Raft the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River; seven days, 188 miles. Check! Take that off the to-do list.
Be sure to make it a gold-plated checkmark, big as your garage, or as big as some of the holes in the river we stared into, like looking into your grave.
The first week in September, 2010 I joined the seven-day, 188 mile expedition down the Colorado River, beginning at Marble Canyon, Arizona and ending at Whitmore Wash, a River-side helicopter site. The jump off and return point for most people is Las Vegas, a startling parenthesis to the serene Canyon.
Memories will differ among the twelve passengers and two guides on our trip, but here are mine:
1. The stars at night! Framed by high canyon walls, the canvas scraped by shooting stars. One of the river-guide stories: a woman lying on her cot during a previous trip, asked a passing guide if it was going to rain, based on that thin cloud overhead. “No, Dear”, replied the guide. “That’s the Milky Way.”
2. Scary rapids. The buzz all week was about Lava Falls, a rapid we would see on the final day, rated a ten in the one to ten rating system applied to the Colorado, but Horn rapids, named after legendary cowboy Tom Horn, was more terrifying to those of us who clung to the forward pontoons. Before my River education, I would have bet the cost of the trip that nothing could tear me loose from my gloved death grip on the safety ropes, hand wedged firmly under the rope like a Brahma bull rider, but I would have lost. Diving into one of those growling holes in the river, staring up at a wave that I wouldn’t tackle with a boogie board back home in Hawaii, jolted and jarred until I was torn loose and tossed around like a sack of potatoes until River Guide Marty caught me, preventing a solo ride down the rapids. Thrilling! You won’t get that kind of rush at Disney World.
3. The beautiful Canyon. Strata of the world’s crust laid out for examination, passing at the speed of a brisk walk.
4. Cold water baths. Camping after hot days of river travel, standing waist deep in 55 to 60 degree water and trying to get lather from biodegradable camp soap so you can get the heck out and warm up again.
5. Watching the wild life. Condors, vultures, Peregrine falcon, horned owl, beaver, bobcat (a rare diurnal sighting!), big horned sheep, mule deer, and that cartoon-character ring-tailed cat that came to eat leftover cake from the camp table one night.
6. No cell phones, television, music or electric appliance of any kind. Hard at first, truly wonderful by the end of the trip.
7. Someone to cook for me, and what good cooks they are! With frequent hikes to waterfalls and scenic outlooks, and thousands of miles between me and my refrigerator in Hawaii, I felt sure I would drop a few pounds during the week. Not so!
8. A magical moment. One night river guide Brian played a hauntingly beautiful melody on a wooden flute. The canyon walls fooled us, there was no way to tell if the sound came from another campsite, or even (such was the moment!) from Anasazi ruins.
The River is busy, with your choice of guided transport (no unescorted travelers allowed): kayak for the experienced, four-person raft, wooden rowing dory, or the large, purpose-built rubber pontoon boat like I traveled on. The best thing about the J-Rig boat that Western employs is the choice of a thrilling forward position or a safer, “chicken coop” seat in the middle. Rafters moved around as their mood dictated.
My trip was run by Western River Expeditions. With fifty years of experience, they know exactly what they’re doing. The guides, expedition leader Ben, Brian, Marty and Wren were the type of guys you wish you daughter would marry, except that they’re never home in River season and you’d have to fix any plumbing problems. Great guys, full of knowledge and lore about the river and its characters, hard working to a fault, greeting each day with a smile and a kind word for everyone.The logistics of such a trip, with tents, cots, sleeping bags and camp gear for everyone, every meal planned and packed just so, and all waste carried out was admirable.