Cheap beer and humility: Lessons from a 22-day Grand Canyon whitewater rafting trip

One of the 16 whitewater rafters from James Hancock's group in the Grand Canyon // Photo by James Hancock

One of the 16 whitewater rafters from James Hancock’s group in the Grand Canyon // Photo by James Hancock

The Grand Canyon is an amazing geologic feature. Cutting through the Colorado Plateau on its way to the Gulf of California, the Colorado River drains the western slope of the Southern Rockies and, over millions of years, has carved a 277-mile long, 6,000-foot deep chasm, at the bottom of which is one of the most beautiful, sustained, expedition whitewater runs in the United States. Autumn 2017 marked the 10-year anniversary of an unforgettable trip I did with a group of close friends down the Big Ditch, made possible by a late-season private cancellation permit.

There are many life lessons that I could share, that only a self-guided, multi-week expedition through remote desert grandeur and massive whitewater can impart—always tie off your raft in the eddy before hiking upstream to help right a flipped raft unless you want a bonus emergency, for example; or: everyone should wear their personal floatation device after dark and/or after the whiskey comes out; and, of course, raft pumps make excellent flamethrowers. But those are for another day. Today I present a more universally applicable lesson—one that’s best when delivered by good friends, and promptly washed down with a cold one. That lesson is humility.

First, allow me to paint the cultural context of whitewater paddling and, especially, rafting expeditions.

1) These adventures are characterized by fun-loving, do-it-yourself types who often teeter on the edge of adrenaline-seeking crazies.

2) Whitewater expeditions are best described as relaxing, scenic, lazy-river monotony punctuated with intense, sometimes harrowing changes in elevation, through which everything (including people and gear) is violently sucked downstream toward equilibrium. To pass the time in between drops, and also to fortify one’s self prior to shoving off toward the gaping jaws of one of these aforementioned descents, beer is commonly prescribed.

3) When employing rafts, which are often up to 18 feet long and can accommodate over a ton of cargo and rations, on a multi-day expedition, a so-inclined party can bring nearly as much liquid courage as they want.

4) Many great rafting trips take place during hot weather, in desert climates, and during vacations, so a cold beer on the river just tastes good. In addition to which cans of beer float, aluminum doesn’t break, and it’s easy and lightweight to pack-out afterward. Needless to say, cold, cheap, canned beer is as ubiquitous in whitewater culture as oars and paddles, and, to many adventurers, just as crucial. Our expedition was no exception to the rule.

Hancock's crew with their rafts tied to the shore of the Colorado River // Photo by James Hancock

Hancock’s crew with their rafts tied to the shore of the Colorado River // Photo by James Hancock

Our crew of 16 was a mixed group of adventurous men and women with flexible schedules (read: recently graduated or recently retired), ranging in age from 24 to 60 and in experience level from professional river runners to novice whitewater paddlers, as was the case with our oldest member, who was quickly given the moniker Big Water Bill. Assembled around a core group of good college friends, we had rendezvoused from all corners of the country at the dusty boat launch at Lee’s Ferry, where, from 1872 to 1928, an actual ferry provided the only crossing option to people and supplies within hundreds of miles of river and canyon.

Our first task was to take stock of our supplies, all of which were destined to be loaded and strapped onto five 18-foot oar-rig rafts. Standing out among the gear and food were the towers of cheap, canned beer we were planning on hauling 220 miles downriver over the next 22 days—a total of 1,920 cans organized into 30-racks and cases. Acquiring the necessary amount of beer (which was calculated by one of the more mathematical and pragmatic members of our crew, and determined based on a somewhat reasonable formula of roughly six cans per person per day) left at least two liquor stores in Flagstaff high and dry. Out of necessity, more than anything, our resulting menu of cheap beers included everything from Busch to Tecate.

We packed up and shoved off into the first riffles of the river and bid adieu to a small group of California condors as we passed under the Navajo Bridge—the last man-made structure we’d see for a hundred miles. Our world quickly narrowed to just the canyon and our group, and we soon settled into a comfortable rhythm while slipping through the layer-cake of time that are the canyon walls; the surreal, aqua-blue tributaries and intricately carved slot canyons; and the roiling, precipitous drops in the river. Keeping our thirst at bay and our minds at ease was the seemingly endless supply of 12 ounce cans, which steadily dwindled as the days ticked by (exactly following, by the way, the predicted burn rate).

Rafters with their "cheap beers of choice" // Photo by James Hancock

Rafters with their “cheap beers of choice” // Photo by James Hancock

Tensions often arise when living in close quarters under stressful conditions for long periods of time, even among close friends and family. And is so often the case in such situations, those tensions can come to a head over the little things: Making the oatmeal too lumpy. Snoring too loudly. Leaving the cooler open too long. One of the most contentious issues in our nearly month-long river expedition concerned the rations. More specifically: the beer.

The issue of beer consumption came up sometime toward the end of the second week. The debate involved a number of us who fancied ourselves beer connoisseurs with very specific tastes (especially when it comes to the cheaper varieties) and one friend who, despite actively proclaiming her distaste for beer in general, continued to guzzle along with the rest of us. We did not begrudge her for this. Rations were rations. A sun-baked day with long stretches of slowly floating between rapids in the desert canyon pairs perfectly with a cold one pulled straight from the river bag. No, what we objected to was her blindly downing the stuff without regard to brand, since she regularly declared all of our inventory to be “disgusting piss.” Those of us with self-proclaimed highly developed sensitivities to hop balance and maltiness, whether we were sipping microbrews at a local watering hole or staying quenched with cheap cans in the wild, were aghast that anyone would conflate Tecate or Pabst with Milwaukee’s Best or Keystone Light. Plus, we had a method to our madness, and were clearly working our way through the stockpile from best cheap beer to worst cheap beer. When pressed on the matter, she calmly defended her position by questioning our ability to truly taste the difference. “Of course we can!” we replied.

Our frustration (and thirst) mounted as her confidence and indifferent consumption continued. Finally, it was decided that the only way to settle the matter was to conduct a blind taste test. Before any other chores were done that night, we set up the long camp tables, donned blindfolds, and the juried contest began.

Just like setting up a rowing line through a big rapid rarely goes as planned, the taste test also did not adhere to the expectations of us beer connoisseurs. The first tester correctly identified just two out of four cans. And it only got worse from there. We discovered that, on average, we could only correctly identify our old standby, Pabst, 25 percent of the time. Our challenger on the other hand, who claimed that all of the beer we brought was flavorless and/or gross, went four for four every time. Not only that, but she never even hesitated in her identifications. We had been wrong. We were humbled.

“Was it truly all branding and advertising? Were we just full of ourselves?” we asked ourselves. Probably. Graciously, or maybe as a consolation, our beer-indifferent friend abided by our best-to-worst method for the rest of the trip, though it seemed a much less important rationing strategy now.

We looked up from our tinnies at the fading light, a rich palette of pinks and purples sinking into a saturated indigo—a sliver of desert sky just barely visible through the thousand-foot walls of burnished rock, eons frozen in stone. It felt silly to be trying to prove something so inconsequentially small in such a setting, even if we were only half serious. The ribbon of emerald and sapphire now beside us, which had carried us downstream through the rugged burnt landscape for the last weeks, was far too big for such trivial things.

Rafters relaxing and sliding into the Colorado River // Photo by James Hancock

Rafters relaxing and sliding into the Colorado River // Photo by James Hancock

It was a good reminder. To not to take ourselves so seriously. That the label on the beer is far less important than the hand that tosses it to you. And that to find oneself at the bottom of one of the greatest wonders on this beautiful blue planet with any cold beer in your hand is a small miracle that makes you feel lucky to be alive.

On the last morning of the trip, with final-camp-in-the-canyon hangovers and back-to-real-life dread setting in, someone pulled an undiscovered case of beer from beneath the last of the block ice and some partially thawed chorizo in depths of one of the big bench coolers. Thinking we had drained our supply during the previous night’s celebration, we had steeled ourselves against a hot, thirsty row through the final miles of flat-water doldrums to make it to our take-out spot at Diamond Creek. Now, those last few miles of monotonous rowing, marked by the ember-glow of expedition life slowing dying, would at least be softened by cold cans against parched lips. Do I remember what brand that final case was? I have no idea. All I remember was that is was one of the best beers of my life.