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. 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. Atop some cliffs are formations that resemble medieval fortresses.
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.” There are 28 people embarking on this journey, comprised mainly of two groups of longtime friends from Washington and Vermont.
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.
Our leader, R.D. Tucker, pauses our rafts mid-river 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.”
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.
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.
IF YOU GO:
Western River Expeditions: (866) 904-1160, www.westernriver.com.
Tribune News Service