I'm a bit embarrassed to describe my first trip to the Grand Canyon, which occurred a decade ago during a post-college, three-week-long cross-country move from New York to California. With little money left and no jobs waiting for us at the end of the road, my soon-to-be new roommate and I drove to the South Rim, stopped at a few scenic overlooks, then continued west in her teal Chevrolet. That year I spent more time in a movie theater watching My Cousin Vinny than I did at the only one of the seven natural wonders of the world located in the contiguous United States.
At last, I thought as the small plane pulled up on the tarmac at Grand Canyon Airport, I was going to make up for that misguided youthful desire to jump into a 40-hour workweek. In the morning I'd be hiking 10 miles into the canyon, then rafting 100 miles of the Colorado River with the veteran river-running company OARS. From the air, the Colorado, green and meandering through pale, towering striations of rock, had looked benign, not like one gnarly North American waterway. Although we'd be exploring just over a third of its 277-mile path through the canyon on our eight-day trip, we'd encounter 19 rapids rated 5 or higher (on the desert scale of 1 to 10), including the infamous Crystal Rapid and Lava Falls. As a Grand Canyon and whitewater novice, all I knew about these rapids was what I'd read: that "ABC" was an acronym for "Alive Below Crystal," and, from my OARS itinerary, that our rafts would be "swept into the churning, spitting power of the largest rapid in the Grand Canyon" and "battered by huge waves" in Lava. This would be one heck of a redemption.
According to the National Park Service, more than 4 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year. Most come to the South Rim - the North Rim, 1000 feet higher in elevation and closed in winter, is a 200+ mile drive away - where an easy walk on the Rim Trail takes visitors right to the edge of the abyss. I followed the Rim Trail until I came to the Bright Angel Trail, and couldn't resist a sneak peek at the red dirt, singletrack route I'd be following to the bottom. On my right was the canyon wall, and to my left a sheer drop and a long view of the switch-backing trail.
Tempting as it was to keep going on Bright Angel, I didn't want to miss the ranger talk about the California condor. In 1996, after a 72-year absence in Arizona, the great black birds had been reintroduced in the state. Although still highly endangered, the ranger said that Grand Canyon visitors were often lucky enough to see one. With a 9½-foot wingspan, orange head, white armpits, graceful flight and numbered wing tags, they were easy to recognize. "What you'll remember most though," he said to his kid-rich audience, "was how the condor got its white feet." It sounded like the start to a cute parable, not the result of a disgusting - to human ears, anyway - habit. To cool themselves down, condors urinate on their feet; salt is what's left behind after evaporation. His talk came to a sudden end when a large black bird soared into view, then settled on an outcropping 30 feet or so below the canyon rim, where two other condors had already perched. For the next half-hour I watched as they hopped from rock to rock, wings outstretched, or glided in graceful arcs.
The stretch of Rim Trail between the Bright Angel Trailhead and the El Tovar Hotel is probably the most traveled route at the Grand Canyon, but I didn't mind being part of the masses for a day. I checked out the art in the Kolb Studio; viewed canyon walls awash in shades of saffron, purple and copper from the native stone Lookout Studio, designed by famed architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter; and lounged about the elegant El Tovar Hotel, opened in 1905 to accommodate visitors arriving by rail. That I was spending the night at the South Rim's premier hotel, with its wide veranda, hunting-lodge lobby and formal dining room, was pure luck. It was the first cancellation after two weeks of persistent calls to the Grand Canyon reservation line, and I thoroughly took advantage of my night of luxury.
It was a whole other experience the next morning. I stepped through the door of the El Tovar and onto a blanket of snow at least an inch thick while snowflakes swirled from the gray dawn sky. As I waited at the trailhead for Jean, the hiking partner I'd been paired up with by OARS, I took a few photos. Not quite the sunrise pictures I'd imagined, though they'd make a nice contrast to my snapshots from the day before when skies were clear and mild. It's usually the heat that hiking guides warn you about, which frequently exceeds 100 degrees within the Grand Canyon in spring and summer.
Mule deer foraged about under a white-coated canopy of scrubby piñon pines as Jean and I began our unhurried descent, avoiding the puddles and slick mud as best we could, and stopping frequently to take in vistas framed by ponderosa pines. There's about a vertical mile elevation drop from rim to river, and with the subsequent temperature rise the snow soon turned to light rain. We were having a pleasant time of it and, I noted as we greeted the backpackers slogging uphill, getting off easy. Not only were we not carrying tents or sleeping bags, we'd be helicoptering back out of the canyon. We followed the river for another mile, crossed at the silver bridge, then headed to the boat beach at river mile 87 to meet our travel companions. As we waited, a long line of mules carrying yellow-slickered riders slowly paralleled the river.
OARS offered three options for this trip through the canyon. Our middle leg, to Whitmore Wash, required the greatest vacation-time commitment, but we'd be getting the best of the big water. In fact, Horn Creek Rapid, ranked a 7-9 in my Belknap's Waterproof Grand Canyon River Guide, was just two miles downriver from the boat beach where we swapped places with the first-leg adventurers. Each of the three bright-yellow, 18-foot inflatable passenger rafts could hold up to five guests, with the raised center seat reserved for a single guide with a pair of long oars. Whatever guilt I felt at sitting back and letting someone else do all the hard labor was overshadowed by the relief that if we flipped, no one could blame me! We were in much better hands with our three guides, husband-and-wife Bruce and Nancy, and team leader Scotty, each of whom had decades of experience rafting these waters. Erika, Ben and Shoshanna manned the three additional gear boats.
Secure in my life jacket, I took a forward position in Bruce's raft. When we hit the rapids, I'd be in the wettest, wildest seat in the house. My friend Michael, the only person I knew who'd rafted here, had described the river as fairly quiet water interspersed with rapids that could "really turn your head around." As with many large, ominous things, we heard it before we saw it - a low rumble that gradually built as we rode the smooth tongue into the first big rapid. The raft plunged downhill, tipping the two of us in the front row toward the base of a white wave that towered above our heads before letting go with a powerful crash, flooding the floor to our ankles and funneling a rivulet of icy water down my upturned collar. And then we were through it, sucking out the water with the bilge pump as our heart rates returned to normal.
Our late-afternoon start, combined with a darkening though no longer drippy sky, meant a short day on the water. Two miles of easy cruising later, we pulled into camp and, after a brief lesson, got started setting up our tents while the crew cooked. It was a routine I quickly got used to: help unload raft; find flat spot; erect tent (shake for sand, spiders and scorpions); try to maintain balance while washing hair and self in 48-degree river (with biodegradable soap); head to "kitchen" and grab can of soda; and read, chat or write in journal until dinnertime. My journal entries were nothing like those of Major John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran who, in 1869, led the first expedition of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. He described rations withered to a "a very little spoiled flour and a few very dried apples," while I wrote about curried fish and shrimp scampi, and how on one pouring-rain evening, as I lay in my tent reading by flashlight, Shoshanna and Erika cooked two kinds of lasagna and a cheesecake. Powell wrote of rain that came down in torrents and how, with rubber ponchos lost and not a blanket apiece, he and his men were up all night shivering. I, in my tent, just added a layer of fleece and snuggled deeper in my sleeping bag when nights were wet and cold. But most of the time they weren't, and on those nights I stretched out under the sky on beaches or wide rock ledges and was lulled to sleep by the rush of water, or once by musical Nancy's clear, full voice.
If anything was cushier for Powell than it was for us, it would have been Crystal Rapid, which in his time was just a little riffle. It wasn't until 1966 that a flash flood transformed it into one of the baddest rapids in the canyon, requiring a far-right run to avoid a giant, raft-eating hole. I reminded myself to point my feet downstream if I fell overboard, pulled my hat string tight and took two good handholds as Nancy guided us through without a problem, though soaking us all. Hermit and Granite had drenched us earlier that morning, and after Crystal had come the rest of the "jewels," like Sapphire and Ruby, which had plenty of kick to keep our hair wet for most of the day.
When not on the river, we hiked trails bursting with scarlet monkeyflower to places like the tiered waterfalls of Elves Chasm, emerald green with moss; and followed watery Matkatamimba Canyon to a natural amphitheater. On a day when the sun stayed out and I traded long johns for shorts and a T-shirt, Shoshanna tied all six rafts abreast and took them downstream alone while the rest of us had a full-day hike. We passed hand-over-hand across churning water, lunched next to 100-foot Thunder Falls, traversed arid Surprise Valley on thousand-year-old trails of the Ancient Puebloans, and peered inside the delicately layered gorges of Deer Creek. Everywhere we looked, we saw our rewards for visiting in unpredictable April - the pinks, reds and yellows of blooming flora, including an exquisite yucca.
Our trip came in like a lion and it was going to go out that way too. The rain plinked and plonked as we packed our rafts for our final day on the water. The wind pushed so hard upstream that passengers teamed up with guides for double the rowing power, and still we crawled toward Lava Falls. With another expedition right ahead of us, we climbed atop black volcanic rock and watched them get dragged into the long, frothing, writhing channel. As the waves hit, their boats seemed to disappear for full seconds, but all of them made it out unscathed. Then it was our turn. Scotty, with me among his passengers, was first to enter the boiling pit. The boat bucked and shivered, and the river hurled plumes of liquid at us from every direction before shooting us out into calmer water. Scotty made a quick right turn and we clambered out just in time to watch Shoshanna's raft spin around and head backward toward the first of three big waves. But she took each with ease, and it wasn't long before the wind was again our greatest foe.
In the morning, we ascended three by three to the helicopter pad marking the first leg of the journey home. And as the canyon receded, so did the memory of a long-ago trip. I had a better one to take its place.