In my 50-year-old, banged-up Grumman 17-foot aluminum canoe (do they even make these anymore?), we were floating through the Class I riffles near the headwaters of the Rappahannock River, 60 miles west of Washington, when the idea of paddling something more challenging occurred: “What about rafting the Grand Canyon?” said my friend Ann from the bow.
Unstated but implied was the qualifier “before we die.” Both Ann and I are at the age when death is no longer an abstraction, but rafting the Grand Canyon had never been on my bucket list. Just getting there seemed like too much trouble. If I was going to spend almost six hours in a plane, I might as well fly to Paris, where my daughter lives, for a long-overdue visit with my two grandchildren.
Still, I told Ann I thought it was a splendid idea, for I doubted it would ever happen. Because the National Park Service strictly limits the type and frequency of Colorado River trips through the canyon, there can be as much as a year-long waiting list for multi-day expeditions offered by the 15 rafting companies licensed to lead tours there.
Nevertheless, Ann, a more seasoned traveler than I, was able to reserve a private-party trip for the following fall through Arizona Raft Adventures. There would be 20 of us making our way through the billion-year-old rocks and Class III-V whitewater of the Grand Canyon. (Actually, the canyon’s rapids are rated on an older “1-10” system, in which a rating of 10 is roughly equivalent to a Class V.) Soon, AZRA emails about preparations for the trip began to appear regularly in my inbox, including what equipment to buy and how to get in shape for the strenuous hike down the canyon’s Bright Angel Trail to the river.
“The Voyage of the Ancients,” we started calling it. With few exceptions (younger spouses and two couples’ adult children), we were all senior citizens. For me, whose most recent birthday had marked 70 years, the trip could be both a celebration and an act of denial (I’m really not that old!). But given age-related physical ailments coupled with Bear Grylls-like wilderness obstacles, the thought occurred: Was it possible that some of us might not make it all the way?
AZRA went out of its way to ensure that a mid-trip helicopter rescue wouldn’t be required. After reviewing our individual medical histories, the staff contacted many of us via phone or email: Don’t forget your epinephrine auto injector! Make sure you get a prescription for altitude sickness! (The canyon’s South Rim has an elevation of 7,000 feet.) The 9.5-mile hike down the Bright Angel Trail to the river, at 2,000 feet, is steep, rocky and rigorous; please check with your doctor to make sure your arthritic knees can handle it.
To avoid that hike, Ann and a few of her friends had opted for a put-in farther upstream at Lees Ferry (where a road meets the river at the canyon’s Mile 0), which added five days to the nine-day trip. They were dangling their feet in the cool river water and enjoying a late, guide-prepared lunch when the rest of us stumbled down the Bright Angel Trail. We had started our hike on the South Rim at 6 a.m. As recommended by AZRA, I had brought along hiking poles; but by the time I got to the Phantom Ranch (Mile 88), where they were waiting, it felt like I needed a walker.
Had I carried my 30-pound backpack holding all the items AZRA said were needed for the trip (including water shoes, rain jacket, thermal underwear and swimsuit, plus numerous vials for my daily prescription pill routine), I don’t think I would have made it. For a charge of $70 apiece, my wife, Pat, and I had sent our backpacks down the trail on the “mule duffel” service.
With our guides’ encouragement, we cooled off by flopping fully clothed into the shallow stream feeding the Colorado. By the time we boarded the rafts, just a few minutes later, our soaking clothes had dried in the hot desert air. But soon we would get soaked again — splashed by our very first Colorado rapid.
Six boats transported our group, with one guide in each. Guides maneuvered four inflatable rafts with oars while we just held on tight, sometimes screaming as if on a roller coaster. A fifth inflatable was the “paddle boat,” in which, instead of a single oarsman, we took turns paddling six at a time, with the guide in the stern steering and barking orders. The sixth boat was an old-fashioned, oar-driven dory, similar to what John Wesley Powell used when his party first navigated the Grand Canyon in 1869. It gracefully bobbed through the rapids like a cork, carrying two of us in the stern and in the bow.
What makes the Colorado’s rapids formidable is the sheer volume of water — as much as 30,000 cubic feet per second — pouring over debris flows, natural dams created by huge boulders deposited during long-ago floods. Although most of the rocks are underwater, the hydraulics create holes and walls of waves that can knock you out of the boat. Which is exactly what happened that very first day on a rapid called Granite (rated 9+), knocking Forrister (one of the youngest among us) out of the paddle boat’s bow into the roaring water. He handled the situation just as the guides had instructed — floating close to the raft until the rest of us could pull him up by his life jacket. He even had the presence of mind not to let go of his paddle.
Also, as the guides had warned us, most dangers lay not on the river but on land, including harvester ants, which often shared our sandy campsites. The pain from their acidic bites could last for hours. While scrambling over loose rocks in side canyons, several of us slipped, sometimes seriously; Dorothy, for instance, sported a hematoma on her thigh in the shape of a huge, purplish heart. And on the way to the camp “bathroom” early one morning, Denise could be heard to say loudly but calmly: “Rattler here!”
But no need to worry, our guides quickly assured her. The coldblooded rattlesnake would still be sluggish from the nighttime chill. Scorpions, however, apparently aren’t so temperature-sensitive, and Ann later reported that she had inadvertently brought one home in her duffel.
For those of us worried about such creepy-crawlies, the guides offered tents with zippered screens. But most chose to sleep under the stars in cloudless skies. A full moon shone so brightly that the pale, rusty canyon walls seemed to reflect a giant fluorescent spotlight — so brightly that Pat, although plenty tired after strenuous days of hiking, swimming and paddling, complained she needed a blindfold to fall asleep.
Well before the moonrise and just after the sun dropped beneath the high canyon walls, the guides would miraculously prepare dinners fit for a five-star resort. Really? At least they tasted that way to ravenous appetites razor-sharpened by rigorous outdoor living. When I got home and weighed myself, I had actually gained a pound or two from all the steak, chicken and pasta, not to mention egg and blueberry-
pancake breakfasts and taco salad and turkey sandwich lunches. And we never ran out of wine (boxed, not bottled), carted from one campsite to the next via the rafts.
After dinner, around the campfire, the entertainment was also resort-worthy, thanks to the group of paddlers that Ann and her husband, John, had assembled. Another John, a Washington author, led a discussion on the new book he is writing on Powell, the scientist and explorer known for his exploration of the canyon. Another evening, another author, Jim, talked about the subject of his 17th and latest book — Martin Luther.
Bill, a former Time foreign correspondent, shared his insights on Ukraine. David and Tom, environmental activists, led a lively exchange on the high-stakes political drama unfolding around climate change. And as the campfire dimmed, Bruce, one of the river guides, often read poetic observations from Edward Abbey and other lovers of the Western wilderness.
But the most memorable evening had to be Dorothy’s 71st birthday celebration, in which she enlisted river guide Natalie to portray her younger self. After Dorothy blew out the candles on a birthday cake prepared by the other guides, Natalie suddenly leaped from the darkness in a Wonder Woman costume (did she always carry that in her duffel?). There ensued some witty, slightly rehearsed repartee across the generations.
“Whatever happened to the courageous young Dorothy who spent the night in the D.C. jail protesting the Vietnam War?” teased Wonder Woman, arms akimbo.
“She’s right here, still fearless,” Dorothy responded. “She’s a Colorado River guide.”
With no cellphones or Internet access, the nine days rafting the Lower Canyon blended seamlessly into one another, with time measured only in the miles traveled — averaging almost 20 miles a day. Still, each day was different.
On a sandbar one evening before dinner, Natalie taught us yoga poses. Sometimes, the less timid among us would bodysurf the rapids. On flat stretches of the river, sometimes a guide would let us “graduate” from the paddle boat to try rowing as oarsman in charge on another raft. When we stopped for lunch, we would explore the creeks and waterfalls feeding the Colorado. High up on many rock faces pictographs representing Native American rites of passage from centuries earlier could be seen. We became educated — through the guides and the books they provided — in geological time. By trip’s end, we could read the canyon’s intricate strata of gneiss, granite, schist, shale and travertine like the hands on a billion-year clock.
We also learned that the most sudden changes to the Grand Canyon have occurred in my generation’s relatively tiny life span, starting with the Glen Canyon Dam, just a few miles from where the Upper Canyon raft trip begins at Lees Ferry. Constructed in the early 1960s, the dam has permanently altered the Colorado River’s ecosystem — making downstream flows constantly cold (52 degrees) and dependent upon the dam’s power needs.
We also must bear generational responsibility for the damage caused through air pollutants and ozone, fecal coliform, non-native fish and parasites, mercury poisoning, and uranium mining, not to mention a water shortage sucking the Colorado dry.
Those unhappy thoughts were far from our minds, however, at trip’s end. On a Sunday morning we loaded ourselves and our gear into an old school bus waiting for us at Diamond Creek (Mile 226) to take us back to civilization. It would be a three-hour drive to the DoubleTree hotel in Flagstaff through the Hualapai Indian Reservation. In lieu of a road (none existed), we bounced along the middle of a dry creek bed. We so looked forward to our first hot shower in over a week.
But the grade was steep, and the ride was bumpy. The bus overheated and then broke down in the desert wasteland. If any one place on the planet could lay claim to “the middle of nowhere,” this had to be it.
But rugged, battle-hardened veterans that we had become, we didn’t freak out. Instead, we bantered in stoic, foxhole humor while awaiting rescue.
“Is there any boxed wine left?” Lucretia (a.k.a. Lucky) said with a laugh.
Staring across the sweltering desert, John, the author, said he spied “Native American zombies come to take us all away.”
The other John, Ann’s husband, shared witty insights from his skeptical reading of a book about American exceptionalism.
“We’ve been left behind,” came a voice from the back of the bus. “We’re the only humans left on Earth.”
“No,” another voice chimed in, “unfortunately for the planet, I bet humans are still in charge.”
In the hotel shower many hours later, I looked down to see that the water running into the drain had turned black as midnight. The last time I had been that dirty was as a little boy playing cowboys and Indians, refusing to take the bath my mother had drawn. A shower never felt so good.
Nicklin is a Virginia-based newspaper and magazine publisher.
More from Travel:
Xanterra Parks & Resorts
Xanterra operates all accommodations within Grand Canyon National Park except campgrounds. Campground information and bookings can be made directly through the National Park Service (nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/cg-sr.htm). Starting at about $100.
DoubleTree by Hilton
1175 W. Route 66, Flagstaff, Ariz.
The hotel is only one of many chains and other hotels in Flagstaff, which, as the closest city to the Grand Canyon National Park, provides a convenient launching pad for wilderness excursions. Rooms starting at about $100.
Arizona Raft Adventures
One of the 15 private companies that contract with the National Park Service to provide Colorado River trips from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek. Each offers a variety of trips lasting up to 18 days on a variety of craft. Trips from $250 a day.
The Park Service’s list of concessioners is at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/river-concessioners.htm.