By Doug Hansen
Exactly 150 years after John Wesley Powell was the first person to explore the full length of the Grand Canyon's Colorado River I am floating down it on a large inflatable raft with 13 other adventurers and two guides. The air is hot, but cool breezes intermittently arise 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.
To travel through the Grand Canyon is to travel through the geological history of the Earth for the past 2 billion years. Vividly tinted rock formations display a palate of red, gray, yellow, tan, black and white hues. Atop some cliffs are formations that closely resemble medieval fortresses. The rock strata tell a story of radically changing landscapes alternatively covered in oceans, swamps, deserts and grassy plains.
Our journey begins with a predawn meeting in Las Vegas, an hourlong flight, and a final chance to purchase beer and wine at the only store at Marble Canyon, near Lee's Ferry, our launching point.
After piles of supplies and our duffle bags are disgorged 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 retaining any day-use essentials in a smaller dry bag. We put on our life jackets, which are mandatory aboard the raft.
At last we shove off into the great adventure. Our leader, R.D. Tucker, pauses our rafts midriver and explains that we will run 60 rapids on a scale of 1 to 10 along 187 miles over the next six days. They sport names such as Roaring 20s, Hermit, Serpentine and Sockdolager (an old term for a knockout punch), but the two "Mighty Tens," Crystal Rapids and Lava Rapids, cause the most concern.
Our first level 3 or 4 rapids set our hearts racing, but later we realize that our enormous J-Rig raft can handle them. They prove almost impossible to capsize, so gradually our confidence builds to the point of arrogance. Before we enter especially violent rapids, R.D. carefully explains what to expect, and reminds us repeatedly how to keep safe.
While some sit perched safely above the fray on large storage boxes or in the middle of the raft on pads, others of us take turns holding onto ropes at the front as we crash through seething rapids. Our payoff is the pride of surviving the rapids as well as having 48-degree water pounding us and cooling our bodies in the 105-degree heat.
Campsites are chosen by R.D. after five or six hours on the river. The private open-air toilets are set up a short distance away from camp. R.D. 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.
Each evening under a 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.
The quality of the meals that our guides prepare each day makes up for any minor discomforts. Our dinners have included fresh grilled trout, baked potatoes with sour cream and chives, shrimp cocktails, steaks, grilled chicken and ice cream with fruit topping. Our midday lunch consists of fresh fruit, chips, cookies, bread and assorted meats for sandwiches.
Each morning, R.D.'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, coffee or tea. Large jugs of cold water and lemonade accompany us at all times on the raft 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 scan the terrain for small herds of desert bighorn sheep as they rest along the riverbank or prance across the face of vertical cliffs. Blue herons and turkey vultures appear regularly. But the star attraction is the mesmerizing kaleidoscope of rocks and cliffs surrounding us.
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 like a magic fantasyland.
Finally we reach a flat piece of ground that 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 journey that has showcased the magnificence of the Grand Canyon from a unique perspective.
WHEN YOU GO
Western River Expeditions: 866-904-160, www.westernriver.com.
Doug Hansen is a freelance writer and photographer whose photos and articles are at www.hansentravel.org. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Grand Canyon rafters set up camp along the Colorado River while being careful not to harm the environment. Photo courtesy of Doug Hansen.