2015 Grand Canyon Raft Trip: Mishaps

Gary Hart Photography: Blue Ribbon, Havasu Canyon, Inner Grand Canyon

Blue Ribbon, Havasu Creek, Inner Grand Canyon
Sony a7S
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
1/20 second
ISO 50

May 2014

After a short but strenuous hike in 90-plus degree heat, I wasn’t thinking about much more than cooling off. And what better way to cool off than a plunge into the cerulean chill of Havasu Creek? Rushing toward its imminent liaison with the Colorado River, Havasu Creek’s disorientingly blue water plunges through gaps in the red sandstone, pauses and widens into inviting pools, then departs rapidly downstream.

Beckoning me forward was one of a series of these glistening pools, connected like sapphires on a necklace by the creek’s cascading strand. Wading in to my knees, I watched my feet disappear in mineralized water that obscured everything in an azure haze. A few steps later I was submerged to my shoulders, feet planted firmly to brace against a deceptively strong current, basking in the coolness. Refreshed from the neck down, I took a deep breath and completed my immersion.

Coinciding with my sudden dunking came the insight that I was still wearing my (new) glasses. Oops. Unfortunately, my cat-like reflexes were no match for the light-speed enthusiasm the brisk current demonstrated for my glasses and just like that they were whisked away to who knows where.

Given the water’s speed and opacity, I knew chances of recovery were remote. Nevertheless, I quickly drafted a handful of nearby rafters to scan the shallow water near the pool’s outlet; meanwhile, I plunged the nearby depths. After ten minutes of fruitless diving and blindly groping the creek bed, I was ready to give up the glasses as lost when a passing hiker offered to give it a try with his diving mask. And try he did, with relish. Disappearing beneath the surface for extended periods, bobbing up just long enough to refill his lungs, then disappearing again, the hiker must have repeated his dive a dozen or more times before emerging fist-first, glasses in hand.

I was surprised, ecstatic, and appropriately effusive. To say I was lucky to be spared the consequences of my own stupidity would be an understatement. I mean, seriously, who swims wearing $500 glasses? Grateful for the reprieve, I vowed I’d never do that again. (Duh.)

May 2015

The first evening of this year’s Grand Canyon raft trip was markedly different from anything we experienced last year. Gone were the warm temperatures and relentless sunshine, replaced by a cool breeze and heavy clouds. Last year the 50-degree water of the Colorado River was a bracing relief; this year it was a bone-chilling nemesis.

Which of course explains why, while rallying the willpower for my first full-immersion bath in the chilly river (a required raft trip ritual that’s always as satisfying in retrospect as it is daunting in anticipation), I was thinking about nothing more than getting the ordeal over with. And not at all about the (very same) glasses perched on my face.

To my credit, I immediately realized my mistake, but the river gods frown on stupidity. This year I was unable to rally an army of hardy rafters willing to brave the chill (and neither was Yours Truly brave enough to do any more than peer into the frigid depths from the relative warmth of the riverbank), nor did a magic diving hiker materialize to save the day.

After surviving last year’s trip relatively unscathed, it turns out that the lost glasses were just the first of a series of mishaps that made this trip memorable. For example (in no particular order):

  • At 4 a.m. on our second morning, the group was wakened by large raindrops that quickly turned into a thunder and lightning infused downpour that sent 28 rafters scurrying to assemble, in the dark, tents they’d never assembled before (insert Keystone Cops music here).
  • Cold and rain dogged us all week. Air temperatures never climbed above the mid-70s, not too bad until you factor in the rain, persistent wind, and continual drenchings by 50-degree river water. There was one day in particular when it just seemed that we couldn’t get dry, and several times I felt like we were navigating a gale on a North Sea fishing trawler. (That was also the day when I made the mistake of asking one shivering rafter if she’d do this again, and she replied, “That’s like asking a mother in labor if she’d like to have another baby.” Point taken.)
  • Pushing off from camp on our final morning, I realized that in the confusion of organizing 28 rafters and 4 guides for the group photo, I’d left my insulated rain pants and camping pillow back at the campsite.
  • Midway through the trip I dropped my primary camera (Sony a7R) on a slab of sandstone and damaged its electronic viewfinder. I then compounded the problem by using the still functioning LCD to go into the menu system and manually turn on the viewfinder (reasoning that maybe that would correct the problem). Not only did that not fix the viewfinder, it turned off the LCD, which of course left me with no more access to the menu system necessary to turn the LCD back on. (I never claimed to be smart—refer to glasses story above.)
  • Last year we managed to keep all 28 rafters on the rafts through every one of 60-plus rapids. This year we did almost as well, keeping 27 of 28 rafters out of the river. The one mishap occurred when a rafter was launched mid-rapid and sent cartwheeling into the Colorado River with one hand still fused by a death grip to his safety rope. He was quickly pulled back in, soaking wet but otherwise unscathed. Said rafter learned later that, while he was indeed hanging on with both hands as instructed, his handholds were reversed from the prescribed arrangement, thereby creating a hinge effect that swung him right into the water when one hand was torn free. The rapid: Unkar. The rafter: uh, Anonymous.

Did all this difficulty ruin my trip? Not even close. I had an extra pair of glasses and a backup camera body, so those losses were barely an inconvenience. And while the cost of a new pair of glasses and camera repair are quickly forgotten, the stories surrounding those losses will always bring a smile. The misery of a river soaking fades as soon the clothing dries (or so I’ve been told), but the story will last forever. The chilly weather? I’ll gladly trade a few days of discomfort for the incredible photography our rainy weather brought.

More than anything, I cite this litany of mishaps to underscore a truth I’ve learned in ten years of leading photo workshops: the greater the hardship, the better the memories. And true to form, this year’s raft trip group bonded with a wonderful spirit of cooperation and humor, largely because of our mishaps and shared discomfort. I’m already looking forward to next year.

Inside Out at Grand Canyon

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7 Comments on “2015 Grand Canyon Raft Trip: Mishaps

  1. Why is it we wish people well on their journey yet revel in the tales of mishap and misfortune on their return? Great memories, amazing captures!

  2. I would have loved to have joined you my friend, but then all the stories would have been about my issues… Great images and I’m certain great memories… And I hear a full trip already for next year… Nice!!!

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