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White Water Rafting the Colorado, an adventure in the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon sunrise image

You wake early. A million stars shine overhead, with the smudge of the Milky Way clearly seen. An occasional bat darts by as it gathers its nocturnal meals, and you duck into your sleeping bag until the danger is past. You are on the trip of a lifetime – an adventure in the American Southwest white water rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

One by one the stars disappear as the darkness fades. And the camp comes to life. People stir on their cots, the water heaters fire up for morning coffee, and you sit up. Another day dawns on the Colorado River. You won’t see the sun for a while as you’re thousands of feet below the canyon walls.

First task is heading to the river or the camp loo for the morning’s necessities. All liquids go in the river and everything else is carried out. Not a glamorous part of the trip but you get used to it. The guides make it nicer by setting up a ‘loo with a view’ – a scenic remote location for the camp toilet.

There’s a lot of work involved in breaking camp so we split it up. First we roll the sleeping bags and pack our gear. We listen for the very welcome-“Coffee’s Hot!” and then, like zombies, head to the camp kitchen.

Camp chairs from the evening before circle the kitchen. We wash our hands, rinse with hand sanitizer, and line up for breakfast. Here’s where the magic begins. From a dutch oven comes freshly backed blueberry cake, from skillets, eggs Benedict, and some mornings even pork chops appear for our breakfast. Outdoor living make us hungry so we eat up more than we’d ever do at home.

Dishes are washed in a four barrel line – first a cold water scrub, then a hot water scrub, a hot water rinse and finally a sterilizing rinse. Then back into the plastic bags for the evening meal.

Tents come down, cots are disassembled, and the huge dry bags are packed and buckled. These are hauled to the river’s edge where we line them up for the fire line that’ll load the raft. All are required to participate. Now we understand why the duffels are to weigh no more than 20 pounds. The fire line is tough with overweight bags.

The day’s needs are kept in smaller dry bags – rain gear, cameras, meds, etc. Don’t let these bags out of sight! We fill our water bottles, don life jackets (super tight so you can be hauled out of the river if you’re thrown overboard), and get the raft loaded. Then we hoist ourselves up onto the pontoons, clip our bags and bottles to the ropes and find a seat for the morning’s run.

Our raft is a j-rig – 5 banana boat-like pontoons tied together but moving separately. Nine people can sit on the front pontoons, 6 more on top of the food containers, and 4 more on the ‘chicken coop’ – a flat spot near the rear of the raft. There is no dry spot on the raft, just different levels of wetness. Riding the pontoons is like riding a mechanical bull – hold on for dear life and suck rubber during the big rapids.

Most of the time on the river is quiet. We drift along marveling at the canyon walls – the shifting geological features and the plants that cling to the crevasses in the rock walls. Wildlife is scarce here during the day – there are the occasional big horned sheep and mule deer, but mostly we enjoy the violet-green hummingbirds skimming over the water, and the turkey vultures circling overhead. We search the skies for the California Condors who have been reintroduced to the area.

The morning warms up quickly and we’re happy when small rapids cool us off. Anthony, our river guide, shares stories of the river and keeps us entertained. He stands on the pontoons with bare feet, occasionally bouncing to show off his sure-footedness. Kiefer is the driver – calm and incredibly skilled at his job. When he leaves his spot to come talk to us, we know we’re in trouble. Kiefer only comes forward to talk about the big rapids. Everyone goes quiet. All find their holds, take a firm grip front and back, and watch the river ahead.

The big rapids begin with a smooth dip. The raft slides into the rapid and rises gently on the first wave. But then the river gets angry and waves come in all directions. One side of the raft lifts and you’re doused with cold water. Then the other side twists and you see your companions in mid-air. (still holding on, hopefully!) Finally we plunge head on into a 10-15 foot wall of water. We hoot and holler as we ride the mighty Colorado. When at last we’re through, cheers go up for Kiefer.

There are two rafts in our group – 2 guides and 14 travelers on each. The rafts pull over together for hikes, lunch, and potty breaks (girls upriver – guys down).  We’re glad to shed our life jackets and spread rain gear over rocks to dry as we take a break from the river.

Each day there’s a hike – sometimes merely a walk, sometimes what our leader calls a ‘scramble’, and a few times a real challenge for those with a fear of heights or mobility issues. (Usually these tough hikes are optional but one was mandatory as staying on the raft was too dangerous) We might follow streams to turquoise waters where we can lounge, swim, and play in the rapids. Or we may climb to waterfalls or prehistoric ruins.

Lunch is handheld. There is little waste on the Grand Canyon. No trash anywhere. When another flotilla drops a wrapper into the water, we rush to retrieve it. The purity of the Colorado is important to the guides.

The afternoon is much like the morning – quiet waters and wild rapids.

We camp early, sometime around three probably, but no one is looking at a watch anymore. We choose a campsite and reverse the morning routine – fire line to get the gear on shore – tents up – cots assembled. But now it’s hot – probably around 100 degrees though you’ve no way of knowing – so you’re exhausted and sweating by the time camp is set up. We bathe in the river. It’s cold but by now you’re used to it. Dunk once, soap up, dunk again – or a sponge bath if you think that’ll do. It’s a pleasure to feel clean.

Oh wait – I forgot to mention the sand! The river’s edge is a dry sand dune. And wind whistles through the canyon. We have sand in our hair, our bags, and our tents. There is no escaping the sand, so we accept it.

We gather for a thermos full of wine or a can of beer, before the call comes for dinner. Again, the crew are magicians. They prepare steak and asparagus, rainbow trout with baked potatoes, or a Mexican fiesta. We celebrate surviving the most dangerous rapid with an ABC party (Alive Beyond Crystal) All dress up in costumes and dance the evening away.

The small groups have meshed into one large family. You are isolated together without internet, news, or any sign of ‘civilization’. The wilderness experience heightens our senses – we share stories of our lives, rather than our jobs. We delight in the many varieties of lizards we find, or the tracks left in the sand in the morning. We remember what it’s like to be a kid – exploring the world, testing our limits, and making new friends.

After dinner you go to bed. Brush your teeth by the river, change in your tent, and settle yourself under the stars. Another day awaits.

This was active luxury travel at its best. We traveled with Western River Expeditions. On our first day we were told this was an ‘expedition’, not a vacation, nor a tour. They were right.

If you’re planning a white water rafting trip, see our Rafting Packing List and learn from our mistakes, Secret Tips for Outdoor Adventure Travel

For another wonderful adventure in the American Southwest see our Guide to Visiting Antelope Canyon.

This trip was #1 on Dave’s bucket list. It’s time to plan your travel to dream destinations. Read Trips of a Lifetime: inspiration to book your dream destination.

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