Sunday, May 19, 2002
Steamboat Springs How would you like to spend five days and four nights floating through majestic Desolation Canyon on the Green River, free of charge?
You'll visit historic sites once explored by John Wesley Powell and search through side canyons for Indian pictographs. There will be an occasional whitewater rapid to negotiate, but mostly you'll spend lazy days basking in the sun as the canyon walls slip by.
What's the catch? All you'll be required to do in exchange is document the trip with photographs and take notes about everything that's said during the trip. Oh yeah, did I mention that your trip mates will be a psychiatrist from New Jersey and 13 of his patients?
Doesn't that sound like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure?
Actually, I'm guilty of giving you false hope. I can't really extend this offer to you. But it's an offer I accepted 17 years ago. I'm willing to bet no one has a river trip story to match this one.
I was reminded of the experience this week while on an action packed one-day float through Cross Mountain Canyon. Just getting on a river trip, no matter how short, reminded me of one of the great pleasures available to those of us who live on the Colorado Plateau.
Anyway, back to Desolation Canyon and my favorite shrink. This guy, I won't mention his name, had a theory. He believed that if he could remove his patients from the stress of their urban lives, they would open up and spill out the cause of their neuroses like they never could back in Jersey. So he booked the trip, and invited along a video photographer and a still photographer (myself) to get material for the hundreds of magazine articles and TV talk show appearances that were sure to result from his revolutionary new approach to analysis.
We met at Walker Field in Grand Junction and boarded a single engine plane for the short ride to Sand Wash International Airport.
In mid-flight, the videographer asked if we would be flying up the canyon, and the pilot replied, "No." The usual procedure was to fly directly across the Green River and land on a mesa about a half mile away from the raft put in. The video dude convinced the pilot that it would be more fun to fly south (downstream) 10 miles or so, drop beneath the canyon rim and fly just above the water. That would allow him to shoot some great video footage.
What followed was perhaps the most hair-raising 30 minutes of my life.
The pilot slung the plane back and forth as he negotiated the serpentine bends in the river, with first the left wing tip and then the right wing tip pointed straight down at the river.
From the rear of the plane, the strangers from New Jersey (and I do mean strangers) could be heard whimpering, a sure sign that their therapy was well underway.
We whipped around a rock formation and as I gazed out my window, about 100 feet above the water, I glimpsed what at first I took to be a dozen large honeydew melons floating on a barge in the river.
Abruptly, I realized they were not melons at all we were being mooned.
After landing in in the midst of prickly pear cactus where no landing strip was discernible, the pilot asked the videographer if he'd been able to bag the footage he was hoping for. The video guy sheepishly admitted that once we entered the canyon he discovered that he had left his blank tapes at home in Steamboat. He handed the pilot a wad of cash and begged him to fly to Green River, Utah, purchase a half dozen VHS tapes and return ASAP with an airlift.
The next day was quiet as we paddled through flat water. In the evening, after dinner and cocktails, the river shrink gathered everyone around the fire pan for a group encounter session. The strangers from New Jersey discussed substance abuse and aggravating personal relationships. They also talked about the fact that this was their first time camping out under the stars.
One young woman spoke up in a quavering voice and said her biggest anxiety over the trip had to do with the bathroom facilities, or rather the lack thereof. She said she didn't feel any better when she was informed she would be expected to use a "groover" any time that nature called
If you don't know what a groover is, ask a friend who has been on a river trip. Better yet, use your imagination. I'm not going to explain it in this forum.
The river shrink asked the young woman how she had overcome her anxiety.
"Before the trip, I practiced going to the bathroom in the bushes behind my parents' house," she replied.
Now, this this was a solemn occasion, and put downs were definitely to be frowned upon. But you can imagine how mightily the rest of us struggled to stifle our laughter.
The second morning, after we'd already been underway for an hour, a Cessna came flying up the canyon and waggled its wings at us as it flew past. In less than two minutes it came back downstream for a second pass and a bright yellow dry bag came tumbling out of the pilot's window.
Within minutes, the videographer was back in business. And I guarantee you, he captured some strange scenes during the balance of the trip.
So, what's my point? Well, I guess I'm trying to say that there's no such thing as a routine river trip all of them contain a little magic. And if a friend tells you they have an opening on a trip, and invites you to go along, think hard before you turn the offer down.
Finally, I want to say above all else don't fear the groover.