by Elisha McArthur
Permits to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon are acquired by a weighted lottery system and are not easy to get. What used to be a ten-year waiting list switched to a lottery in 2006. The weighted system means that you have a certain number of points, giving you so many chances to win. My better half, Alan, and I put in for a permit in January of 2012, and even with my dad on our permit (who had priority lottery points from being on the waiting list for nine years before it switched to the lottery) did not win the primary lottery on Feb. 22. We did, however, win a permit from a secondary drawing held in March. Our launch date was Oct. 2, 2013, and we were elated! We spent the next year and a half planning the perfect trip and rallying the perfect crew.
On Oct.1, 2013, as everyone knows, the government shut down. That same day, our group of sixteen determined rafters and kayakers drove from Salida, Colorado, and other states to Lees Ferry (the put-in for the Grand Canyon) with permit in hand and 23 day's worth of wilderness expedition gear in tow. We were ready to do everything within our powers to launch on the river trip we had been dreaming about and planning for so long.
Tensions ran high on the two-hour drive from Flagstaff, but so did optimism. The battle cry to rally early had been made at 9 p.m. the night before, when midnight hit the east coast and news of the shutdown hit us. Members of the group due to arrive the next day drove through the night, arriving between 3 and 8 a.m. Ceiba Adventures, the company from which we were renting boats, equipment, food packs and a shuttle, also rallied to the battle cry and were at our hotel by 8 a.m.
There was a “soft closure” in effect from 8 a.m. until noon in order to clear out the park. Our plan was to be there before noon with the hopes that sympathetic rangers would let us in before the gate closed so we could launch a day early.
We arrived at Lees Ferry at 11 a.m. only to find that the barricade had just been erected and was manned by one frightened ranger. We asked him what we could do, to which he replied “I don’t know, I’m so sorry, the park is closed.” Another group showed up shortly after. Their trip leader jumped out of the van spitting fire and threatening the poor ranger, who was already visibly trembling. More rangers then showed up, and all said the same thing: “I am so sorry, the park is closed.”
Boater Alan Cammack holds his permit in front of a “Closed” sign at the Glen Canyon National Recreation area. Photo by Scott Davis of Ceiba Adventures.
Hungry but not yet defeated, and slightly annoyed with the behavior of the other groups, we eventually wandered over to the Marble Canyon Lodge for some lunch and a recess. A week later we were still there. The owner was gracious enough to let us (and other trips) camp in the big parking lot behind the lodge, which we affectionately dubbed “The Dirt Eddy.” We were holding out hope that Congress would come to an agreement and that we would still be able to launch. Much of that week was spent hanging on every breaking news post.
We all called our congressmen and senators. We called the governor of Arizona. We called Speaker Boehner. We Facebooked and Twittered and interviewed for local TV channels, NPR, the AP, American Whitewater and The L.A. Times. We made as loud a cry as we could from that dirt eddy. We did everything that we could do.
The dirt eddy was difficult. At first there was optimism, but as the days dragged on, spirits dampened. Alan and I, as trip leaders, were responsible for this group of people we had brought together from all across Colorado, California, Arizona, Oregon and even D.C. We tried our best to keep group morale up, checking on everyone daily, discussing options, rallying for short day hikes, and encouraging and cheering. Many tears were shed. Ultimately our collective hearts were crushed as we neared the deadline for even the shortest possible trip.
By the end of the week it was very clear that no movement was happening in Washington, and that we were not going to get to run the Grand. Sadly, we packed up camp at the dirt eddy and said goodbye to our newfound friends, the Lees Ferry rangers, with whom we had spent the week commiserating. The shutdown was hard on them, too.
We headed to Diamond Creek, the main takeout for the Grand Canyon, which is on the Hualapai Reservation, and spent the next six days floating from there to Pearce Ferry (what used to be Lake Mead). Our original plan was to take out at Pearce Ferry. We essentially spent six days rafting what would have been the last two days of our 23-day Grand Canyon trip. There was one good rapid and the scenery was beautiful. We thoroughly enjoyed every moment of our Diamond down trip, but there were, and are, still holes in all of our hearts … holes that can only be filled by the roaring torrents of rapids like Lava Falls and Crystal, by the voluptuous curves and falls of side canyons like Matkatamiba and Shinumo – holes in our hearts that can only be filled by the walls of the Grand Canyon.
Apart from the emotional cost, opportunity and fiscal costs were even higher. Somewhere around $30,000 was squandered on this river trip that never ran. Some members of our group had been saving up paid time off for over a year. Others had been saving their pennies. One member suffers from advanced stages of MS, and although it would have been his thirteenth Grand trip, it was also going to be his last. While I have been before, and I know I will go again, many of our group never have, and some may never again get the opportunity. While we all did our best to stay positive, huge losses were sustained that can never be regained.
Despite the loss and despite the pain, our motto during our few days on the water became “This doesn’t suck.” It didn’t suck because of the amazing group of people whom we endured this travesty with and because of help from the likes of, Ceiba Adventures, who went above and beyond; Marble Canyon Lodge, who opened their doors to us; the Hualapai tribe, who ignored the government’s instructions to cease operations; the Lees Ferry rangers, whose jobs were held hostage; and the arsenal of friends and media, who spread the word about our plight. It didn’t suck because of the extraordinary people who pulled together to make the best of a bad situation. Now if only our government could do the same.