Smart Money Magazine - August 2004

smart_money

ROUGHING IT

by Raymond Sokolov

If it was good enough for Tom Cruise and Jeffrey Katzenberg, it was good enough for me. I was picked up in Las Vegas and whisked away in a charter plane that flew low over butte and canyon to a place called the Bar 10 Ranch. There, we enjoyed a relaxing day pitching horseshoes, having a traditional ranch supper and watching Garth, the bowlegged, sharpshooting cowboy, splatter clay pigeons. The next morning it was up early for another adventure: a ride in a six-seater helicopter that lowered us deep into desolate canyons to a sandy helipad only slightly bigger than a coffin.

Finally, we were there, on the bank of the zippy Colorado River, taking in the scenery and not paying too much attention to the young guides who were carefully unloading our belongings. Right on schedule, the dories glided ashore.

Did I forget to mention what all this was for? I had come to spend four days rapid-running through the Grand Canyon, aka the world's most dramatic geological site, in a wooden boat with the head of an albino mountain sheep painted on its side. This would be my first experience of whitewater tourism, a burgeoning industry that attracts families and rapid-running hotdoggers to fast rivers all over the world. I'd chosen this trip because the Canyon is, well, the Canyon, and I guessed, correctly, that I would prefer a small rowboat to an elephantine raft. Apparently, I was also in for a life-changing experience. The outfit that ran my trip, O.A.R.S., promised us an "intimate, orga nic" experience, not to mention the hint of glitterati with past guests such as Tom, Jeffrey and Donna - as in Karan, who gushes on the company's Web site that she "never thought a raft could feel like a cruise ship."

Glitter a side, it's remarkable what you can get if you don't mind the usual outdoor hassles of sleeping out side, bailing a little water and braving a group of menacing rocks called "the fangs." My extravaganza with O.A.R.S., which stands for Outdoor Adventure River Specialists, came to just $ 1,500, air mattress and monogrammed Tecates included. And on some of these trips, it gets even cushier: Had I shipped out with Bill Dvorak Kayak & Rafting Expeditions; eight-day Classical Music Journey on Utah's Green River, I could have enjoyed a river side string quartet each day for a similar price. For gourmands, Texas River Expeditions offers a three-day tour down the Rio Grande in which Francois, a professional chef, will whip up beef Wellington, duck and rack of lamb each night. Think you can't raft and paint at the same time? White Water Warehouse's Tony Sheets Watercolor Workshop, a five-day excursion down Oregon's Rogue River, includes river side painting demonstrations by the artist himself, who will also mentor you as you create your own work of art. Even O.A.R.S., which touts itself as the most down-to-earth of these outfits offers yoga, massages and sushi on some voyages, including one in which guests are helicoptered nightly to a five-star hotel.

In the end, though, even if they guarantee you Julianne Moore in your tent, you still have to survive a lot of rapids before you get to find out if she snores. Indeed, most people sign on to these river trips for the thrills instead of the frills, and soon enough it was time for us to push off into the turbulent Colorado. I hadn't heard of a dory before this adventure, but learned that the old-fashioned boats we'd be riding in were actually pricey descendants of the original, flat bottom Portuguese fishing boats. They carry four people plus a guide and supposedly can run a river faster than an inflatable raft. More important, they're more comfortable. For our trip, we were assigned seven crew members, three dories and two inflatable rafts, which was a lot, con sidering the only paying guests were me and a family of four.

My dory, christened Hidden Passage, was oared by Elena, a cheerful, jokey young woman (everyone from O.A.R.S. is cheerful and jokey) although deadly serious about boating safety (everyone from O.A.R.S. is deadly serious about boating safety). She turned out to be a whiz at rowing the dory through churning rapids, cutting the current on the in side and spinning on a dime to avoid rocks. My job? To sit in my lifejacket, which was labeled "Golden Eagle" on the back, lean into waves to prevent flips and help out with the occasional jug-bail. Otherwise, I could simply gape at the 2 billion-year-old rock walls and multi-ledged monumental rocks that looked like Hindu temples, gawk at some of the canyon's hundreds of side canyons, and exclaim about soaring hawks and mountain sheep before others noticed them.

Indeed, my most aerobic activity was sliding my rear an inch to one side or the other to maintain trim (keeping the boat flat on the water.) But even I was surprised at how big an appetite you can work up being dead weight. Fortunately, this was taken care of quickly when we pulled up to the first of many sand-beach landings for lunch. With our dories tethered to aluminum sand stakes, the crew swung into action, setting up a folding prep table and a buffet with snacks to keep us busy while they sliced and diced. I had assumed that lunch would be limited to cold cuts and synthetic drinks. There were indeed slices of excellent ham and whole-grain bread, but there was also barbecue pork from the previous night's dinner, various gourmet mustards and exotic hot sauces, and the piece de resistance: a multitiered display of meticulously sliced avocado, tomato and apple. O.A.R.S. goes through bushels of avocados each season, according to Roger, our group leader and a glass artist in winter. Roger can teach you how to cut perfectly uniform slices of soft avocado, if you care to learn: Slice in half, remove the pit, hold a half in your palm with the peel down, slice the avocado in the peel, then remove gently all at once.

By day two, you'd think that it would start to get monotonous, going down the same river in the same boat in the same canyon - with the same people. But the daily routine was never routine, because the canyon changed with every bend. And at night, we'd pitch camp in a sandy spot all set about with floppy-stemmed primroses and protected by escarpments of velvet-smooth black schist, topped with red sandstone, granite and the occasional white-striped gneiss, and I am proud to say I never once gave in to the urge to say that gneiss was nice. Although it was, and the dinners at these sites were even more so.

Each night, when I had barely hopped out of Hidden Passage, someone would hand me one of the Tecates I'd ordered in advance (the National Park Service doesn't permit O.A.R.S. to sell alcohol in the canyon, but there's no law against preordering two six-packs from the outfitter's Web site). They all had my initials painstakingly written on them, and I was barely able to pull the tab before another watchful crew member proffered a lime wedge. I would sit on one of the folding nylon director's chairs arranged in a circle by what Adam Smith might have called the invisible hand of yet another crew member, admire the river rolling by and work up an appetite by watching the guides slave over a hot propane stove (and there was plenty of competition about who was the best cook). Dinners included a Mexican spread one night, a burger cookout another and as many piroulines - those flaky, tubular, chocolate-filled cookies - as we could stomach. And we always wound down with a driftwood bonfire.

As for rapids? Given this is the Grand Canyon, you're naturally expecting a few hairy moments. Ours were pretty brief, and nothing that really gave me heart palpitations. Save for day three, when we came upon a long and tricky rapid that even most of the crew hadn't done before. Roger, the avocado man, knew it well and warned everyone else about its trademark feature, a menacing underwater rock formation known as "the fangs." It didn't take a genius to figure out why, given the shape of the rocks. Still, I bravely volunteered to go first with Roger, and moments later we were hurtling through the water, with me clinging to the sides of the boat. It reminded me of a theme ride, only in this case the rest of the crew sat it, watching and learning safely from the banks.

On our last morning, a jet boat arrived at 8:30 on the dot to whiz us out of the canyon and across Lake Mead to a van that would promptly return us to Las Vegas. Ugh. What was in Vegas could just stay in Vegas. For my part, I felt renewed. That is, until I realized I'd forgotten to tip my graceful guides. There's no pressure to tip, but apparently, it's common practice to give them about 15 percent, which I remembered only after the final day; I mailed the tip post haste. Nevertheless, the trip stayed with me long after I returned. "The river has changed me," I told a New York friend. She looked at me kind of funny. I think she needs to call O.A.R.S., or at least talk to that Cruise fellow.