Almost everyone has heard of the Grand Canyon. It’s high on most people’s list of things to see before they die, and millions of visitors flock to the canyon rims each year to peer over the edge at the river far below. But to really experience the Grand Canyon, you need to get to the bottom of it, and there is no better way to do that than to float down the Colorado River. For this writer, the river trip I took through the Grand Canyon in 1993 is one of my most memorable lifetime adventures.
The rapid I recall most vividly from that trip was Crystal. Crystal isn’t the biggest rapid, nor is it the most difficult on the river, but it was our boatman’s nemesis. He’d been kicked around by it in the past so he ran it with respect even now after more than 200 trips down the river. We picked up on his energy and boarded the raft that morning with our bellies churning– that strange mix of fear and excitement that makes whitewater rafting so exhilarating.
I can picture the sequence. We moved across the pool above the rapid, clinging tightly to the raft and eyeing the boiling waves ahead nervously. Our boatman eased us out onto a glassy tongue of water that led like the Yellowbrick Road into the turmoil below. Here time seemed to stop and we hung suspended between the quiet smoothness of the pool and the roar of the raging water ahead. Then we were in it, buckling, tossing, plowing our way through the crashing waves and deafening sound of the rapid.
Our raft was big– a 31-foot motorized rubber greyhound bus loaded with people, bags, and equipment. It took the waves firmly, pushing its way through the maelstrom like a huge beast gentling the pounding, pressing, crashing world around us with its sheer size and momentum. Waves washed over us, leaving us breathless from the cold and blinking furiously to clear our eyes so we could see what was coming next. Not that I could decipher much of anything in teeming white and brown water. But it helped me to know what to brace for.
Suddenly the roaring diminished and we floated out into a calm pool below the rapid. We wiped our faces, pulled off our helmets, and smiled broadly. The exhilaration was palatable, even for those of us who’d done little more to ensure our success than to hang on for dear life. We’d made it through unscathed. It was a wild ride, a beautiful place, and we were miles from nowhere with nothing to do but be there in the moment. The only way to describe the feeling was one of pure joy.
Michael Wehrle, a veteran of 33 trips through the Grand Canyon, calls this euphoria “canyon glow.” He says the anticipation of the sensation gets him through the month before a Grand Canyon trip and carries him through several weeks after he returns. He’s a different person when under its influence: immune to stress, unfazed by mini-disasters at work, and patient with even the most ridiculous requests. That feeling keeps him coming back year after year after year.
Wehrle first ran the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1987 in a rubber duckie– also known as an inflatable kayak– he says probably shouldn’t have been allowed in a swimming pool. But he’d swum his whole life and said that he’s as comfortable out of the boat as in, so he was unfazed by the potential of going over.
“I had the time of my life. I felt like a blind dog in a meat shop for the two weeks I was on the river,” Michael recalls. “The minute the trip was over, I ran to a phone to sign up for a trip the next year only to be told they were booked for the season.”
Werhle put his name on a waitlist and a year later, got a call saying space had opened for him on a trip leaving in two weeks. He dropped everything to join the expedition and since then, he has made at least one trip down the canyon each year. A few times, he managed to get in two trips, but the National Park Service has now implemented regulations limiting individuals to a trip a year in order to accommodate demand.
The Grand Canyon is one of the world’s preeminent backcountry experiences. More than 20,000 people float through the canyon every year and more would if they could.
“When I put my name on the list for a permit to do a private trip down the canyon, they estimated the wait was 10 years,” says Allen O’Bannon. O’Bannon finally secured his permit in 2007 after 14 years on the waitlist.
Both Werhle and O’Bannon concur that there is much more to the river experience than the whitewater. The pace of life slows; the days are full but languid and soaked in beauty and color. Light plays with canyon walls transforming them from pale cream to deep red and pink. Side hikes take visitors up past waterfalls and lush green gardens of maidenhair fern and monkey flower. Calcite colors the water of some of the Colorado’s tributaries a deep turquoise blue, and the mineral builds up into curving travertine dams that create stepped pools in the narrow canyons that feed into the main stream of the river.
The river transports travelers through millions of years of geologic history as it plunges deeper and deeper into the gorge descending through time until you reach the Precambrian rock of the Vishnu Schist in the inner canyon that is estimated to be two billion years old. Each layer has its own personality, from the vertical pink cliffs of the Red Wall formation to the layered steps of the Supai Group. In addition to the geology, rafters see desert bighorn sheep and bald eagles, and the remains of past human civilizations in the form of rock granaries, ruined stone shelters and petroglyphs and pictographs.
The campsites are located on large sweeping beaches, and most river trips revolve around good food and comfortable living. People bring along chairs and tables, frisbies and hula-hoops, guitars, games, sun shades, books and more. O’Bannon says on his trip, they had a formal cocktail hour every second night where everyone dressed up in thrift-store finery for the evening.
“The rapids are great, don’t get me wrong,” O’Bannon says. “But what really makes a canyon trip so memorable is the whole package: the side hikes, the camaraderie, the escape from civilization, the beauty of the scenery. It’s like taking a vacation from life.”
Visitors can have two options if they want to take a river trip through the Grand Canyon. They can travel with a commercial guiding company or, if they have adequate boating experience, they can secure a permit through the National Park Service to run their own private trip down the river.
Sixteen companies offer commercial river trips in the Grand Canyon. Trip lengths range from three to 21 days. Passengers can opt to travel by paddle raft, oar raft, motorized raft, wooden dories, or in kayaks supported by rafts. One of the best places to begin an investigation into the different options for commercial trips is to visit the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Associations website at www.gcroa.org. The website lists all the licensed outfitters and provides links to their individual websites as well as providing an overview to the Grand Canyon’s history.
Rafting Permit Lottery
In the past, individuals seeking to organize their own private trip down the Grand Canyon had to sign onto a waiting list for a permit, and as O’Bannon experienced, it often took years before their name came up. In 2006, the National Park Service decided this system was too unwieldy, so they implemented an annual weighted lottery, which takes place in February each year. For more information on the lottery or to put your name in the mix, visit www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/weightedlottery.htm.
Several companies in the region provide support services, such as renting equipment, creating menus, packing food, and providing shuttles for do-it-yourself travelers. The Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association (www.gcpba.org) has a list of links to organizations that provide these kinds of services on its website.