Louisa Bennion is a part-time Grand Canyon river guide and also works as a freelance editor and Irish concertina player. She lives in a small village in the Alps of Haute Provence. Follow her adventures at @freelancefunhog. Her parents Joe (@joethepotter) and Lee Bennion (@leeudallbennionart and @momsstuffsalve) are also well worth a follow!
The summer I was 14, my parents were invited on a private Grand Canyon rafting trip. The permit-holder was someone they didn’t know well—he’d been on the waitlist for as long as I’d been alive and none of the friends he’d originally planned to run with could go now, so he was casting about for a crew. We did a lot of backpacking in the desert as a family, but we knew nothing about boats. However, my mom had never forgotten the sting of watching her dad and brothers go off on a commercial Grand Canyon trip that she wasn’t invited on simply because she was a teen girl. So when this chance came, there was no question of not going—and what’s more, she asked the permit-holder if they could bring me.
Photo: Amy S. Martin
That’s how we ended up on the river, green as the calm water at the Lee’s Ferry put-in, running with a trip leader who’d been down the Colorado once as a passenger and a second boatman who’d rowed some flatwater rivers—and who closed his eyes going into the first big rapid, drifting sideways into the hole at the top of it and flipping our boat. My parents, whose lifejackets weren’t even fastened properly, both had a very rough time of it. I didn’t get maytagged like they did, and the most traumatizing part came afterward, watching the two tall pillars of my world bawling and puking on sunny boulders downstream, where we’d been pulled out of the water by some commercial guides. My parents were determined to hike out at the earliest opportunity. I said nothing and I fantasized mutinously about not going with them. I was scared, but this was the greatest adventure of my life so far and I was already in love.
The trip leader white-lied about the earlier possibilities of hiking out, and by the time we got to Phantom Ranch, where my parents had planned to leave, they were hopelessly hooked too. The absolute terror we felt about the noise around every gorgeous bend was the strongest drug these Mormon artist hippies had ever taken, and the three of us have been chasing that high ever since. Had we run with competent boatmen on that first trip, we might have been too intimidated to try our own hand at boating. Instead, it was clear that while we were surviving, strictly speaking, there was a better way to do this—and we could likely do it better ourselves. After imprinting like baby birds on the boatmen who pulled us out of the river, we approached every commercial guide we could, getting information about upcoming rapids, rafting in general, and the gear we’d need to get into boating for ourselves.
Through the rest of my teenage years, we managed to get our own Grand Canyon permit or run with friends every year, and in my early 20s a guide who’d been mentoring us for several years invited me to row a baggage boat on a trip she was leading—my entry into commercial boating. Not to be outdone, my dad decided to become a guide as well! The chances of a 50-year-old private boater getting hired by a rafting company were slim, but he was very determined and got work with Tour West, where he has become a mainstay of the rowing program and a frequent charter leader. I’ve worked almost exclusively for Tour West too, and my dad and I have had two fine decades of working on the water together, often with my mom along as an assistant. He has been working full seasons, but I’ve lived in the French Alps for the past 13 years and consider myself very lucky to return home for a GC trip or two per year. I wish I could go back and tell that 14-year-old who cried at the takeout not to worry—not only would she get to go down the river again, but everything would work out better than she could possibly dream it up at the time.
We’ve come a long way since then in terms of boating skills, and we’ve also gotten the gear situation dialed in considerably. Back then, we’d never even heard of quick-dry material, and my one pair of shorts for the trip were khaki cutoffs that I rolled progressively higher so that they wouldn’t rub the cracks in my burnt thighs. Footwear was an even bigger problem for all of us. I had a pair of velcro water sandals that were dangling from my ankles but somehow still attached to me after that first flip and swim, and I lived in fear of the river taking them from me if we flipped again. My mom lost her sandals in that flip and had to wear the trip leader’s ratty spare tennis shoes for the next two weeks.
We’ve kept abreast of new developments in sports sandals over the years. The velcro sandals of the ’90s were very poorly adapted to serious whitewater rafting, with their tendency to come off in swift water and to fit badly and rub holes in your feet when fastened hastily. Later came sandals without velcro, but of inconsistent construction quality and with soles that were far too thick for my liking.
Photo: Adam Schallau
So I was on the lookout for something better and got very excited a few years ago when my dad called to tell me about a new kind of sandal he was testing a prototype for, by a company called Bedrock. His review after a couple of trips was very positive, so I ordered a pair of Cairn 3D Pro Adventure sandals for myself and knew pretty much immediately, living in them for a summer before taking them on the Colorado for the first time, that these are the only river shoes I’ll need for the rest of my life. They’ve got everything I want in terms of comfort, adjustability, and sturdiness.
Photo: Erin Harris
The only complaint I had with them was the heel closure, which was a velcro strap. Worried about losing them in case of a swim, I put rubber O-rings on them for the river, and the O-rings wore holes in my feet. For my next GC trip I got a cobbler friend to stitch the heel straps shut. This was a better fix but meant I lost any adjustability on the heel, which is something I’d loved on long hikes over varied terrain. The velcro heel was also my dad’s only note for improvement when he tested his prototypes, and we were delighted when the Bedrock team took the feedback from their rafting guide testers seriously and came out with a hook-based, fully adjustable heel fastening system.
Not the kind of company to encourage people to buy new things they don’t need when they’re creating sandals to last a lifetime, Bedrock proposed a heel-strap conversion service as part of their Resoul program. So last winter I got my pair resoled and re-heeled. They were out of the strap pattern for my original sandals, and I’m now proud to sport one-of-a-kind, brightly clashing Bedrocks, infinitely adaptable for my adventures—whether I’m off-roading it on carnivorous “limestone lace” in the Alps, onstage in the heat for summer Irish music gigs, exploring a city on one continent or another, or rowing big water in the Grand Canyon.