Floating into the Chaos

Steven Mammano

Backcountry trips out of cell service are relieving and relaxing for most. The time spent forgetting about day to day life is filled with the sights and sounds of nature. The most important thing is what is right in front of you, not work or school — that is, until you get back home and everything has changed.

On March 11, 2020, our group of 19 friends and family were in Mexican Hat, Utah to put in on the San Juan River. This five-night, six-day rafting trip would take us down a deep and long canyon approximately 60 miles to Lake Powell. We would not be able to see even a horizon line for nearly the entire time as the canyon is so deep — creating a feeling of complete isolation.

When we left, all were familiar with the threat of COVID-19. However, none thought much about it. On March 11, there were only two confirmed cases in all of Utah. It was still a distant concern in our minds and was not affecting our daily lives. As we pushed off and began floating downstream, our phones were off, and there was no reception. Our only connection for the next six days would be a Garmin InReach, providing short text messages.

The first two days were spent getting adjusted to life on the river. Many members of our group had never spent a night on the river before. Floating down, rowing, setting up camp and doing it all over again can be a stark contrast to what people are used to. This trip was meant to be a relaxing one — with only two class three rapids, the focus was on hanging out and having a good time with our people. The river was running low, and with our heavy boats, bottoming out was common. Jumping up and down on the raft or getting out and pushing helped us make progress down the river.

On the evening of day three, the first sign of something wrong appeared. While sending a message to family that we were safe on the Garmin, a message from them came to us. It stated, “Things are breaking loose with coronavirus. School online rest of semester.” I was shocked when I read this. My first reaction was that I no longer had to go to my boring lectures for the rest of the semester, but that was quickly erased with concern. With this limited information, our group had no choice but to wonder. What had changed so drastically? Is the rest of our family alright? Are we in danger? With three days left, we had no other option than to carry on as we have been.

Our group quickly decided to try and put this topic behind us. We shouldn’t worry about something we can’t control, right? The best thing to do is just live in the moment? The float continued. We cruised through the most difficult rapids that we would face and the group morale was high. All members were comfortable now and times were good. As we reached the last night, everyone wished we could have just one more. Although it was not heavily discussed, we all had the concern in the back of our minds of what we would learn when our phones turned back on.

We reached the takeout in Clay Hills on March 15. Concern was high in the group for what we would soon see. One by one, group members would look at their phones and announce a major event that had been canceled — including classes, weddings and graduation. It seemed like it would never end — and it didn’t. We said our goodbyes, gave the last hugs that we would give for a long time and went our separate ways.

Coming back into a completely new and different world was not something that any of us had expected. It was scary, confusing, and overwhelming. So much had changed in those six days that it was hard to fathom. Sorting through messages and emails that announced cancellations and changes was like nothing any of us had ever experienced. After an eerie drive back to Salt Lake, it only began to set in what the next weeks or months would contain.

So what now? What can we do? The best thing is for us to feel lucky that we had that secluded time together. Many people in the world wish that they could have missed that initial time of chaos. We were some of the few that did. Having those shared experiences and special times with each other was something we will only appreciate more as time goes on. No one truly knows when the next time a trip like that will be possible. This is a moment in our lives that we will never forget and times truly may never be the same.