Stan Voit: Grand Canyon by river a thrill like none other

May. 06, 2013 @ 12:01 AM

Some 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, and almost all of them see it from the top down. It’s impressive. However, not nearly as many have viewed it from the bottom up, rafting along the roughly 270 miles of the Colorado River, a mile or so below the rims.

That’s what I did. Eight days, seven nights on the Colorado. I cherish my visits to the South Rim, but seeing the canyon only from the top is a little like visiting Disney World and only riding the monorail.

I am no outdoorsman, but this is one trip I had always wanted to make. When a Sevierville friend told me about his experience, I pumped him with questions and then made the call. I knew my wife wouldn’t go, so I invited my son. 

You start out at one of only two places to enter a boat on the river in the canyon: Lees Ferry. Ours was a party of 18. We had two rafts, each with two guides. We brought supplies and clothing they recommended, left behind our computers and cell phones — no service in the canyon anyway — and set out.

The canyon is billions of years old in places. The formations of granite and other rocks are spectacular. Around each bend of the green-shaded river are new discoveries. Majestic cliffs carved into sculptures.

Of course the thrill of the trip are the hundreds of rapids, some of the Class 10. On the fiercest ones, you might fall out if you don’t hang on to the ropes and straps near you. “Grab hold with both hands,” the guide would say as we approached one of the big ones. Nobody had to be told twice.

My son sat at the front of the boat every day, getting the full impact of the rapids, both in force and water. I was up front some of the tine, but in the middle of the boat for a lot of the trip, where you could stay dry.

This was not Pilgrim’s Progress, but neither was it a Caribbean cruise. The guides did all the boating and cooked the meals; the food was outstanding. In between the rapids, when the river was calm and flat, you could almost nap, it was so peaceful and relaxing.

However, there were no amenities. We peed in the river on trips. When we’d make a stop for lunch or a rest, men would walk in one direction, women in another, to do their business. When we stopped for the night, usually around 5 or so (I didn’t bring a watch), the guides would set up our toilet: a seat clamped to a metal box, hidden in the trees.

This was not explained in the material from the travel company, which has a contract with the national park. But you got used to it.

Each person was given  a ground cover, sleeping bag and foam pad. You could use a cot. We slept under the stars, and I have never seen a sky as black and stars as bright as what I experienced in the canyon. You cannot capture such a sight in a painting or a photo. By the way, the canyon in April is, as the hymn says, the land of the cloudless day. Very dry with no humidity. You didn’t need a towel to dry off after bathing in the river.

By the end of the trip you are ready to get back to civilization, but enriched by the memories of the people you met. We made friends with three dairy farming brothers from New Zealand, four Canadians from Labrador, a San Diego pediatric nurse, an Oregon ophthalmologist and an elderly couple — he was 81 — from New Mexico.

I loved the experience. Would I do it again? Probably not. But I treasure each moment and each day.

It was a helluva ride.

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to Twitter: @stanvoit.