As we searched for a place to put our tent on the rocky surface of a campground called Ledges, I heard a trickle and discovered clear spring water flowing over an upper rock shelf. I was grimy and desperately needed to wash up, so I grabbed soap and shampoo and headed for my newfound shower.
This was the sixth night of a raft trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Only after the fact did I learn that soaping up in fresh water was not allowed — even biodegradable soaps can kill algae that grow on rocks. That was just one of many rules this nature neophyte didn’t know.
When Major John Wesley Powell’s curiosity led to his 1869 expedition down the Colorado River as it flows through the Grand Canyon, he was an experienced explorer. When I decided to follow his path, I was clueless about what the adventure would entail.
A visit to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim many years ago left me fascinated with its natural beauty and magnificence. I vowed to return and traverse the Colorado River from the depths of the canyon, to see the massive walls from the bottom up instead of top down.
But I didn’t know a thing about camping.
What I did know was that the Grand Canyon is one of the world’s most spectacular natural sites — a majestic geologic destination with multiple layers of rocks revealing stories of volcanic eruptions, upheavals and the power of wind and water to carve this deep gorge. Certain layers of sandstone and limestone glowing gold and red in brilliant sunsets may date back as far as 2 billion years.
Although I’m not fond of foregoing usual habits of cleanliness and comfort, I was willing to challenge myself to experience the canyon’s immensity and incomparable beauty on this adventure.
For 10 days my companions and I rafted down 225 miles of the Colorado River from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek, Ariz. We camped on the banks of the dam-fed river, hiked on narrow ledges and scrambled over jagged boulders on unmarked trails. We splashed through rapids (large and small), bathed in 45-degree river water (or held out for getting drenched by flowing waterfalls) and brushed sand out of our sleeping bags.
I learned skills I’d never needed before, from pitching a tent to brushing my teeth in the dark. I learned to deal with daily hat-hair and wet feet and listened to unfamiliar night sounds when trying to snooze.
At sunset and sunrise — yes, we were awake — shadows crept over canyon walls, creating a constantly changing kaleidoscope of brilliant earth tones and geometric patterns. Since campfires were not permitted, nightfall meant bed time — but also time for watching meteors dart across the star-spangled sky.
The first day of our early September journey started after noon, so we only covered 18 miles past the put-in. Day two was full of rapids and put us 30 miles farther downstream. The next day included hiking a 700-foot incline (when you start at the bottom of a canyon, every trail leads up) to ancient granaries and breathtaking river views.
We stopped for lunch above the junction with the Little Colorado River, never expecting the change waiting around the bend. Our lead guide, Randy Tucker, encouraged everyone to get in the river and wash up right then. Thank goodness we followed his instructions, because the water soon turned a dark butterscotch color, the result of recent rains filling the normally-turquoise tributary with silt that spilled into the main river at the confluence.
Late afternoon, Randy led a group on a hike up the canyon wall to look over Unkar Rapid, whose 16-foot drop we would tackle early the next morning. Awakened at 5:30 a.m. by a conch horn signaling coffee was ready, we gobbled breakfast of honeydew melon, cantaloupe, English muffins and eggs cooked to order. One thing we could count on throughout the journey was delicious food. (We especially relished the hot soup our guides prepared the day we were rain-soaked by noon.)
We broke camp, packed dry bags and set off on a span of river called the “Roaring 20s” — 10 rapids in 20 miles. Water splashing from swirling waves provided thrills as our raft bounced along, but we welcomed its cooling effect in the 90-degree heat.
Short hikes followed: to petroglyphs near Stanton’s Cave; to parallel waterfalls streaming over red rock at Vasey’s Paradise; and to Redwall Cavern, a vast chamber carved by the river with a deep overhanging rock ledge and thick sand underfoot. We were told to eat lunch— Mexican salad in tortillas — by the river so any dropped food particles would wash away and not contaminate the pristine landscape.
Each evening we made camp at a different site. We pitched tents and sipped wine until it was time for gourmet dinners our guides prepared. After dark, Eric, our historian guide, entertained us with stories about early canyon explorers.
Total outdoor immersion gradually became less foreign to me. My muscles adapted to trampling over rocks, and waterfalls washed away my grit and sweat. I learned that stretching boundaries is good for body and soul. Our group encompassed a variety of physical abilities, and no one was required to do more than they felt comfortable with. Still, everyone found they could do more than they thought given a little encouragement and help.
Although a raft trip on the Colorado River may sound daunting, it’s actually doable for anyone with the right mindset. You’ll come away with a renewed sense of awe and reverence for the Grand Canyon.
IF YOU GO
Grand Canyon rafting trips range from one day to several weeks. Motorized raft trips allow extra time for hiking and exploring because they cover more miles than human-powered rafts can in the same time-frame. Inflatable rafts (guides typically do all the paddling) are reasonably comfortable, but purists may prefer hard-hulled, old-style boats. Outfitters must be approved by the national park. Some options:
Arizona Raft Adventures, www.azraft.com
Arizona River Runners, www.raftarizona.com
Western River Expeditions, www.westernriver.com