By Chance Cook
(Published Aug., 2000, Utah Outdoors magazine)
I remember being a kid and going to the Grand Canyon. Stories from my grandfather had prepared me for the visit: whenever he spoke of it, I would soak it all up like a dry sponge.
So there I was, standing near the rim’s edge, gazing out over canyons that stretched as far as the eye could see and the imagination could fathom. Looking into the canyon’s depths, I saw the Colorado River twisting and undulating through the endless labyrinths it had taken over 70 million years to carve into a home.
I’d like to say it changed my life, but it didn’t. At best, I recall doing the usual tourist two-step. First a look across the expanse, then a stop at the visitors center. Not until this trip, 23 years after grandpa’s stories, would I finally meet the Grand Canyon.
The first European to meet the canyon was Maj. John Wesley Powell, a one-armed explorer who literally filled in the blanks of the last terra incognita in the continental United States in 1869.
Over the past 50 years things began to change at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Lured by potential profits, explorers slowly evolved into river guides. People like Norm Nevills and Georgie White boldly challenged the canyon with passengers. Their experiences and passion laid the foundation for what many thrill-seekers currently take for granted. What once was considered sheer lunacy is now a 15-year-long waiting list for private trips.
Also gone are the spoiled biscuits and dried apples on which Powell’s men subsisted. Companies like Western River Expeditions offer steak, fish, chicken and the occasional hot fudge sundae.
At Lees Ferry we were met by the four guides from Western, one of the 12 outfitters hauling passengers through the canyon. Our trip leader was Drew, a wiry guy who could’ve passed for a surfer in search of the perfect wave on the California coast.
His swamper was Chris, a guy with a contagious smile who split his free time between his wife (also a river guide) and studying everything written about the canyon. Brothers Tyler and Tanner rounded out the crew. These two grew up in the nearby town of Kanab, where their father worked in the rafting business. Once this canyon gets into your soul, it’s hard to escape its siren song.
Standing there at Lees Ferry, I wondered if I would be immune. Glancing at the expedition’s other passengers, I saw a lot of white skin, something that would take about one day to change.
Among the novices on the launch ramp with me were a psychologist and his family, a salesman, a geologist whose one wish was to see “the great unconformity,” and a dancer about to embark upon her longest excursion outdoors. Rounding out the bunch was a retired artist, an ex-soldier, a hairdresser, a preacher and a smattering of businessmen with their wives. All rookies and tinhorns ready to experience the mighty Colorado River.
Water from Glen Canyon dam flushes out at approximately 46 degrees, which makes morning bathing quite a feat, to say the least. The river no longer sports its traditional muddy red color familiar to upstream visitors. The silt has long since been deposited into Lake Powell. As it rushes out of the dam, the color is a unique blue-greenish mixture.
The next thing that caught my eye was the boats. Western River Expeditions operates what are known as J-rigs. Painted light blue, they measure an incredible 33 feet long and 15 feet wide. Just one weighs in at two tons — unloaded. They only draft about 12 inches of water, and are serious hauling machines. These rigs would carry food, gear, sleeping bags, cots, kitchen gear, people and water to keep a group like ours afloat for a good 10 days.
There are three basic sections for sitting on the J-rig. In the middle of the raft is the chicken coop — the safest, driest place on the boat. In front of that is atop the coolers. From these seats one can look eye-to-eye into those big, boat-eating holes just before the raft starts bucking like a rodeo horse. Lastly, there are the horns, the closest thing imaginable to driving down the street sitting on the hood of your car. Nine passengers can anchor themselves using ropes like a bull rider would. Up front on the horns, it’s you and a lot of water coming from what seems like everywhere.
Leaving Lees Ferry, I made it a point to abandon my watch, pager and cell phone. I wanted to lose track of time, schedules and problems associated with the modern world. It only took minutes for that desire to come true. The canyon quickly swallowed up our big J-rigs and us, and we were hers for the next six days.
Water flows are measured in cubic feet per second, or cfs. Depending on releases from Glen Canyon Dam, the river usually runs between 17,000 cfs and 23,000 cfs. In the canyon, you get a good ride right off the bat at Mile 17, at House Rock Rapid. I just happened to be on the horns at House Rock.
While still jockeying the big J-rig into position, Drew shouted out commands to “hang on!” and “Suck rubber!,” which translated into getting oneself as low as possible to the front horns of the boat. At a distance, House Rock didn’t look like much and sounded like even less — a few white-capped waves voicing their displeasure. By about 15 yards away, that voice had turned into a roar. Within about five yards the roaring could only be compared to a jet engine at full throttle.
As the first big roller engulfed the J-rig, it stood the horns almost straight up. I saw nothing but rapid, followed closely by a wall of water — cold water! Just as I was able to open my eyes and gasp for another breath my mouth was quickly filled. This time the rope was ripped from my hands. More water and then I was tossed into the lap of the guy behind me. The waves pitched me back and forth across the boat for what seemed an eternity, though it was actually less than 20 seconds. Once free of their grasp, I saw Chris and Drew beaming. A boatman’s goal is to get passengers as wet as possible. If you’re not wet, you don’t have good boatmen.
Rapids are rated on a scale. Factored into the rapid rating is technical knowledge needed to run it safely, water flow, obstacles, and moves you have to make while in the rapid to get out safely. For example, a rapid rating a nine might not get you as wet as a rapid with a six rating, but it’s tougher to run it safely.
The Grand Canyon uses what’s called a “desert scale,” numbering its difficulties from one to 10 — 10 being unrunnable. This rapid is rated a four to seven. The Colorado River on the whole is considered a class four or five depending on cfs. That means, among other things, it’s a river with “long difficult rapids with narrow passages that must be scouted from shore.”
During the six-day trip, we would run headfirst into much larger rapids than House Rock, one of the biggest being Hermit at Mile 95. Hermit is not a technically difficult rapid. Just point the nose of the boat into the tongue of the rapid and keep it there. However, the river drops 15 feet in about three-quarters the length of a football field, creating one massive wave train. This happens because as the water is dropping, it’s gaining momentum, and the only way to dissipate that energy is to make high amplitude waves — basically big breaking waves that work together like a giant wet roller coaster. Once you think the waves can’t get any bigger, they do. Depending on the cfs, it’s often the canyon’s best ride.
Chris was at the helm and hit Hermit’s wave train head on. This was the only time we actually lost a passenger overboard. One minute he was visible on the front, and then he was bucked over the horns and into the lashing fury of the rapids. He managed to hang onto the bowline despite having his camera, hat and swimsuit sucked right off his body by Hermit’s colossal waves. Drew motioned for the engine to be cut and before you could blink, he shot to the front of the raft and was hanging onto the passenger’s arm, keeping the man from being swept under the boat. I’m sure this passenger wasn’t the first to prematurely leave his boat; nor will he likely be the last.
The Big Daddies of the river are probably Lava Falls just above Mile 180 and the most respected rapid in the canyon, Crystal, just below Mile 98.
Crystal was merely a forgettable riffle until 1966, when flash floods of cataclysmic proportions scoured Crystal Creek, dumping huge boulders and debris out into the main flow of the river. Without its seasonal floods, the main channel has no way of purging this debris, and it created a nightmare of obstacles to negotiate. At first the current wants to ram you into the wall on river left and then it drops over a huge boulder right into the jaws of a powerful hydraulic that bends boats in half like Silly Putty. As if that isn’t enough, just below those obstacles the river splits over a large rock bar, all the while dropping an amazing 17 feet. Push the water up to 40,000 cfs and you’ve got a lot of angry water that wants to bend, flip or sink your boat in a very short distance. In 1983, when cfs peaked at 90,000 plus, five of every eight motorized rigs were flipped in this treacherous rapid. Downriver it’s said people have ABC parties once they run this section. ABC you ask? Alive Below Crystal.
Drew approached Crystal by deftly skirting the channel’s main rapids on river right, then slid down until the current split and rode the rest out. It was loud, exciting ride in which, true to his boatman’s unspoken creed, Drew doused everyone.
I had just run one of the most feared rapids in the lower 48 and laughed in its face.
Crystal’s older and similarly nasty brother, Lava Falls, was created when basalt, which had cooled about a million years ago, fell from the canyon’s walls and dammed the Colorado’s channel. Ever since, the river has been trying to beat its way through the basaltic rock there on river right. It needs a few millennia to complete the job. The barricade creates laterals that push water back into the main current and over a drop of about 13 feet. Once again, a good amount of water looking to have its way with you.
On this trip it was the last rapid we encountered, and perched up on the coolers, it’s another we left with smiles on our faces. We were tossed up, down and sideways, and screams of excitement came naturally, but Drew again put us where we needed to be. Everyone was soaked, but the tossing waves of Lava were unable to soak our spirits.
Along the way, there are other rapids that were just as memorable — Specter, Sockdolager, Unkar, Granite and Horn Creek to name a few — but there is more to the experience than bucking boats and getting drenched in some of the biggest whitewater this continent has to offer.
The beauty of the canyon becomes more apparent the farther downstream you travel. The walls close in, and often the river comes right up to the sides, slapping against the rock like water splashing in a giant bathtub.
Camping at the bottom of the world’s grandest canyon is also a treat. Each night I was whispered to sleep by the sound of water moving down through canyon walls. It’s a lullaby that works magic. You’re usually fast asleep by 9:30 p.m., and rise with the sun.
Between camps, most hours are spent exploring not just the rapids but the many sights and sounds that make up the Grand Canyon. One day we explored Red Wall Cavern, where Maj. Powell estimated more than 50,000 could sit under its ceiling.
Hiking up to the granaries at Nankoweep, where the Colorado lays 800 feet below you, is also a place for pause and reflection. Time is irrelevant here just as it was when the Anasazi stashed their grain stores in these shelters. Sunrises and sunsets are unforgettable when one views them from perches high above the canyon floor.
Wandering up the Little Colorado and Havasu Canyon is also memorable. Here, where the water is 15 degrees warmer and a mesmerizing milky blue color, many gasp at the pristine beauty. Havasu Canyon is home to the Havasupai Tribe, and seven miles upstream from where we landed sits the most remote Indian village in the nation.
Wandering up the canyon, I found blue-green pools and lush vines that have spread their arms to each side of the canyon. I was lured farther upstream by flowers, pools and insatiable curiosity. Regretfully, time cut my hike short and I had to return to the boats.
At Deer Creek Falls, the run-off has cut a sluice into the hard stone, forcing the water to literally shoot out of a crack and spiral downward 100 feet. Like drops of blood, Scarlet Monkeyflowers line the pool and the creek that empties into the main river.
For six days, my senses were overloaded. In less than a week, I gathered all I could of this spectacular place, yet I find it is not enough. There are places where we could not stop due to time. Helpless, I sat marooned on the raft, watching as we drifted by Silver Grotto, Fern Glen Canyon and Olo Canyon. I resolve to return armed with more time, and with a greater desire to listen to its sounds, taste its flavors, smell its freshness, touch its energy and see its sites.
Leaving the Grand Canyon is almost like leaving a part of yourself behind. As I sat waiting for the helicopter to whisk me back to warm showers, scented sheets, schedules and duties, part of me wished to remain on the warm sandy beach. I had returned to a place I’d never been before. It had made a lasting impression on me and the other 32 souls who, for a mere six days, had been swallowed up by one of the most dramatic places on the planet.
Perhaps that’s the canyon’s magic. Never again will I look into its depths and wonder. I arrived with a healthy dose of curiosity but returned not caring about the facts. I have no idea if the width at Granite Narrows is 76 feet or 96 feet. I struggle to recall if the Colorado drops eight feet per mile or nine as it meanders southward. I have forgotten the trivia but leave changed by the simple and precious truths of the canyon, a canyon whose experience is "grand" indeed.
Chance Cook is the producer of Doug Miller Outdoors.