she just smiled and it made everyone happy. She swam at Santa Barbra for four years and has a cat named Critter, which aren't like defining personality traits but I swam four years at Nebraska and have a cat named Topanga, so you see, we are a lot alike. She also introduced me to Truly Spiked & Sparkling (look it up and try it) which was pretty clutch. I enjoyed being with Jen and she taught me what she could about some of the fundamentals of running the river which made me look up every now and again to actually look at the rapid as we were going through it which is easy to forget to do when I was focused on being in sync with the paddle in front of me.

There were some pretty big rapids we ran with Jen, including Hance which was just a fun rapid to run. And before we knew it we were in the Upper Granite Gorge. It was beautiful. The walls of the canyon closed in around us and the black walls made the canyon feel so small, even though we knew it was still THE Grand Canyon. We camped that night in the gorge and it was an awesome night of camp. Everyone was soaking in the final night of being in the Canyon, sleeping under the stars, and living the f***ing dream.

I knew before going to bed the next day was going to be rough. Not the hike out, but emotionally leaving one of the best places that I know.

Everyone hking out left early with the rest of the group hanging back at camp. I hopped in Jen's boat, the plan was to sit in the back and ride 7 passengers deep and not paddle. But two people hopped on the oar boat and i just sat in the back seat. After we pushed off we noticed we were one paddle short and I obviously volunteered to not paddle. One paddle is used everyday as the key to the bathroom (the person using the bathroom takes the paddle so everyone else knows not to wander back, its a privacy thing), and we left that paddle on shore. Oops. When Carl yelled where my paddle was I promptly responded "Left it at the sh*tter." I don't think he expected me to yell that down the canyon. Oops.

Before we knew it we were at Pipe Creek and getting ready to hike out. We said by to Jen, Ben, and Carl, and questioned if Carl and Jen are/were actually married (seriously, I would like to know the answer to this). Then started the 7 mile hike out. The views were great, and we did the hike in about 4 hours. It was emotional to leave the canyon and we didn't spend much time on the rim. Mainly, because it was just too hard to look back and know our new family was going to spend the next 8 days continuing downstream.

It's hard for me to put into words how amazing of a trip this was. Anna actually said "I actually want to take pictures" which is a big deal for her and I am pretty sure she will go back and do the lower canyon, a testament to how the river can just pull someone into it. There is something around every river bend that you just cannot fathom seeing, and so much that you miss because there is so much to look at. I am so thankful, lucky, blessed, to get to be able to take a vacation like this.

I don't know when I can realistically return, but I know that its not an option to never go back.

Final Thought: It may or may not be a good idea to pass off the tip money to the trip leader while asking "So you got the good weed, right?"

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