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Grandeur of the Rapids

Grandeur of the Rapids

The Boston Globe | July 5, 2009

Seeing the Canyon from the Bottom Up

By Kate Siber
Globe Correspondent

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. – On a cool morning in March, between a pair of thousand-foot cliffs flanking the Colorado River, my friend Donna Dignan and I sat listening in the bow of a tulip-red raft. In the Grand Canyon, rafters hear rapids long before they see them.
The sound of our first big one started as a low rumble, growing slowly into a menacing growl. As we rounded a bend, the river dropped off the horizon into House Rock Rapids, and the sound became a thundering roar echoing off the canyon walls.

Our friend Jay Daniel sat in the middle of the raft, an oar in each hand, as the current swept us toward the rapid. Donna and I tightened our life jackets, gripped the raft’s straps, and tried to settle our flip-flopping stomachs. The raft plunged into the churning maelstrom of green-and-white breakers, and, thrown into the moment, we forgot all our nervousness. We bounced along and shrieked with glee as the waves tossed our raft and doused us.

“You’ve got a good line, Jay!” yelled Donna, scouting the waves to come. “Now pull right!” Jay looked behind and steered just left of a jumble of ragged rocks, then right of two Volkswagen-sized hydraulic holes. We rolled over the waves and slipped into the harmless riffles below the rapid – power-washed, jubilant, and still upright.

“That was awesome!” Donna yelled as Jay raised his hands for high fives.

It was day four of our 18-day, 226-mile raft journey through the Grand Canyon. For river aficionados, this is the country’s marquee river trip, not only for its theme-park-ride rapids, grandiose desert scenery, and storied history, but also for its sheer length and wildness. Between Lees Ferry and Diamond Creek, rafters encounter only one sign of modern civilization: Phantom Ranch, a hike-in lodge at river mile 88; otherwise there are no roads, no convenience stores, no Starbucks.

Perhaps that explains why there was a 25-year waiting list for self-guided raft-trip permits until three years ago, when the National Park Service changed to a weighted lottery, in which priority goes to those who have never experienced the river. Now, a prospective rafter can procure a permit in a matter of months or years instead of decades. While many people circumvent the lottery by signing up for commercially guided raft trips, there are advantages to doing it oneself.

“People enjoy the challenge and adventure of piloting their own raft and making their own plans and decisions,” said Steve Sullivan, permits program manager for the Grand Canyon’s River Permits Office. “And that’s the least expensive way to do this.”

Rafting the Grand Canyon without a guide does, however, require some know-how. The Park Service requires that on each trip at least one person has rowed the Colorado or a similar river and can act as a guide for the rest of the group. Some are former guides or enthusiasts; others are graduates of raft-rowing courses.

While the Grand Canyon has a reputation for large rapids, most are not overly technical or dangerous: From among the 24,000 annual river runners, there are an average of 45 reported accidents each year, 88 percent attributed to onshore injuries and medical issues like dehydration.

My boyfriend, Andrew Charnock, an avid kayaker, had long dreamed of floating the Grand Canyon. After entering four lotteries over two years, he won a permit for March 21, which allowed 16 people up to 21 days on the river.

Five friends agreed to row the boats, including Jay, a former Class V raft guide from Colorado who brought his own raft and acted as the lead boatman, and Curtis Pattillo, who brought his wooden dory, which is modeled after the craft that the river’s first explorer, John Wesley Powell, used in 1869.

To aid the many do-it-yourselfers, several companies of fer support services. One such company, Moenkopi Riverworks, provided life jackets, kitchen and safety equipment, dry bags for our personal gear, and three 18-foot rafts that our three least experienced rowers piloted, since they are so large that they are nearly impossible to flip. The company also prepared and packed all of our meals in ice-stocked coolers and shuttled our cars to the trip’s terminus for about $800 per person.

“So what is it about the allure of the Grand Canyon?” I asked Jay as our flotilla of four rafts, three kayaks, and a dory floated away from Lees Ferry, the river runner’s launch site in northern Arizona. He had rowed down the river twice before.

“For a long time, there was one thing I always wanted to do: the Grand,” he said. “And by the time I got off the river the first time, there was one thing I really wanted to do – the Grand.”

While some 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, less than 1 percent see it from the river. We met only three other groups of rafters over 18 days. In that relative solitude, I began to understand the seductive magic of the canyon. Every day, the river carved deeper into the cliffs, displaying 1.8 billion years of geology in 2,500-foot color-coded layers, from red-brown Moenkopi sandstone to shiny black Vishnu schist. Each night, we took turns cooking dinner, sat by a driftwood campfire, then unfurled our sleeping bags on the sand beneath a canopy of stars.

Some days, we encountered large rapids. At Lava Falls, the largest rapid on the river, Doug Wall and I pulled to shore and clambered up the rocky bank to scout the best line through the waves. From that perch, I watched our dory, three kayaks, and three rafts successfully bounce through waves taller than trucks as our friends whooped and cheered. Then I sat in the bow of Wall’s boat as we rocketed through the waves ourselves.

The majority of the trip, however, was flat water. For long hours, we took turns rowing, idly chatted, and sipped cans of beer while the canyon unleashed ever-changing wonders. California condors, North America’s rarest and largest flying birds with 9 1/2-foot wingspans, made wide, lazy loops in the cobalt sky. Thousand-year-old Anasazi dwellings crumbled away in the cliffs’ alcoves. Endangered desert bighorn sheep grazed in rocky nooks, unfazed by our quiet passing, and bursts of yellow rabbit brush and purple-pink desert rose punctuated the layers of rock stretching high above our heads.

“I mean, look at this,” said Donna on day six, while we floated on a calm section of the river. “I mean, it’s just like, ta daaaaa!” She raised her arms theatrically. Indeed, it felt as if we were on some magnificent stage.

Occasionally our armada pulled ashore to explore a narrow side canyon, like Elves Chasm, where a series of fern-enshrouded waterfalls invited the swimmers among us to jump into clear, sparkling pools. On our 10th day, we stopped to hike the quarter mile up Blacktail Canyon, a narrow chasm lined with grapefruit-size stones smoothed by millennia of floods.

“This is the Great Unconformity,” said my friend Anna Thomas, a geologist, as she pointed to a seam in the rock layers. “This rock was formed about 1.7 billion years ago. It’s the core of an ancient mountain range that eroded over time.”

“Then this rock is 550 million years old,” she continued, pointing to a higher layer. “That’s nearly 1.2 billion years of time that’s missing in the strata – and here you can put your finger on it.”

We continued walking up the wash until it ended in a round nook scarcely wider than a city bus. Blacktail Canyon is known for its acoustics, and as we stood in contemplative silence, Donna, a singer, began to croon “Amazing Grace.” We listened and stared at hundreds of layers of crimson rock topped by a sliver of evening sky, as the narrow canyon lifted and amplified her mezzo-soprano voice.

Sometimes, it seems, the only way to take in a place so beautiful, a place crafted by incomprehensible power over incredible lengths of time, is to stand in one small corner and listen. It was the most fitting of songs.

If You Go
Grand Canyon National Park holds a lottery every February for self-guided raft trip permits for the following year. It costs $25 to enter the main lottery, then no charge to participate in follow-up lotteries for uncollected permits, which are held as often as twice a month, usually 90 days before the launch date. Entrants may choose five preferred launch dates. The most sought-after dates are between June and mid-October, so it’s easier to win a permit for late fall, winter, or spring. Those who have not been on a Grand Canyon raft trip in five or more years are given priority. Once you have a permit, the park requires a $400 deposit on the total permit fee, which is $100 per person. To help with logistics, you may wish to hire a support company, which can rent boats and equipment, instruct on rigging techniques, plan and pack meals, and shuttle cars. The park publishes details on the lottery and a list of approved support companies on its website