Guided River Trips Aren’t Just for Newbies
I’ve wanted to do a Grand Canyon rafting trip for as long as I can remember. A few years ago, I lent my parents my battered copy of The Emerald Mile, Kevin Fedarko’s brilliant telling of the Colorado River’s journey through the Grand Canyon. In it, Fedarko winds his way through the history of the Glen Canyon Dam and its inextricable link to the record-setting 1983 speed run through the canyon in the wooden dory that lent its name to the book.
The Emerald Mile affected me deeply, particularly since my own brief stint as a raft guide on a much smaller and less well-known river. As it turns out, the story captured my folks’ imaginations, too. A month or so after she finished the book, my mom said she’d like to plan a Grand Canyon trip for their 35th wedding anniversary. My husband, Bix, and I were invited to tag along.
I explained that private permits for Grand Canyon were hard to come by—not to mention that, despite my previous whitewater experience, there was no way I could safely guide us through the big, unforgiving water we’d find on the bigger rapids. That’s how we ended up booking a week-long guided river trip from Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch with OARS.
I could hardly wait for our trip to begin, but I’ll admit that I was unsure what to expect. After all, I’d been a whitewater guide myself, so I wondered what it would be like to be on the other side of the boat—wouldn’t it be weird to stand around while someone else rigged the boats? Would it be annoying if I had a million questions for the guides? What would it be like to be a guest rather than a guide? As it turns out, I wouldn’t have had my first Grand Canyon rafting trip any other way.
Take time to slow down
One of my favorite things about backcountry trips is experiencing those moments of absolute quiet—not silence, because the river keeps running and the birds and cicadas are never totally finished. There’s something unique about settling into a comfortable spot at the golden hour and reading or journaling about the day’s events. The thing is, I rarely get to do that, because I’m always cooking dinner or fixing something on my boat or helping someone else figure out where to pitch their tent. But on this trip, I wasn’t responsible for any of that, which meant I could soak up the sun’s last rays—whether that meant fishing, reading, journaling, or chatting with new friends.
Before we left, I pored over the classic Belknap’s river guide to the Grand Canyon. I had done a handful of river trips in the desert, which meant I knew a little about the various rock formations, sandstone and otherwise, along the Colorado. But our guides were so incredibly knowledgeable about the stone around us as we moved deeper and deeper through time. By the time we reached the Vishnu schist in the canyon’s subbasement, I couldn’t wait to identify Bright Angel shale, Muav Limestone, and Tapeats Sandstone on our hike out of the canyon via the Bright Angel Trail.
How humans left their mark
I read a half-dozen books on Grand Canyon history—from histories of the ancestral puebloans to Cardeñas to the Kolb Brothers to Kenton Grua—before my family’s trip. Despite all that homework, I learned more from our guides. Each of them had worked in the industry for a decade or more, which meant they had a deep understanding of the river and its history. From the habits of the people who lived on the Nankoweep Delta to anecdotes from Bill Beer and John Dagget’s historic swimming trip to hidden petroglyphs near our campsites, I was floored every time one of our guides told me something new.
Life abounds beneath the rim
The desert seems like a harsh and unforgiving place to make a life, but countless hardy species thrive below the canyon rims. Sure, I could have identified blue herons and bighorn sheep before this trip, but—although both provided a rush of excitement when I saw them from the boat as we floated by—those two species barely scratched the surface. On the first night of my trip, a sweet bird call floated down the canyon walls to our campsite at Hot Na Na.
“Oh, a canyon wren!” one of our guides said, pointing to the bird who’d made the call. Each of our guides could identify dozens of bird species and knew countless lizards based on their size and markings. All this newfound knowledge solidified my impression that the desert holds all kinds of secrets, and I can’t wait to learn more on my next trip.
My husband and I have a 14-foot oar boat of our own. We’ve piloted it down stretches of smaller water near our home in Idaho, and though I’ve guided paddle rafts many times, I’m still getting the hang of rowing (mostly by trial and error). Watching our guides row the big rapids of the Grand Canyon was a thing of beauty—each boat, named for the canyon’s colorful features, always seemed to be exactly where its guide wanted it. Once we revealed that we were budding boatmen ourselves, each of the guides on the trip was eager to give us pointers and debrief how they’d run each rapid. “I was a move behind and had to work hard to avoid that hole,” one might tell us, though by their cool demeanors I’d never have known. After a week on the river with OARS, I have some new heroes to look up to.
Near the end of one of my first wilderness trips, someone warned me not to try to explain what I’d experienced when I came home. I took his advice to heart. It’s tough, if not impossible, to describe a trip like that. That made it extra special to have this Grand Canyon experience with my parents, who have looked at my photos and cheered me on for years. Now they, too, understand what it means to feel a place work its river magic on you. It also means I can’t really explain the beauty of a Grand Canyon river trip in an essay—you’ll just have to experience it for yourself.
Photos: Josh Miller Photography