My co-guide Zach lay in the sand, barefoot, his head on his hand, while our new friend Raj applied yellow and pink nail polish to his fingers and toenails.
I was on my first-ever commercial Grand Canyon trip, a 12-day odyssey through some of the most iconic whitewater in the world. While many commercial trips are on monstrous 35-foot motor rigs, we were on the rare row trip. Seven rafts laden with enough food and gear for 30 people.
I had been through the Grand Canyon twice before on private trips. My first time, I wasn’t yet a boater and went with my raft guide brother and a cohort of his buddies from the White Salmon River. I had no fear, as I didn’t understand the consequences of whitewater and was even cocky enough to take a ducky through Crystal and Lava Falls.
The second time, I was coming off my third year of guiding on Colorado’s Arkansas River and considered myself quite the expert. If I could guide Class IV technical water in a 14-foot paddle raft, rowing a thousand-pound, 18-foot raft through huge holes, towering waves and around rocks the size of semis should be no trouble.
Despite my hubris, I’d somehow come through that trip unscathed, albeit with a desperate bid to high side at the notorious Bedrock Rapid. Here, I lost my shoe and my confidence.
So, when I was hired as a baggage boatwoman in Grand Canyon a couple of years later, I accepted with a bit of hesitation. After five years of guiding, I knew enough to be nervous. Yet, I was burnt out of the conveyor belt of half-day rafting trips where the connections were superficial and the money scarce. Multi-day trips down the mighty Colorado was the perfect next step.
I only had a cursory understanding of what to expect on this multiday. I knew that as the baggage boat, I wouldn’t have passengers in my raft. Instead, I would carry a hodgepodge of dry bags, tents and sleep kits—and all of the groovers.
I also knew how to row a bit better this time around. I’d rowed the Colorado on that fateful trip and had since moved on to rowing daily laps on the upper San Juan River in Colorado. This improved my confidence only marginally.
And finally, like all commercial trips, I knew very little about the guestlist. Typically, we hit the put-in with a roster of names and nothing more. Often, smaller groups of people who know each other make up the collective group of strangers. This, however, was a charter trip, meaning this group had booked the trip to be exclusive to their friends. So, I knew two things. One, this was an entire group of guys who know each other; and two, they all identified as LGBTQ.
I was already friends with two of the guides on the trip–Zach and Matt. We drove to Marble Canyon together the day before our rig day. We met the other guides–Josh, Carlos, Sean, and Brad–at the boathouse. All of them were multi-year Grand Canyon guides and, while extremely kind, were also incredibly intimidating.
It’s simply the scarcity of other women in the guiding community that resulted in me being the only gal on the trip. The whitewater scene is likewise predominately short-staffed when it comes to people who identify as anything other than straight. So, it was statistically unsurprising that all of us were straight and cis-gender.
The next day passed in a flurry of confusion. I had limited memory of how I’d rigged my boat years before and found my three 20-foot straps were of little use. I realized I had no idea what I was doing, so I resorted to wandering around the boathouse aimlessly. As I pretended to look for supplies, I took note of how the other guides were rigging. Eventually, Zach caught on to my charade.
He helped me reorganize the shitshow I’d created. Soap and paper towel rocket boxes in the front, three groovers in the front hatch, four in the back, garbage in the stern, all of which were covered by mazes of black and purple and blue straps that looked like a serious entrapment hazard.
Rigged and ready, we headed to Lee’s Ferry with our rafts strapped to massive trailers. I barely slept that night in anticipation of our launch the next day. I thrashed around on my gray Paco Pad, trying to remember the line at Hance, dreading the day we would run Bedrock.
Late the next morning, two white vans pulled in with mini trailers packed high with bright orange dry bags.
Out piled 23 men from Atlanta. They laughed and jostled around the ramp, taking photos of the rafts and posing for shots. They were dressed in crisp, high-end synthetic shirts and stark khaki shorts.
After a standard safety talk filled with bad jokes, they split into groups of four or five and picked a raft to board. I smiled and introduced myself, wondering how these city folks were going to handle this expedition. At least I wouldn’t be the only one out of my comfort zone.
Since I wasn’t taking any passengers, my raft was already rigged. I floated there, sipping water and laughing at Zach as he rigged his raft between his typical joshing and storytelling of trips past. I tried to distract myself with double-checking straps as he described his last trip, where he’d flipped spectacularly at Bedrock.
One of the gentlemen, smiling, asked me how it felt to be the only woman on the trip. His friend, already swirling an alcoholic seltzer, interjected: “Oh, you might be the only woman, but there are a lot of girls.”
I laughed, and then noticed a lone dry bag perched on the ramp. One of the men approached me and asked, in a strong Australian accent, if I could put it in my boat. He didn’t say what was in it, but as he passed the bag to me from shore, its lumpy girth puzzled me.
We began downstream. I stayed in the middle of the pack, right on the tails of Matt and Zach to ensure I took the best line.
My confidence rose as I floated to the right of the boat-flipping holes in House Rock and pulled off the “duck pond” maneuver in Hance. After a couple of days on the river, I found I wasn’t sick to my stomach with nerves every morning; I didn’t toss and turn all night, dreading the next day.
Even more surprising to me, these city slickers were thriving. They didn’t seem to suffer at all from nerves, despite being completely new to the river. They chatted all day on the rafts and whooped and hollered through the whitewater. Some of them hopped in the rower’s seat and gave each other grief when they 360’ed down low-consequence rapids and bounced off rocks.
They insisted on cliff jumping and scrambled up a steep outcropping in a narrow part of the river. They cheered each other on, gathering bravery and hilarity as they pencil-dove into the Colorado, emerging gasping and freezing in the cool April air.
Seemingly unbothered by the sand that permeated every orifice, they lounged in their canvas camp chairs late into the night, We’d packed cots for everyone, but most chose to pitch their Paco Pads right on the beach. They didn’t even seem to mind the groover.
As the days passed, their bright white sun shirts grew dirty, their hats frayed, and their smiles widened. Judging by their stories, these guys liked nice wine and nightclubs, but here they were happy to drink lukewarm wine out of tattered boxes and ate rather burnt salmon fillets with gusto. They held sandy dance parties, creating a strobe-light atmosphere with their headlamps. Best of all, they never hesitated to pitch in to help wash dishes in grimy silver pails and leaped eagerly to help load the rafts in the morning.
As I noted their confidence in the canyon, an environment completely new to them, my own courage and determination rose as well. If these guys could thrive so well down here, why couldn’t I?
We arrived at Cremation Camp on day six, which was the last night for half of the men who planned to hike out just past Phantom Ranch the next day. “Exchange trips,” as we called them, are common. Spending 12+ days on a river is a luxury. Luckily, those who don’t have the time or means to stay for the full journey can hike out on the Bright Angel Trail. In that same vein, people can hike into the Grand Canyon as well and join a group halfway through. While we would be losing about half of the group, 10 new guys would take their place.
Relishing in the rare downtime for a guide—the moments between setting up camp and prepping dinner—I sat on my raft in the eddy drinking a lukewarm beer and debriefing my runs in the Granite Gorge with the other guides. Steve, the Australian guy, approached and asked for the mysterious dry bag.
After digging around, I heaved it out of the bottom of a huge pile of detritus in the back of my raft, and balancing precariously on the outside tube, passed it to him. Our guide debrief continued. We could hear howling and chuckling from behind the tamarisk. As the sun went down, I learned what exactly was in the large, lumpy dry bag.
Waltzing down the beach toward the boats, all 23 men were adorned in dresses, wigs, and garish jewelry.
“It’s a drag bag!” Steve exclaimed.
Our jaws dropped. The men milled about, laughing and trading wigs and taking photos. At first, we could do nothing but watch and grin at the show. Finally, they beckoned us over to the bag to choose outfits of our own.
Matt put on a huge, red crystal necklace and a bright pink flowy shirt. Josh got an incredibly ugly flowery dress. I was given a triple-XL silky kimono.
We ran around the beach, trading our stale drinks and taking copious selfies. The other guides swung their skirts and flaunted their jewelry.
The night progressed into much carousing. Eventually, I found myself sitting on a camp chair next to Raj, chatting amicably about our boyfriends while he painted my nails.
We woke to a mess of our own making. Dresses and beer cans and whiskey bottles were strewn about the beach. In the predawn light, we stumbled around, packing and picking up the evidence of the drag show. We exchanged sheepish grins, wishing it were a layover day, yet definitely not envious of the crew set to hike out of the canyon.
We were sorry to see the men go as they waved goodbye at the trailhead to the Bright Angel Trail, some of them still sporting lipstick, glitter, and eye shadow. Steve still wore a gaudy blue wig.
Ten new members of our expedition hiked in with their clean clothing, fresh skin, and new outfits to add to the drag bag. These new men were just as fun as the last. And on their final night, we once again rummaged through the contents of the drag bag for an extravagant evening of plastic jewelry and laughs. They even went so far as to give us some rather raunchy drag names.
I had two more commercial Grand Canyon trips that summer. I was the “swamper” on a motor trip, which meant I helped to load boats, set up the kitchen, and cook all the meals, but just rode along like everyone else while an experienced guide drove the boat. And for the other, I resumed my position rowing the baggage boat.
Both trips were incredible, the towering red walls just as impressive, the blue water of Havasu just as bright. But nothing compared to my gentlemen from Atlanta.
As I prepped dinner and cleaned dishes on the other trips, I couldn’t help but scrutinize the guests sitting in their chairs, sipping their drinks and complaining about the sand, the heat, the groover. To be fair, they paid for our services, but I realized how unique it was for those city slickers to be so eager to help, so willing to adapt to living in the desert.
Those guys had, by far, the best time and best attitude out of any of the guests on my trips.
In mid-September, as I packed for my last commercial trip of the year, I rifled through my ammo can to ensure I had my chapstick, pen, and journal. While untangling a charging cord, I found a pink plastic bracelet, a gift from one of the men from Atlanta. I smiled as I rolled it over in my hands. I doubt this trip would involve an impromptu drag show—nevertheless two—but perhaps I’d toss my nail polish in just in case.