By Fran Capo
Two years ago my dad visited the Grand Canyon. He was struck by the beauty and vastness of it all. He made me promise that I would take my son Spencer there. Always looking for ways to experience life, I thought why not raft the canyon, sleep under the stars and really get the full feeling of being one with nature? How cosmic.
A friend once asked me why I do all my “crazy” adventures. My answer is simple. I want to live life as much as I can without regrets. I don’t want to put off saying “I love you” to someone, or climbing that mountain, or changing that job. You have to live now…. carpe diem. Seize the day.
So in January of 1999, I booked Spencer and myself on a three-day rafting trip to begin on Saturday, August 1st, with Western River Expeditions.
In April, my dad’s cancer took a turn for the worse. We cared for him at home with the help of the Calbrini Hospice program. He was given three months to live. I debated canceling the trip. My dad insisted I go. He said that if the time came, his final wish would be to have his ashes spread across the Grand Canyon.
On July 30th, 1999, my dad was put on the critical list. By then he weighed only 124 lbs, could not talk, could not eat, could not move. As my family surrounded him, we told him it was “Okay to let go. That God was waiting with open arms.” You have to be brave enough to let those you love go, when it is in their best interest. I bent over and whispered to my dad jokingly, “Hey dad, if you are going to go, better do it now. My plane for Grand Canyon leaves on Saturday.” He raised an eyebrow and smiled a weak smile. Eight hours later he passed on with my sister at his side.
With the help of Charlie, a very caring funeral director, we expedited the cremation and made arrangements to have the ashes with us as we flew the next morning.
Spencer and I flew into Vegas and met with the tour group at the scenic desk at 8:15 AM. We checked in our regulation 14″ x 21″ bag with the recommended supplies from the list that had been sent to us along with our trip confirmation. Every means of transportation possible, except maybe mule or llama, was utilized to get us to the 37-foot long, motorized neoprene J-Rig raft in the Colorado River.
Thirty-six people were signed up. Eighteen on each raft, plus two crew members. We were randomly handed green or yellow slips, which determined which raft you were on. From the McCarran Airport we were put on a bus to meet our 20- seat scenic plane. After the pilot made a few jokes about the airsickness bags being our personal belongings if we used them, we were off on a breathtaking audio guided tour over the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon.
We landed in a remote airport. I mean remote. No landing strips, just a dirt road and a wooden sign saying “Airport”. You could have fooled me. Then we were loaded onto a van and driven up a bumpy dirt hill to a lodge to get any last minute supplies – – like candy bars, toothpaste or whatever else you felt you really had to have.
A few feet from the lodge, four at a time we were dispensed into a helicopter along with our bags and transported over the ridge of the canyon, down…down…down onto mile 188, the Whitmore Rapid on the muddy Colorado river where we met our Western guides.
I approached the first crew member, Shane Phelps, and told him about my dad’s final wishes and asked if he could let me know the most beautiful place to release his ashes. He told me about Travertine Falls. He would let me know when we reached it.
Spencer occupied himself with a lizard as the waterproof bags, life jackets and camping gear were handed out. After a briefing on safety instructions, we chose our seats on the rafts. Nine of us straddled the raft in front for maximum wetness and excitement. Then within minutes a howl from crew member Tyler bellowed out, “HOLD ON!”, as we grabbed the ropes in front and back of us. The raft went smashing into the 55-degree waves as the rapids licked our face. We looked like a bunch of wet poodles, but loved it. The drier, “chicken” passengers sat in back.
Shortly, we pulled over for a taco lunch. It’s amazing how much food, luggage, utensils, gear and an extra motor were stored on this rig. Then we were off again, with rapids ranging from class 1- 6 (six being the highest class rapid, where the boat stands up straight). After a few more exhilarating rapids, some jokes and historic stories from the guides, we have now reached mile 202, where we pulled in and camped for the night.
No tents, just cots and sleeping bags under the gorgeous constellations. A tent with a portable potty is set up for privacy, or if you really want to rough it, you could do like the bears…in the woods. Your choice. You bathe in the muddy Colorado waters, not exactly looking to make Ms. Cover girl at the moment.
Dinner is hot and delicious, prepared by the fantastic four – – Tyler and his brother Tanner Cornell, who have been with the outfit for over 10 years; and Shane and Casey. With satisfied stomachs, we were in bed by eight as the sun went down. With flying bats, hungry mosquitoes and the rumbling of the rapids, we fall asleep.
The next day we were awakened to the call of “BREAKFAST!” Hot eggs, bacon, fruits – – you would think these guys were Julia Child graduates with a Dutch oven.
Then back onto the river. Hitting rapids with names like Satan’s Gut, Bloody Finger and Diamond Creek Rapid, where Spencer got knocked clear across the boat. It was like riding a wild bronco. All the while we were laughing and exhilarated by the sheer force of nature.
We stop at Pumpkin Springs near “Little Bastard Rapid”. The spring is warm and has a sinkhole that sucks you in, waist deep, or for Spencer neck deep. There is a 17-foot cliff you can jump from. Spencer did a nice belly flop; some others chose to hold the family jewels as they jumped. I just hesitated, then yelled “Geronimo!”
From there we headed to Travertine Canyon. Tyler, Tanner and Shane made arrangements to let Spencer and I have some time alone to spread my dad’s ashes among the pristine flowing falls. We had to climb a rope to get to the crevice where the falls were high above.
In the crevice of the red colored canyon walls, with the beautiful falls flowing, we said a prayer and let my dad go. We hugged knowing we had, with the help of divine intervention, carried out my dad’s last wish.
Teary-eyed we climbed down the falls, and finished out the trip.
At camp that night we reflected on the meaning of doing things in life with no regrets. Living life to the fullest gives you a peaceful feeling of satisfaction.
We dined on steak and shrimp, complete with personal service from our handsome tuxedoed crew (too bad they live so far away!). Warm cake, fruits, and fish finished out the evening. It was magnificent.
That night the moon shone so brightly we thought Con Edison turned on a switch. A little nervous from some cougar tracks Spencer had found, I mistook for a moment the snoring of a fellow camper, as the snarl of an angry cougar.
The final morning we awoke to the sound of swarming bees and the flipping of hot blueberry pancakes. We ate and loaded the raft one last time.
On calm waters our raft floated down the river to meet a jet boat which would speed us to a beach where a waiting bus was to take us back to Vegas, or what we call “civilization”…indoor plumbing.
As I turned and looked at the Canyon one last time, I saw a bird swoop down flying freely. A warm breeze passed my face, and I swear I heard my dad laughing in heaven.