Rafting the Grand Canyon

This month's great read, selected by our editors: Two brothers set out to paddle the Grand Canyon's threatened Colorado River, requiring a steady oar and a surge of courage.

HUNCHED IN A DORY dropping into one of the most storied rapids in the world’s grandest canyon, I’m surprised by all that I hear. The crash of water echoes off the granite walls around me, but so do much smaller noises: the creak of the boat’s wood hull, the squeak of the oars, the call of a nearby canyon wren. Maybe the adrenaline crashing through my veins has honed my senses, or maybe it’s sleeping on the banks of the Colorado River under a silent spray of stars. Whatever, everything has become hauntingly loud.

I’m on the 11th day of a 15-day boat trip down the Grand Canyon with family members, and we’re about to hit Lava Falls—an experience our boatman just described as “getting tossed down a flight of stairs while someone fires a river hose at you.” I’m seriously questioning the wisdom of our having opted for dories, low-slung boats that in smooth water bob like corks—but in rapids can flip like bottle caps. My hands clutch the gunwales of the dory I’m in, the Okeechobee. During its 35 years of dancing the Colorado through this mile-deep Arizona canyon, the Okeechobee has been rebuilt at least five times.

Sitting in the refurbished bow with me is my older brother, Johno, an action addict—he coached the U.S. Olympic ski team—who craves excitement. Right now, though, I see nervousness in his eyes. Checking that our life jackets are snug and our helmets more snug, we exchange a brotherly look.

“You got it, Moqui!” Johno yells to our veteran boatman, working the oars behind us. “You’re king of the world!” It’s a moniker Moqui—also called Mark Johnson—earned decades ago. Right now the king is laser-focused on the rage of “lava” ahead of us. We drop down a glassy green tongue and a wave curls over us, blasting us. We whoop—and our boat stalls just long enough to push us sideways. Fortunately, Moqui is known for his explosive “Moqui strokes,” fierce oar pulls that always save him from the river’s jaws. He will correct our crooked line. But we keep veering left. I look back at our captain: He mans the only set of oars controlling our boat. What I see makes me shudder. His left hand claws the air, empty; no oar is in sight. White water thunders around us. Plan A, run right of the river’s center, is gone with the oar. We’re left with plan B—survival.

MY BROTHER AND I grew up on the Colorado River, swimming and fishing in it in summer, skiing in winter on the snows that feed its headwaters. Six years ago, I traced the Colorado from its source in the Rockies to its delta by the Gulf of California for my book, The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict, and saw the river being sucked dry by drought and population growth. The Colorado no longer reaches the Gulf; too many straws drain the drink. My shock at the transformation of this magnificent lifeline, one of the world’s hardest-working rivers and, some say, the most loved and litigated, sparked a passion to know and protect it. It’s my river capture, a geology term for when a waterway erodes faster than another, eventually capturing the flow from the neighboring drainage—just as the Colorado River has been capturing me.

So, on a May morning, five dories and three baggage rafts carrying our group and other river runners set off from Lees Ferry, the staging area for most Colorado River expeditions. The Glen Canyon Dam rises a few miles upstream; though we don’t see it, its impact is immediate. Unnaturally clear water pools around us, its red sediment—that memory of the Rockies—filtered by the dam. “Too thick to drink and too thin to plough” described this river before human engineering transformed its flow from a silt-rich red into an emerald snake. It’ll be our trail, our drinking water, our home, and our evening lullaby for the next two weeks and 277 miles of wilderness.

Our riverine caravan bobs downstream through oxbows within the polished limestone walls of Marble Canyon, which is considered the unofficial gateway to the Grand Canyon. Johno, settling into our dory nicely, seems to have taken my rationale for choosing a wooden craft to heart.

“Why dories?” he had asked when I first proposed a trip to him and his wife, Sunni. “Why not a safer rubber raft?”

“If you’re about to drive down a country road on a warm spring day,” I answered, “what would you choose—a crowded bus with few stops, a roomier but sluggish truck, or a vintage sports car? Where you gain safety and time, you give up style, and where you gain cool, you give up practicality. Dories score high on cool, medium on practicality—and safety depends largely on the individual holding the oars.”

Dories also, I’d added, convey a sense of what John Wesley Powell experienced on his 1869 Colorado River journey, when he became the first to navigate the uncharted waterway in a wooden boat—and was one of the first to begin mapping it.

“What falls there are, we know not,” Powell would write up in his journal. “What rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.” Although the river today is fully mapped, I’m starting to know just how he felt.

As we descend into the canyon’s 40 layers of sedimentary rock, each layer a signature of time, I pretend to recall details I learned in geology class. The truth, however, is that the place has too many dates, layers, and layer names—Kaibab, Supai—for me to keep track of. The Grand Canyon just overwhelms with its scale, its kaleidoscope of colors, its sheer physicality, shrinking everything in you but your soul.

Thankfully, our guides prove to be walking encyclopedias. Of the five, three earned “legend” status with O.A.R.S., the outfitter, which has run river trips since 1969. One of them, guide Andre Potochnik, packs a Ph.D. in geology and has served on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s recreation commission, which addresses the diverse interests that depend on the Colorado. The second largest producer of hydroelectric juice in the U.S., the bureau controls the flow in Grand Canyon. Some see hydroelectricity as the river’s economic engine. Others see a free-flowing river, which would attract billions of tourist dollars, as the economic driver. After 13 years on the commission, Potochnik went from “dams must go” to a more centrist view.

“There was room to work with the bureau, so I softened my approach.” On our trip he’ll talk rock theory until the river, or the beer, runs dry. These days, the beer may outlast the river.

The canyon’s ecology and the constellations in the canyon’s starry amphitheater, still wonderfully free of light pollution, will be the purview of guide Lars Haarr. Then there is trip leader Eric Sjoden, a wiry, soft-voiced grandfather from Montana, who seems to speak another, water-defined language. The bigger the waves, the less he rows, as if willing his boat around rocks.

The feistiest guide will be the sole woman, Chelsea Arndt, one of a growing cadre of female guides on the Colorado. Raised in Wyoming, she came to the canyon right after college and got into guiding literally by accident, when she, with no experience, had to take over for an injured guide. “It was messy, but I figured it out,” she says in her slow Wyoming drawl.

We 18 passengers take turns in each guide’s boat, so one day my rat pack—me, my friend Nicole, Johno, and Sunni—rides in Arndt’s Roaring Springs. Dories carry their own mystique in the river running world. Generally built with some mix of foam, plywood, and fiberglass, they’d seem no match for the toothy rocks in many of the rapids.

“Dories,” says Arndt “are fun, fast, and at times wild. When I guide one, it commands my full attention. I need to know exactly where the boat can and can’t go, without scratching its paint.”

Every dory guide can recall collisions and flips. An expedition without any? “We call that a golden run.” Each of us hopes, of course, for a golden run. Except my brother, who keeps asking, “When do we tackle bigger rapid action?” Soon, I tell him, soon.

I don’t add he’s late for the monstrous rapids John Wesley Powell fought, that the river is a shadow of its former self. In 1983, a record Colorado snowpack melted and flooded Lake Powell, threatening the Glen Canyon Dam. Desperate to save it, dam operators opened its bypass gates, releasing a maelstrom of 100,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs). Today, an average river trip sees water levels between 8,000 and 15,000 cfs.

“GOOOD MOOORNING Graand Caaaaanyon! Coffee and tea in aisle seven!” booms Haarr, our tattooed boatman, on day three. It’s about 5 a.m.—I think. My watch is lost in my dry bag, so my clock has aligned to river time: sunrise, sunset, and lunch, when my stomach growls.

Every morning the river is low, leaving our boats high on the beach. By midmorning it starts swelling, a dam-fed hydroelectric curve. As temperatures spike in Phoenix, air conditioning demand rises, requiring more power. Dam operators release more water. (Weekend need typically falls; offices are closed.)

In 1540, when this river ran wild, a Spaniard, Garcia Lopez de Cárdenas, peered out from the canyon’s south rim, the first European to lay eyes on this drainage big enough to contain his homeland’s Basque Mountains. I consider this as we hike up a side canyon one afternoon to the confluence of the Little Colorado River and larger Colorado. The Little Colorado, rich with calcium carbonate, flows a fluorescent blue. The confluence is a refuge for the humpback chub, one of four endangered fish species here struggling with both the cool water created by the dam and proliferating non-native fish species such as trout.

A recent development may add to the challenges facing this ancient ecosystem. A proposed 1.4-mile tramway, the “Grand Canyon Escalade,” would transport some 10,000 visitors a day down to the merge of the two rivers. Hotels, shops, and other businesses would join it on the canyon rim. Eleven native tribes live around Grand Canyon National Park; many consider this river confluence sacred and oppose development. Others argue the tramway is a needed economic boost for the Navajo.

“Can you imagine thousands of people here?” Potochnik asks as we row past the confluence. We shake our heads.

DAY FIVE, RIVER MILE 68, and what has been a narrow-walled canyon suddenly yawns open. For the first time we see both the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon, looming some 5,000 feet above us. I discern what look like stone structures maybe 800 feet up and can’t resist a quick exploratory hike. Forty-five minutes later, I find Native American ruins that have survived 900 years of storms and other natural events. Ancient Puebloans once inhabited much of the canyon—until they left it for unknown reasons (some speculate it was to escape drought conditions). As I ponder trying to farm this arid landscape, my attention gets lost in the immense silence.

Day seven dawns with sunlight filling the canyon. Everything looks serene. Then I hear, “Big punchy white water today.”

Moqui appears wearing pajamas under his shorts.

“Planning on napping later?” I ask.

“On big water days I bust out the jammies,” he explains, his eyes sparkling with excitement.

We gather for a refresher safety talk; as guide Sjoden wryly notes, “We’re heading into some deep schist.” A few river miles downstream, a geological unconformity, or break in the sediment, pushed 1.6-billion-year-old granite schist to the surface, creating white-water fun—or “deep schist” if you screw up.

“Stay in your boat to help keep it upright,” Sjoden advises. “If you spill out, keep your feet angled downstream and hang on to the dory so it won’t flip. If it flips, we’ll try to reflip it.”

Our dories will bob like toys through the schist of Granite, Hermit, and Crystal rapids. The water soaks us but no one makes a mistake; the dories appear to magically correct themselves.

“You two want to row?” Haarr shoots back to me and Johno. My big brother goes first, and within minutes we spin sideways, then backward.

“We’re going to diiee,” Haarr screams. The word “die” ricochets off the canyon. Lesson one: Dories don’t automatically correct themselves. One wrong stroke, and the river steers the vessel where it chooses. I take the oars. Twenty strokes, and I have the feel. Rounding a bend, we glide into a canyon shadow—and I hear a roar ahead. White water. My heart thumps and my hands begin to sweat.

“Want the oars back?” I ask Haarr.

“You’ve got this one. Satan’s Jaws; no biggie.” Funny. I maneuver what now feel like frail wooden sticks and try to read the water. I decide to follow bubble lines that represent currents, but with each stroke the river fights me. I adjust, overcorrect, struggle. My arms ache.

“Come on, Pete,” my brother ribs me. “Keep us straight. Keep us alive.” We buck down the rapids, seesaw through a train of waves, and emerge. Alive. What I don’t know: Haarr made up the name “Satan’s Jaws.” I strong-armed our craft through an unnamed, insignificant riffle.

DAY ELEVEN: A nervous energy ripples through our group. We can hear ahead the roar of “the most formidable reach of white water” in the Grand Canyon, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Lava Falls, one of Earth’s great rapids.

“We need to arrive with the perfect water level,” warns Sjoden, referencing the Southwest drought that has strained water resources. The river is running exceptionally low, so we’ll wait for the swell of dam-released water. We park our flotilla at river mile 167 and use the time for a stroll up National Canyon. Within seconds we enter a labyrinth of what Potochnik tells us is “Muav limestone.” After a bit, the canyon walls close in, creating a water-smoothed corridor of stone. Then Johno points: a pool of blue water. Gleefully, the two of us jump in, our laughter pinging off the rock walls.

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On our way back to the boat, I turn a corner and almost collide with an elderly man carrying a bundle of plants. An elder of the Hualapai tribe, he says nothing, just peers up the canyon. Two other men follow, bearing green bundles.

Every year, revenue from Colorado’s hydroelectric operations funds spiritual canyon journeys for area Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and Hualapai tribes, who believe certain side canyons represent the place they come from and eventually return to. By coincidence, our trip has aligned with spiritual journeys for Navajo, Hopi, and Hualapai tribal members.

I introduce myself to the men, and the elder says, “We are blessing tobacco for our ceremonies. We find it wild here in the canyon. The harder to find, the better for ceremonies.” He pauses, then adds, “Welcome to Hualapai.”

I want to ask more, about the canyon, his life, their spirit world, but they’re on a mission, and my group is gathering back by our dories. “Thank you for letting us visit your beautiful land,” I say.

He looks at me sharply, then smiles. “I grew up there, on the ridge.” He points with his chin. “I’m used to all you coming here. I just hope you respect it.”

Respect for this land is what President Theodore Roosevelt had in mind in 1903 when he looked from the south rim near today’s visitors center. “Leave it as it is,” he said of the canyon. “The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” His love for wild places would lead to his declaring the canyon a national monument; in 1919, it became a national park. Overall, Roosevelt’s words have been heeded: Grand Canyon remains fairly unmarred. Still, development voices are louder than anytime in the past century, and water woes show little sign of reversal. As I hike back to the river, I think of words Ben Franklin wrote: “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.”

The well at Lava Falls is low but, we are about to find, far from dry—the river has risen enough to hide the staircase of rocks below, which creates the churn.

The first four dories make perfect runs. Our boatload hopes for the same. All goes swimmingly, until it doesn’t—until we become that submarine with one operational oar. We don’t have time to unlatch the spare oar before we careen sideways, then backward. We plummet over a roiling rush of water and enter the fearsome V-wave, two lateral churns of waterpower that crash to form a frothy mayhem large enough to swallow the Loch Ness Monster. As the V sucks us in, Moqui announces loudly but with notable calm, “Time for plan B,” followed by “Get ready … and … hiiiigh siiiiide!”

Sunni and Nicole, in the stern, look up: An overhead wave stares them in the face. When it hits, we lunge to the highest side of the boat, facing downstream, to counter the energy. The water buries us, and we plunge into an icy emerald darkness. Everything submerges: dory, bodies, even the roar of the rapid. All is silence. Slow motion. Milliseconds feel like minutes as the dory rolls onto its side. Our Okeechobee, built, as a boatman said, “with tissue paper and baby bird bones,” swirls into the hydraulic mouth of Lava Falls. Somewhere I sense a giant grin; Johno and I sit in the front row in an overdue sibling adventure in the heart of a river that helped shape the greatest of canyons—and much of our childhood.

The V-wave releases our dory and we pitch sideways into the last wave, a standing tsunami called Big Kahuna. Smashing into the wall of water, we start to flip. Amazingly, Big Kahuna lets the dory go. Johno and I still sit in the bow, upright. Somehow we survive, oar-less, shepherded by the Colorado River.

“High fives!” Moqui hollers, immediately followed by “Now bail, dammit; we are NOT done.” In a frantic scramble of arms, laughter, and bailing scoops we empty the listing Okeechobee, and grin.

That evening, around a campfire on Tequila Beach, the tension of our biggest boating day deflates as we realize that our run has ended surprisingly well. Tequila and stories flow, and soon everyone in our group, ages 24 to 78, agrees we need more time in the canyon. We understand now how someone comes for a single trip down the Colorado and stays a lifetime: Every river mile has washed away layers of daily life from each of us, a random tribe of souls who share a new sense of awe for this walled masterpiece sculpted by a river. I only hope we all find the collective commitment to “leave it as it is.”

PETE McBRIDE directed the award-winning Colorado River film Delta Dawn.
See more photos of Pete McBride's river-rafting adventure.

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