Rafting The Colorado River

By Bernadette Bernon

A two-week paddling adventure 226 miles down the Colorado River, deep in the majestic Grand Canyon, is the trip of a lifetime.

Grand Canyon and the Colorado RiverPhoto: ThinkstockPhotos.com/Tonda

We feel the pull of the whitewater long before we can see it. Our group of six paddlers and one guide quiet down and listen. Yes. There it is, a growing roar in the distance, like caged lions. Our inflatable paddle boat begins to speed up in the strengthening current, rushing us toward an immense whitewater rapid called Upset.

Kelsey, our guide, who sits on the stern of our inflatable, steering with her paddle, has us paddling hard to maintain control while she makes sure we're clear on our commands. In the past two weeks, since we put in at Lee's Ferry, we'd become a responsive bunch, paddling in sync to her specific direction, absorbing what to do with our body weight in big whitewater, when to lean in, when out, what to do if she yells "High side!" We learned the hard way where the best places were to wedge a foot under the floor straps or in between the inflatable's pontoons, so we could paddle with all our upper body strength and still stay rooted in the boat.

Paddling down the Colorado RiverOur team waits while Kelsey scouts the river.

The meandering Colorado had gotten more powerful by the day as the striated canyon walls grew higher on both sides of us. In the early part of the trip, the riffles and rapids were exciting. But every day since, they've gotten bigger, and we've grown with them, learning what to do, which was mainly to do whatever Kelsey said to do, and to do it fast. By week two, a rainstorm washed a massive amount of water down the canyon walls, making the river a wild thing.

Normally, the freckled Kelsey wore a bikini, faded shirt, beat-up straw hat, sunglasses, and a life jacket — the picture of an ultra-calm, extraordinarily competent river guide. Not now. Gone is the hat. Her sun-bleached hair is tied up on the top of her head, and she's putting her sunglasses into her dry bag and attaching it to the inflatable with a carabiner. This, we've learned, alerts us that something big and white is about to happen — the same way as when Sam, our trip's fearless leader, casually pulls the strap of his Indiana Jones hat down under his chin.

"A quick stop before we go," she says, redirecting us toward shore. "The second I come down, we push off. Double-check that your life jackets are cinched in tight." Then she checks each of ours and pulls them even tighter. "What we see up there is what we want to find when we go through. If we hesitate, it could change."

We hold the raft at river's edge as she runs up the boulders like a mountain goat. At the top of the promontory, she joins Sam and takes in the long view around the bend, down to the bubbling Upset, studying the location of its tongue, its "line," its "holes," its "pour-overs," the way the water and currents are crashing together on this particular day, at this particular moment, which is different from the last time the guides navigated through it — before the rainfall intensified the power and wave train of the rushing water.

White water rafting on the Colorado RiverA guide navigates the rapids. (Photo: ThinkstockPhotos.com/Anton Foltin)

We stare up at Kelsey on the cliff and chat nervously to lighten the tension. This is a Category 8 rapid on a 1-to-10 point scale, with 10 being the most difficult. In theory, we all know what we're supposed to do if the raft flips or one of us falls out — swim to a boat. And if you can't, then float feet-first on your back through the whitewater with "nose and toes to the sky," and aim toward the eddies along the banks. We're on edge. This is a big kahuna.

These are the final days of our two-week, 226-mile rafting/camping adventure down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon. We've adjusted to a river that has gotten more challenging as we've gone forward — a trajectory that gave us plenty of practice to learn in week one, when the water wasn't quite so explosive.

Every afternoon, we've hiked up the teep canyon walls and along its heart-stopping precipices, our guides showing us Native American rock paintings and sacred Paiute places that have remained undisturbed for hundreds of years. We've showered under waterfalls and watched peregrine falcons and ravens overhead, mule deer and big-horn rams skittering across impossible ledges and inclines.

Drying out gear and setting up tentsWe all dry out and set up the tents.

Every evening, we've pulled our rafts ashore, pitched our tents along the river, and hung our kit out to dry. Then we gathered around the campfire to eat ravenously, talk, and sing the night away, before tucking into cozy sleeping bags. Sometimes we slept outside, sometimes in our tents, but always staring up in awe at a bazillion brilliant stars splashed across velvet blackness, no human-made ambient light shrouding the view.

Loading the boatsThe guides were excellent at what's called "interp" — interpretive explanations of the Grand Canyon geology and history.

Our guides were passionate and deeply knowledgeable about the Colorado and Grand Canyon, regaling us with astonishing stories about its geology and human history; its intrepid trailblazers riding a then-unknown river on wood dories; its Native American people who've lived here for generations, and their customs and reverence for their canyon home; and its champions, the conservationists and politicians who've worked hand in hand over the years to preserve it for future generations.

Colorado River guideKiki, one of our guides, mans her great wood oars.

To us, these guides — Kelsey, Jocelyn, Kiki, Larry, Sam — were the coolest people on the planet. They could read the water to know what's lurking ­underneath. They could scan the rocks and tell you how many millions of years old they were, what this sediment meant, and which tribes lived where — all the while navigating topsy-turvy rubber boats with their great oars. I mean, Kelsey dove in one day and caught a fish with her bare hands!

Oh my God, here she comes," says a paddler. Kelsey bolts down the canyon wall, jumps into the raft, and we push off. She preps us on the approach, and it begins.

"Right forward! Right forward!" she commands, meaning only the three paddlers on the starboard side paddle in unison, which makes us turn left. "Now, ALL paddle forward, all forward!" The water is speeding up like a conveyor belt.

We round one bend, then another, and there it is ahead of us: the long runway of bubbling whitewater.

"Left forward! Left forward! Harder! ALL paddle forward, ALL PADDLE!" We enter the hydraulics just where she's aimed, as shockingly cold whitewater begins pummeling us from all sides. Our rubber duck nose-dives down a roller coaster of whitewater, we bury our bow in it, another rises up before us, and I brace for the capsize. Then we pop out, our boat awash, and Kelsey is still shouting commands to line the raft up to avoid the next obstacle as water meets water with crashing power. "All paddle backward! All paddle back! Stop! Now, right forward! Right forward!"

The sound of the whitewater is deafening. We can barely hear Kelsey above the roar of it. "OK, all paddle forward! All paddle forward! Stop. LEFT PADDLE FORWARD! HARDER!" she commands. We skim around a massive boulder. She's wielding that steering paddle from the stern with enormous strength. "All paddle forward! Harder!" We're paddling our hearts out now. One minute it feels like we're underwater, the only thing holding us onto our raft are our feet wedged under the floor straps. The next, we're back up, torrents of bubbling whitewater crashing over us.

And then ... Upset spits us out! INTACT! In my entire life, I cannot remember ever experiencing this level of adrenalin rush. Kelsey whoops. We all scream and hug in excitement, raise our paddles and slap them together. We did it! We paddled through a Category 8 rapid!

That night around the campfire, giddy about our day, we're united in our new passion for the Grand Canyon and how it has made us feel, well, young again! Tomorrow, we'll head for our biggest rapid of all, Lava, infamous for its power to flip rafts and wreck havoc. Full of turns and roiling whitewater, it's the rapid everyone who paddles down the Colorado both fears and craves.

When we started this voyage, we didn't all know each other. We were country people mixed with city people and represented a spectrum of ages — some fit as fiddles, some not so much. Here, around a campfire under the stars, though, in a canyon of immeasurable beauty and with our muscles aching happily, we were no longer lawyers and grannies and salesmen and administrative assistants. We were explorers, far from soul-crushing discussions of politics, tabloid gossip, war, money. We were sharing our fears and hopes with one another, setting our imaginations free to maybe even rethink our lives a bit. Anything seemed possible out here — all this from allowing this spectacular American river to unite us in the ride of our lives.

Details On The Trip

We used Canyon Explorations and chose to go in October, after the giant motorized rafts are banned for the rest of the season. This gave us the river to ourselves, and to the few other oar boats and dories we came across along the way — a far quieter, more private experience. We highly recommend the full two-week trip, rather than one week. The first week the rapids are smaller (then one-weekers have to hike several hours out and up to the canyon rim, carrying all their gear); the second week, the rapids are bigger and more dramatic (and one-weekers joining it have to hike down the canyon with their gear).

A placid stretch of the Colorado RiverA placid stretch of the river offers a great nook to stop and rest for this traditional wood dory and her crew.

CanX sent excellent prep materials in advance so we knew exactly what to bring and what to expect. Equipment, rafts, and tents were high quality. Our guides prepared amazing meals every day (allergies accommodated). They were consummate professionals from interesting walks of life, supremely capable on the river, and great storytellers. Before the trip, we gathered in Flagstaff, Arizona, where we had a thorough orientation.

Our trip had five "oar" boats, and one "paddle" boat. Oar boats are larger, more stable inflatables; a river guide handles its two large oars, and there are places for four non-paddlers. The paddle boat is a smaller inflatable, propelled by six paddlers, with one river guide steering. We also had two rubber duckies — blow-up kayaks that several people tried on smaller rapids. Each morning, the guides described the rapids of the day; you could decide to go in an oar boat or be part of the paddle-boat team. Cost: $1,965 for six days; $3,895 for 14. Book at least a year in advance; trips fill fast. Children older than 12 welcomed. CanyonExplorations.com 

Bernadette Bernon, our editorial director, lives in Rhode Island. She and her husband, Douglas, cruised their 39-foot sailboat, Ithaka, for six years. Now they enjoy their Seaway 24 lobster boat.

— Published: April/May 2017

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