A new world...Grand Canyon Trip Report

Rocky guides Sami Zuch (Main Salmon), Thomas & Jonna Batey (Middle Fork) had the pleasure of escaping the civilized world into the earth’s deepest ditch, only to emerge into a pandemic with quarantines, travel bans and toilet paper hoarding.  

Join Sami on her written journey down the Grand Canyon and her re-entry…to a new world.

April 4, 2020

It was August 2019 when I was asked to go on the famous multi-day river trip down the Colorado River on the Grand Canyon. Tim Cron, owner of the Stanley Baking Company and Sawtooth Hotel, in Stanley, Idaho puts in for a permit every year, and this is the second time he was lucky enough to receive one. People can wait years and still may never get a permit, so it’s not every day you get invited to go on this trip. Some say it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was my first time to be invited and it was a no brainer that I would be committed no matter what.

Fast forward to March 8th, 2020. The time to start making moves to Flagstaff, Arizona had come up quickly. I had the Grand Canyon on my mind and hadn’t given much thought to how this new virus might impact my plans. To get to the Grand Canyon, I had to fly from Mexico City (where I was living for the winter) to Las Vegas where I would stay the night on the strip with a friend who lives there. All was completely normal at this point – as normal as can be in Sin City. The next morning, I took a Greyhound bus from Vegas to Flagstaff. While I waited in line to board the bus, the news was on and they were talking about a few cases in Nevada and precautions one might take – they spoke of not touching your face and washing your hands often. Honestly, I hadn’t been watching much news from the US when I was in Mexico, so I didn’t know too much other than people were still treating the coronavirus like the flu. Six hours later, I arrived in Flagstaff, ready to meet up with our group of twelve. Some people I had known before, some were new faces. That evening, we all met for dinner at a local brewery that was packed full of people. We were all pumped for the river and everything the next three weeks had in store for us.
March 10th: The time had come to get all of our gear and head to Lee’s Ferry where we would launch for our 21 day voyage the following day. We said our “see you laters” to all our family and friends via texts and calls, not knowing the next time we talked to them they would be warning us of the new world to which we would return. First, we met up with Professional River Outfitters (PRO) who we rented everything except our personal gear from. They packed us boats, frames, straps, groovers (toilets), boxes, coolers full of food, and everything we needed. These would be the people who would eventually pick us up 225 miles downstream on March 31st at our takeout, Diamond Creek. It was a long afternoon of driving, rigging boats, and a forest service informative meeting. Everything went smooth, and well, normal. No warnings of coronavirus from the forest service; just a normal rig, inspection, and meeting. Once we were all ready, our group had dinner at the only place nearby, Marble Canyon Lodge. Little did we all know, this would be our last time eating out for a long time.

Finally, March 11th: the day we got to start our great adventure! It was a rainy morning at Lee’s Ferry, but soon the weather would clear up and the sun would greet us on the Grand Canyon. Never could we have imagined, 20 days later without service, we would return to a world defined by isolation, fear, and uncertainty. The first few days were full of exploring new territory, getting to know one another, sharing laughs and whiskey, running bigger rapids then I had ever seen, and having a grand ole time – we were completely unaware the country was declaring a state of emergency throughout all of this.

Day eight on the river (March 18th) comes around and this is the day we will stop at Phantom Ranch. This is the point where people can hike from the top rim of the Grand Canyon down to the bottom. Visitors can stop at the ranch for water, snacks, and camping. We stopped here to fill up our water jugs and mail postcards. Upon pulling up to the beach, we received our first startling news. A group of fellow rafters warned us that Diamond Creek was closed because of coronavirus and we could only take out at Pearce Ferry which is another 54 miles downstream. This would add either a few days to our trip or cause us to move down the river at a faster pace then planned without layover days. In my mind, I am only worried about my flight I had the day after we took off the river to visit a friend in Austin, Texas. I didn’t want to be on the river longer because I would miss my flight! This was well before I knew my flight would be cancelled anyways.

Some of the group continues up the path to the main lodge to mail postcards to loved ones. We had been warned just to mail them and go; not to get stuck in the vortex of the outside world news from workers or visitors. We got sucked in. We overheard a camper talking to the clerk about how the virus was spreading all over the country at a much faster rate. He told her international borders were closed and restaurants were in the process of shutting down. Our jaws dropped at the news. “We’ve been gone for eight days!” We shared the news with the rest of our group and it brought our level of “stoke” down a few notches. Tim, our trip leader, then used the satellite phone we had for emergencies to call PRO to ask about our takeout. Apparently, the day we launched was the last day one could still take out at Diamond Creek. Everyone after us now had to change their takeout to Pearce Ferry. This news gave our group a little bit of relief. We still were concerned, however, about the other newly received information.

Days go by, and as a group, we try to put this news in the back of our minds. To enjoy the magic of the river and be present. It works, but of course, we are all worried about our loved ones. Tim lets us use his limited texts on his inreach (a device you connect to your phone to text with) to send a message to check in with our families. Everyone is okay and tells us to “stay on the river; things are crazy out here.” A day later, we met up with another group of rafters who we’d previously been intermingling with. We found out they had a new member in their group who had hiked down at Phantom Ranch to join them for the rest of their trip. He was spreading word that schools were closed (not sure how many) and it seemed that more public events were being cancelled. This brought fear and the unknown to the forefront of our minds and conversations again. We essentially made up stories of what could possibly be happening in the outside world. In our minds, the tidbits that we were hearing were probably being exaggerated and the possibilities we were making up as a group could not be real – that when we would step into the world in two weeks, things couldn’t possibly be as bad as our imaginations were making it out to be. Isolated from the outside world, we continued our journey down the river and enjoyed the community we were forming.

The section of the Colorado River where commercial and private rafters recreate is controlled by Glen Canyon Dam. This provides hydroelectric power to most of the southwest states. The afternoon is when the water levels rise due to the release of water from the dam, because this is when electricity usage is at its height of the day. One late afternoon, when our boats were still beached and the water level was not rising, a member of our group joked that it was probably because of coronavirus; blaming everything on that. Then we thought about it and realized that it was probably true – if businesses were shutting down, we thought, less electricity and water were being used. This started more discussions and theories about what could be happening in the outside world.

As our trip went on, the twelve of us were enjoying life, creating memories, going on long hikes, singing songs around the campfire, making the famous oatmeal pancakes from the Stanley Baking Co., running big rapids, and soaking in everything the river was offering us. It was hard not to live in the moment and it was easy to put off the unknown of the outside world. Alas, after three unforgettable weeks, March 31st slowly crept up and none of us were looking forward to it. We didn’t know how our travel plans to get home would be affected, if we would have jobs this coming summer; as most of us work in the tourist industry (i.e. river guides, restaurant owners, small business owners), how our government would be affected, our families, and our daily lives. Everything was so unknown and it was an unsettling feeling.

Music on the grand canyon

Eventually, we said goodbye to the river, but still denied the fact we had to leave. Originally, PRO planned to pick us up in one four-row van, but due to government regulations of being six feet apart (which we were still unaware of), they brought two vans and took the front row out of each to keep the driver a safe distance from us. We, of course, have been hugging and sharing each other’s germs over the past three weeks and none of us had any symptoms. Throughout the unpacking process, we gave PRO back some dried goods none of us wanted to take. The response we got made my stomach drop. “No, you guys are gonna want to take that, shelves in grocery stores are empty. You’ll need it soon.” This made me extremely anxious to get back into service in just another hour. The drive back into service seemed like five hours. PRO warned us not to go into the convenience store on our first stop back to Flagstaff, or at the very least, to not touch anything or go close to anyone. The world was different now.

I was nervous to make my first call to my mom, but I did the second we got into service. She told me not to fly to Austin and we talked about what options I had. To offer some context, my family lives in Ohio. I’m in Arizona with no car and I can’t fly to Mexico because the border is only open for business travel. I can’t fly to Detroit for my dad to pick me up because that’s a hotspot and he is considered high risk. I’m warned not to stay at the only open hotel in Flagstaff and I’m just learning about the severity of this situation: that perfectly healthy people are catching this virus, not to get within six feet of another human, not to touch anything, there’s a stay at home order, that only essential travel is allowed, people are losing their jobs, and everything we heard on the river is true. It was overwhelming, sad, and quite simply, scary. I had the option to drive back with members of the group to Idaho or Washington, or to rent a car and drive to my sister’s house in Kansas (Kansas was a much closer drive than Ohio – and I couldn’t risk getting my parents sick).  This was a difficult time to decide. I had to say my goodbyes to people I had just formed close relationships with, organize my personal gear, find out if there even is a car rental company that’s open in Flagstaff, all while being warned that where I decided to go is where I will be for the next possible few months. Emotions overwhelmed me and I couldn’t help but cry as I tightly hugged every person of our group, wished them luck, and to stay safe. It felt like we just entered the apocalypse.

photo by Tim Cron

Soon, I had a reservation for a car rental. I was going to Kansas. It was a weird feeling standing six feet away from the man at the counter renting me the car. I felt rude and apologized, but I guess he was used to it by now. At the first gas station I stopped at a few hours into my drive, I noticed that all the doors were propped open so no one had to touch anything, workers were wearing masks and gloves, and souvenir item shelves were pushed aside and blocked off. It was all so strange and new to me. After filling up gas multiple times but never touching the pump with my hands, and sleeping only for a few hours pulled off at a rest stop, I made it to my sister’s house in Kansas who graciously took me in during this crisis. As I learned more and more about what our country and world had been going through during the three weeks I was in isolation on the river, I felt so many emotions. In my mind, our group’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We were the last launch date that could take out at our original planned location, Diamond Creek, and a week after we put on, they closed the river to all groups. Also, we got to start out our new quarantine life in the best place possible; at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, surrounded by history, nature, and really cool people.

Though myself and the rest of our group wishes we could continue to isolate ourselves from this new, uncertain, reality, we continue to hold on to the memories we made on the river over those 21 days. I hope that during these difficult times that wherever you are, you find the same sense of community and love I was so fortunate to experience on the river.  It’s a strange time – stay healthy, safe, and at home.

Written by Sami Zuch 4/7/2020

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