Looking for the ultimate adrenalin rush? How about white water rafting down the Grand Canyon, Arizona? The Colorado boasts 160 rapids, one with a 37 foot drop. Hold on tight for the trip of your life!
She sits facing me, rowing forwards in a casual, rhythmical fashion, singing a ditty inspired by the most spectacular and most feared rapid on the Colorado; Lava Falls – difficulty rating 8-10, drop 37 feet. It flips 18 foot boats regularly; ours is 15 foot.
I’m relieved I don’t know the words to her song as I’m sure she would have me join in. The voice of Carmen, my oarswoman, is loud and shrill. It bounces off the yellow angel shale surrounding us and returns shriller still. But listening to her is strangely compelling. She wears, as she does the entire trip, a tricorn hat tied with string. We carry a red and white sun umbrella for shade. It’s not quite what I’d expected of a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon.
Her brother, Travis is our trip leader and river guide, in charge of four rafts and eight kayakers - 22 people in all. He’s not even 30 but has run the Colorado 20 times, “The first time,” he says gently, “in my mother’s womb.” Along with around 20 others these are my companions for this trip of a life time.
There are two ways to run the Colorado. If you want to take your own boat it’s a weighted lottery system; year by year if you’re unsuccessful you work your way up the list. Or you can join a commercial trip (you can choose a motorised raft or to row) ranging from 3 to 21 days. www.azraft.com Again be prepared to wait – lists can be a year long. But when your time comes, prepare yourself for a trip of a lifetime.
Far from the Colorado
My rafting holiday began about as far from the Colorado as you can get, in a massive superstore in Flagstaff, Arizona, buying food for 45 meals. Since I was joining a private trip, we had to buy and prepare all our meals ourselves. If you join a commercial trip, your river guides will do this for you - although sous-chefs and kitchen hands are rarely turned away.
It took us three hours to purchase our supplies. Everything was then labelled and packed meticulously; D1-B, D1-L, D1-S; Day 1 breakfast, Day 1 lunch, Day 1 supper - all the way through to 15. There was even HD for hors d’oeuvres which I thought rather impressive for a rafting trip.
I was the novice and the outsider, and this mammoth shopping cum labelling task wasn’t conducive to bonding! But as we packed Day 15’s taco shells, beans and peaches into an ex-army rocket box I thought of the 200 miles and 160 rapids ahead of us and decided that if anything would unite us, they would.
The Challenge begins
Day 2. River mile 26. Tiger Wash, our 5th inconsequential rapid. I still don’t really know what to expect. Carmen stops singing. The red, vaulted walls of the canyon drop vertically into the water. I feel as if they’re moving in on us. Suddenly the warm breeze disappears and there’s a noticeable drop in temperature.
Carmen turns our boat sideways, stands on top of the cooler box which doubles as her seat, and holding the oars tightly, scans the rocks, the current, the wave formations. Her concentration is intense. We drift at an angle downstream. She pulls back on her oars, firmly, and at the last moment spins the raft round. I face a wave that’s about six foot wide and five foot high, and growing. We ride over before it breaks. I tell myself this is all right; fun even.
We soar over the next with ease. Then she shouts, “High Side!” to get me to throw all my weight onto the side of the boat that’s going up with the waves. I do and foam crashes over my head. It’s freezing. The wave and the next three break directly over us. I’m thrown back by the force of the water. Drenched, I cling on for life. The current tries to shove us this way and that but Carmen holds the raft steady, heaving at the oars despite her small frame. The rapid thunders around us; my untrained eyes can’t see a way out. I can’t decide if I’m exhilarated or terrified.
I really do think I might die
It all seems fine, then the next second I’m in the water. I can’t see a thing. I come up, I presume, under the boat as my head hits a hard surface. I’m totally disorientated - flung around as if in some giant washing machine. For a split second I really do think I might die.
The next time I emerge, I find myself being swept down river. Another boat in our group closes in; I’m thrown a rope. It falls short but I swim for it. I’m hauled onboard and someone hugs me for warmth.
Upriver Carmen is with our raft. The kayakers circle round for support. Their speed and agility makes them valuable rescue boats.
As Carmen flips our boat over I’m amazed our belongings, packed tightly into dry bags are still in tact. Later I marvel that the bags have so admirably lived up to their name. I was glad I’d taken the others’ advice on board: “Pack them tightly, squeeze out every bit of air, then clamp them shut,” they’d said. I’d listened obediently. It was tiresome and time-consuming, but it had kept my clothes dry!
Our raft righted, we pull in at the next beach. I’m stripped and wrapped in shiny tin foil. It’s so hot it almost burns. I’m shivering violently but manage to smile, unaware how important it is I get warm. The river is freezing (8-12 degrees) all year round. Many of those who die do so because their rescuers can’t get to them in time and hypothermia sets in.
Life below the rim
The next morning as I roll up my sleeping mat, I hear a hollow rattle. I glance down to see a rattlesnake at my feet. He slithers over my toes. I remain unperturbed though largely through ignorance.
Snakes are not the only wildlife that thrives in the desert temperatures we’re camping in. We encounter bighorn sheep, orchids, red monkey flowers and pick out the trill of the canyon wren as the sun rises over the rim.
The sheer scale of the rock surrounding us is breathtaking; its age almost incomprehensible – at 2 billion years, the canyon is half as old as the earth itself. The Colorado carves its way through the gorge for nearly 300 miles running from Lees Ferry, 15 miles below Glen Canyon Dam, near Page in Arizona, to Lake Mead.
We were running the river as far as Diamond Creek, a trip of 15 days. It took us beyond the Upper canyon, although if you’re short on time you can hike out earlier at Phantom Ranch on a path that takes you to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail.
How much for the trip of a life time?
Commercial trips on the Colorado run from April to October. Expect to pay around 200-300 US dollars a day – and as much as 325 dollars per day if you choose a motorised raft. Remember you’ll also need transport to and from the river – the “put in” and “take out” points – it’s worth checking if this is included in your price.
So, when to go? Although Summer is the most popular time monsoons (in July and August) can bring flash floods, churning up the sediment on the river bed and turning the Colorado a dirty, reddish colour – hence its name. Temperatures in the canyon can also reach 48 degrees celsius!
Timing your trip
April or mid September to mid October offer milder weather, making it easier to explore the side canyons – although when I went (in September) a couple in our party still got heat stroke. We encountered the odd storm too.
Day 5. I become aware of the intense rivalry that exists between river runners - everyone watches everyone else, keen to see who ran the last rapid the best and what techniques they used. But I also notice a great sense of camaraderie, borne perhaps from an awareness that danger is never far away. In some places satellite phones have no reception – you have to accept it could be three days before rescuers can get you out. We travel with a qualified nurse; the contents of our first aid box range from plasters to a defibrillator. I become a little more safety conscious than usual.
Camping along the Colorado
Days passed. We fell into the rhythm of camp life. There was food to cook, water to purify and the infamous poop parade – in which a metal box with “poop” emblazoned on the lid, was marched through camp in search of an appropriate resting place. We got very competitive over the view. There were small luxuries too – the most popular, the solar shower – a bag of clean, filtered water left to heat all day on the raft, then suspended from a tree that evening.
We slept on pristine sandy beaches at the edge of the Colorado, in tents or under the stars. The nights grew cold, so I always laid out my sleeping bag, and crawled inside at 3am. I could have set my watch by it! Every beach we camped on, we had to ourselves. We spread out, among rocks and tamarisk trees, each in our favourite spot.
Here comes Lava Falls
Suddenly we had just two days left. Lava Falls was round the corner. The rafters re-rigged their boats, tightening the straps. The kayakers grew serious.
This was the big one; waves crashed into each other from all directions; rocks rose out of the water then disappeared. The river didn’t rumble. It roared.
Everyone made it through. Carmen flipped, but survived to tell her story a million times. “Never underestimate the power of the river,” she said.
On our last night we sat on the beach and Carmen eased her way into song. I saw a collection of bedraggled, sunburnt river runners singing with increasing abandonment and jubilation.
We’d challenged the Colorado’s legendary rapids and lived to tell the tale.