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ON THE COVER January, 2008

Sketch and Travel

Adrenaline Adventures: Dream It, Read It, Do It
Chapter 25: Rafting The Magnificent Canyon
By  Fran Capo

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t’s a great challenge in life to decide what’s important and to disregard everything else." — Author Unknown
In the summer of 1998 my dad visited the Grand Canyon.

He was struck by the beauty and vastness of it all. He made me promise that I would take my son, Spencer, there someday soon. Always looking for ways to experience life, I thought why not raft the canyon, sleep under the stars and really get the full experience of being one with nature? How cosmic.A friend once asked me why I do all my "crazy" adventures. My answer is simple. I want to live life as much as I can without regrets. I don't want to put off saying "I love you" to someone, or climbing the mountain, or changing a job that I hate. You have to live now... carpe diem.

In January of 1999, I booked a three-day rafting trip to begin on Saturday August 1, for Spencer and myself with Western River Expeditions.

In April, my dad's cancer, which had been in remission for two years, took a turn for the worse. We cared for him at home with the help of the Calbrini Hospice program. He was given three months to live. I debated on canceling the trip. My dad insisted I go. He said that his final wish would be to have his ashes spread across the Grand Canyon.

On July 30, 1999, my dad was put on the critical list. By then he weighed only 124 pounds, could not talk, could not eat, could not move. As my family surrounded him, we told him it was okay to let go. God was waiting with open arms. You have to be brave enough to let those you love go when it is in their best interest.

I bent over and whispered to my dad jokingly, "Hey dad, if you are going to go, better do it now. My plane for Grand Canyon leaves on Saturday." He raised an eyebrow and smiled a weak smile. Eight hours later he passed on with my sister at his side.

With the help of Charlie, a very caring funeral director, we expedited the cremation and made arrangements to have the ashes with us as we flew the next morning.

Spencer and I flew into Las Vegas and met with the tour group at the airport at 8:15 A.M.  We checked in our regulation 14" x 21" bag that contained the recommended supplies from a list that was sent to us along with our trip confirmation. Every means of transportation possible, except maybe mule or llama, was going to be utilized to get us to J-Rig rafts waiting for us in the Colorado River.

Thirty-six people were signed up for this three-day rafting trip, eighteen on each raft, plus two crew members. At the airport our tour guides randomly handed us green or yellow slips that determined which raft we would be on once we got to the river. Spencer and I were in the green group.

From the McCarran Airport we were escorted onto a bus that took us to meet our twenty-seater scenic plane. (Say that three times fast!)  After we boarded the plane and listened to the pilot make a few jokes about the airsickness bags being our personal belongings if we used them, we were off on a breathtaking audio-guided tour over the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon.

Forty-five minutes later we landed at a remote airport. I mean remote--no landing strips, just a dirt road and a wooden sign saying "Airport." Good thing the sign was up or we could have easily have missed it. From there we were loaded onto a van and driven up a bumpy dirt road to a lodge to get any last minute supplies we’d forgotten — things like candy bars, toothpaste, soap, insect repellent … whatever you really had to have for the next four days.

A few feet hundred feet from the last chance lodge was a big mound of dirt. We were told to line up near the mound. Within minutes a helicopter landed. Four by four we were dispersed into the helicopter with our bags. The helicopter rose up, creating a swirl of dust, and then zoomed off, bringing us quickly up and over the ridge of the canyon.

When you first see no ground below, your stomach drops like on a roller coaster ride … then, down ... down ... down you go until you hit your mark in the base of the canyon. We landed at mile 188, known as the Whitmore Rapid on the muddy Colorado River—five modes of transportation later, where we met our Western tour guides. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought we’d all just participated in the witness protection program, the way they shuffled us around.

I approached the first crew member I saw, Shane Phelps, and pulled him aside. I discretely told him that I had an extra bag with me and that that bag was my dad. Before he could think I was a hit man, I told him about my dad's final wishes to have his ashes spread over the Grand Canyon.

I asked if he could be so kind as to let me know the most beautiful place along the river to release him. He told me about Travertine Falls. He said he would gladly let me know when we reached it. I felt a sense of peace come over me. Spencer occupied himself with a lizard as the waterproof bags, life jackets and camping gear were handed out. After a briefing on safety instructions, we and the rest of the green group got on our raft and chose our seats.

The J-Rig rafts were big—the thirty-seven feet long to be exact. Picture five giant neoprene-coated nylon tubes tied together, with four-stroke motors powering them. In the center of the rig was the storage area for all our supplies, including stoves and toilets for the next three days. If you sat up front you would feel all the bumps and thrills of the river. If you sat in back, you stayed nice and comfy and relatively dry.

Nine of us more adventurous types straddled one of the tubes in the front of the raft in the maximum wetness and excitement -zone. Those not wanting to get quite as wet sat up on the higher part of the rig and behind the gear. Within minutes we heard a howl from crew member Tyler, "HOLD ON!

And get ready for the ride of your life." We went from the calmness of shore to the waters of the Colorado. We traveled calmly for a few yards and then saw some rapids up ahead.

We braced ourselves by grabbing the ropes in front and back of us. The raft went smashing into the fifty-five-degree water that shocked our systems as the rapids licked our faces. We looked like a bunch of wet poodles, but loved we it.

Soon, we pulled over for a taco lunch. It’s amazing how much food, luggage, utensils, gear, and drinking water could be stored on this rig, they even had an extra motor. 

After a delicious lunch, we were off again, this time facing rapids ranging from class one through six (with 10 being the largest navigable rapids).

After a few more exhilarating rapids, the water turned calm for a while. Tyler used this time to give us a brief history of the canyon. "The Grand Canyon was formed about five million years ago, and some of the rocks exposed at the bottom layers may be as old as two billion years old.

The Canyon is 1,904 square miles, and the canyons width from rim to rim is 18 miles as the crow flies, cause if you were to drive from South Rim to North Rim you would cover 219 miles. The Colorado River that we are on is 277 miles in length, and there are over seventy major rapids. Ancestral Native Americans were the first people to discover and explore the Grand Canyon.

Those early canyon dwellers left behind split-twig figurines that radiocarbon date 3,000 to 4,000 years old. It’s nice to just think that we are floating down a river between history. Also imagine if you will what it was like for Major John Wesley Powell in 1869 when he first laid eyes upon these magnificent canyons. He was the first to have a successful expedition down the Colorado River."

Everyone was in awe for a moment until Spencer broke the silence. "Are there any animals around here?"

"There are about 1,500 different kinds of plants, 305 different birds, 88 mammal species like mountain lions and goats and 58 types of reptiles … like that little lizard you found before, Spence."

"Are we going to see mountain lions?"

"We might, but it’s highly unlikely. They don’t like crowds."

We were coming up to another set of rapids. Tyler yelled, "Hang on!"

We straddled the tubes with our legs and held onto the ropes. It was like riding a bucking bronco. One rapid actually flung Spencer who was behind me over my head and to the front of the raft by the edge.

I reached out and Shane lunged forward and grabbed Spencer before he went over the side. I looked at Spencer after the rapids had calmed down. He was excited. "Wow, mom did you see that? I almost went over. At first I was scared, but then I felt a big hand like Batman’s swoop down and grab me out of nowhere. That was cool. Let’s do that again!"

Now that he was safe, I laughed. "Yup, you’re definitely my kid."

After some jokes and more historic interludes by the guides we had reached mile 202, the spot where we camped for the night.

There were no tents on this trip, just cots and sleeping bags so you could sleep freely under the gorgeous constellations. We all got off the raft and formed a human chain to unload the boat. We each picked an area and set up a cot for the night.

Near the area we set up Spencer noticed a set of tracks. Shane identified them as mountain lion tracks a few days old. I suggested to Spencer that we move our cot a little closer to the raft just in case we needed to make a quick escape.

For our nature calls, a tent with a portable potty was set up for privacy, but if you really wanted to rough it, you could do like the bears in the woods. As far as bathing, there were no facilities, so we had to rinse off in the muddy Colorado River waters, not exactly a way to look like Ms. Cover Girl, but hey, when in Rome...

Dinner that first night was hot and delicious, prepared by the fantastic four: Tyler and his brother Tanner Cornell, who had been with the outfit for over ten years, and Shane and Casey. With satisfied stomachs, we all were in bed by eight as the sun went down. To the noise of flying bats, hungry mosquitoes, and the rumbling of the rapids, we fell asleep.

The next day we were awakened to the call of "BREAKFAST!" A feast of hot eggs, bacon, fruits, and several kinds of bread was laid out. You would have thought these guys were Julia Child School graduates with a Dutch oven.

After breakfast, we loaded back onto the raft and were ready to face the river. We hit rapids with names like Satan's Gut, Bloody Finger and Diamond Creek Rapid. We laughed and felt exhilarated by the power of nature.

We stopped at Pumpkin Springs near "Little Bastard Rapid" for about an hour. The spring was warm and had a sinkhole that sucked you in waist deep, or for Spencer, neck deep. There was a seventeen-foot cliff you could jump off of into the spring. Spencer did a nice belly flop, not once but twice, and some other guys in the group choose to hold tight to the family jewels as they jumped. I hesitated for a moment then ran over the cliff yelling, "Geronimo!"

From there we headed to Travertine Canyon. Tyler, Tanner and Shane pulled me to the side and said we were approaching the place that would be the final resting spot for my dad. They were nice enough to make arrangements to let Spencer and I have some time alone to spread my dad's ashes among the pristine flowing falls. We had to climb a rope to get to the falls, but it was worth it.

In a crevice in the red-colored canyon walls, with the beautiful falls flowing, we said a prayer and let my dad go. We watched as the ashes mingled with the rest of nature. Spencer and I cried and hugged knowing we had, with the help of divine intervention, carried out my dad's last wish.

Teary-eyed, we climbed down the falls, and finished out the trip. At camp that night, we reflected on the meaning of doing things in life with no regrets. Living life to the fullest gives you a peaceful feeling of satisfaction.

We dined on steak and shrimp, complete with personal tuxedoed service from our handsome crew (too bad they live so far away!). Warm cake, fruits, and fish finished out the evening. It was magnificent.

That night the moon shone so brightly we thought Con Edison had turned on a switch. A little nervous because of a second set of cougar tracks Spencer found, I mistook, for a moment, the snoring of a fellow camper, for the snarl of an angry cougar.

The final morning we awoke to the sound of swarming bees and the flipping of hot blueberry pancakes. We ate and loaded the raft one last time.

With calm waters, our raft floated down the river to meet a jet boat that would speed us to a beach and to a waiting bus that would take us back to Vegas, or what we called "civilization" ... indoor plumbing. 

As I turned and looked back at the Canyon one last time, I saw a bird swoop down, flying freely. A warm breeze passed my face, and I swear I heard my dad laughing in heaven.

Read IN's exclusive interview with Fran Capo about writing.  IN Icon

From: Adrenaline Adventures: Dream It, Read It, Do It (University of New Mexico Press) © 2004 Fran Capo. Used by permission of the author.

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