When we get to the rapid, hold on!” shouts guide Evan Youngblood-Peterson as he cuts the 12-metre-long rubber raft toward the churning blender of rocks and river.
I’m wearing a screaming-red rain jacket that will later bake me like a lobster beneath the blazing sun. Right now it keeps me dry, as bone-chilling water froths and heaves up the sides. The boat motor drones then growls and, as we plunge into another wild wave, I frantically grip my lifeline, goggle-eyed.
I imagined myself a bold adventurer before taking this trip, creating a bucket list of accomplishments. Run rapids. Hike canyons. Swim river. Live large, like TV hero Survivorman.
Instead, I’m living a checklist of screw-ups. Flip a cot on top of myself in a windstorm and flail in the sand like an upended turtle. Done. Stumble into bushes and an angry ant outpost for an impromptu pain dance. Done. Claw my way out of the icy-cold Colorado River onto the muddy bank, from where I’d jumped, fully clothed, to escape the heat. Done and done. In short, in a few days, I’ve positioned myself with my patient guides and raftmates as the Anti-Survivorman.
It doesn’t help that one-armed Civil War veteran Maj. John Wesley Powell voyaged the river during his inaugural 1869 exploration of the Grand Canyon, making me look like a modern wilting pansy. Or that Norman D. Nevills, who pioneered commercial river trips through the canyon starting in the late 1930s, piloted a modified horse trough while using his aunt’s drapery rods (with street stop signs affixed to them) as oars.
Welcome to rafting the Grand Canyon, where there’s so much variation to the rapids, they’re rated on a scale of one (flat water) to 10 (it doesn’t hurt to pray), rather than the International Scale of I to VI. It’s early September and I’m with 12 other guests and three Arizona River Runners guides on a seven-day, 300-kilometre motorized rafting trip from Lee’s Ferry to Whitmore Wash.
The whitewater promise of 160 rapids that buck and foam and spray along the entire 450-km stretch of paddleable Colorado River are a siren call as our group is drawn from Canada, Mexico, Norway, Japan and parts of the U.S. to the revered place National Geographic names runner up on its 2011 Ultimate Adventure Bucket List.
“The first couple of days as a guest, you’re usually getting used to dealing with the hot sun and the sand that invades everything,” says Youngblood-Peterson, 28, a guitar player whose degree in wildlife biology led him to his dream job three years ago as a river guide and boatman. “Then you watch a peregrine falcon dive to snatch a duck from the air or you hike to a waterfall that literally washes your cares away, and you realize you’re truly here. You’re living in the moment.”
Youngblood-Peterson and the other guides thrive on the river, as do their guests, partly because it is so bewitchingly otherworldly. Great blue herons winging overhead, gnarled trees sprouting from rock fissures, bighorn sheep scrambling up cliffs, vivid turquoise creeks, bristling green cacti and brown-beaked Southwestern Willow Flycatchers flitting in feathery Tamarisk plants—this is a journey to the wild side of life. No emails, no phone messages, no TV. The big news here is what the weather plans to do today.
As we first stand on the shore at Lee’s Ferry, where the eastern end of the Grand Canyon begins, we’re trying on life jackets and stuffing gear into dry bags and testing water bottles. When we take our perches along the two rafts’ outer sides, we get a glimpse into our world for the next week. As strangers, we’ll be flung together in a floating community that will eat, bathe, laugh, snore and drink together. As adventurers, some will be sorely tested.
For me, that will come days later.
The muscular Colorado River starts high in the Rocky Mountains, some 97 km northwest of Denver, and races 2,330 km before reaching the Gulf of California. As the river slices through 2 billion years of towering rock and 1,600- metre-high cliffs, the geology opens like a prayer book. During early mornings, sunlight torches the tips of red rock peaks like candles and, when we push off down the river, it plays across our upturned faces.
The river’s cachet is a combination of many features. With a steep elevation drop of more than 3,962 vertical metres, waves that build to six metres, heart-pumping day hikes, thundering rapids in an echoing canyon and the earth’s history etched on dramatic rock walls, it’s a rafting adventurer’s dream.
For Marek Hoffmann, a 65-year-old portfolio manager and geologist working in Norway, this is the trip of a lifetime. “Always, I have thought about here, even as a child,” he says, clambering his burly frame to the front of the boat so the angry slap of waves can drench him.
“It’s more beautiful than I imagined.”
As we motor down the river, he excitedly points out highlights with the guides. Igneous rocks cooled from a molten state, sedimentary rocks dumped by water and winds and metamorphic rocks created by heat, pressure and chemical activities, all in browns, greens and greys beneath an unfurling banner of blue sky.
The daily hikes are a treat and, at Blacktail Canyon, I touch what Youngblood-Peterson calls “The Great Unconformity,” a rock spot marking the gap between Cambrian age sandstone of 500 million years ago, and igneous rock some 1.7 billion years old.
As rafters, we create our own time, night and day. Before night falls, we pull into one of the hundreds of makeshift campsites, stand in a line on shore and help unload pots, pans, cots, chairs, waterproof clothing bags, tents, food, wash buckets and prized cans of beer. We each stake out a place to snooze before dinner and fall asleep to the sounds of a guide strumming a guitar.
In the morning, we run another rapid, the surface air on the river still cool. While temperatures in the canyon rise to above 40°C at summer’s peak, the 8°C water is achingly cold. My clothing keeps me warm, but I don’t peel the layers off fast enough. Big mistake. As the sun rises, the deadly heat clobbers me, and I became the only one on the trip to be felled by it for a day.
On the last morning of the trip at Whitmore Wash, a helicopter comes to lift each of us out of the canyon on a short, scenic ride to Mile 10 Ranch, where I’ll have the best shower of my life.
As I step out of the helicopter at the ranch, I meet a mustached man with a Texas drawl who looks a bit like Western movie icon Sam Elliott. “How was it?” he asks, eager to know because he’ll soon be taking a rafting trip with our guides.
“A blast, but it was a challenge,” I say, the chopper thrumming behind us. “It turns out I’m not much of an outdoor adventurer.”
“Well,” he says, holding his Stetson to his head, preparing to board the chopper to the river I’d left behind. “You are now.”
Grand Canyon Fast Facts
- It’s an all-ages show: Participants range from infants through folks in their upper 80s.
- Search and rescue incidents in 2011: 299
- Number of boaters/rafters each year is about 22,500. Permits are granted through a lottery system.
- Rates: A seven-day raft trip with Arizona River Runners is US$2,460 per person.