Austin American Statesman - June 2006
- GreatOutdoors.com - August 2014
- The Denver Post - July 2014
- Trekaroo - February 2014
- LA Times - January 2014
- SFGate - August 2013
- Herald & News - August 2013
- San Francisco Magazine - July 2013
- Trekaroo - July 2013
- Outside Magazine - April 2013
- Outside Magazine - March 2013
- Sunset Magazine - Summer 2012
- Beer West Magazine - Summer 2012
- Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine - Sept 2012
- LA Times - July 22, 2012
- Outside Magazine - June 2012
- Men's Journal - June 2012
- National Geographic Traveler - May 2012
- Outside Magazine - April 2012
- Outside Magazine - March 2012
- Sunset Magazine - January 2012
- Condé Nast Traveler - December 2011
- Sunset Magazine - June 2011
- Mercury News - July 2011
- National Geographic Traveler - May/June 2011
- Scouting Magazine - May/June 2011
- The Costco Connection - May 2011
- Outside Magazine - May 2011
- California Visitor's Guide 2010
- UCLA Magazine - October 2010
- LemonDrop.com - September 24 2010
- Men's Journal - June/July 2010
- National Georaphic - June 2010
- Amateur Traveler - Summer 2010
- California Travel Expert - June 2010
- NY Times - April 25, 2010
- LA Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2010
- Travel + Leisure - March 2010
- Los Angeles Times - Travel - February 2010
- Divorce Candy - January 2010
- Virtuoso Life November/December 2009
- National Geographic Adventure - Aug/Sept 2009
- Travel + Leisure September 2009
- Grants Pass Chamber of Commerce August 2009
- Grand Junction Free Press - June 2009
- National Geographic Traveler - May/June 2009
- Outside Magazine - April 2009
- National Geographic Adventure - March 2009
- National Geographic Adventure - February 2009
- National Geographic Adventure - November 2008
- Sydney Morning Herald November 2008
- Smarter Travel - August 2008
- Condé Nast Traveler - August 2008
- Outside Magazine - July 2008
- Outside Magazine - July 2008
- Outside Magazine - July 2008
- Men’s Journal – June 2008
- Forbes.com Travel - June 2008
- Cooking Light - May 2008
- Outside Magazine - April 2008
- Sunset Magazine - March 2008
- Sunset Magazine - March 2008
- Outside Magazine - March 2008
- Wall Street Journal - March 2008
- National Geographic Adventure - November 2007
- National Geographic Adventure - November 2007
- Smarter Travel - September 2007
- Condé Nast Traveler - August 2007
- Prosper - August 2007
- Budget Travel - July 2007
- Plenty Magazine - June/July 2007
- Budget Travel - June 2007
- Men's Journal - May 2007
- Sunset Magazine - May 2007
- US News and World Report - May 2007
- National Geographic Adventure - May 2007
- Virtuoso Life - March / April 2007
- Outside Magazine - March, 2007
- AARP Magazine - January/February 2007
- Men’s Journal - December 2006
- Conde Naste Traveler - November 2006
- Shape Magazine - September 2006
- National Geographic Adventure - May 2006
- Austin American Statesman - June 2006
- Men's Journal - June 2006
- Men's Journal - May 2006
- Travel + Leisure - April 2006
- Virtuoso Life - March / April 2006
- National Geographic Adventure - November 2005
- Executive Traveler - August/ September 2005
- DenverPost.com - June 2005
- Outside Magazine - June 2005
- More Magazine - June 2005
- National Geographic Adventure – April 2005
- Outside Magazine – April 2005
- Travel + Leisure - April 2005
- Town & Country - January 2005
- Outside Magazine - November 2004
- New York Times August 2004
- Smart Money Magazine - August 2004
- The Washington Post - July 2004
- Outside Traveler - Summer 2004
- Outside Magazine - July 2004
- Diablo Magazine - June 2004
- Men's Journal - June 2004
- Salt Lake Tribune, The (UT) - June 2004
- National Geographic Adventure - April 2004
- Men's Journal - April 2004
- AAA Travel - August 2003
- USA Today Travel - August 2003
- Los Angeles Times - July 2003
- New York Times Sophisticated Traveler - June 2003
- San Francisco Chronicle - June 2003
- Money Magazine - April 2003
- Travel + Leisure - April 2003
- Men's Journal - March 2003
- National Geographic Adventure - February 2003
- Condé Nast Traveler - December 2002
- Travel + Leisure - August 2001
- Cigar Aficionado - April 2001
- Great Outdoors - March 2000
- Fast Company - November 1999
- National Geographic Adventure - Spring 1999
- The Los Angeles Times - May 1997
- Outside Magazine - June 1992
Only a few experience Grand Canyon in open, wooden rowboats like the early explorers
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
The wave rises high above the boat, poised and motionless; the river rushes on, but the wave remains in place, looming like a cliff. Late afternoon sun reflects through the turbulent pane of water, rendering it translucent, emerald, glasslike. There is an illusory moment of stasis, when everything seems to hang in the balance. Then, in the blur of an instant, amidst the cacophony of an atonal, soundless roar, the craft plunges headlong into the wave. There is green darkness, pressure, silence and intense cold — the open boat has become a submarine. . .
We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. . . . We are three-quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance. . .
We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. . . . With some eagerness and some anxiety and some misgiving we enter the canyon below and are carried along by the swift water.
—'The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons,' by John Wesley Powell
Those few words are, for my money, one of the most unabashedly romantic passages in American letters. Never mind they were penned under great duress by a one-armed Civil War veteran who, in 1869, was in the midst of a harrowing journey into the heart of a great mystery, at ceaseless peril to himself and his men.
Scientific curiosity and the sheer joy of discovery led Powell and his small band to attempt the first survey of the Grand Canyon by way of the Colorado River — the last proverbial blank spot on the map of the continental United States. It was, as one writer put it, "scarcely better known than Atlantis."
What Powell and his crew achieved over the course of months of terror, privation and toil, tens of thousands now routinely accomplish in days or weeks. Something like 5 million tourists visit the north and south rims of the canyon each year for a peek into its mile-deep recesses. Only about 23,000 or so annually voyage down the river itself, and most of those vacationers travel in the hulking, 40-foot motorized pontoon rafts designed to ferry scores of passengers through the canyon in optimal time.
A tiny minority of those — just a few thousand — opt to experience the river much as Powell did, in the lovely, hand-built open rowboats called dories, lineal descendants of Powell's wooden craft. The progenitor of modern dory trips through the canyon is Grand Canyon Dories, a division of OARS, a river-running and adventure company that operates in North, South and Central America.
Lee's Ferry is the traditional launching spot for all Grand Canyon river journeys. Mile Zero, it says on the maps; distances downriver are measured from this former Mormon ferry crossing. Diamond Creek, our takeout, is 19 days and 226 river miles in the future.
The night before, in a Flagstaff hotel, a Grand Canyon Dories orientation lecture had filled our party both with visions of grandeur (canyon vistas, languid solitude, side canyon hikes to hidden wonders, petroglyphs and ancient Pueblo granaries, pulse-quickening rapids) and ominous premonition (snakebite, broken bones, drowning. . .). Oh, well. Who wants to live forever?
No less than in Powell's day, the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon demand respect. Failure to render it appropriately "has the potential to radically modify your experience," according to the expedition's head guide and boatman, Bill "Bronco" Bruchak. "Radical modification," in his parlance, can involve body boards, field surgery and helicopter medivacs.
With his barrel chest and been-there-done-that demeanor, Bronco, 56, resembles a rough-hewn, more genial Robert Mitchum. He has made by his own estimation some 200 trips through the canyon during 28 years of guiding.
He, like his four companion boatmen (two of whom are female), projects the sort of effortless competence and second-nature élan one associates with surgeons or elite athletes. One guide, when asked about how he planned to proceed through a notably gnarly rapid, replied casually, "Oh, we'll do this little thing, then another little thing — you'll get wet."
There is a sort of common denominator of character among people who pilot small boats through big water; they are, by and large, splendid companions, and what self-pity they possess could be crammed into a thimble.
The next morning, reality takes on the shape of five brightly painted dories and two yellow baggage rafts parked on the beach at Lee's Ferry. We — a party of 19 passengers and crew — launch without undue fanfare and row out into the current. Each dory carries four passengers and a boatman. The colorful craft, with their arched prows and innate elegance, draw admiring glances from everyone back on shore.
The water is slick and dense, colored a deep malachite green. There was a time when the Colorado lived up to its name: red, umber, muddy, muy colorado. But thanks to Glen Canyon Dam upstream (perhaps the most despised man-made feature in the American West among river runners, environmentalists and canyon aficionados), the water is discharged green and clear, straight from the bottom of Lake Powell, which lies impounded behind the dam.
As a consequence, it is cold — breathtakingly so. The artesian waters of Barton Springs are a bracing 68 degrees year-round; the water coming out of Lake Powell keeps the river an attention-grabbing 48 degrees or so.
Nevertheless, for the next three weeks, we will bathe in it, float in it, splash about in it like heedless drunken otters, and imbibe — literally and spiritually — the spirits of the living waters.
Although it is diminished from its glory days, the Colorado is indeed a living entity, as is the canyon, its symbiotic alter ego. Even as we ride over the Pariah Riffle and Soap Creek Rapids — tepid harbingers of whitewater to come — the river is cutting its way downward, just as the surrounding Colorado Plateau is in an inexorable process of geologic uplift. The twin processes, say those whose business it is to know such things, has been going on for about eight million years, give or take an eon.
The rocks lining the shore just downstream from Lee's Ferry are Kaibab limestone; when we reach the Inner Gorge of the Canyon, some 75 miles downriver, those same rocks will be a vertical mile above our heads.
The formations lining the deepest recesses of the canyon — Zoroaster granite and Vishnu schist — are nearly 2 billion years old, some of the oldest exposed rock on the planet. Conversations on the boat become studded with the chewy, pungent names of formations and rock groups: Coconino, Bright Angel, Supai, Muav. . .
Seeing the Colorado River and the canyon close up, in a way that few other travelers experience, is nothing less than a luxury — an intimate one, at that. In one side canyon, you can reach out and touch the Great Unconformity, a geologic feature where two layers of rock — Vishnu schist and Tapeats sandstone — are adjacent to each other, one on top of another. Between 250 million and a billion years' worth of intervening rock and sediment had been laid down and eroded away, again and again, so what you have is a very narrow span of rock representing an enormous span of time. But the most precious commodity of a dory trip through the Grand Canyon is a voluptuous abundance of time.
Whereas the big pontoon rafts can plunge headlong through the canyon in a handful of days, the dories require close to three weeks to navigate the 226 miles from Lee's Ferry to the takeout at Diamond Creek.
Nothing happens fast on such an excursion (the rapids being an exception). The daylight line of demarcation between light and shadow slides up and down the canyon walls in a slow and deliberate pirouette. The moon waxes gradually over the course of a dozen nights, washing the midnight landscape in luminous quicksilver. Side canyon excursions lead to fern-lined grottos, waterfalls and springs (one astonishing feature, Thunder River, leaps spontaneously out of a sheer cliff of Redwall limestone 500 feet overhead). Geology unfolds — cataclysmic tectonic violence frozen in a brief instant of human awareness. Plebian preoccupations flake away like layers of old paint while voyagers surrender to the rhythm of the river. To borrow from the poet Andrew Marvell, there is world enough, and time.
The dories knife through the placid reaches of calm water one oar stroke at a time, and then pivot and dance on the rapids. One day's wet, teeth-rattling run features 16 named rapids over the course of 23 river miles. No sooner is one towering wave train left behind than another looms around the next bend. Before running Lava Falls at Mile 179, one of the biggest whitewater features in North America, the boatmen pull in to shore to wash the grime and silt from their dories. It's a ceremony. "It's a way of showing respect," says one of them.
Later that evening in camp, where we are all ABL (Alive Below Lava), out come the passengers' cigars and tequila. And wine and beer and rum. The last of the sunlight limns the distant canyon rim. Tomorrow is . . . what? Day 15 on the river? Who knows? Who cares? The boatmen huddle off in their own circle, passing bottles, telling lies, cracking jokes — probably at our expense.
Tomorrow it's back on the water, down the river, where fresh new wonders await. Unlike John Wesley Powell, we know the parameters of the river we are running. But its capacity for wonder is just as great today as it was in 1869. Like Powell, each of us is on our own voyage of exploration and discovery.
If you go . . .
Grand Canyon Dories runs its trip as a part of OARS, www.oars.com (Follow links to "Grand Canyon" and "Dory"). (800) 346-6277.
Trips range from four to 21 days and are offered April-October and often are booked up to a year in advance. Cost: $1,278 to $5,068. I took a full-length canyon trip; OARS also offers half-canyon trips that are shorter and cheaper. There are even shorter trips offered at the lower end of the canyon. Web site has details.
Groups taking the full-canyon trip depart from and return to Flagstaff, Ariz., which is the closest airport. Groups taking the half-canyon trip depart from and return to the South Rim and Phantom Ranch in Grand Canyon National Park.