GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — It's 5 a.m. and the first rays of sunshine light the rock wall above our makeshift camp on the riverbank. Dozens of tiny bats fly just a few feet above my sleeping bag, picking off insects in the early morning light.
The only sound in the canyon is the ever-present roar of the rapids of the Colorado River. You grow use to the sound, calming yet dangerous, like the purr of a mountain lion.
Our guides are rustling down by the raft, banging their pots and pans, gearing up for breakfast. It won't be long before Roger, the Cowboy Poet, hollers "Hot coffee!"
You can be dang sure he won't yell it twice, so I nudge my sleepy-eyed son and say, "Time to get up. We're burnin' daylight."
"Ah, Dad . . . It's the middle of the night."
Maybe back home in civilization. But out here on the Colorado, you take advantage of every minute of sunlight.
"Big water today," Marty, the Boatman, tells my boy. "Eat up. You'll need the energy."
Kai piles pancakes on his plate and then eats them, sans syrup or utensils. Still drowsy, he sips hot chocolate when Roger adds, "By the way . . . happy birthday."
A family affair
This eight-day, 277-mile run down one of the wildest rivers in North America had been nearly a year in the making. My big sister, the oldest of nine Tomalin children, had offered my son a spot on the expedition as a 10th birthday present.
"Are you sure you can watch him?" I asked.
"No," she said. "You are going to watch him."
The trip, which would involve sleeping under the stars and negotiating nearly 200 sets of rapids, is not for the faint of heart. So there was some discussion as to whether a fourth-grader would be up to the task.
"My son has never played a video game in his life," I told the booking agent. "He likes to climb trees and run through the swamp barefoot."
I was not so confident about the rest of the 14-member crew. On the raft would be a mix of family and friends, including several sets of siblings, a boyfriend and girlfriend, a mother and her children, a father and son, and a bride- and groom-to-be. We were the perfect ingredients for a reality show, The Real Housewives of New Jersey Meet Survivorman.
The wilderness tends to bring out the best and worst in people. For some, a week without a cell phone or Internet access can be like a year in federal prison. For me, it sounded like a great way to blow off a little steam and get away from the rat race. And what could be better than spending 24/7 with my little big boy?
Our home on the water for the week would be a 37-foot-long, 15-foot-wide, rigid-framed rubber raft powered by a 30-horsepower, eco-friendly, Honda four-stroke engine.
The boatmen, a.k.a. guides, steer from the stern, or back of the boat. The midsection, which we dubbed "first class," is relatively stable and dry, but the foredeck is open, and the first to become submerged when running the "Big Water," or rapids.
When we put in at Lee's Ferry, Ariz., where most commercial and private rafting expeditions begin, the air was hot and dry, so the foredeck looked like the place to be. But when we hit the Soap Creek Rapid, a 16-foot drop, and felt the 55-degree Colorado River water soak us to the bone, many of my compatriots opted for drier quarters.
My son, however, insisted on riding up front, which meant that I had to be there, too. Fortunately, we had brought good rain gear, a must for any trip down the Colorado.
After a dozen or so rapids, we got into a routine. I'd sit on the deck, my right arm locked underneath a gear strap, and Kai would sit on my lap, my left arm underneath the back of his life jacket.
The system worked fine until one particularly monstrous hole when I felt the lad start to float away. That's when I remembered a warning from my wife: "If you lose my son, don't come home."
So I sent the shivering, blue-lipped boy back to sit with his aunt, much to his displeasure. "Why do you keep treating me like a little kid?" he snarled before falling asleep in the sun.
The typical day on the river starts around 7 a.m., with a midmorning break and lunch around noon. The trip can be as active or inactive as you choose. For many, the most memorable experiences are often off-river, up the side canyons, following small creeks to secret swimming holes.
A good pair of lightweight hiking boots, running shoes or technical sandals will be all you need to scamper up most of the rocky trails. Some of the hikes can be taxing, but you always have the option of hanging out on the beach, close to the snacks and cool beverages. If you do, though, you will miss out on some of the sights, including the Anasazi granaries, 1,000-year-old ruins located on a cliff face hundreds of feet above the river at Nankoweap.
Another great side trip is a jaunt up the mineral-rich, turquoise-colored waters of the Little Colorado. If you are brave enough, try a little cliff jumping or shoot the rapids on your life jacket.
The hike up Deer Creek, with its spectacular 100-foot-high waterfall, leads to a place called "the Patio," a lush, green oasis in the desert, but to get there you have to traverse a 2-foot-wide ledge that winds through a limestone chasm several hundred feet deep. Don't look down and you'll be fine.
The entire journey takes place within the confines of Grand Canyon National Park so you must pack out what you pack in. Our boatman embraced this "Leave No Trace" policy with near religious zealotry. At one point, Roger, a lanky Texan with a flair for the area's natural history, actually picked up a stray pea for fear it might attract biting ants that could attack the next visiting party.
He and his counterpart, Marty, one of the rafting company's founding guides and owners, are masters of Dutch oven cooking. Dinners ranged from filet mignon to spaghetti and meatballs, with a variety of cobblers and pies for dessert.
Most of the campsites are on wide river beaches, with plenty of soft sand to lay out a sleeping bag or tent. The nights are cool, not cold, and the stars are like nothing you've ever seen if you come from the land of condos and strip malls.
When it comes to entertainment, you make your own. My nephew brought a guitar and played a concert in a rock amphitheater. Several nights we sat around and played a game called Mafia, sort of like charades with a murderous bent.
My fellow travelers had me pegged from the start as an underworld crime boss, but I convinced everyone of my innocence, then had each of them killed off, one by one, in the dead of night.
"You're kind of scary, Uncle Terry," my 21-year-old nephew said as he went off to bed. "I think I'm going to have nightmares."
But the next day, as we boarded the raft for the last time and headed to our takeout point, there were lots of tears and hugs. My earlier fears about the crew were unfounded.
"I'll never forget this as long as I live," my son told me as we grabbed our gear for the long bus ride back to the hotel. "This has been the best week of my life."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8808.