Rafting the Grand Canyon

I had put off rafting the Colorado through the Grand Canyon for more than 20 years. I needed enough money to do it the right way, I thought, the way of the purist: 18 days in a 17-foot dory down the entire run, Lee’s Ferry to Lake Mead. But getting to a certain age, I decided I had best do it before I couldn’t. Kathryn and I settled on a j-rig — scorned as the cruise ship of the river — with 16 fellow passengers on one hulk of a boat made up of five rubber pontoons attached side by side.

The 5-night j-rig trip has its advantages: affordability and protection from the wrath of the worst rapids were the two I liked. For time-pressed visitors or newbies wary of spending much longer on the river, its outboard engine offers a faster run. For the gregarious, there’s a bigger sampling of people to befriend. And with four different areas to sit in, guests can choose the intensity of shock they want to face as the boat bangs through some of the larger rapids’ monumental waves: straddling the pontoons up front offers total impact and full drenching, the raised cargo boxes get you above much of the direct assault, while the decks behind provide human shelter from heavy spray. It also has a lot of storage room for food and passengers’ bags and booze, as well as the roomy tents and comfortable cots the company supplies.

Engine noise? Yes, it is there, but less intrusive than I had feared. When we did float, as when our guides, Ronnie and Jeff, had to tinker with the engine after hitting a small log, the silence was precious. I doubt you get the full measure of this towering red rock cathedral without that silence. And floating at the speed of the river in a non-motorized raft, locked in to the natural flow, at one with the river, is what an ideal river trip is all about.


I have done two 2-week float trips, in Canada’s far north and in Alaska. There, it’s less about the adrenaline rush and getting wet — on one trip, the glacial river was 40 degrees — and more about merging into that quiet place called “river time.” First day, everyone is loaded with baggage: stress, worry, critical mind. By day three, you’re blissing out. That chatty brain goes quiet, no need to talk, just watch the water, scan the shoreline and the sky, have a quiet chat with the guide about the grizzlies in the area. By day 10, it’s hard to imagine retuning to your so-called normal life.

The Grand Canyon by j-rig trip is different. It is only five nights long, four full days, punctuated by side-canyon hikes and swims in clear-water tributaries. The adrenaline rush of frequent rapids adds a roller-coaster excitement, and you spend time getting to know fellow passengers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder beside you. But just as you might be sinking into river time on a longer trip, you are instead thinking about the helicopter flight out and a warm shower to wash off the river’s powdery silt. Still, you’re in the Grand Canyon, on the Colorado River and, no matter how you are doing it, it’s a lifetime experience.

In the stretches of calm between rapids, I find myself pondering the walls of this living museum of natural history gliding by. Though not very high at first, the rim eventually looms 6,000 feet above us, rising as the river descends into the maw of the abyss. At the deepest level we touch the canyon’s oldest rock, the Vishnu Schist, nearly 2 billion years old, as ancient as the first one-celled organisms of life on earth.


Thinking back, it’s not the rapids, the meals, the hikes, talking with fellow passengers, not even sleeping under the stars, that stays uppermost in my mind. It’s the stunning rock forms and sculpted walls, the art of nature let loose: a brobdingnagian stone garden. And the age of it all — the miniscule dot of human life on the incomprehensible time line of these walls — is humbling in the healthiest of ways. And the blue sky far above, and the brief moments when the sun pries between the walls and warms us. That’s what I take away.




Go to Grand Canyon Smugmag photo page