About Dories, Ho!
Travel with Matt and Karen as they float down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. In September 2016, they experienced the trip of a lifetime with fourteen friends and a crew of ten while traveling in wooden dories through the canyon. Dories, Ho! is a story of their adventure and discovery.
Similar to their first travel memoir Dear Bob and Sue, this book is as much about their relationship as it is their fantastic trip. Matt and Karen’s quirky writing style is both humorous and irreverent. It’s fun, laugh out loud, and an easy read.
While not intended to be a traditional guidebook, anyone contemplating a river trip through the Grand Canyon will benefit from this firsthand account. The reader will feel as if they’ve traveled with the authors on their journey to and through Grand Canyon National Park.
If you are looking for a story that will make you laugh and inspire you to get out and see our incredible national parks, Dories, Ho! is for you.
Below are the first few pages of Dories, Ho!
“The best way for people to understand how important it is to have the bottom of the Grand Canyon preserved, and have its aquatic life saved, and its riparian zone with the beauty that’s there, kept, is perhaps to have them on that river and let them feel the way it stirs and rumbles and moves you along at its own pace, and to sense the kind of ‘life’ the river has. It has a tremendous force and appeal that I can’t describe.”
Hance Rapid, Colorado River
Rondo guided the dory to the exact spot where he wanted to enter the rapid. When we reached a point about fifty feet from the top of the hole, the river took control. It was the point of no return, and all of us, Rondo included, were just holding on for dear life. The power of the river’s current was impressive. Our speed accelerated gradually at first, and then picked up quickly until it felt like we went into a free fall. The fall ended with a bang at the bottom of the hole. The river tossed the dory in all directions. Rondo paddled furiously, and within seconds we were on the duck pond. “Bail!” he yelled.
I reached for my bailing jug and smacked heads with Iain. He was bailing like a mad man. His scoops were so fast I couldn’t time mine to keep from banging into him. I lifted my legs and put them on the deck in front of us to stay out of his way. He had the footwell cleared in no time. “Good job!” yelled Rondo, “It’s not over yet, hold on!”
The water rodeo resumed. I still couldn’t tell where the tongue was, but Rondo seemed to have the boat right where he wanted it. He was making big, lunging paddles between waves. He hollered in our direction, “I need you to lean into that last big wave. I’ll tell you when.”
By then, Iain and I had gotten the hang of high siding; we were ready. Our dory passed through a couple of large waves head on. The third wave was the biggest. Rondo shouted, “This is it!” That’s all he needed to say. Iain and I stood up and pushed all of our weight onto the front deck of the boat as it hit the wave and went vertical. Water came over the bow and drenched us, but the mass of our bodies was enough to keep the dory from flipping backward. Once we reached the back side of the wave, I heard shrieks and peals of laughter from Karen and Gill as the stern lifted high out of the water. What a thrill! We made it through Hance Rapid right side up.
It was over as fast as it had started. We were back on flat water peacefully floating downstream. Rondo turned the Shoshone 90 degrees so we had a good view of the boats behind us navigating the rapid we’d just come through. As I watched, I could see all of the passengers laughing uncontrollably as the river tossed them about. It was turning into the best trip of all time.
I had wanted to float the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon for a long time. Countless people told me over the years that it had been their favorite trip, ever. Regardless of their age or how much they’d traveled otherwise, their descriptions were always similar, “Best trip of all time!” I asked Karen if she would be up for spending a week or two on a small boat at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and camping on sandy riverbanks.
“Yes! That’s in my bucket!” she said.
“What? What’s in your bucket?” I asked.
“A Grand Canyon river trip. It’s in my bucket.”
“What bucket are you talking about?’
“My bucket of wishes! It’s on my bucket list.”
“Sweetie, what do you think the term ‘bucket list’ means?”
“It’s the list of wishes that are in your bucket.”
“Please tell me you don’t have a real bucket somewhere with wishes in it.”
She frowned at me. “It’s not a real bucket, Matt; it’s a figure of speech.”
“OK, that’s not what bucket list means.”
“Of course it is. What do you think it means?”
“It’s the list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket—before you die.”
Karen put her thumb and index finger together and pressed them to her lips. This is what she does when she thinks, “Oh shit, maybe he’s right.” She squinted her eyes and didn’t respond for a long time.
Then, she said abruptly, “No. It’s the list of wishes in your wish bucket. Haven’t you heard of the phrase, ‘pocket full of wishes’?”
“Then why isn’t it called a pocket list?” I asked.
“Because pocket list sounds stupid,” she replied.
“I want to make sure I have this correct. You have an imaginary bucket into which you’ve placed imaginary pieces of paper. On each imaginary piece of paper, you’ve written a wish. And this, this is your bucket list. Did I get that right?”
There was another long, squinting pause.
“Are you sure about kicking the bucket? That doesn’t seem right to me.”
“Look it up, and we’ll see,” I replied.
Karen’s exhaustive Internet search about the origins of the term “bucket list” did not produce a single mention of wish buckets, so she concluded, “OK, well, we’re both right.”
That settled it. We were both right. Yet the river trip wish sat in her bucket for years, lonely and waiting. Then, when we were on a hiking trip with our close friends, Craig and Aya (also from the Seattle area), the topic of floating the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon came up. They were even more excited about the idea than we were. “What are we waiting for?” Craig asked. “There will never be a better time to go than now.”
“Let’s do it,” they both said.
“We’re in!” was our enthusiastic reply.
Fully expecting another couple of years to go by before the topic re-emerged, I was surprised a week later when Craig called me to discuss potential dates for a dory trip. “Next year is sold out, so we’re looking at two years from now,” he said. “We need to submit a request for a couple of dates and tell them the number of people in our group. The guide company will then sort through all of their early requests and let us know if we got one of our choices. Each trip has room for sixteen. How many spaces should we request?”
“All of them,” I replied.
“All sixteen? You think we can fill up an entire trip?”
“Of course we can. No problem,” I confidently replied.
In the ten seconds that it took me to respond, I had unthinkingly committed to a sizable financial obligation without any idea of whether we could find twelve more people to join us on the trip. We had to narrow our list of friends to those who were hearty enough to rough it outside for a week, adventurous enough to enjoy the white water rapids, and physically fit enough to do the strenuous ten-mile hike out of the canyon at the end of the trip. As it turned out, finding enough friends who wanted to do it as much as we did was the easy part. Craig and Aya invited three couples, we invited three couples, and they all said, “Yes,” immediately. As one of the wives put it, “It’s going to be epic!” I didn’t understand what she meant by “epic,” but I agreed and then awkwardly high-fived her fist bump.
This is the story of our adventure floating the Colorado River from Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch: a journey of six days with fourteen friends, ten crewmembers, four dories, three supply rafts, and one magnificent Grand Canyon.
Karen and I married in the early ‘80s (the nineteen eighties that is). Since then, we’ve managed to give life to three other humans who’ve now moved out of our home, secured employment (including health insurance), and no longer require our daily attention. We reached this milestone of independence several years before our Grand Canyon river trip and since then have spent much of our time traveling to amazing outdoor places in the United States. Many of our destinations have been national parks, as is the Grand Canyon. In fact, there was a stretch when we visited so many of the parks in such a short period of time that we decided to slow down, catch our breath and revisit many of these locations so we could experience them more deeply, and at a slower pace.
Dories, Ho! is not the first book we’ve written about our travel experiences. We also wrote and published Dear Bob and Sue, a book about our travels to the national parks. We formatted Dear Bob and Sue as a series of emails to our friends Bob and Sue who couldn’t join us on our trip. Karen wrote some of the emails as did I, and they were all labeled so the reader would know who authored each. Dories, Ho! has a more traditional format with a single author’s voice throughout: mine. Yet, we’ve listed both of us as authors. While I did much of the writing, Karen’s input was critical. She was more than an editor; we were co-authors.
She also came up with the title. Of the roughly 80,000 words that it took to compose this book, few are more critical to its commercial success than the ones that make up the title. As with all editorial decisions, Karen and I have an equal say, and we verbally arm wrestle over each one until we happily agree. “Let’s see a smile,” is how many of these discussions end.
Karen was proud of her title suggestion; I wanted to call the book Dear Bob and Sue Two. Since this book is titled Dories, Ho! you know who won that argument.
“I’m not wild about the title Dories, Ho!,” I told Karen after she suggested it.
“What’s wrong with Dories, Ho!?” she asked.
“I’m worried people won’t know what it means.”
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’ll make readers curious. It stands out.”
“Or, the title might be so confusing that they don’t want to read the book. Plus, I don’t like the word ‘ho’ in the title. It sounds too much like Doris Ho. People might think it’s a book about a prostitute named Doris.”
“It’s Dories, not Doris!”
“I get that. My point is, when people first read the title they might be confused. Do most people know what a dory is?” I thought, “They probably know what a ho is.”
Karen responded, “Of course they do.” Although, I heard hesitation in her voice.
“Did you know what a dory was before we signed up for this trip?” I asked her.
“They don’t have to know what a dory is; they can Google it.”
“You want to give our book a title that confuses people, so they’re enticed to read it, but before they start reading the book with a confusing title, they have homework. This is your marketing plan?”
“Yes, that’s exactly right.”
And so, our book is titled Dories, Ho!
To all of you who’ve made it past the confusing title and have read this far in the book, thank you. As for the homework, I’ll save you a few clicks with a cut and paste from Wikipedia: “The dory is a small, shallow-draft boat, about 16 to 23 feet long. It is usually a lightweight boat with high sides, a flat bottom and sharp bows.”
Remember, it’s “dories” not “Doris,” and I’ll explain the “Ho!” part later.
Booking the Trip
Had Craig not taken charge and presented us with a simple yes-no decision we might still be trying to decide which river trip to take. I can think of at least five things to consider when choosing a Grand Canyon river trip: cost, type of boat, which guide company to go with, route and time of year.
On top of those factors, there is also the decision whether to take a commercial trip, or if you are an experienced boater, enter the lottery for a chance to do a private trip. Even though there were boaters in our group, we never entertained the idea of attempting a private trip. The fact that you are reading this book is proof that we went with a guide company. Had we chosen to float the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon on our own, without a guide, I have no doubt someone would have written an entirely different book about our adventure. Possibly with a title such as The Smith Party: One man’s story of survival in the wilderness.
The promotional excerpt might read: Two days after the group began their trip, a park ranger found Smith naked and shivering a mere five miles downstream from Lees Ferry. All he was wearing was a yellow safety helmet with the word “Captain” written in black marker over every square inch. Smith was clutching a half-used roll of toilet paper. When the ranger tried to take it from him, he became very agitated and yelled, “The key! The key! Don’t lose the key!” With some difficulty, rescuers loaded him into a life flight helicopter while Smith whispered in a hoarse voice, “Sand, everywhere.”
There was no sign of the other fifteen members of the party. They vanished without a trace. The only evidence of their survival comes in the form of a poor quality video that appeared on the Internet of a group that looks similar to the lost rafters. It shows them huddled together with their arms around each other crying, or possibly laughing, it’s hard to tell. They appear to be drinking from liquor bottles. One of the figures has the words “captain this” written in marker across his bare chest.
While Karen Smith, wife of the rescued survivor, cannot be seen clearly in the video, a Smith family member is certain that the blurry figure in one of the scenes is her doing what they called the “Pee Wee Herman tequila dance.” The group can be heard at the end of the video chanting, “Diablo Mateo no mas, Diablo Mateo no mas.” No one has been able to make sense of these random, meaningless details. We may never know the whereabouts of the missing rafters.
No, we did not consider a private trip.
Going with a commercial outfit is not inexpensive. Costs vary depending on the type of trip, length, the number of days, etc. For us, this was a once in a lifetime event. Was it worth it? In my opinion, yes, it was worth every cent. Given the time, effort and supplies that go into putting on a trip like this, I understand why the guide companies have to charge the prices they do to have a viable business.
Current float trip rates are easily accessed on the Internet or directly from the guide companies. You can find a list of commercial river trip concessionaires on the Grand Canyon National Park website.
One detail that made it much easier for us to choose which guide company to go with was our choice of boat type. Maybe it was because we all had just read The Emerald Mile or because Craig did the research and made the decision for us, not sure which, but dories it was. (The Emerald Mile is a bestselling book by Kevin Fedarko about a record setting dory trip through the Grand Canyon that took place in 1983 during a rare flow surge of the Colorado River.) When doing his research, Craig read a comparison between riding in a motorized raft versus a dory. The article likened the motorized raft to riding in a car and the dory to riding a bike.
Once we decided to go with dories, there were only a couple of companies listed on the Grand Canyon National Park website that offered dory trips. The company we chose was O.A.R.S. They provided our group with an incredible experience.
I thoroughly enjoyed riding in the dories, but I’m curious what it would have been like to float the Colorado River on the other boat types. Rafts are by far more prevalent than dories. Out of the sixteen guide companies who offer river trips through the Grand Canyon, most of them offer trips using rafts as their main boat type.
Paddle rafts are the smallest type of raft. On a paddle raft trip, passengers are required to paddle the entire way. There are also oar raft trips. Typically on an oar raft trip, passengers ride while a boatman or boatwoman rows. There are also hybrid raft trips on which there is a combination of oar and paddle rafts. On a hybrid trip, passengers typically have a chance to experience both types of rafts during the course of the trip. Some companies also offer inflatable kayaks as an option, usually in conjunction with a paddle raft trip.
Based on numbers of passengers per year, motorized raft trips are the most popular. They’re the largest boat type on the river, move fastest through the canyon, and are also less likely to flip. It is however, possible for every boat type to flip. Regardless of which watercraft you are in, the conditions and outcomes can be unpredictable. That’s part of the deal.
The route we chose was Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch. With Lees Ferry being the beginning, Phantom Ranch (between mile 88 and 89) is the mid-point on river trips through the Grand Canyon, but it isn’t halfway. It’s the middle because it’s the only practical place for people to hike out when they’re only going part of the way through the canyon, or to hike in if they’re joining a trip for the last portion. Pearce Ferry, a popular take out spot for trips going the entire length of the canyon is just outside the boundaries of the park at mile 280, but many river trips cover less than 280 miles.
O.A.R.S. sent us the itinerary well in advance of the trip: meet the lead boatman at the DoubleTree Hotel in Flagstaff the night before we launch; next day go by van to Lees Ferry; spend six days on the river; stay overnight at Phantom Ranch (at the bottom of the canyon); hike the next day from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim along the Bright Angel Trail; and from there take a shuttle back to the DoubleTree Hotel in Flagstaff.
Other routes that are typically offered by river guide companies are Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek (225 miles), Lees Ferry to Pearce Ferry (280 miles), Phantom Ranch to Whitmore Wash (100 miles), and Whitmore Wash to Pearce Ferry (92 miles). There may be other routes available, but these are the most popular. Not all of these routes are offered with each boat type or every time of year.
The National Park Service limits the size of any group to twenty-six people. This limit includes passengers and staff. Our trip had sixteen paid passengers and ten staff including the boatmen. Not all trips have twenty-six people.
If all of these options are not enough, there is one more factor to consider: what time of year to go. When we booked our trip, O.A.R.S. offered dory trips from April through October. We wanted to go late enough in the year so that it wouldn’t be too hot, yet not so late that it might be cold. We also learned that the National Park Service does not allow motor-powered watercraft on the river after September 15th. With this restriction, the river is less crowded after the 15th—and less noisy. All considered, the last week in September was one of our choices and we were fortunate to get it.
Of all the options we chose, there is only one thing I would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight: we should have floated the entire length of the canyon rather than only the first half. When it came time to disembark at Phantom Ranch, no one was ready to leave.
A Reason to Shop
From Karen’s perspective, one advantage of booking a trip two years in advance is it gave her an excuse to shop. I’m sorry, I should say it gave her another excuse to shop. As soon as we received our confirmation from O.A.R.S., she found the suggested packing list on their website and began searching for things she needed.
There is a distinct pattern to Karen’s shopping. It begins with an exhaustive Internet search. For days, whenever I walk past her while she’s using her laptop, I see pages of models scrolling down her screen as she flicks her fingers across the trackpad. I don’t remember ever seeing her stop and look at any individual items; they just keep scrolling by at a constant rate. There are times I’m sure she’s hypnotized herself. Now and then she interrupts the scrolling with a burst of keystrokes. Days later, UPS, FedEx, and the United States Postal Service take turns pulling into our driveway to unload their trucks at our front door. I have no doubt Amazon has our house on a map somewhere as a beta test site for drone delivery in the future.
Once the heap of new clothing candidates gets so large that I can no longer see the chair in the corner of our bedroom onto which Karen has piled them, it’s time for what I call “fashion show.” Fashion show is when Karen tries on each outfit, looks at herself from every angle in the mirror while wearing it, and then comes out of the closet and asks me if I like it. Sometimes she waits for my response, and sometimes she disappears before I look up from what I’m doing.
In all the years we’ve been married, I can’t remember disliking a single piece of clothing or accessory Karen has modeled for me. She’ll say this isn’t true. She loves to tell a story about when we were first married, and she tried on a long, form-fitting brown dress. The story ends with a theatrical finish, “I asked him if he liked my new dress and, and, and, he said I looked like a sausage!” With open mouth looks of shock, the person to whom she’s told the story invariably turns to me and says, “Why would you ever say that to your lovely wife?” No one wants to hear my side of the story, which is—I like sausage! There are few things I hold in higher regard than sausage. If this story happened the way Karen tells it, which I’m not confirming it did, I still say my record of liking every outfit she’s modeled for me is intact.
Nearly as bad was the time, more recently, when she modeled a new dress for me that she had planned on wearing to a friend’s wedding. I was tired and distracted, and without thinking, I told her she looked nice. I knew as soon as I said the words that it was a mistake. Apparently telling my wife she looks nice in a dress is almost as bad as saying she looks like a sausage.
“Nice? Your grandmother looks nice,” she said.
“I meant to say you look really nice. How’s that?”
“Women don’t want their husbands to think they look nice; they want their husbands to think they look hot.”
One evening I was sitting on our bed responding to email. The door to our closet was closed, but I could hear what sounded like fashion show going on behind the door. Karen came out and said, “What do you think?”
“What do I think about what?”
“It’s fashion show! What do you think?”
“I like it! That shirt will be perfect for hiking in the canyon.”
“I’ve had this shirt for five years. I meant what do you think about the shorts?”
“They’re hot. I mean they look hot. No, you look hot. You look hot in those shorts. That’s what I meant.”
There was a long pause, which I interpreted as her allowing me a moment to reconsider my answer. Either that or she was trying to figure out how to bury my body in the crawl space of our house without anyone knowing, or losing her spot on the river trip.
“I like them. I do. But, and I still like those new, hot shorts, but don’t you already have a million pairs of hiking shorts?”
“No, and even if I did, I need a new pair for the hike out of the Grand Canyon.”
“What about the pair you wore the last time we hiked to Phantom Ranch?”
“I can’t wear those. People will see me in photos of both hikes and think that I’ve worn the same hiking shorts for the last four years.”
She had a point. Earlier we’d been looking at the pictures we took years ago in front of each park sign when we visited all fifty-nine national parks. We are still wearing the same hiking clothes that we were wearing in those photos. When I looked further back in our photo collection, I realized we’ve been wearing mostly the same outdoor travel clothes for the past ten years. Although it felt a little bit like rolling a snowball off the top of a snowy peak, I said to her, “Yeah, maybe it would be a good idea to get some new clothes for the trip.”
“What about you? Do you know what you need for the trip?”
“Don’t worry about me. I have my master list.”
“Well, you better look at O.A.R.S’ suggestions. There are things they recommend that I know you don’t have on your master list, like a sarong.”
“Did you say, ‘sarong’?”
“Yes, a sarong. You wear it loosely around your body so you can change your clothes discretely when other people are around.”
“That’s not a guy thing. I don’t need a sarong.”
“Guys use them. I read a travel blog post that said men wear them to change, you know, their shorts.”
“Maybe you think you read that, but I’m sure only women wear sarongs. And if I’m wrong, I’m still not wearing a sarong, ever.”
“Then how are you going to change your clothes without people seeing you naked?”
“Not with a sarong.”
“I’ll wait until everyone’s heads are turned or go behind a bush. I don’t know.”
“You can’t wait until everyone turns their heads. There will be like twenty-five people on our trip.”
“Don’t worry; I’ll figure it out. A sarong? I think you are making this up.”
I never got a sarong, and neither did Karen. She was correct, though. Early one morning on the river I saw one of the boatmen getting ready for the day. He stood up in the center of his dory and put a sarong on over his board shorts. It was apparent he’d done this many times before because he slipped out of his old shorts and into new ones effortlessly. And most importantly, without me seeing anything that I wish I hadn’t.
With a weight and volume limit on the personal items we could bring, we had to choose our shoes carefully. We would be standing in water, going on hikes during the heat of the day, and hiking out of the canyon at the end of the week. It would have been nice to have different footwear for each of those activities and a dry pair at night when it got cooler, but we didn’t have the luxury of taking that many pairs. In the end, I took three pairs of shoes on the trip: a set of flip flops, a very light pair of running shoes, and a pair of water shoes. The water shoes were also suitable for hiking; they had closed toes and webbing that came over the top of my feet. Those three were the right combination for me. Karen brought very similar shoes, but it took a long time—like two years—for her to make her final selections.
In that time, I saw three different pairs of water shoes come and go. I don’t know where they went. I suspect Karen donated them to Goodwill. I’m pretty sure she later went back to the Goodwill store and re-bought one of the pairs she had donated.
Every time a new pair would arrive at our front door I would brace for the same conversation.
“Do you like this color?” The conversation always began with the color.
“Yes, but I don’t think color is the most important feature you should be concerned about.”
“I like green, but not mossy green. Not for water shoes. They should be more of a forest green.”
Karen often makes comments to me in which there is no question, yet the expression on her face afterward suggests she expects an answer. Gals, I think I speak for most guys when I say, “This is confusing.” When Karen does this, I look back at her with an expression that says, “Was there anything else you wanted to say?”
“So, do you like this color?” she asked.
“Um, same answer as thirty seconds ago, yes.”
“Not too mossy green?”
“No, not too mossy green. They are just the right amount of mossy green.”
“I don’t want mossy green.” Again I get the look that suggests I should answer a question that wasn’t asked.
“Alright, I don’t even know what mossy green is. I’m going back to my original answer that I like the color, which, by the way, is not the most important feature you should be concerned with when it comes to shoes that will be attached to your feet for sixteen hours a day.”
“Well, they need to look good.”
“Regardless of what color they are now, they’ll be brown by the end of our first day on the river. If I were you, I would make sure they’re comfortable and broken in by the time we start the trip.”
Another item Karen needed was a headlamp. Twice a week for nearly two years, she would say to me, “I need to get a headlamp for the trip.” I didn’t understand why she kept telling me this until I realized what she meant to say all those times was, “You need to buy me a headlamp for the trip.” For an unknown reason, she designated me the headlamp expert in our household. I don’t even know what a lumen is. I certainly don’t know what eighty lumens means. And there is a wide price range on these things. I was OK with putting “headlamps” on my list of items to get for the trip, mainly because it gave me the chance to buy gadgets without Karen asking me over and over why I thought I needed them.
It took several visits to the local REI to inspect every headlamp they sell. I had to try each of them on, and then turn the light on and walk through the store looking for Karen to embarrass her. I never became convinced that one was better than the other, except when it came to lumens; the more lumens, the better. Finally, I just bought Karen the one that was on sale. I didn’t buy the same model for myself. Home Depot sold a headlamp that was a little bulkier than the ones at REI, but much less expensive.
When I brought Karen’s headlamp home, I was expecting an enthusiastic response. All she said was, “Thanks. Can you put it over there on my pile of stuff for the trip?” For a few weeks, I prodded her to open the box and try it on, but she wouldn’t. Then finally, I opened the box, put in the batteries and made her try it on. I didn’t want her to wait to test it for the first time the night before the trip and find out there was something wrong with it, or it didn’t fit.
Karen placed it on her head, and with a few adjustments, it fit just right. By clicking the button on the front, she cycled through the three levels of brightness. With the headlamp still lit and strapped to her head, she turned away from me and walked across the room. It was then that I saw there was a red blinking light on the battery pack attached to the strap at the back of her head. I hadn’t realized until then that I’d bought her a headlamp made for biking. It wasn’t a big deal, but I didn’t tell her because I knew she would want me to return it – and I had already checked “headlamps” off my list.
Karen didn’t know until I wrote the first draft of this book why I called her “blinky” at night on the river.