HETravel’s “SPLASH!” white-water rafting tour of the Grand Canyon attracts the adventurous among gay men who love hiking the rocks and ravines of the Canyon, sleeping under the brilliant stars and joyfully shouting and holding onto each other while crashing through the rapids.

Having hosted this tour several times, I can tell you that while each group is unique, the camaraderie and forged friendships are what make each excursion memorable, adding to the experience of the most naturally beautiful place on earth.

There are moments when you’ll find yourself taking an extended hand or a boost to the rump to help you over some steep rocks. There are times when you’ll be frolicking naked with your group in the crystal waters of a secluded lagoon and taking each other’s photos staggering under waterfalls. When the river is calm you may fall asleep on the raft with your head on someone’s shoulder.

Because gay male bonding is definitely part of the SPLASH! experience, when, on our last night in the Canyon, Rich Edwards confidentially disclosed to me that he is a female-to-male transgender man, I was entirely surprised. I was also filled with happiness that his experience of gay male brotherhood had been completely enjoyable.

I urged him to tell the group his secret. That evening, the group hug that enveloped him said more than any words could have conveyed. He had been just one of the guys all week, and he was still just one of the guys. When I began to think of the many moments in the course of the week that might have made a transman uncomfortable, I decided to give Rich a call to see if he remembered the trip fondly and to see if he would recommend SPLASH! to other transmen.

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Rich Edwards was an air force pilot who flew planes for commercial airlines after his 2005 retirement from the military. He transitioned five years ago, and says, “My story may be a little different from those of other transmen. As a kid, I was a tomboy – not so unusual – and I tried to do the normal girl-things, even though I never got along with other girls. For me, wearing a dress was the worst thing ever. My parents forced me to wear one to church every Sunday, but as soon as church got out, I would rip off the dress and put on the jeans I always brought with me in the car. Even as an adult, I hated wearing a dress. I felt there was something not right about it. On Halloween, I’d always choose to dress up as a guy, and for years I had this fantasy that I would go away and live alone deep in the woods as a guy. I had never even heard of ‘trans’ until I saw the movie ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and it was like a light bulb went on in my head.”

Edwards married at the age of 25 in 1986 and gave birth to a daughter with whom he is still very close. He divorced in 1997. While working as an airline pilot, he celebrated New Year’s Eve with a flight attendant friend who encouraged him to embrace his truth in the New Year. Having had a few drinks, he telephoned his parents to let them know that he was coming to terms with himself as trans. (His parents remain very accepting of his decision.) A few days later, back in the states, Edwards saw a counselor and began the transitioning process.

When I asked Edwards to describe his decision to join HEtravel’s “SPLASH!” adventure tour of the Grand Canyon, he said, “As soon as I found it on HEtravel.com, I thought, ‘This will be great because I can be myself in a small group of gay men in a very isolated place. I had no hesitation. Once I got on that raft, I thought, ‘I’m home.’ By the end of the trip I knew I had done the right thing.”

When I asked Edwards if he knew before the trip that there would be some nudity and if he was afraid of that possibility, he said, “Yes, I looked at the photos that others have posted and I knew there would be some nudity but I could see that it wasn’t mandatory. [For the record, general nudity is not permitted by the National Park Service in the Grand Canyon, but there are frequent times when it occurs when bathing, swimming and relaxing. You can take this tour and keep your clothes on without any problems.] I figured the other guys wouldn’t care. I mean everything I have looks normal, maybe on the small side. I just didn’t feel any different from the rest of the group.”

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Throughout the week, Edwards was always the first one to jump into the water shirtless whenever we docked the raft to explore the streams and ravines and waterfalls of the canyon. Edwards sports across his chest a broad band of tattoo art admired by the group. None of us noticed his surgery.

On our final night in the Grand Canyon, when Edwards privately confided in me that he was trans, I felt a rush of gratitude for his having trusted me at that moment and throughout the week. I urged him to tell the whole group. When he did, his disclosure was received with warmth, friendship, cheers and hugs.

Would Edwards choose that trip over again if he could? He says, “Yes, in a heartbeat! I want to try similar tours with gay men. You know, I haven’t dated at all. I’m not working now and I am not meeting guys. It’s hard for me to think of having sex. I’m not really good at the online encounter thing. I’m shy. Recently, I took a trans-Atlantic cruise with a large gay male group. I got my first real kiss and then I told him I was trans. He wanted me to go to his room but I declined. I’m going to avoid the sea cruises that have hordes of buff shirtless circuit boys. I like the smaller groups that HEtravel offers. “

And, I very much liked having Rich Edwards in my group! I hope I’ll have the privilege of traveling with him again someday.