Austin American Statesman - June 2006

Only a few experience Grand Canyon in open, wooden rowboats like the early explorers

By John T. Davis
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.