You Can’t Dam My Nuances


By: Jr Rodriguez

A latine experience on an all-white Grand Canyon rafting trip

Renewable energy is always brought up while discussing the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. There are loads of books and podcasts about why the “Colorado River Compact” is a good idea, a terrible idea, a violent idea. In short, the Colorado River Compact is an agreement between seven western states to equitably distribute 15 million acre-feet of water per year affecting over 105 tributaries, 15 dams, and 40 million people. 

We don’t have lots of text about the renewable energy of people in precarious outdoor experiences that aren’t overtly racially charged. Renewable energy is more than electricity from a dam. It is people’s spirits. How one outdoor experience can suddenly alchemy the energy to make inclusive outdoor programs, vulnerable films, and affinity group movements to change an outdoorspace or extinguish the flame to never try and even condemn the outdoor sport and all its culture. This is a mix of journal entries, musings, and reflections of a dark-skinned brown latine man down the Grand Canyon. It’s hard to make a cohesive argument about a once-in-a-lifetime experience: 12 days and the residual pre and post-days in under 1,500 words. Here are a few things that stuck out as the only person of color on an all-white rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. This is one experience and all opinions are my own. 

Nankoweap Canyon and the Colorado River | Photo by Jr Rodriguez

The air of privilege was palpable before the trip began. I asked my friends in Jackson Hole for advice on my first Grand Canyon trip, but rather than touching on the collective privilege of being able to take almost a month off of life to experience this classic river system, we jumped right into the most interesting topic we could: poop. 

“Do you know why they call it a groover?” There must have been six separate friends in town who asked me that, despite me looking for advice on what to pack on my first-ever Grand Canyon trip. Six friends, all white, no people of color to ask. The BIPOC friends I did inquire with all had a friend that they could connect me to, I’m sure you could guess that friend’s racial identity. Even before the trip started I was scared: I didn’t know what to pack. Would I be cold in November? Highly likely. I had come to square zero again – participating in an outdoor activity so well established that the pre-trip questions were already putting up walls, reminding me that I didn’t belong. 

I’m privileged to have friends in Jackson Hole who taught me how to rig a boat and read water. I was even a student leader for a few rafting trips in school but that was well over a decade ago. Katelyn, one of my best friends from college, invited me on the trip and she was the “TL,” that is trip leader for the uninitiated—which I happened to be. 

This is the best scenario to be invited to the Grand Canyon: one of my besties from college as the expedition leader. The proximity to power gave me some relief but almost two weeks with a group of 12 Caucasians deep in the magnificent Grand Canyon would likely give John Wesley Powell a scare… if he wasn’t white, of course. 

People of color have to perform when in white spaces, and a rafting trip isn’t any different. There are repercussions, however small, if I’m not the model minority participant they want or expect during this outdoor experience. I’ve grown tired of the tension between my authentic self and their expectations; I am at the point in my life where I’m investing my energy back into my community where it feels more sustainable and renewable. That’s why I had to say “yes” to the Grand Canyon: to authentically share what this experience is like from my brown skin complete with the tensions, fears, expectations, realizations, nuances; and to become a resource for this rafting knowledge.

Final push to Phantom Ranch is +30mph winds and rain | Photo by Jr Rodriguez

I’m afraid of water, it’s powerful and unforgiving. I’m afraid of the cold, it bites and burns. I’ve had some close encounters on the water and I’ve recently been diagnosed with frostnip on my fingers, toes, and nose—not too scared to go skiing, I guess. We can’t all feel those fears, but we do all know what it’s like to feel unwelcome. Like you don’t belong. My introduction to the group was rushed and anxiety-inducing. The sweet embrace of my friend at 3 a.m. after a 13-hour drive following a sleepless night in Bend, Oregon, was more than a welcomed feeling. 

In two hours I would meet a contingent from Salida, CO, and Leadville, CO—two tight-knit groups of veteran boaters. With a combined experience of more than 120 years of white water rafting, I was out of my league compared to these people. I’ve kayaked and rafted sections of the Snake, Deschutes, and Devils Rivers, and that’s about it. Most of the crew’s home ground is on the Arkansas River, one of the most technically challenging rivers to guide. It’s in a gorge where a mistake will take you down what a friend called a “cheese grater.” Those are jagged rocks, for the uninformed. There was no briefing, only an order to load everything into a semi.

 “You’re the guy that just drove 13 hours straight. Think you brought everything you need?” one guy asked after introducing himself. 

“Uh no, there was no double-checking of gear,” I thought to myself. 

My friend Katelyn gave me a list and trusted I would bring the right gear. I’ve never owned a dry bag, I’ve never owned a drysuit, I’ve never owned neoprene booties or mittens. All this gear is too activity-specific for my frequency of use. But this was the Grand Canyon, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I hoped I had purchased and packed for it correctly. 

A few years ago when I worked a desk job at a conservation firm, I was invited here by a friend’s mutual friend. But things were complicated in a post-George Floyd office environment where the majority of employees were white. The double standards were flagrant, my white superiors valued an opportunity like the Grand Canyon, but could not restrain exercising their power over their minority employee. I had to create “work plans”, “blueprints,” “pre-meeting reports” and other busy work to prove I was on-task and worthy of a vacation, even though I had more than 1.5 months of PTO earned to utilize. My superiors made it so difficult to leave that I chose not to take the trip due to the guilt they created in me. Now I was standing with all of the people on this trip who had somehow found 25 days to burn in the grandest of canyons. Not only did the privilege of time creep into my consciousness like the forthcoming canyon shadows, but the realization of this group’s experience on the water, too.

9:00 a.m. and 27 minutes later everything, the 100 bills bags, 4 boats, and pallets of beer are all in the large semi and I’m in a van with 12 people I don’t know. At all. The drive is pretty, I’ve been on this road before to get to Horseshoe Bend on my big move to Jackson Hole seven years ago. This drive feels different; I don’t have the agency I had then. I’m an inundated passenger. The driver shares how the original Mormons would plant trees and dates to follow a water trail till Lee’s Ferry, our put-in point. And of course, no history of this place would be complete without the mention of the canyon rim where Edward Abbey had his trailer. There was no indigenous history or storytelling, just the visceral reminder currently passing their stands that this land was violently stolen and now they sell small authentic gifts for travelers passing through. The driver continues to explain that this area was used to test the lunar rovers and without it, space exploration would be nonexistent as if colonizing space would bring different results to new space friends. I doze off, eager for our camp night at Lee’s Ferry and to finally rest after a long 72 hours of traveling. 

We spent a whole afternoon rigging the rental boats, figuring out what hatches the food, cooking gear, personal gear, group gear, and alcohol would live on for a month. You could see the exhaustion on everyone’s face as their mind’s raced through all the modular possibilities of where the gear should go, but it was easy to knock out for the evening. We laid down to sleep, excited for our launch date. 

Sunset at Lees Ferry is in Glen Canyon National Recreation | Photo by Jr Rodriguez

Have you ever woken up to a cop, fully equipped with a gun, baton, taser, bulletproof vest, and body cam outside of your tent? You don’t want to. I thought the packing, rapids, and poop system were causing me anxiety. Nope. It was the cop, I did not know law enforcement was at the gate of this outdoor experience. I already felt unworthy on this trip and having a cop/ranger go through our things was not the best feeling first thing in the morning. “If we can all line up with our IDs, I’ll check those,’ the officer said. I recalled a similar experience on the border of Texas and Mexico when border agents aggressively forced my father out of the car because his name matched someone’s and made him wait in a special line with a desert backdrop. Your heart rate and nervous system are already on high alert because you’re about to raft through iconic rapids, but it pales in compared to the anxiety of border agents taking your father. The last thing you need is this cop making you feel unworthy and triggering your past. But it seemed like I was the only nervous one since everyone kept chattering in queue waiting their turn to be verified with a picture ID.

All this experienced tension is unseen labor before we even got rowing. It’s not as easy as getting on the raft and paddling away. I don’t just see a boat on a river and a good time. I see the cultures that this landscape was stolen from, the privilege to remain oblivious, the effort to jump into a scenario to be tokenized, the tongues I’ll have to bite at someone trying to practice their Spanish with me, the frictions to come between life experiences, and the continual imposter syndrome. Oddly, the officer gave me solace through one potentially life-threatening scenario that included rattlesnakes, scorpions, drowning, and rabies. If a bat touches you or you touch it that’s a press of the InReach due to rabies. That part didn’t scare me, the allegory of white-nose syndrome was what gave me chills: humans carry the spores for the fungus and once transmitted to the bats they slowly can’t sleep or rest and begin to fatigue so much that they go insane and starve to death. 

This turned on the light bulb because it was a strangely familiar feeling of trying to break into the outdoor industry as a BIPOC latine. The efforts and energy we have put in to assimilate to outdoor culture slowly can fatigue us to quit entirely. I still got on the raft after the ranger reviewed our gear. I still got on the raft even though I was fatigued from assimilating. I got in the boat for my community because someone has to learn to become a resource for others. I still got on the raft because, maybe I’d find a way to create a renewable resource within myself to continue putting myself in these situations for my community.