This inner canyon tour is not just a raft trip. It is partly rafting down the Colorado River, 200+ miles. It is also camping nightly on the many small beaches along the river. It’s running some 50+ rapids, and it’s also several hikes along side streams to spectacular waterfalls. My son and I took the 6-day trip at the end of July when the weather was hot and the river has been muddied by a recent rain storm.
The Canyon itself is deep and filled with towering temples rising 3000 to 5000 feet above the river. I believe if you took the Great Pyramids, Machu Pichu, Anchor Wat, and the Mayan Temples and lined them up, then repeated that over and over in a line to stretch 280 miles, you would have something resembling the Grand Canyon. The Canyon is so overwhelming in size and extent that I couldn’t really grasp it, much less describe it. It’s a bit like landing on the moon or taking a world cruise. One of our party read some excerpts from an author who waxed most poetic on the beauty of the Canyon. I’m afraid I can’t respond with such emotion or emoting. I must react in a different way. It’s interesting how an experience can affect people differently.Rafting crews take 7-8 days to boat the 280 mile length of the canyon. They provide shorter trips as well. There are also trails in and out of the Canyon which allow for different entrances and exits as well as extensive hiking in the Canyon. Hiking down to the river and back up another route would give one a good overview and would take 2-4 days depending on one’s condition. There are a few campgrounds inside, some with water. One must always plan for water as the heat can kill you. We hiked 5 hours down the scenic Bright Angel Trail, which was for both of us very taxing as it descended 5000 feet over 9 miles. All 7 of us who hiked down to the boats, were exhausted that night and most of the next day. The trail down crosses a number of ecological strata from pine forest to desert cactus.
We stayed one night at Phantom Ranch located at the bottom of the canyon near the Colorado River. Phantom Ranch is set up like an old-time ranch with bunk houses and a kitchen/dining hall. It operates as a trading post for the hikers and campers. Our bunk house was air conditioned which was a blessing in the 100 degree heat. The heat played a major part in everyone’s experience. Once on the river there was no escape from the heat day or night except to get wet in the river or side streams which ran 45 degrees cool. There are limited wildlife in the canyon due to desert conditions. We saw some deer, big horn sheep, vultures, few birds, and lots of bats.
The Boat —
A big part of this adventure was getting to know this boat, 37 feet long with 14 tourists and 4 crew. Our boat was constructed in 3 pieces of heavy aluminum frame. Each piece was hinged to the next to make a flexible frame to roll over the rapids and survive heavy use. The frame held trunks to keep all the food and equipment. Under the frame were 2 pontoons in a catamaran fashion. Riders could sit inside on the trunks or out on the pontoons. This boat was powered by a 30HP outboard engine which was used mainly to steer the craft. The river current does most of the work to carry the boat downstream.
There were a variety of boats on the river from kayaks, 4 person oar powered rubber rafts, to large motorized craft like ours. I chose the motor trip because it was faster, less work and less splashing.
Much of the trip reminds me of Huckelberry Finn rafting down the Mississippi, floating with the current. When the motor was cut off, there would descend a peace over the river and passengers. However, the river descends sometimes in steps and sometimes in extended rapids. There are some 70 or more rapids of various sizes and are given a rating of 1-10 for difficulty. Going through a large rapid was like being on a short roller coaster ride and having someone randomly throw a bucket of water on you. The boat would climb the wave, perhaps 10 feet, and descend to the next wave, usually plowing into it and throwing water back on the passengers. This would happen 6-8 times on the bigger rapids. I only felt in danger once when the boat hit a large wave and I was in the front to receive a heavy push from the wave. The boat rolled easily over all the rapids, only causing lots of spray. However the boatmen told stories of boats being capsized or crashing into the canyon side .
The Boatmen —
Our 4 crew were very experienced in the out-of-doors, dedicated to the nature and ecology of the canyon, and willing to share their experience. They were variously involved in hiking, skiing, boating for many years as a life-style choice. Daily during the quiet cruises the crew would present a couple of lectures regarding canyon history, culture, geology or nature. They told many interesting stories about pioneer boatmen and their colorful antics or disasters. These boatmen (as they wish to be called) have a tight community with proud traditions and trusting relationships. They spend their lives on the river while tourists come and go.
Our pilot was truly remarkable. I have rarely met a person both charismatic and wise, both charming and capable. His job is to captain the crew, steer and maintain the boat, lead the expedition, ensure the passengers’ comforts, and most important, not run the boat into something big. He had 13 years experience on this river and one could tell that “White Lightning” was “his boat”, although he works for a company that manages many boats. But once on the river, there is no help and no turning back, everything rides on the pilot’s experience and ability. He would “hold court” daily from his command center at the stern, explaining the day’s activities, warning of upcoming rapids, and joking with others. End of day when boat was beached, he could be heard entertaining any who would stay aboard. His humor and open-management style infected the crew and passengers with a spirit of cooperation and good will.
One of the highlights of the trip was observing our pilot, realizing how much we needed him. I can imagine him navigating large ocean-going yachts for rich patrons. But then, his dedication to the river and canyon are so much a part of his charm.
It was remarkable that no one complained about the food because in a group you usually hear something. Possibly we expected hardship and bad food; possibly we were a tolerant lot. But more likely it was the quality of the menu. It was more like a church bar-be-que than your typical backpacking fair. We had grilled chicken, fajitas, steak, hamburgers, and wurst with salads for dinner. And breakfast was eggs, french toast or pancakes. For lunch we made our own sandwiches. The crew had a load of heavy-duty cookware, tables, wash tubs, folding chairs and even a portable potty. The larger boat afforded the opportunity for greater luxury.
The Passengers —
Given the small group of 14, there was an unlikely chance of a great diversity. The price of the tour and the physical hardship clearly limits the types of people to be found on this river. We had one family of 4, a 5-person group of seniors (all friends), two father-son pairs and a solo male. They were mostly seniors and no children. We were a typical middle-class, white, educated, easy going group, uniformly liberal and ecological.
Many struggled physically with the hiking, mounting the pontoon boat, and sleeping on the ground. We all made considerable sacrifice to have an exceptionally unique wilderness experience. One lady had to be medivac’d by helicopter for health reasons. I would compare it to a trip down the Amazon or Nile, or a safari in Africa or Alaska. One had to reckon with sleeping on the ground, fine river sand in everything, limited clear water, no showers, hot weather and lots of sun. The trip price was $2100 per person plus tips, and the cost of transportation to/from the staging areas, hotel stays before/after the tour, etc.
On the plus side was the unique opportunity to be out of contact with civilization, participating in a group exploration of beautiful landscapes, working as a team to survive in the wild, and learning a lot of history and natural lore. The canyon provided so may remarkable sights that they became routine. Rafting the canyon is a perfect opportunity to study geology or astronomy. Every geological era is represented in the rock strata, and there is different rock everywhere. The night sky was unobstructed by lights or pollution. I must have taken 500 photos as there is no way to determine if one view is better than the next. Highlights for me were the starry sky, swimming in several streams and waterfalls, confronting a close range the towering walls or rock, participating in a more ancient and primitive life, and observing the organization of a boating expedition.
Many said they would return or wished they had done this trip when younger. For me it was worth the time and effort but the ultimate impact may be yet to discover. I must review my slides.