Six days and 188 miles of rafting the Colorado River

Grand Canyon and Colorado River

Grand Canyon and Colorado River

When outdoors lovers speak of “bucket list” experiences, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is very often right at the top of their lists. Photographer Barb Gonzalez and I crossed it off ours last August, when we joined a commercial trip with Western River Expeditions for six days of whitewater adventure.

We were no strangers to river rafting. From Oregon’s Rogue to Montana’s Flathead, the Rio Grande in New Mexico to the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho, we had challenged our share of whitewater. Our biggest previous adventure had been on Hells Canyon of the Snake River, where it draws the boundary between Oregon and Idaho. Hells Canyon is deeper by nearly 2,000 feet than the Grand Canyon itself. Between its walls, the Snake River will often run at 50,000 cubic feet per second. That’s a lot of water.

But it pales compared to the Grand. Below Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam, which holds back Lake Powell, the Colorado may carry twice that much water at a modest flow. An average of 300 feet wide and 40 feet deep, this river is a world-class challenge.

On the 188 miles of Colorado River that we traveled, we endured no fewer than 69 sets of named rapids. Some of them sent waves of more than 30 feet crashing upon us. The moment our vessel plunged past the point of no return, we were doused by water so cold it shocked us, even in the heat of midsummer. We were tossed every which way as we clung tightly to the ropes of a raft that seemed to bend almost in half.

Had we let go for even a millisecond, there was a good chance we would be cast into the river. That would have left us gasping for breath even as our personal flotation devices — once called “life vests,” but there’s no guarantee they will save a life — strived to keep our heads above water. As we struggled, we might have inhaled gallons of river water, which is somewhere between ruddy red and chocolate brown in color, having scraped the ancient walls of more than 800 miles of canyon on its way from Colorado and Utah into Arizona.

Down the river

Hermit Rapids

Hermit Rapids

This is what it’s like in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, North America’s legendary gorge. Rising in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Colorado travels 1,450 miles to Mexico’s Gulf of California. The 277 miles at its heart are embraced by Grand Canyon National Park, visited by 4½ million people every year. Fewer than 1 percent of those visitors ever see the park from river level. Most stare from rim-edge viewpoints at the staggering expanse, a dramatic panorama of prehistoric landforms with colors that very from morning to twilight, spring to fall.

The first non-native adventurer to enter the gorge was John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran who took eight men in four dories down the river in 1869. Covering 930 miles in 14 weeks in the years before the Colorado was dammed, they barely escaped with their lives.

Giant rafts sounded like a better idea for our journey. One reason we chose to travel with Western River was that company founder Jack Curry had devised motorized “J-Rigs” for Grand Canyon travel in the early 1970s. Each 37-foot-long pontoon raft holds four guides, 14 passengers and all expedition equipment. With 20 separate air chambers in compartmentalized rubber tubes, these rafts offer maximum flexibility with separate seating for those in search of wild (up front, hanging onto safety ropes) or mild (atop food coolers).

We launched at Lee’s Ferry, just upstream of U.S. Highway 89A, the only road crossing of the Colorado River between the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams. We took out at the Whitmore Helipad on the Hualapai Indian Reservation, where a helicopter lifted us to an airstrip at the Bar 10 Ranch for a small-plane return to Marble Canyon.

The journey, our guides explained, would take us through 1.8 billion years of geologic history. The Grand Canyon was carved only the past 6 million years by faulting and glacial meltwater. But the southwesterly flow of the Colorado River has revealed more than two dozen distinctive strata of sandstone, limestone, shale and other minerals, including basalt and quartzite, that date from a time when this plateau was a coastal landscape — one whose current form began to take shape about 70 million years ago with the uplifting of the Rocky Mountains.

History and nature

Every few miles (we lost about 1,500 feet in elevation from put-in to take-out), the rock formations changed, adding a touch of mystery and wonder to our voyage through the past. There were ample signs of civilizations that existed before white Americans intruded: Relic finds indicate that native tribes have been here for at least 5,000 years. In Nankoweap Canyon, an early 12th-century Anasazi granary is even visible from the river.

One day, we disembarked at the Unkar Delta to hike into an archeological site once inhabited by the pre-Puebloan Cohonina culture. The site was strewn with pottery shards, baked clay fragments mostly red, gray and white in color, many bearing painted designs. In sections of the canyon farther upstream, more than 200 split willow-branch effigies of bighorn sheep have been found.

The bighorn, one a staple of early people’s diets, are still here. In fact, we saw more of these animals, with their magnificent crowns, than any other. They peered at our rafts from cliff-side perches throughout our voyage.

We also made occasional mule-deer and coyote sightings, and observed scores of raptors, great blue herons and waterfowl such as mergansers. Songbirds were out and about as well, from phoebes and vireos to yellow warblers. We kept our distance from rattlesnakes, and they from us, but other reptiles, including chuckwallas and collared lizards, were common sights.

Daily routine

Each day on the river followed a similar pattern. We were up at 5:30 as the sun’s first rays peered through the canyon walls from the east. Strong “cowboy coffee” greeted us to breakfast, which was always hearty: eggs, meat, pancakes, fruit and more.

Our day’s rafting was often interrupted by hikes to waterfalls and other points of intrigue. On our second day, for instance, we explored Redwall Cavern, a vast limestone amphitheater with a sandy floor and room enough to play a game of football or, certainly, Frisbee throwing.

One of our favorite stops was Elves’ Chasm, an enchanting oasis of ferns and moss dripping through contorted rocks above the clear pools of Buckhorn Creek. On another occasion, we paused 90 minutes at Deer Creek Falls, where a beautiful 150-foot waterfall plunges through a narrow slot canyon to reach the river. It’s a great place for a cold soak, especially after a steep hike to a clifftop for more spectacular geology and views.

We typically reached our campsite by 4 p.m., at which point we were set free to find our campsites, set up our tents and unroll our sleeping bags. Sand was omnipresent; it crept into our clothing and our bedding, blew into our eyes and hair. Bathing in the river didn’t help much, as its fine, red-rock grit seemed merely to reinforce the soil we already carried. We finally had to decide that it was okay to be dirty.

We never knew for certain what we’d get for dinner, but it was always good. Our main course one evening was grilled chicken breast, another night spaghetti, a third barbecued salmon, yet another 12-ounce New York steaks with all the trimmings. We always had dessert. And long after the sun disappeared behind the cliff walls, it continued to gleam upon the cathedral-like spires that rose as many as 6,000 feet above us, giving us light almost until we fell asleep.

Heat and rapids

Initially, we had some concern about heat on the river, as August temperatures in the desert may easily climb into the 90s and higher. In fact, we were chilly more often than not: The canyon’s high walls block sunlight during many hours of the day, and direct sun had often vanished by the time we set up camp near the river banks. Afternoon rain squalls (and potential flash floods) posed a bigger threat to the journey’s enjoyment than sunstroke.

Heat exhaustion is more of a problem for the hikers who accompany pack burros on the nine-mile descent from Grand Canyon Village, on the South Rim, to Phantom Ranch, with cabins a mile off the main river on Bright Angel Creek. As two backpackers waved at us from a suspension bridge that we crossed beneath during our third day on the river, I couldn’t help but feel that they had a very long uphill climb ahead.

Just below that point, we hit the biggest rapids of our trip in the Granite Gorge section of the river. Turbulent Hermit Rapid is the most dangerous on the river, we were told. Over the years, it has taken more than its share of the 700 fatalities recorded in the Grand Canyon. It was followed by Crystal Rapid, which would be rated Class V on most rivers. Created by a boulder fall in 1966, it requires extreme skill and courage to negotiate. We had that in our guides.

A full moon lit our camp on our final night, illuminating the Mojave Desert vegetation that had replaced the coyote willow and mesquite prevalent on earlier days of our expedition. A warmer east wind, perhaps driven by encroaching thunderstorms, was tickling the ocotillo, barrel cactus and century plants that rose about us.

The waiting list for a Grand Canyon trip can be as many as 10 years long for a private trip permit, which is granted through a weighted annual lottery. While a self-guided trip with friends or family in a flotilla of oar boats and dories can be thrilling, it can also be dangerous, particularly if you’re a less-than-prepared first-timer.

We considered traveling with a commercial operator such as Western River Expeditions to be a better option. The Colorado River season begins in May and continues into September. The price tag of $2,699 per person isn’t cheap, but most bucket-list opportunities are not.