The Legend of the Groovermeister


“Dad!” I whispered with panicked indignation. We were on an unnamed beach 18 miles deep into our 96-mile unmotorized low-water float down Cataract Canyon. I had just opened the groover supply box and was staring at a capless can of PAM Original cooking spray, an unsealed double-bagged handful of powdered bleach and one hapless yellow glove. But nothing else. “Dad! Dad, Dad, Dad,” I whispered in a desperate prayer. I frantically searched the area for any clue. A slew of increasingly disbelieving “No’s” slipped from my mouth as I found none. The mostly empty rocket box should have contained a toilet seat, some bleach wipes, extra hand sanitizer, and, at the very least, some toilet paper. Maybe this was some elaborate joke?

(C) Liz Donovon

My dad is a self-proclaimed “free-loading, blood-sucking kayaker.” Admittedly, he has a flair for the dramatic. He’s an English professor. He’s an incredible storyteller who tends to intensify the narrative arc of life’s events. I think the proclamation is his attempt to acknowledge that he is unhelpful in the group gear department. It’s also an uncharacteristic display of self-awareness.

My dad learned to kayak the year he turned 40 and brought me along on day stretches near our home in Maine. Shortly after, when I was in fifth grade, my family moved to Idaho. Suddenly, we found ourselves on multi-day trips with families who were kitted out for adventures down epic rivers like the Main Salmon and Hells Canyon. We just showed up at the put-in, kayaked along, felt wonder, and helped on a dinner crew or two. Still, Wild and Scenic rivers were sinking claws into our hearts, and we knew we needed to bring something else to the table if we were to keep getting invites.

So Dad overcompensated. Self-ordained “The Groovermeister,” Dad took it upon himself to set up and break down the groover each day of every river trip hence. He really leaned into his character and took great pride in finding scenic yet accessible spots. Giving the initial orientation and subsequent status reports upon set up and breakdown became a daily highlight. I truly believe being Groovermeister gave him a great sense of purpose.

In 2015, I planned and led a river trip for the first time, securing the permit and organizing the logistics. I’d never been down Cataract Canyon, but I curated my group with intention. My second season guiding had just wrapped and I was in full expedition leader mode. I wanted my friends who had never been rafting before to have a blast, and I wanted my boss from my first river job to be impressed by my organization and improved competence. I took care of everything, but I couldn’t steal Dad’s joy. Plus, the groover was in Boise, and I was in Coloma.

Anticipation built as my partner and I peeled out of Coloma, transitioning to glee as my favorite people descended upon Potash. Like any organized, eager, year-two guide, we double-checked our gear list at the ramp.

“Dad. Groover?” I asked, eyebrows raised over my hand-written master list.

“Yes, Supreme Comandress! Groovermiester reporting for duty! The groover has arrived, signed in triplicate.”

I rolled my eyes.

This very interaction from a mere six hours earlier flashed through my mind as I gaped at the near-empty groover supply box. “Where is the toilet paper?” I hurled across the beach with the kind of venom only a barely adult child can summon for their father.

“It’s in the ammo can,” he tossed back with the easy over-confidence of a seasoned Groovermeister. “Did you even open the ammo, Dad?”

He opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened it again; that was the only answer I needed. “You had one job! One job, Dad! And you didn’t even open the supply box to check the supplies were in it?” I wailed. I had brought 10 friends to the bottom of this canyon to poop in a box, and we didn’t have toilet paper. We were planning to be out for five days, and we didn’t have toilet paper. Nora had to poop right now, and we didn’t have toilet paper.

I met Becca in ninth grade, so she’d already suffered the indignity of calling my house to make plans and enduring six-eight minutes of interrogation from my dad. She was laughing. But I met Nora only four months before—and this was her first river trip. Riely was my former boss, and I admired him for not only his whitewater skills but his organizational prowess. Liz looked cagey as they backed away from the group gathering by the groover. Watching my friend’s faces, I felt the weight of my dad’s mistake as if it was my own.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” my partner soothed.

“How is this okay?” I vented. Then, I inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. “Paper towels? Do we have paper towels?”

“Nope, we brought cloth towels,” Casey reminded me.

“Isn’t there a pit toilet downstream?” Riely piped up.

“Great!” Dad chimed in, “Let’s harvest some TP!” I glared at him. How dare he have enthusiasm and positivity in a moment of such extreme disaster? “In the meantime,” I cut in, “what are we doing? Rocks? Leaves? We’re in a canyon.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Cyrus said dismissively, like the morning pooper he is. The group scattered to finish setting up camp. “How? How will we figure it out,” I whined to myself.

When deciding who to invite on this trip, I had wondered whether it would be weird to bring my dad. But my dad has often been on adventures with my friends and me. He was the instigator of our annual sojourn to and through the local corn maze. And every August, a patchwork of friends and I would go backpacking with him. He’s always down for an adventure. If you invite him, he will say yes.

As stressed as my dad can get writing books, teaching classes, and delivering keynotes, he is a stress-free ball of enthusiasm when he gets on the river. You can hear his trademark “whoo-hoo” from a half mile down the canyon as he whoops through rapids big and small. He has a joy that’s fun to be around. And it’s contagious. At this moment, though, with an essential piece of trip gear missing, I thought I might have made a mistake by inviting him.

Liz slowly approached as we gathered in the kitchen to discuss dinner plans. They had just finished hiking the PCT, and they were hungry all the time. I expected a food-related question, but after some hedging, Liz admitted that toilet paper was a hot commodity on the trail, and they haven’t yet let go of the habit of hoarding a secret stash of it. With clear reluctance, they handed a single square to a relieved Nora.

The next morning, Liz continued to dispense single squares to each pooper. Thankfully, we made it to the pit toilet where the two-square poopers had a go, each returning with a handful of toilet paper. I felt the weight lift off my chest as we stuffed handfuls of government single-ply into a recycled Ziplock bag. The remainder of our trip went off without a hitch. We had clean and fun lines through the big drops. Dad laughed and cheered his way down the tongues and through the hydraulics. Later, around the campfire, he regaled us with hyperbolic retellings of our exploits.

Sometimes, when we were floating past tall canyon walls and feeling dwarfed, I’d remember we almost didn’t have toilet paper and felt a sort of tired annoyance at my dad. But then I’d hear his laugh echo off those walls. Instead of frustration, I’d think about laughing until I couldn’t breathe at his daily recap, about the new things I learned about my old friends because of the questions he’d asked. And I’d remember that it all turned out okay. It usually does with him.

When I was 17, we were stranded on top of Mount Katahdin in the middle of a lightning storm without rain jackets. As golf-ball-sized pieces of hail welted our legs, he laughed, “Isn’t this incredible?” Once, 24 miles away from the car on a backpacking trip, a bear ate all our food. He said, “What a great story we’ll have.” Just this summer, I watched him tumble out of his packraft on the Tatshenshini River. When we’d hauled him into the raft, he sat shivering, upset that his dry suit was leaking.

“There’s so much water! It’s just pouring in! I don’t get it,” said the man with a PhD.

“Did you close your zippers?” I asked, deadpan, eyebrows raised.

“Uh, yeahhh,” he fired back with the annoyance only a father can muster for their belittling adult child. But he checked anyway, and sure enough, his zipper was cracked.

“You gotta be kidding me!” He howled with laughter. Even though his dry suit was filled with frigid glacial run-off, even though it was the coldest day of our trip, we were miles from camp, and it was raining. That’s the thing about my dad: he’s wonderful to have on a trip because it doesn’t matter if things go wrong. He might forget the toilet paper, but he’ll always bring enthusiasm and gusto. And, at the very least, we’ll get a good story.

(C) Liz Donovon