The day’s work is done. The dishes have been washed, and the Dutch ovens have been scrubbed in the river and laid out to air dry across a table. And when the last campfire story has been told, our passengers — bidding the guides and each other goodnight — walk down the beach looking for their tents and their cots, their headlamps bobbing through the tamarisk trees like so many fireflies.
The guides walk down the short hill to our rafts. Four of the eight boatmen move to a sacred spot on the back of our S-rig to drink some refreshments and resume their musings about life. Though I greatly enjoy musing about the mysteries and frailties, the hazards and miracles of life I do not join them tonight because I am simply too tired to make any worthwhile contributions to their conversation.
Instead, I walk to my raft, which is the end raft in a line of six rubber oar boats tied in a long line along the beach at Stone Creek. Tonight is the eighth night of our 12-day oar trip through the Grand Canyon. From April 2005 to October 2013, I worked as a river guide in the Grand Canyon, for Wilderness River Adventures. During a typical summer, I’d run eight to 12 river trips. I still run one trip a year.
I spread out my sleeping pad across the frame of my raft and spread my sleeping bag out across that. It’s still too hot to get inside my sleeping bag, but I lie down on top of it with the sigh of a weary boatman.
Boatmen sleep on their rafts for several practical reasons. One, it is possible — and what’s more it has happened before — that a raft will break loose during the night. If that happens, it is best if the boatman is on their raft so he or she can row the boat back to shore. The second reason is so our passengers can easily find us in the night. If there’s an emergency, fixing the problem is greatly facilitated if the passengers don’t have to wander all over a wide, tamarisk-dense beach looking for the guides.
And we sleep on our raft for other reasons, which are neither practical nor impractical. The temperature on a raft is easily 15 to 20 degrees cooler out over the water than it is on a beach that’s been soaking up the Arizona sun for 14 hours, thus it’s much more comfortable and conducive to sleep. And I like sleeping on my raft because it offers me one more way that I get to interact with the majestic, beautiful Colorado River.
An 18-foot rubber raft is perfectly and beautifully constructed for running America’s wild rivers. They have sleek lines. They track well. They’re self-bailing. And they’re made of rubber so they bounce off the many rocks that a Grand Canyon boatman may encounter during his or her trip. And few sights are more beautiful than a small fleet of them floating down the river through a Grand Canyon dawn.
And the frame of an oar boat is the perfect platform for gazing at the stars, because by its very design you will, of course, be lying on your back staring at them, and by its very nature your raft will carry you into an unpopulated wilderness with a very dark sky, where every star that’s visible between the cliff walls is crisp and close, shining like titivated buttons. And by its very nature, a raft has no obstructing roof over it.
As much as I love lying on the frame of my raft, watching the stars, after a busy day running rapids it’s always a challenge keeping my eyes open long enough to take it in. But every night I still give it the ol’ Boatman Try. It’s a great job that pays you to lie back and gaze at the stars, and contemplate a cliff wall, I think, as I lie back on my sleeping bag, gaze at the stars and contemplate the cliff walls.
You’d have to be a complete dullard to lie on your raft looking up at the cliff walls that surround you, feeling the river sway and shimmy beneath the raft you lie on, and not think about how this mighty river carved this majestic canyon.
From down here, the Milky Way is as vivid as a white-sand beach, and it cuts through the sky like a cosmic contrail or an intrusion of Zoroaster Granite through a wall of Vishnu Schist. I note the gothic silhouette of the cliff rim, and the mushroom-gong moon.
From my little bed on my little raft in my giant canyon, I witness the intricate clockwork movements of the constellations changing hour by hour, night by night, month by month, season by season.
My hour-by-hour observations throughout the night are crude and intermittent, made only when I wake up to get a drink, or pee or push rafts. I notice Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper pivoting counterclockwise in their eternal waltz around the North Star. During April trips, before Orion leaves for the southern hemisphere, I can watch him make his slow motion leap from the left cliff wall to the right cliff wall when we’re camped at Saddle Camp. I watch the moon — when it’s out — make its slow westward migration, against the slow eastward migration of the clouds, like a salmon swimming upriver.
Month by month, from the frame of my raft, I watch the moon wax to full, diminishing the magnitude of the stars around it to nothing; and I watch it wane, and witness the stars regain their full brilliance and magnitude. I watch the moon change from crescent, to gibbous and back to crescent and, as it travels across the sky, sometimes pairing with a star or planet to form emoticons. And throughout the summer, I observe the Corona Borealis’ slow motion spiral, like the porthole on a gamboling rocket.
And during the course of a river season, I watch the stars shift from their spring positions to their fall positions. When I embark on my first river trip in April, Orion is one of the first constellations to appear at night. And then, like a Grand Canyon boatman, he disappears beneath the rim and won’t be seen again until September. I will see him again mid-way through September from our camp at Back-Eddy, when I open my eyes about 10 minutes before the swamper calls, “Coffee!” and see him framed in the sky that makes it look like he’s rapelling down the canyon’s south cliff wall.
And this river. This non-sentient goddess. This son of the snow, this sculptor of canyons, this endurer of droughts, this temporary subordinate of the Bureau of Reclamation. It runs emerald green in April, jade green in May when the Paria River adds its smoky silt, and cappuccino brown or rust red during the monsoons when the Colorado Plateau’s red Jurassic mud flashfloods into it. It is a Hippocrene to any poet, and a Nepenthe to those who spend a week drinking from it.
From my bed on my raft, I listen to the river flowing by. The river flowing through the canyon makes a constant music, like a bow drawn endlessly over a violin’s strings. The river flows in a soft sigh or a bloodrush hiss. Sometimes it plays turbulent white noise, sometimes it’s silent as a lake. Tonight, camped at Stone Creek the river plays a quiet, soothing note. And to it the canyon wren adds its humble notes, the crickets their bow-screech, the frogs their baritone bellows. It is a song you’ll not hear in any man-made church, or temple, but to my ears there is nothing more celestial than the immortal sound of a wild river.
Even after 12 years guiding in the Grand Canyon it still blows my mind that I get to interact with this river on such an intimate level. I bathe in it, drink from it, wash my Dutch ovens in it and sleep on top of it. I am humbled that the same beautiful river that patiently carved this spectacular, miraculous canyon now rocks me to sleep. This river is music, song, poetry. Who am I to be so blessed as to spend all day and all night listening to it? I am amazed that I am allowed to drink it, to detour this mighty, immortal river through me — Through Me! — and have it come out in my urine and my sweat; it seems profane, on some level. My blood is made from Colorado River water! The same water that made the Grand Canyon now makes me! So when I lift my cup dripping from the river it is with reverence that I drink.
It took me a while to get used to sleeping on a raft, with all its jostling, sloshing and lurching about, just like it took me a while to get used to sharing a bed with my wife when we first got married, with all the jostling, lurching and accidental elbowing. I woke up every time she shifted, rolled over, sighed or stuck her cold feet against my leg.
But then I got used to my jostley, lurchy, shifty bed and I’d wake up when the bed became too still. I am a man who divides his time sleeping with his two True Loves: my wife and the river, and neither one seems to mind. Too much.
I gaze at the stars and the cliff walls, and I am cognizant and mindful of the river pulsing beneath my raft, and I love it. I’d like to stay awake and enjoy it longer, but we are camped at Stone Creek, and there is no sleep so content as sleeping at Stone Creek, with wicked Hance, nefarious Horn Creek and devious Dubendorf rapids now behind me. With the unpredictable Sockdolager (which, when an oar crabbed, knocked out one of my teeth) now behind me. With Crystal (which flipped my oar boat on one occasion, and tore off my motor handle on another) at last behind me.
That feeling of relief and contentedness I get from being below Hance, Horn Creek, Crystal and Doobie is much akin to the feeling of relief I feel when I return to the river for another season, and I can put society’s obligations, bills, meetings and boredoms behind me — at least for a while. At least long enough to get a good night’s sleep.
My tired eyelids are ready to snap shut like a couple of bear traps, so before they do I blow a kiss to my faraway wife and her cold feet, accidental elbows and ticklish hair — that I miss so much — and say goodnight.