Rafting the Colorado through the Grand Canyon

At mile 187, the rafting group was whisked away by a helicopter to a nearby ranch. (Doug Hansen/TNS)
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By Doug Hansen The San Diego Union-Tribune (TNS)

August 15, 1869: The red sandstone cliffs rose more than 2,000 feet on either side, shutting out the sun for most of the day, while before us the mighty river, lashed to a foam, rushed on with indescribable power.

— John Wesley Powell, first person to explore the full length of the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River


Exactly 150 years after Powell wrote that entry in his journal, I find myself fulfilling a lifelong dream as I float down the Colorado River on a large inflatable raft with 13 other adventurers and two guides. The air is hot but cool breezes intermittently rise from the cold river water to deflect the heat. Beneath us, the olive-green water rushes through the greatest geologic chasm in the world, the iconic Grand Canyon. All of us are silent as we absorb the majesty of this natural spectacle.

To travel through the Grand Canyon is to time-travel through the geological history of the Earth for the past 2 billion years. Vividly tinted rock formations display an artist’s palette of red, gray, yellow, tan, black and white hues. There are layers folded like pretzels by forces we cannot imagine. Atop some cliffs are formations that resemble medieval fortresses. But the most difficult geological lesson for me to grasp lies in the rock strata — a mind-bending story of radically changing landscapes alternatively covered in oceans, swamps, deserts and grassy plains.

I am on a six-day rafting trip with Western River Expeditions, during which we will travel down what Powell called “the grandest canyon in the world.” Our journey begins with a predawn meeting in Las Vegas; an hourlong flight over a barren, broken landscape; and a final chance to purchase beer and wine at the only store at Marble Canyon, near Lee’s Ferry, our launching point. There are 28 people embarking on this journey, comprised mainly of two groups of longtime friends from Washington and Vermont. At first, I feel slightly out of place as a solo traveler, but that doesn’t last long as the warmhearted Washington folks welcome me to their group.

After piles of supplies and our duffel bags are unloaded from large trailers, our guides advise us to select the gear for our large dry bag, which will be inaccessible until the end of the day, while storing day-use essentials in a smaller dry bag. We put on life jackets, which are mandatory aboard the raft. Suddenly a shout arises from our leaders: “Form a fire line. We need to load everything onto the rafts!” We pass bags and boxes from one person to the next, a simple act that gives me an encouraging affirmation of human capability through teamwork.

At last we shove off on the great adventure that we arranged nearly 18 months ago, a delay caused by the high demand and limited supply of these Grand Canyon rafting trips. Our fearless leader, R.D. Tucker, pauses our rafts midriver and, as he will do repeatedly over the next six days, he mixes humor and 20 years of experience to explain what we need to do to stay safe and enjoy the journey.

“Most rapids in the world have a difficulty scale of one to five,” he tells us. “Here in the Grand Canyon, the scale is one to 10. We will run 60 rapids along 187 miles over the next six days. Most are just fun, splashy rapids, but a few are challenging and technically difficult.”

This introduction to the river’s might does little to assuage our apprehension about the infamous rapids that await us. They have names like Roaring 20’s, Hermit, Serpentine and Sockdolager (an old slang term for a knockout punch), but the two “Mighty Tens” — Crystal and Lava Rapids — cause the most concern. It doesn’t help to hear that ABC stands for “Alive Below Crystal.”

Our first level 3 or 4 rapids set our hearts racing, but we learn that our enormous J-Rig raft can handle rapids like Mike Tyson can handle punches. These rafts prove almost impossible to capsize, so gradually our confidence builds. I find myself shouting as a wave smacks me in the face, “Give me your best shot! Is that all you got?” Before we enter especially violent rapids, Tucker carefully explains what to expect and reminds us repeatedly, “Those in front need to hold onto the ropes tightly, bend over and SUCK RUBBER! Those behind need to SUCK VEST!”

While some sit perched safely above the fray on large storage boxes, or in the middle of the raft on pads, the bravest, or most foolish, of us take turns holding onto ropes for dear life at the front as we crash through seething rapids. Our payoff is not only pride for surviving the rapids but also the mixed blessing of having 48-degree water pounding us and cooling us off in the 105-degree heat.

Campsites are chosen by Tucker after five or six hours on the river, with instructions for us to find a camp spot then return for a fire line to unload supplies. The private and open-air toilets (nicknamed “room with a view”) are set up a short distance away from camp. “If you’re brushing, bathing or peeing and don’t hit water, you’re doing it wrong,” says Tucker, who strictly enforces the Park Service’s rules for keeping the natural environment pristine. In addition, we learn how to set up our sleeping cot, tent and camp chair, a routine that soon becomes a natural part of our daily camp ritual.

Each evening, under a shimmering sea of stars, I listen to the overlapping sounds of high-pitched cicadas, talking and laughter from the camp chair circle, and the incessant roar of the river as it rushes past us like a freight train in perpetual motion.

The quality of the meals that our guides prepare each day makes up for the minor discomforts of summer heat, too-short cots and bugs in my face (only the first night). We are all astonished by the food. Our dinners include fresh grilled trout, baked potatoes with sour cream and chives, shrimp cocktails with cocktail sauce, steaks, grilled chicken, and ice cream with fruit compote topping. Our midday lunch consists of fresh fruit, chips and cookies, four kinds of bread and assorted meats for sandwiches. Each morning, Tucker’s 5:30 a.m. trumpeting of his conch shell announces that coffee is ready, followed by some combination of scrambled or fried eggs, pork chops, French toast, blueberry pancakes, bacon, sausage, oatmeal, fresh fruit, hot biscuits, bagels with cream cheese, orange juice, and coffee or tea. Large jugs of cold water and lemonade accompany us at all times on the rafts and at camp, so that we can stay well hydrated. Ample snacks during the voyage fill in the gaps between meals.

When we’re not crashing through rapids, we eagerly scan the terrain for small herds of desert bighorn sheep as they rest along the river bank or prance across the face of vertical cliffs. Big blue herons and turkey vultures appear regularly. But the star attraction is the mesmerizing kaleidoscope of rocks and cliffs surrounding us. I never tire of watching them.

Each day we stop for short hikes to slot canyons, waterfalls and a hidden grotto filled with green moss, ferns and an azure pool. My favorite places are the milky blue Little Colorado River, where I merrily slide 100 yards down a small, slick rapid, and Havasu Creek, whose vivid turquoise waters form swim holes with small cascading falls.

Alas, as all good things must end, we reach an unremarkable place on the river where a flat piece of ground serves as a helicopter landing pad. A 10-minute flight takes us to a nearby ranch where we shower and eat lunch before our flight back to Las Vegas.

While waiting for my flight, I have time to reflect on this unique journey that has showcased the magnificence of the Grand Canyon from a perspective that few will ever see. My newfound friends and I agree that we feel a renewed sense of oneness with self, others and nature. As one New Yorker exclaims, “It was amazing, beautiful, adventurous, fun, exciting and spiritual all at the same time.”




Western River Expeditions: (866) 904-1160, www.westernriver.com. Rates for 6- and 7-day rafting trips begin at $3,035, which includes equipment, meals, and all taxes and fees. An additional charter flight from Las Vegas is $285 per person. The Grand Canyon rafting season is April to mid-September. There’s limited availability for six-day trips in 2020; dates for 2021 will be announced later in November.

(Hansen is a travel writer and photographer based in Carlsbad, Calif. See more photos and articles at www.HansenTravel.org or @doug6636 on Instagram.)
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