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Rafting the Colorado through the Grand Canyon

Doug Hansen, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Travel News

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. The air is hot but cool breezes intermittently rise from the cold river water to deflect the heat. 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. There are layers folded like pretzels by forces we cannot imagine. Atop some cliffs are formations that resemble medieval fortresses. But the most difficult geological lesson for me to grasp lies in the rock strata -- a mind-bending story of radically changing landscapes alternatively covered in oceans, swamps, deserts and grassy plains.

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." Our journey begins with a predawn meeting in Las Vegas; an hourlong flight over a barren, broken landscape; and a final chance to purchase beer and wine at the only store at Marble Canyon, near Lee's Ferry, our launching point. There are 28 people embarking on this journey, comprised mainly of two groups of longtime friends from Washington and Vermont. At first, I feel slightly out of place as a solo traveler, but that doesn't last long as the warmhearted Washington folks welcome me to their group.

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.


At last we shove off on the great adventure that we arranged nearly 18 months ago, a delay caused by the high demand and limited supply of these Grand Canyon rafting trips. Our fearless leader, R.D. Tucker, pauses our rafts midriver 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."

This introduction to the river's might does little to assuage our apprehension about the infamous rapids that await us. They have names like Roaring 20's, Hermit, Serpentine and Sockdolager (an old slang term for a knockout punch), but the two "Mighty Tens" -- Crystal and Lava Rapids -- cause the most concern. It doesn't help to hear that ABC stands for "Alive Below Crystal."

Our first level 3 or 4 rapids set our hearts racing, but we learn that our enormous J-Rig raft can handle rapids like Mike Tyson can handle punches. These rafts prove almost impossible to capsize, so gradually our confidence builds. I find myself shouting as a wave smacks me in the face, "Give me your best shot! Is that all you got?" Before we enter especially violent rapids, Tucker carefully explains what to expect and reminds us repeatedly, "Those in front need to hold onto the ropes tightly, bend over and SUCK RUBBER! Those behind need to SUCK VEST!"


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