My Father’s Day Memory: River Reunion

by Richard Wallace

Every Father’s Day, I recall my favorite memory of time spent with my dad. Joined by my older brother Bill, our trip together took place in September 1996. Dad was 75; I had just turned 44. Dad is no longer with us, but I have enjoyed telling my grandchildren all about this adventure.

When was the last time you got a letter from your dad? We all know dads are not known to be letter-writers. So, naturally, I was intrigued one day to find a large envelope among all the bills and junk mail bearing my dad’s ink-stamped return address. I figured it must be his latest advice on insurance or investments. Instead, I found colorful pages of breathtaking scenery, all the natural wonders of the Grand Canyon and the action scenes of whitewater rafting down the Colorado River. A trip Dad had always talked about, quite a step up from his days of weekend float trips in the Ozarks with his buddies some 30 years earlier. His invitation was rather brief, personal, and to the point, “Meet me and your brother in Phoenix the day before the scheduled departure.” He circled his choice of available trips described in the brochure, the 7-day “All the Grand” itinerary aboard a powered pontoon boat.

My brother Bill and I had no trouble clearing our calendars for a week of high adventure. Besides, the trip was 6 months away. That was my Dad, always the planner. The trip was shaping up to be a unique father/son reunion, actually. Hot, dry, late-August weather greeted our Arizona arrival; our planes landed within an hour of each other. Group orientation meetings covered safety rules, National Park Service regulations, and basic river-running survival tips. Environmental concerns were paramount; everything taken in must come out, right down to the charcoal ashes used for cooking.

Quiet anticipation best described the two-hour bus ride to meet the river and our crew. Gradually, the desert terrain resembled elements of the canyon to come, large sections of layered rock were strewn across the barren land, like leftover parts of the unique creation just up the road. Everyone was wide awake when our first glimpse of the river appeared as we crossed Navajo Bridge, just 4 miles downriver from our starting point: Lee’s Ferry. Our ship looked like a Space Shuttle convertible without the wings, stuffed with supplies. Many of us thought, “Where are we going to put 23 people on that thing?” No time to waste; adventure awaits. We all had heard about the water—a bone-chilling 46 degrees—but everybody just had to stick their foot in before climbing aboard to be instant believers.

By 10AM, Lee’s Ferry was out of sight, and we became settled on board. All of us were immediately impressed by the sheer walls of Marble Canyon. A stiff, hot wind swirled around us, this wind would remain constant, day and night. Kent, our trip leader, made it clear that we had no real timetable, if he saw a suitable spot to stop and hike around, have lunch, or camp for the night, so be it. His only objective was to deliver us safely to Pierce Ferry, at the beginning of Lake Mead, the following Saturday.

Into the second day, we had the river-running routine down pat, in the boat by 7AM, and usually soaked in rapids 15 minutes later. For the next two days we had truckloads of this gritty water dumped on us through rapids every 15 minutes, it seemed. All aboard generally remained damp until setting up camp around 4PM. Hikes up side canyons and cliffs provided unique views, generous photo opportunities, and a chance to dry out.

Back on water, I discovered the best seat, sitting “outside” on the large flotation tubes that ran the length of the boat. Our dry bags lashed in place by long cables provided the ideal backrest and a secure grip. The views were truly spectacular from this vantage point. Bill and my dad joined me for long, casual conversations; a chance to catch up on family and recall other great trips together. We were gradually dropping about 8 feet in elevation with every mile, about 1700 feet over the 280-mile trip. Wildlife was sighted along the steep shorelines, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and a few hawks overhead. Large lizards populated many campsites.

Teamwork and a little ingenuity went a long way. Everyone formed a “bucket brigade” to unload the boat at each campsite. Dinner menus were equally creative, halibut, BBQ chicken, and even steak one night. Desserts were surprising, cherry cobbler, cheesecake, and my favorite, strawberry shortcake. Doing the dishes meant parading through a line of pots to rinse, wash, and rinse again. Plates were hung in a nylon net to dry in that constant swirling wind. Nights were memorable. Two-man tents were issued as “emergency” storm shelters, otherwise, it was two brothers, their dad and a curtain of stars draped between the canyon walls. The fourth night featured a dazzling lightning display, horrific winds, and pelting rain—a bad time to try setting up that tent, we discovered!

The final two days were quiet. The river widened, rapids were less violent and provided a welcome chilly spray as heat relief. Gradually, the canyon walls receded, shoreline vegetation increased, and motorboats traveling upriver from Lake Mead zoomed by. Civilization was retaking its grip on us; Pierce Ferry was greeted by cheers and a quick group photo opportunity. A lunchtime celebration, complete with champagne, officially ended our journey.

Other than fatigue and a few bruises, we survived the voyage in relatively good shape. Driving back to Phoenix, Dad recalled hearing some interesting reports about similar trips down the Snake River in Idaho. He said, “Between the white water, you get to fish right off the back of the boat!” Sounded good to me.

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