Rafting the river of time: Riding the Colorado

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GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — Although every daylight hour of the five-night rafting trip I took recently down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park offered a steady flow of jaw-dropping vistas, my most poignant moment came around 2 one morning.

Unzipping the tent flap, I stumbled into the night and down the 20 sandy yards to the river’s edge to answer nature’s call. Before long, I realized the only sound I could hear was the low, gravely grumble of the river that has flowed there for millions of years.

I looked around at the setting. The full moon had already set beneath the towering cliffs behind me, which cast their dark shadows over our campsite. But the sheer redwall limestone face on the opposite bank, an unbroken expanse maybe a mile long and 1,000 feet high, shimmered with a filigreed, opalescent glow against the ebony slash of a starless night sky.

Rafting the Colorado River

Rafting the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park.

Suddenly a shiver shot down my spine, and for a brief moment, I was aware that nature really was calling me.

Grand Canyon National Park receives 4.5 million visitors a year. Most view the yawning chasm from an observation point on its south or north rim. Many venture down a few miles on one of the trails that wind into the canyon, but only about 100,000 hardy souls hike all the way down to the Colorado River and spend a night, either camping at designated sites or bunking at Phantom Ranch at the bottom.

Fewer than 30,000 each year spend any time on the river itself.

In four previous visits to the Grand Canyon, I’d done the first three options, once taking three days with a friend to hike the 23 miles from rim to rim.

But for all that, I’ve seen only a narrow slice of the 277 miles of canyon included in Grand Canyon National Park and even less of the river that created it.

So when the opportunity to take a raft trip down the river arose, my friend and I signed up.

If you go

Colorado River Rafting Resources: For information about Grand Canyon National Park river permits go to www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/whitewater-rafting.htm.

Grand Canyon Whitewater, the outfitter of the trip I took, offers a selection of supported motor and oar-powered trips on the 225 miles of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park from Lees Ferry, Ariz. to Diamond Creek: www.grandcanyonwhitewater.com.  For 2014 rates: The six-day, 89-mile leg from Lees Ferry to the takeout point at Pipe Creek near Phantom Ranch (with round-trip transportation to Flagstaff, Ariz.) costs $1,785 per person; the full 13-day, 240-mile trip from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek (with round-trip transportation to Flagstaff, Ariz.) costs $3,565 per person. Airfare from Pittsburgh to Arizona are not included in these costs.  These commercial raft trips are offered from early April to mid-October. Booking early is necessary to ensure a spot; I booked in February for a summer trip.

Fifteen other companies offer river trips through the park, on oared rafts, motor rafts, dory boats and kayaks. For a listing, visit www.gcroa.org

Grand Cayon Gigaviews: grandcanyongigaview.tumblr.com. Thomas Hayden’s immersive experience with a variety of interactive tools including videos, photos and gigapan images made during an 18-day expedition on the river.

Google maps provide both a satellite perspective of the canyon and a street view experience of the journey down the Colorado.

Our adventure started at 6 a.m. one mid-May Saturday when we met the 22 other people on the Grand Canyon Whitewater trip who’d gathered at a hotel in Flagstaff. From there, it was a two-hour shuttle ride to Lees Ferry, the nearest place the river is accessible by vehicle below the Glen Canyon Dam. That’s also Mile Zero of the Colorado’s passage through Grand Canyon National Park, even though the Grand Canyon itself doesn’t begin until mile 62. The redwall gorge we’d be passing through until then was Marble Canyon, so named by John Wesley Powell, who in 1869 led the first party down the Colorado.

The five rafts were waiting on the wide, sandy shore, along with the longer, motor-powered pontoon raft that would carry most of the food and gear for the trip. After an introduction to Jeff, the trip leader, and the five other boatmen -- Chris, Grant, Ted, John and Tim -- who’d be doing the actual rowing, we got a quick procedure/safety orientation. Then we stuffed our backpacks into dry bags, which were  loaded on the pontoon raft. Quickly divvying ourselves four or five to each raft, we were heading downriver before 10 a.m.

The ocher-colored walls started climbing almost immediately, and within an hour, we were passing under the Navajo Bridge, arching between the canyon walls some 450 feet over our heads. It is the last vehicle crossing over the Colorado for 350 miles.

Inside the ever-deepening canyon, we were effectively off the grid, with no communication to the outside world, other than in case of dire emergency. Like every expedition on the river, we were entirely self-supporting, carrying all the food, fuel and other supplies necessary for 30 people for 12 days. While 17 of us planned to leave five days later at Phantom Ranch, 89 miles downriver, we’d be replaced by new arrivals, and the expedition would continue another six days and 150 miles downriver to Diamond Creek, the first spot where rafts can be trucked out of the canyon.

Unlike other rafting trips I’d been on, where everyone takes a paddle, these craft were managed by the boatmen, who sat in the middle plying two long oars, following the current, deftly negotiating the steady series of named riffles and rapids. They also provided ongoing commentary about the river, the geologic formations we passed and points of interest, even if their tales sometimes stretched the limits of credulity.

For the most part, we sat, enjoyed the scenery, chatted and took photos, only working hand pumps in the rapids when the river sloshed into the raft. The bailing is key, because as we quickly learned, water comes out of the Glen Canyon Dam at about 50 degrees and hardly warms at all. This makes the river too cold to swim in and provides the real prospect of a chilling drench at any rapid. We had to wear full-body rain suits in addition to life jackets.

River water levels, also largely regulated by dam releases, rise and subside during the day. Despite persistent drought in the Southwest that has impacted the entire Colorado drainage, we always had plenty enough to rush our rafts through the rapids.

To average about 18 miles a day on the river, we fell into a regular routine.

After a morning on the rafts, lunch stops often included an exploration up a side canyon or point of interest. Late each afternoon, Jeff would pick a suitable camping site on a sandy strip, each with its own intriguing features.

Upon landing we’d scurry off to find a tent site on the sandy banks and then head back to the rafts, where we’d form a hand-to-hand chain to offload the gear, including camping equipment and dry-bags, kitchen set-up and buckets of river water that would be used to cook and wash dishes.

While we set up our tents, the crew prepared dinner, which was remarkably tasty. We ate well. After dinner, we’d clean up and kibitz a while before heading back to our tents as darkness descended to read by headlamp.

I was generally asleep by 10; call for coffee came at 6 the next morning. After a hot breakfast of eggs, sausage, French toast or pancakes, we’d strike the tents, reload the rafts and be on our way by 8.

Our group of 24 mostly strangers -- women and men from across the country and England and ranging in age from 32 to 71 -- got along surprisingly well, especially considering our close proximity and relatively rough circumstances.

Group chores, for example, like loading and unloading the rafts, were shared by all with cheerful equanimity. Ditto for strict observance of the four-dip, washing-up routine after meals.

And toilet issues proved not a problem. The ecological ethic of the national park is to urinate in the river (the solution to pollution is dilution) while in each camp a box toilet was strategically placed (under the dictate of “leave no waste behind”), with a system to provide a degree of privacy and sanitation. Each offering a contemplative view of the river and canyon walls, they were five of the most majestic throne rooms I’ve ever encountered.

I also found it remarkable how pristine the river area was kept; never once did I spot a trace of trash or other human detritus.

For me it was a journey of humbling awareness and an introduction into myriad incredible places I could visit no other way.

Too many to enumerate here, the short list includes South Canyon, Vesey’s Paradise, Redwall Cavern, Tiger Wash, the Unkar Delta, and the azure confluence of the Little Colorado River, the geological division between Marble Canyon and Grand Canyon.

There were plenty of thrills as our boatmen steered through dozens of direly named rapids and riffles, never flipping, getting hung up on a rock, or losing anyone over the side.

And of course there was the geologic journey: we witnessed eons of sedimentary formation, sandstone and limestone layered in tiers a mile down right to the basement rocks, the Zoroaster Granite and Vishnu Schist.

Finally, only a little worse for five days in the hot, dry, sunny, sandy environs, I came away with a sense of accomplishment, but no broken bones or twisted ankles. That’s not to mention that finish with a flourish, the 8-mile hike up Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim, 4,640 feet above the river. It took me about six hours with a full pack in nearly 100 degree heat to climb.

Not bad for an old man. And I lived to tell about it.

Perhaps I’ll get to go back someday and complete the Colorado journey.

David Bear, Post-Gazette travel editor emeritus, can be contacted at www.travelersjournal.com.

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