Smarter than the Average Raven
After 18 months of planning and anticipation, the big day was finally here. Seven-thirty on a sunny, desert-dry Tuesday morning in June 2018, river mile zero at Lee’s Ferry, our gear was finally on the boats. After careful consideration of which heavy duty, rubber dry bag to select for protecting our belongings on the river, I chose the stylish bag number 5 in bright green. Alex went for the same color bag with the easy-to-remember number 16. We were ready to put into the Colorado for a seven-day rafting trip with Western River Expeditions on one of two rafts. Our trip leaders, Wiley and Evan, each piloting a raft, pulled away from the boat ramp into the cold, green, fast-moving water, navigated to the far bank of the river, and stopped.
They cut the motors and gathered everyone in close. It was time for the safety speech about rafting in the Grand Canyon, including the dangers that required our vigilance, and the consequences of not paying attention. Wiley pointedly stated that one’s carelessness could result in injury and death, or maybe even worse, a severe case of embarrassment. He explained how to avoid ending up in the ice-cold river, and what to do if that should happen. He cautioned us about the threat of dehydration in the kiln-like, bone-dry desert heat, and the need for consistently replenishing our fluids with the unlimited water or lemonade they supplied. Finally came the dangerous creatures of which to beware. Scorpions? Check. Rattlesnakes? Check. Big horn sheep? Not especially dangerous, but if you get too close to one and it lowers its head preparing to knock you into next week? Check. Last on the list? … Ravens. Ravens? Really? We have to watch out for a bird? Yep. A raven won’t kill you, but they are smarter than most people and will ransack your gear in camp if you leave it unsecured and unattended for more than just a moment.
Ravens? Yeah, sure, I thought. We had just gotten underway and Wiley’s harangue about birds quickly left my head as we immediately passed through Paria Riffle, not even a rapid but still, our first faint taste of hydraulic turbulence. All other thoughts of responsibility receded even more swiftly as we glided under the Navajo bridge at river mile 4 with the 500-foot golden Navajo sandstone cliffs on either side.
At mile 10, Wiley pulled the boats over to an idyllic spot under a shelf jutting out from the canyon wall. It was time for all 28 passengers to make introductions and for the crew to tell us about themselves with a song, story, or poem. I must say, each of the crew’s public speaking ability and skill at commanding a room was as impressive as their proficiency at river navigation. They adeptly regaled us for the entire trip and, to their credit, knew when to give it a rest so we could become one with the canyon.
Next was a stop for lunch near Soap Creek, the first of many unexpectedly gorgeous beaches in Grand Canyon. The food, including the early afternoon deli spread, was also a surprising treat. After a relaxing siesta, it was back on the river again where we hit our first big rapid of the trip at mile 17, House Rock Rapid. This beauty was rated a level 8 on the 1 to 10 scale used to measure rapids in the canyon. It was quite a rush, and then, that was it for the day. At mile 19.4, we pulled in to what would be our first campsite of the trip.
We knew the entire trip would cover 188 miles in a week, an average of 27 miles per day, so it was a bit puzzling that we had ended our time on the river so early. The guides explained that there are no set rules among the rafting outfits for which beaches will be claimed by whom. It’s a judgement made each day by the trip leader based on a number of factors: availability of camp sites from knowledge of who is on the river, distance traveled and time required to get to future planned stops, and the desire to find a place that has shade in late afternoon to offer relief from the 105°F+ heat. In any event, I was very pleased we had the chance to stay at this particular site because, as I later understood after two river trips, it was highly atypical.
Most other campsites generally consisted of fine-grained sand with varying degrees of brush and rocks, and a decent size beach with space to spread out along the river. This one, however, was very rocky with a heavy thicket dividing the camping area from a narrow crescent of sand that sloped precipitously to the river. We had to make efficient use of this cozy beach to set up the cooking gear and expandable chairs for 28 guests. Compared to the more spacious sites this seemed less than optimal.
But the positives far outweighed any of these so-called problems. At the top of the list was the view of the entrance to North Canyon in the fading sunlight a mile-and-a-half downstream. It’s one of those images that stops time and that tends to come to mind first when remembering an extraordinary experience. Next was the dinner itself. Again, it was incredibly good for being in the wilderness: a juicy steak, potatoes, and a salad. And for me, a vegetarian, the crew had a pasta dish handy. At this point, in the afterglow of a great meal, the canyon was seeping into my bones. Sharing a few beers with my son and some fellow rafters we were getting to know, I felt like I was truly off the grid and that all was right with the world.
And then … Evan, our co-leader came striding purposefully through the thicket onto the beach. His stentorian middle school, gym teacher voice was laden with great disappointment as he pronounced slowly and gravely, “someone has just been ravenized. Who has green dry bag number 5?” I tried to disappear down into my chair but I knew there was no escape. “Uhh, would that be me?” I squeaked. With everyone’s eyes upon me I read their minds: “There’s always one doofus on every trip and he’s it on this one.”
I sheepishly slunk past all the guests, through the thicket, and back to our campsite. Indeed, a bag had been unzipped by the birds and some of its contents was strewn about the rocks. But as I looked closer, I noticed it was really Alex’s bag number 16, which was the same color as mine and happened to be perfectly hidden behind my bag. It was a surgical strike; the ravens had unzipped Alex’s bag and taken the carob nut mix he had planned to have for a few days. Oh well. Don’t come asking for any of mine! I went back to beach and gave Alex a load of crap for letting me be the fall guy. He laughed and then we finished our beers.
Minutes later, with disconcerting dispatch, the sun vanished behind the cliffs and it was dark. We made our way back to our cots and turned in. Well, not really. Looking up at the infinity of stars in the pitch-black Grand Canyon night sky for first time, with a 500 foot wall right across the river from us illuminated by the starlight, it was just too much. The constellations looked like they were about ten feet above me. I saw satellites traversing the heavens in a slow, steady, metronomic progression. And, of course, there were fantastical shooting stars from time to time.
At about 3:00 am, as I finally dozed off, nature called. Unfortunately, this meant having to pee into the river as Wiley had pointedly instructed us to do during his welcome speech. Peeing on land in the Inner Gorge was verboten because, otherwise, the canyon would smell like a cat’s litter box in no time. I fumbled around for my small flashlight and stumbled half-conscious over the rocks, trying not to step on my fellow campers, especially after the shaky first impression I had made after dinner. As I headed toward the river, I approached the thicket. In the Grand Canyon dark, however, it was no easy task to find the crack in the dense brush and the exceedingly narrow path to the beach.
Suddenly, I found my way through but the effort to make it this far had made me a bit disoriented. Only the night before, and pretty much every night before that, I had been using indoor plumbing to do my business. So, with Wiley’s admonition echoing in my head, all I could think of was to make sure I hit the water cleanly. But I couldn’t just walk directly to the river with the beach tilted severely towards the water.
I turned left and lurched about 50 feet to where the crescent of sand ended. A large rock happened to be perched in a way that would seem to give me a straight shot to the Colorado below. I stood on the rock and found it to be a somewhat unstable but not enough to deter me after all this trouble. As I tried to keep steady, I could see a noticeable current in the starlight and it dawned on me that falling in would be a tremendous bummer. No one would have known. The river was a frigid 47°F and sudden immersion would have been a shock to my system. Being unable to get out for more than an hour could cause death from hypothermia. When I thought about it later, I realized that risking my life in the service of being perfect was not wise. High tide would have taken care of any imperfection anyway.
At 5:15 am, we awoke to breakfast and cowboy coffee, which erased any remaining cobwebs in my head. After breaking down the gear and loading the boats, we returned to the campsite and fanned out to scour the area for any remaining bits of trash. Just as I had determined that our spot was clear, I looked up at the cliff in front of me and saw the brazen raven who had gotten me into trouble, safely out of reach on an outcropping above. He looked down and let out a raucous, croaking caw that seemed to be for my benefit. In my mind I let him know that I forgave him and wasn’t upset with him anymore, and I could swear I heard him saying to me, “get lost, you vacuous twit, so I can feast on all the goodies you don’t realize you’re leaving behind.” Now, when I see crows back home, I think of their larger corvid cousins out west and smile ruefully. As they look down at me from a rooftop, head cocked to the side, their caws seem to me to have a mocking quality to them. After my encounter with the brazen raven in the canyon, I have a new appreciation for the fact that they probably are mocking me. I hold my groceries a little more tightly as I bring them into the house. Of course, I’ll never be sure I haven’t unwittingly left something for them to grab anyway.
See our Gallery with all our photos showcasing the beauty of the American Wilderness.