Straight woman goes down: Grand Canyon whitewater rafting with the gals
The gals were in awe of the Grand Canyon – Photo by Stacey Wittig
“You will be camping in sand. Sand will become part of your life,” barks the orientation administrator, the only guy in the room. “You will have sand in body orifices that you didn’t know you had.”
“Oh, WE know where they all are,” quips flirty Sarah. Not many laugh as they take their assigned dry bags back to their rooms to pack. We will be leaving at O-Dark-30 for remote Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River where the home for my unexpected vagaytion awaits.
As a writer, I like to research before traveling into any new culture. With a little investigation, I can avoid cross-cultural taboos. When I look around this roomful of people with whom I will be eating, sleeping and crapping outdoors for the next seven days though, it suddenly dawns on me that I’m embedded in a foreign culture. I’m here at an orientation for a whitewater raft trip and we leave to go down the Grand Canyon tomorrow. I’m surprised to find out that I will be spending the next seven days with a boatload of lesbians.
I had signed on for a “Girls Getaway” river trip. Looking around the room and listening to the conversations, I come to understand that many have met through a lesbian magazine. Was I so innocent that I was unaware that such publications existed? The evident ringleader, boisterous Sarah, ran an ad promising fun and frolic within the “inner sanctum of Mother Earth.” I study the group of sixteen women. Are they hetero-friendly or not? Are there any other straights in the crowd? I guess I’ll find out in the coming days.
Unpacking the raft for camp. Note the ammo cans under seats – Photo by Silvia Ator
During the evening orientation, we learn secrets to properly folding our “dry bags” which will protect sleeping bags and clothing from fifteen-foot high, back-rolling waves. Once at the raft, we will also be assigned waterproof ammo cans to store small personal items like cameras, sunscreen and lip balm. “You’ll find the ammo cans positioned for easy access under the seats. Each is labeled with a Grand Canyon-appropriate name. So don’t forget the name of your ammo can,” warns our orientation guy.
The next day, we embark on our adventure. Our “home,” the 37-foot motorized pontoon raft made of rubberized tubes, is powered by a Honda outboard engine and piled high with provisions. After a safety briefing, our first challenge is learning to get on and off the bouncy tubes without killing ourselves.
Eight miles downstream, we ready for Badger Creek Rapid — the first rapids of our trip. Our guides show us the proper hand holds under our bench seats. As they command us to hang on tightly, three of the ladies purposefully hit the deck. The sight of the river dropping before us and the roar of the upcoming white-capped waves drives them to the safest part of the boat: the back floor. I can almost hear their silent prayers ringing in my head.
The huge pontoons lift up and over the back-rollers and water from their white crests spray everywhere. The boat barely quits lurching and I’m still wiping river water from my eyes when I hear from the stern, “The juice bar is still open back here.” Every morning orange, pineapple or apple juice boxes balance on pilot Carolyn’s “wheelhouse,” and we are free to help ourselves.
Quiet time on a side canyon trip – Photo by Silvia Ator
After a wet and wild day on the river, we anchor the pontoon raft on a wide, sand beach. While our all-girl boat crew Rachel and Amity start dinner, we sit in the sand or in short folding chairs in front of Captain Carolyn who delivers camp instructions. One gal sits topless in her Crazy Creek chair, her boobs resting on her knees. I’m not sure if Carolyn has ever given the talk to a topless 60-something before, but she isn’t skipping a beat. I try not to giggle.
Since I’ve been camping in Arizona deserts for the past 15 years, I decide that I really don’t need a tent – I’ll sleep under the stars. Watching the others set up camp, I realize that some of the gals have come as couples while others are looking to hook-up. Some are city slickers coming to grips with the “roughing-it” thing while others are experienced adventure travelers with the latest outdoor gear and attire. I’m still trying to lay low, afraid of a careless faux pas or two. Oh what I would give for a copy of “Lesbian for Dummies!”
The tall canyon walls rise up from our beach where tents and sleeping pads are scattered among colorful marble-encrusted boulders. After a prime rib dinner, I fall right to sleep on my mat under the stars. At about 2 a.m., raindrops begin to hit my face and I’m startled awake. I analyze my options: stay outside and be miserably wet or crawl into the tent of the neighboring lesbian. I reluctantly leave my warm bag and walk through the cold night in my underwear. Hesitantly, I tap on the side of the nearest tent. “Janice, it’s raining out here. May I share your tent?” I hold my breath hoping that she isn’t thinking that I came looking for love.
Sharing stories of the day as the sun goes down in the Grand Canyon – Photo by Stacey Wittig
“Sure come on in,” Janice welcomes. I unzip the tent and slide into the dark thinking, “Oh, I hope no one thinks that I am moving in on their potential squeeze. I don’t want to piss anyone off this early in the trip.” With my back to Janice, I fall asleep to the sound of raindrops on the tent fly.
“I know you don’t care, but guess how many times I got up to pee last night?” announces Linda at breakfast. “Seven times – I think I was bored.” And I was worried about indiscretions! We are responsible for taking down our tents and packing our stuff back into the dry bags. Sarah is having a terrible time fumbling to remove the poles from her tent, which is flapping wildly in the wind. Others come running to help and someone jokes, “How many lesbians does it take to take down a tent?” We all laugh. Maybe I won’t have to worry about social blunders after all.
On day four, at least three of us on the boat are overcoming our fears. Or more accurately, three of us admit to being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. “I know my fantasies are worse than the reality,” claims Roberta, a psychologist. She’s one of the gals that started the trip hunkered down as we approached the big drops. “If I face my fears little by little, I’ll be able to move up in the boat, one seat at a time.” The U-shaped bench at the back of the boat sits eight women who look into the boat. Four benches in the front accommodate forward-looking riders. Roberta began the trip sitting on the floor with her back pressed against the U-shaped bench. But following her own plan, she moved up one seat at a time as we approached each rapid.
“The fantasy is worse than the reality,” she repeats as a mantra. Today I sit next to her and say, “When you are ready, I’ll sit in the front with you.” We move to the front and in the short seat, our bodies press together. As waves splash her face and we ride over high-grade rapids, Roberta exclaims “You are my encourager!” She is happy and confident. Although the next day, she wouldn’t be vying for the front seat at the granddaddy of them all: Lava Falls.
Going over some big backrollers on the Colorado River – Photo by Stacey Wittig
With all the seat changing going on, it’s difficult to keep track of your ammo box of day-use items. Since they were strapped in under the seats, I have to almost squat on the floor and poke my head in between the other gals’ legs each time I need sunscreen. “What are you looking for down there?” asks Anna. It was becoming a common joke to pull on Stacey. My ammo box is named ‘Beaver.’ Why the only straight chick couldn’t get the container named ‘Big Horn Sheep’ or ‘Deer,’ I don’t know. It must have been a conspiracy. So when asked what I was looking for, I had to answer with the perfunctory, “I’m looking for my beaver.” “We’ll make a lesbian out of her yet,” Sarah laughs. “That’s what my husband is worried about,” I joke back.
By this time, I had learned that I really wasn’t the only straight guest. “I’m not ‘you-know-what.’ Are you?” whispered the Canadian dame who was celebrating her 75th birthday on this bucket-list trip. She pulled me aside two days ago to give me the word that neither she nor her travelling companion was gay. It was the same proper, 75-year-old Elizabeth who encouraged the younger ones (50-60 year olds) to move up to the front of the boat, “Oh, come on gals, how often do we get to experience fear anymore?”
On Day Five we reached Lava Falls, and by the time we got there many of those scaredy cats from the back of the boat were interested in sitting in the bow for the wild ride. It reminded me of a Twitter tip I read: “Make sure you put your time in at the front of the boat to earn a seat on the big waves near the end of the trip.”
Lava Falls is the highest grade rapid in the Grand Canyon. The river drops 37 feet over the falls and the rapid bubbles and boils for a couple hundred yards. “Ten seconds of terror,” warns Captain Carolyn. And down we went.
It’s funny how I fell into the lap of this uncommon girls getaway. Beyond just learning that going down the Colorado River is a kickass trip, I found that going with the flow sometimes means just being yourself and leaving the cultural research behind.
After a hot hike to a waterfall, even cold water feels good – Photo by Silvia Ator
Stacey “Vagabonding Lulu” is an Arizona travel writer based in Flagstaff, AZ. Learn more about her adventures at www.vagabondinglulu.com
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