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Rafting the Colorado River Through the Grand Canyon

It is a place where day and night arrive in their own languid time. Where all is sky, rock, and river. Where sun and moon touch rocks 1.7 billion years old, where water moves with a force that can pretzel steel and the creak of oars is the loudest sound, where Bighorn Sheep follow your progress perched on ledges little wider than a pin, and within a mossy nook, if you turn your head just so, a waterfall creates a gauzy rainbow the size of a fingernail.

These are just words, and when it comes to rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon words fail miserably. Numbers do too. Between Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Mead, the Colorado River flows 255 miles. The river's average depth is 35 feet; its average speed is four miles an hour; its temperature, coming as it does from the depths of Glen Canyon Dam, ranges from 48 to 52 degrees. There are more than 160 rapids within the Canyon's confines; in some, the river's speed increases appreciably. The soul is not touched by statistics. Count to three. A complimentary fruitcake to anyone who can remember any but these three numbers.

"I was told rafting through the Grand Canyon would be the best experience of my life," a woman once told me. "And rafting the Grand Canyon would be the second best experience of my life, and the third..."

Such whispers had reached me for years. And so I decided to take the only possible course. I went to see for myself.

 

Here's the best thing about rafting down the Colorado. Unlike other grand adventures -- climbing Half Dome, meditating with puff adders -- pretty much anyone can do it. Sign on with a river outfitter, and most companies require only that you be at least 12 years old for an oar trip, and eight to ride in a motorized craft.

Other than that, you just have to adjust to a single pertinent reality.

"Some people really embrace the solitude, and some people don't expect it," smiled Christian Seamans, on the drizzly October morning of our own departure from Lees Ferry.

Christian dipped his oars into the cocoa-brown Colorado and smiled again.

"Welcome everyone," he said, as we moved out into the main current. "It's always nice to push away."

Enjoying nature is about pushing away, and all of us -- 19 paying customers who had signed on for a 13-day oar trip with Wilderness River Adventures -- had ensured ourselves additional solitude by coming to the river in October. Fall and spring are the river's unsung seasons; quieter, cooler, heavier with repose. They are also emptier. On the morning we left, putting on to the river at Lees Ferry 15 miles below Glen Canyon Dam, three other groups were starting off too. Over the next 13 days we saw them now and again, but mostly it was just us.

Our party numbered 26; seven guides, 19 clients, six 18-foot neoprene rubber boats, and enough food and drink to embarrass Club Med.

Our Wilderness guides proved supremely competent, but they didn't take their competency too seriously, preferring instead to dye their hair green, announce dinner with a Gregorian chant, and even, on the proper occasion, wear women's underwear (one night we had a costume party). There was Christian, Heather, Brett, Jeff, Nate, Nute, and our trip leader Okie. It quickly became obvious that they all loved the river and the canyon. They knew its history, its wildlife, and its geology. But mostly they knew how to rightly enjoy it.

Early in the trip Nute voiced the sentiment that would become our group mantra.

"Wadda-ya say we run some rapids and drink beer and dance."

My fellow adventurers had come to the river for different reasons, but each grasped the significance of what was transpiring.

"It has always been a dream of mine to raft the Grand Canyon," Reimund Wolf told me on our first night in camp.

Reimund had traveled from Germany. We stood beside the river. A half moon, poised above a dark shadow of butte, threw silver on the river.

"I knew I must come here," said Reimund. "I am 65. I can see the horizon."

Though it is casually labeled a river trip, rafting the Grand Canyon is far more. Traveling down the Colorado gives you access to remote places otherwise reached only with great difficulty or a very long fall. We saw hikers now and then, dirty, bedraggled figures who regarded us dully with the vacant eyes of a mongrel dog. We simply hopped ashore from our happy blue rubber boats, lunched on taco salad and fistfuls of Oreos and, duly fortified, strode into side canyons serene and glorious, hushed places pressed in by walls smooth and cool as satin sheets, where clear creek trickles ran, and here and there sat truck-size rocks deposited at times when the creek was nothing like a trickle.

Some side canyons were dry; tomb still and quiet. Others drummed; waterfalls cascading into pools with a sonorous boom, blowing sprays of rainbow mist. One canyon held turquoise pools so clear and still they appeared to be not pools at all, but vast emerald gems set in the earth. In some of these places we sat apart in contemplative silence. In others we did what was only right, plunging into the pools and hooting beneath waterfalls like ten-year-olds who had discovered their parents' hooch. These places had magical and apt names; Elves Chasm, Shinumo Creek, Matkatamiba and Blacktail Canyon. They sat stoic, and seemingly untouched. It felt was as if we were the first to set foot there.

We weren't, of course. On our sixth day, 68 miles downriver, we hiked up to a butte overlooking Tanner Rapid, and then followed a trail along the sloped hillside. Here and there were metate and mano -- stone trough and handstones used by the Anasazi Indians to mill corn. They were scattered about as if the Anasazi had just up and left, perhaps to take advantage of this lovely day and go for a hike.

Okie picked up a shard of pottery, turning it slowly in his fingers.

"How old is that?" I asked.

"Close to 1400 years old," said Okie.

It was as if past and present had collided as one.

Okie looked towards the Colorado, running brown beneath the sun.

"Yep," he said. "That's the same river they saw."

Story continues below

And the Anasazi were merely members of the Newcomers' Club.

In another silent side canyon, Christian crouched and splashed water on a rock. A shape appeared, trumpet-shaped and maybe five inches long.

"Crinoid," said Christian. "That's probably 400 million years old."

Our days unfolded in languid fashion. We woke, warm in our sleeping bags, to cool silence on white sand beaches, the tops of the canyon walls catching the first tracings of dawn. Breakfast followed, the smell of coffee and bacon residing beside the river, and then the guides would break down camp and pack their respective boats, meticulously lashing down heaping piles of gear like fussy Moms. By nine, we would be on the river.

Though much ado is -- rightly -- made of the Colorado's vaunted rapids, most of the river is rapidless. Yes, there are more than 160 rapids between Lees Ferry and Lake Mead, but they comprise 9 percent of that section of river. And so we floated, lazy as a dream, between brown river and blue sky, the canyon walls ever rearing up on both sides, while beneath the boat the river made small commotions and fidgets, and, in similar fashion, we addressed the important questions of our time.

"Where are Panama hats from?"

Pause.

"What day is today?"

Pause.

"Cleveland?"

Great Blue Herons, dragonflies, gossamer strands of spider webs; all wafted past us at a syrupy pace. Late in the afternoon we would bump up against an empty beach and, in short order, we would be dining on shrimp scampi or prime rib, tiki torches throwing flickering light on the sand.

My favorite time came after dinner, when the guides recounted stories of explorers and river runners, folks like John Wesley Powell who went down the river with one arm, wood boats, scarce and spoiling supplies, and no surfeit of determination and courage. We would listen appreciatively, our bellies digesting brownies fresh from the Dutch oven, sparks from the campfire drifting up to join the stars. My personal heroes were Bill Beer and John Daggett, who, in the spring of 1955, swam 280 miles down the Colorado, rapids and all. Many thought them crazy. "We felt infinitesimal," Beer said later. "It was hardly important whether we continued or quit, whether we lived or died. We were intruders who meant nothing." Saner words were never spoken.

Our existence mirrored the river's, and the river, in turn, proceeded like life, long spells of quiet interspersed with wild bouts of feverish activity.

Because yes, there were the rapids. Again, floods of words have tried to define the Colorado's rapids -- infamous torrents like Crystal, Hance, and Lava Falls. I will say only this. Those rapids, and others you have never heard of, are a force of nature that should be met at least once in your life. For the 19,000-plus folk who proceed down the Colorado each year, the rapids are a wet and wonderful Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. But they have meted out injury and death too, which, of course, adds to the thrill.

We each came to these rapids with our own style. Just before a rapid called House Rock, Dennis Striegel, turned to me. "Every time after we go through one of these I wonder, 'Do I have my hat, do I have my glasses, do I have my teeth?'"

As we floated deep into the Canyon, the river began to take on a decided cant. We could actually see the river dropping away, an odd sight that leads one to better understand the trepidation of ancient mariners convinced they would drop off the edge of the world.

The Colorado's closest approximation to this is Lava Falls, 179 miles downriver from Lees Ferry, and the granddaddy of them all. As its name implies, it begins with an attention-getting spillover. Then all hell breaks loose.

Running a rapid is like dancing with a psychotic partner; all proceeds smoothly until you step out of line, and then you are slapped, throttled and otherwise rudely mistreated. In the case of Lava Falls, the partner is trebly psychotic, the drubbing proportionately severe. Rafts flip. They wrap around rocks. And you go for a memorable swim.

Lava arrived on the second to last day of our trip. It was hot and sunny. A half-mile away the river was nearly still, as if holding its breath. Then we heard the sound, like the thunder of horses. From the bow of Okie's boat, I peered ahead. Over the passing days I had noticed how, from upstream, the bigger rapids looked like the splashing of children at play. These children were also blowing mist.

We pulled ashore just upstream to scout Lava, hiking up a short trail. Sweat was funneling into bodily crannies I didn't know existed. I noticed with detached interest that I still had my life preserver on.

We crowded together at the edge of the small overlook, and looked down.

Viewed from above, Lava looks like one of those whitewater broils that precede the surfacing of some monstrous sea creature. There were badly placed rocks too, and enormous waves that rose and crashed, followed immediately by more enormous waves that did the same; a train wreck that never ended. The guides studied the rapid and spoke quietly to each other.

Okie turned on his heels.

"My boat, we're going."

Lava Falls is a short rapid. I have little recollection of the run. Okie followed a slick tongue of water that moved dreamily toward the ledge. The oar locks creaked as he applied pressure, then the boat lurched and bounded and everything disappeared. Water enveloped us; not cold, not violent, only heavy and pressing away the world.

And then it was gone and we were through, and Okie had yanked us into a small notch of eddy against the shore, and everyone was talking at once.

The river, and the moment, was passing. I stood there trying to remember it all. The sun and wet on my face, the slap of small waves rocking the boat, the giddy closeness I felt for my companions, a small lizard, an arm's length away, nipping ants off a rock.

The next day, 188 miles from Lees Ferry, we stepped ashore for good. The river ran on.

 

 

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