As with most family trips growing up, the few minutes leading up to our departure were filled with frantic last minute packing, my mom stress-cleaning the kitchen, and searching the day of for someone with whom we could leave the dog. However, unlike our typical family activities, this trip had been in the works since before I could walk. We were about to embark on what, for my family of white water rafting fanatics, was the holy grail of adventures: the Grand Canyon.
I went on my first rafting trip before I was even two years old. At least that’s what I’ve been told by my dad, who spent countless summers dragging my (somewhat terrified, always enthusiastic) brother and me on rafts down various rivers in the Western U.S. to ensure that his life-long enthusiasm for the “sport” would be successfully passed down. Although rafting brought many situations that I probably would not have put myself in voluntarily, such as getting knocked off the back of the raft and having to swim my first white water rapid alone at age 7, to this day some of my happiest memories are of those infinite, sun-drenched days lying on the back of our faded grey 14ft rubber raft and listening to the drip of water off of the oars as we floated peacefully.
My dad affectionately calls that raft his first child, having purchased it second-hand well before my brother or I were even born. “Patches” is the name that it has grown into in its later years, as there are now almost as many equally discolored strips of rubber that have been painstakingly glued on to cover leaks in the sides and floor, as there is original material. My brother and I have since moved out, but “Patches” still lives its peaceful life carefully wrapped in the tarp in the corner of the backyard shed at my childhood home. These days, when it’s brought out for our increasingly rare family raft trips during the summer, it can barely hold all four of us.
Having grown up in a relatively non-religious family, rafting was probably the closest thing that I experienced to a right of passage. Over the years, my brother and I went from clinging onto the raft frame in sheer terror as my dad plunged faithfully forward into intimidating white water waves, to confidently rowing him down some of those same rapids years later.
But the Grand Canyon has always been held on a different level. If our usual family trips could be compared to playing in a little-league baseball game, having the opportunity to raft the Grand Canyon was akin to winning the World Series. In order to secure one of the few coveted permits from April to October, one used to have to spend several years on a waitlist to reach the top. I’m only half-joking when I say my dad placed my brother and my names on that list at birth. However, more recently the system has transitioned to lottery-based, and naturally my father and his friends enter that lottery almost every year just to see what might happen. When, almost a year in advance, we were notified that we had secured a permit for the summer before my final year of highschool, there was no thinking twice about the fact that we would be going.
My family spent months planning and packing for our 3 week, 225 mile journey down the Colorado River. Some of my Dad’s oldest friends from all across the country had accepted the invitation to make the pilgrimage to Arizona with us for this trip, as they did all together every few years on different rivers. Spread across 16 people and 5 rafts, not only would we carry our personal gear, tents, food, cooking supplies, entertainment and even a portable toilet down the river every day, but also the confidence to face some of the most technical white water in the world knowing that we would be completely out of contact if something went wrong. (The standard rating system for rivers in the U.S. classifies rapids on a scale from 1-5 but in the Grand Canyon they go up to 10!) This time, “Patches” was far, far out of its league.
Judging from all of the hype and intense planning surrounding the trip I knew that it would be a life changing experience. However, I could in no way have been prepared for how profound of an experience it would be to spend an extended period of time in peaceful isolation. Every day began with waking up in our sleeping bags in the sand to the misty sunlight at the crack of dawn. In the fleeting coolness of the early morning air we would cook breakfast and re-pack our entire camp into the five boats that it came out of, before taking off just as the sun was beginning to rise above the edge of the canyon. Temperatures during the day were well above 100 degrees, while the brilliant blue, icy river water provided much needed relief. Many days consisted of long and relaxing stretches of flat water that lent time for beautiful hikes along waterfalls and through slot canyons, while other days the mood was noticeably more tense in the anticipation of the extreme white water to come.
Musical instruments were the last items I would have expected to have accompanied us down river, yet somehow our group ended up with an entire makeshift band. Together with a guitar, harmonica, small piano keyboard and even a portable drum set that my uncle had made to be played out of a suitcase, we spent almost every evening singing and writing songs, and of course eating immense amounts of food, before going to bed again as the sun set.
I remember most of all the overwhelming feeling of calm that I had on the river, even in the midst of both mentally and physically taxing efforts every day. Although we didn’t have much with us on the river, the experience felt more than abundant, as it allowed us to focus on our reverence for the present moment and for each other. In the end, I was surprised by how much more difficult it was to adjust back into the so-called “comforts” of society when we got off the river. With the overwhelming abundance of options, people to talk to and decisions to be made, I felt the tranquility of the river slipping away into the chaos of normal life before we even returned home. However, almost six years later my experience in the Grand Canyon continues to stay with me as a valuable reminder to seek happiness in simplicity.
About the author: Sarah Alexander
Sarah Alexander is a senior Civic Communication & Media and Spanish double major at Willamette University, and also works as a Collegiate Intern with Straub Outdoors.
Growing up in the mountains of Colorado, a connection to nature and outdoor activities— particularly skiing—has always been an important priority her life. In the past, Sarah has held various positions teaching skiing, rock climbing and kayaking to children. At Willamette, Sarah works for the Outdoor Program as a Trip Leader in the hopes of helping others connect to the outdoors with the same enthusiasm and love that she has!
Before beginning college, Sarah spent a year living in Peru and Costa Rica where she taught English and Art to primary school students, and worked at a turtle conservation center. Most recently, she spent this past semester studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she developed a newfound passion for the Spanish language and culture. In the future Sarah hopes to potentially return to Argentina to pursue a graduate degree, and eventually enter into a career in Environmental Communication.