River of Love

Hood River couple returns to the Grand Canyon, 17 years after falling in love

Cathy Higgins and John Everitt celebrated their anniversary in grand style last month. Literally. The Hood River couple, who fell in love while on a river trip through the Grand Canyon 17 years ago, returned this fall for another run down the river.

The trip was particularly sweet since they’d waited nearly a decade to get a permit from the National Park Service to raft the heavily regulated river.

“I got on the waiting list for a Grand Canyon permit nine years ago when I was pregnant with our daughter,” Cathy said. The couple’s daughter, Alicia, is now in the fourth grade at Westside Elementary School.

Cathy and John were both avid rafters and kayakers living in Ashland when they found themselves on a river trip through the Grand Canyon with mutual friends in 1985.

“We ended up sharing a boat,” Cathy said. During the next two weeks, as they made their way down the ancient canyon, they fell in love.

“Everyone was kind of surprised,” Cathy recalled. “I was too. You never know.” Cathy and John have been together ever since. They married in 1988 and left for what turned into a two-year “honeymoon” working as commercial river guides in Australia and Costa Rica.

The couple have run rivers around the U.S. together as well, but until now had never been back to the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon that brought them together.

Cathy, who works as program director for the New Buildings Institute in White Salmon, was notified a year and a half ago that her “number was up,” meaning her name had worked its way from the bottom of the list of thousands waiting for a private trip permit to the top 350 or so. The National Park Service issues permits for about 260 private trips down the river per year. (About 30 percent of trips through the Grand Canyon are private, while the rest are commercial — a ratio regulated by the National Park Service.) She and John, a builder, began contacting friends they wanted to join them on the 18-day, 225-mile trip — not a simple task, according to Cathy.

“The Grand Canyon is kind of a magnifying glass,” she said. “When you’re falling in love, it’s really intense. And if you’re having a fight, it’s really intense.” Picking a group that will get along and work well together is vital, she added. They ended up with a group of friends — 12 men and 5 women — with varying experience. For some, it was their first trip down the Grand. Others had been down a few times and one was a veteran of more than 60 Grand Canyon trips.

After months of planning, the group converged at Lee’s Ferry, Ariz., for put-in at the end of September with eight rafts and three kayaks.

Running the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is more difficult in the fall, according to Cathy. The river level is lower — meaning slower — and the days are shorter. But fall has its advantages, too: it’s cooler and less crowded. Cathy and John’s group was the only one to put in to the river the day they set out, and they found themselves alone much of the time.

“Sometimes we went 10 days without seeing anyone,” Cathy said. The unpredictable fall weather cooperated, for the most part. The group had one particularly windy day and another very cold one (they later found out it had snowed that day on the canyon’s rim).

But most days were sunny and warm. The group stopped frequently for hikes into side canyons and up to the rim.

“For me, it’s about the scenery, the geology and the side hikes,” Cathy said. What some people don’t realize, she added, is that the upper part of the canyon starts out at “head level.”

“Every day, you go deeper and deeper,” she said. “You go down to the oldest rocks exposed in the world — to 7 billion year old rocks. They’re so sensuous.” The canyon also becomes increasingly isolated along its nearly 300-mile route before opening back up near Lake Mead.

“It’s not like any other river,” Cathy said. “Nothing is as long. It takes you into places totally remote. You don’t even think about things like war with Iraq because it has no meaning down there.”

The group was made up of “beautiful boaters,” according to Cathy, and there were no mishaps. There are 75 major rapids in the canyon — 25 of them Class IV or V.

“They’re not technical, they’re just big,” she said.

Like their first trip together 17 years ago, Cathy and John shared a boat this time, too. There was some reminiscing about their last trip, some story telling, according to Cathy. “We definitely weren’t as mushy as the first time,” she said. “But it’s been 17 great years. It was very sweet to be back there together.”

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