Diablo Magazine - June 2004

Diablo Magazine

Run the Rapids in the Grand Canyon

By Jon Steinberg

"It is especially cold in the rain tonight. The little canvas we have is rotten and useless: The rubber ponchos have all been lost. … So we sit up all night on the rocks, shivering, and are more exhausted by the night's discomfort than by the day's toil."

-From the 1869 expedition diary of Major John Wesley Powell, the granddaddy of Grand Canyon river runners

Last spring, on the fourth night of a nine-day rafting trip down the gullet of the Grand Canyon, I had my own Major Powell moment. As night fell on our riverside encampment, a playful drizzle turned suddenly torrential. We could see the bulwark of an even meaner storm bearing down on us, and so my 11 fellow rafters and I took cover inside our personal tents, wrapping ourselves in down sleeping bags and sipping on mugs of hot chocolate. Through my tent's mesh window and the deluge beyond it, I could almost make out Powell's shuddering silhouette. The one-armed Civil War veteran squatted miserably on a rock muttered curses at me. Ah, get over it, Johnny, I thought. We paid a lot for this comfort.

While I sat there bickering with ghosts, our guide from Outdoor Adventure River Specialists (O.A.R.S.) constructed a waterproof canopy out of five wooded oars and a circus tarp, and went about cooking us all a hot lasagna dinner. Two of the trip's gear-boat pilots, Erika and Shoshanna, even baked cheesecake, the dears.

The rain washed over us all night long, but I awoke to a clear, bright dawn. The damp limestone walls loomed above, and the sky-scraping canyon rim was sheathed in a layer of fine white snow. Having neither suffered through the previous night, nor toiled the previous day, I felt very un-Powell-like. In fact, I can't remember ever feeling healthier or more energized than I did that post-storm morning. Powell's ghost, I suspect, was spitting with jealousy.

River running has come a long way since the intrepid explorer led White Man's first expedition down the Colorado more than a century ago. Whereas Powell and company felt dread at the sound of approaching white water, the fun-loving folks on my O.A.R.S. trip couldn't wait to tackle infamous rapids like Upset, Crystal, and the biggest of them all, Lava Falls. Our head guide, Scotty, promised us a 'King Kong ride" at Lava, and the elephantine, Class-V waves that pounded our 18-foot raft provided us just that.

Where the Powell party felt impinging hunger at every patch of dead water, we drifted along, gorging on buckets of trail mix and listening to our guide's mini stereo bounce "Fanfare for the Common Man" off the canyon walls. Our Nonchalance was best demonstrated by our group's youngest member, a 13-year-old named Sondra, who rode through rapids like a rodeo cowboy, her legs dangling off the front of the raft. Heck, we didn't even have to break a sweat rowing ― the guides took care of that too.

Of course, there are still plenty of ways to exhaust or maim yourself in this remote, unforgiving landscape, before you ever see your raft or dory, you could lose your footing descending the Kaibab Trail, which plummets 4,000 feet from the pavement and parking lots of the South Rim. You could overheat and collapse on a killer day-hike from the river up to Thunder Falls, before reaching the pure, potable water that gushes out of a limestone aquifer, just begging to refill your empty canteen. You could even vanish in the middle of the night, when you blearily search for that Cliffside port-a-loo and end up flushing yourself downriver.

At all times, the Grand Canyon demands your utmost respect. But in return, it gives you unparalleled displays of grandeur that can be heart-stopping one moment, and spark childlike amazement the next.

In one of his diary's most famous passages, Powell remarks on the landscape with an outlook that wavers between inconsolable dread and soul-stirring wonder. "The great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above," he writes. "We are but pygmies, lost among the boulders." Indeed the canyon makes you feel unbelievably small and insignificant, but also incredibly blessed. There is no way to better experience it than by drifting on a banana-yellow raft, with your neck craned to the heavens and your skin being warmed by the sun. Major Powell should have been so lucky.