Grand Canyon Rafting Trip
Aug 19-25, 2000
In August of 2000 a group of 18 of us took a 6 day rafting trip down the Colorado River as it winds through the Grand Canyon. The official excuse for the trip was a Geology class offered by Washtenaw Community College. Our guides on the river were from Arizona River Runners. This was not my first experience with either rafting or the Colorado River (see http://www.hps.com/~tpg/vac/summer95.html), but nonetheless it turned out to be far more than I had expected.
On August 18 we arrived in Sin City, a.k.a. Las Vegas, Nevada, city of conspicuous consumption, home of the drive through pawn shop. You got it, hardly my favorite place on earth. After arriving we were free to roam on our own, as the real journey would begin the next day.
The Canyon has remained remarkably remote and inaccessible throughout history. The first European to see the Canyon was the Spanish explorer, Pizarro, who paused only long enough to find a way around it. After that hardly anyone paid attention to this giant hole in the earth, except, of course, the Indians who have lived here for more than a thousand years.
It was in 1869 that a one armed Civil War veteran, Major John Wesley Powell, finally attempted to enter the Canyon and plot its course. Nine hearty men started down on that historical trip using special boats designed by Powell. Finally at Lava Falls, almost completely out of food, the party split up. Three men left to climb out, the remaining six chose to brave the terrifying rapid they faced. The six survived to tell their tale, the three were never seen again, probably victims of Indians on the rim. See this site for pictures from Powell's trip.
Even after this successful trip down the Canyon, very very few tried
to run the Canyon. As recently as 1950, less than 100 people in total had
gone down it.
If you'd like to read more about Powell and this first trip down the
river, I highly recomment Down the Great Unknown by
Edward Dolnick. You can't believe how tough these guys were.
We were up before first light on August 19th to catch a Scenic Airway's flight to our starting point at Marble Canyon Ranch where we were met by our guides and given an introduction to the river. The expedition was led by Tom V, a grizzled veteran of twenty years of rafting. Tom was amiable and exuded competence, confidence and assurance that he could handle anything.
Our large geology group was joined by other groups filling two large
32 foot rubber rafts. The rafts were powered by very quiet four-stroke
Honda outboard motors.
See pictures here.
One raft was manned by Tom and his sidekick, Joe.
The other was manned by John M and his sidekick John (better known as 'Wildman').
The guides were supplemented by Nancy, an ex-guide and currently a botanist
for the park service in Flagstaff, AZ.
See the guides here.
We were encouraged to remove our watches and other reminders of the "rim world" and join the guides in "canyon time". Tom explained that we should not worry about the time of day, but for those of us who just needed to know, he assured us that each day regardless of what happened, we'd start on the river at precisely 8AM, stop for lunch at precisely noon and come off at precisely 4PM - regardless what time we actually thought it was.
Our river routine varied little, each day consisting of:
This routine was augmented with various side trips like those you can see here. Just when and where was based on the availability of the spot (we had to share with others on the river) and the experience of Tom. We visited several places that even the other guides had not seen before and others who'd been on the river before reported that our side trips were different than what they had seen before also. Clearly there are lots of places you can stop in the Canyon - if you just know where :-).
Toilette routines while camping are pretty important. A basic rule on the river was that you pack out everything except your urine. Unlike lake camping, here you are expected to pee into the river, not on shore, as there is too little of it. This was easy for us guys, of course - walk down the shore, avoid any snakes (I met the only rattlesnake) and take in the view as we did our duty. It was not so easy for the women, but they eventually came up with their own innovative solution.
We were all relieved to learn the rafts carried a portable sit-down toilette, but it was only available after we set up camp. If we were on the river and you had to go "number two", there was a way. Tom described the process in sufficient detail that we all made a private vow to never need it.
Life on the River
We were free to ride on either raft and were encouraged to move around. The view and experience of rafting varied greatly depending on your position on the raft. The easier ride, by far, is in the back. You seldom get wet, sit higher and can see far better than in front. How rough and wet the ride was depended a great deal on who was "driving". Despite claims to the contrary, we all were convinced that Tom enjoyed giving a wet ride. See pictures on the river here.
The level of the river water doesn't vary nowadays as in the past. The Glen Canyon Dam allows the water coming down the river to be regulated. Most years the water level is about 20,000 cu ft/sec. This year, however, as an experiment to see the effect of lower water on a minnow population, the water level was at 8000 cu ft/sec. Don't worry there was plenty of water and, yes, the rapids were affected by this - some harder, some easier. As we descended the river there were many places we saw debris wedged into cracks in the Canyon wall well above our heads, demonstrating that in the distant past, the river level was far higher than what we saw.
Even with a dam, the water level can be much higher. In the El Nino
year of 1983 a combination of miscalculations, heavy snows and an early
thaw raised the water in the dam to extraordinary heights. They had no
choice but to let it come down - at 103,000 cu ft/sec. The water was so
dangerous that some rafting trips were stopped that year and not all
rapids could be run with passengers, but rather people had to walk
around the rapids on shore.
The water coming from the bottom of the dam is a frigid 46 degrees (F). It slowly warms so that by mile 180, it is a balmy 60 degrees. The result was that any time you get wet, you are also immediately chilled. The dam water is clear and remains so most of the summer. However, when it rains, the side canyons and rivers bring in silt and the river turns a turgid red brown - and consequently, so do your clothes. We'd been warned about this, and most everyone brought clothes to discard.
Hot and Cold
In August temperatures in the Canyon range from a low in the 60s to a high in the 90s. By early morning it was usually cool enough to require a sheet or light bedroll. Exactly how comfortable one slept depended on how close we were to the Canyon wall. The first and third nights we camped in narrows and were close to the walls which retained the heat of the day. This was tough sleeping for me.
I was prepared for the heat. I'd read about the 100 degree days in high summer. I brought shorts and tee shirts, hats, sunglasses etc., but I was not well prepared for the cold. Water as cold as the Colorado can sap the heat from you pretty quickly unless the sun is there to put it back.
The first day we had rain and I ignored it. I was already wet, what could a little rain do? Then it clouded over, the wind picked up, and it rained pretty hard. I was was cooling down, but I was feeling all right, especially with the life vest. We started into a series of rapids called the "Roaring Twenties" and I got one good dose of that cold water and "ran" for my rain gear. I'd learned my lesson - rain gear is not to keep you dry, but to keep the warmth in.
Wet and Dry
Just how dry you stay depends on where you are on the raft and which raft you are on. Tom seemed to take pleasure in making the mildest rapids spit water over us. Some rapids are going to get you wet, even if you are hiding in the back. Sometimes there is little you can do about it, but enjoy it.
The two front seats on both sides get wet, there's just no way to avoid it. Even for an easy rapid, the water comes up from under you. Just how far it goes as well as where it comes out depends. On bigger rapids, the water breaks over you. You cannot avoid getting wet, water goes down your neck and back and everywhere else.
August is a rainy month in the Canyon and we had rain three times. Once we were on the river, so it did not matter much. Another time we were about to eat dinner and all 30 of us huddled under a light tent while we tried to eat our tacos. Twenty minutes later, it blew through, leaving everything wet for our night's rest.
Get Used to It
The short of it is, you get used to it all. You learn to accept the hot and cold flashes, the novel toilette situation, and so forth. The first day, we hung on at every rapid. By the end, many were sitting on the outside tube loosely hanging onto a rope. Rapids which the first day had us hunkered down were nothing by the end of the trip. We learned how to move about or use rain gear to keep us comfortable. Some people were more adventurous than others and sat up front right away, others held back. By end of trip, even the most timid felt comfortable enough to take a turn in front and enjoy a good soaking.
The sights as one travels through the Canyon are overwhelming - the magnificent becomes common, the stunning is merely ordinary. Many times your line of sight is highly restricted by the narrow Canyon at the water level. Towering above you, often thousands of feet is the Grand Canyon Rim World tourists in their cars know. On the river, it's a very different Canyon. Even when the Canyon widens, our view on the water is still highly restricted, since the walls near the water climb hundreds of feet into the sky before stair-stepping back to climb again and again. The best vistas come as you look down or up stream. The Canyon is painted in hundreds of colors, washed out when the sun is high, but which reappear in early morning and late afternoon. The following are a few highlights. The mile on the river is noted in square brackets ().
A Little Geology
The Grand Canyon is grand, indeed. It covers over 1.2 million acres and is some 270 miles in length. Its width varies from a few hundred feet at its starting point at Lee's Ferry to as much as 18 miles. The Canyon depth (as measured from the rim to the river level) varies from a few hundred feet to over 6000 feet at its maximum.
The geology of the Canyon is as grand as it's views and this being a geology class, was of more than passing interest to the group. The Canyon of today is the result of the great carving knife of nature - erosion, principally water and ice over the millennia. It seems impossible to imagine changes on this scale, but consider that in the very recent past, before the Glen Canyon dam was built, the Colorado River carried three cubic miles of sediment into the Pacific Ocean every hundred years. Consider the scale of change possible over thousands and millions of years when the forces of nature were much more violent!
One thing that makes today's Canyon walls so spectacular are the layers upon layers of different rock that were built from sediment from ancient seas.
Beginning as long ago as 17 million years ago, the Colorado Plateau
began to uplift. This was caused by pressures deep in the earth, probably
helped also by movement of the North American and Pacific plates. This
continued until approximately 5 million years ago. At its greatest height
the plateau was about 15,000 feet above sea level. What makes the Canyon
so different is that this uplift was not even, but resulted in a "bulge"
where the lower rock which formed part of the earth's mantle was brought
The ancient Colorado River continued to cut through these layers forming the Canyon we see today. As you move down river from the start of today's Grand Canyon, you see the upper layers which survived the erosion. As the river quickly descends through the layers you pass mile after mile of limestone, especially the redwall and muav limestone. The red color we see all over the Canyon comes from iron in the limestone which has leeched from the upper layers and colored the lower ones. Where rock breaks away, you can see the lighter, original color of that rock, until the water leeches iron oxide and colors this too.
About halfway through the Canyon we finally pass through the massive
limestone layers and finally begin to see other layers like the bright
angel shale and tapeats sandstone layers. Further on, we see the striking
black schist layer with veins of granite swirled through out. Schist is
rock originally from the lower layers of the earth's crust where pink molten
Zoraster granite could squirt through cracks under pressure.
The result today is the stark contrast of shiny black schist with its
accompanying bright pink veins as they snake through the rock - very very cool.
I've rafted before, but nothing in my previous experience prepared me for this. There certainly was danger here, but the guides and equipment were first rate. With all of our technology and a dam to keep the water level even and low, the ferocity of the rapids was amazing and awe-full. I cannot fathom how Powell and those early adventurers managed.
I've seen the Grand Canyon from above, but spending over five days on the river as we rafted 180+ miles was far beyond my expectations. The mind reels trying to find adequate adjectives. It's seldom today that we city folks get a chance to experience remoteness and beauty on this scale.
This was definitely one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I left the Canyon with renewed respect for Nature and the terrible forces she applies to form this blue-green sphere we call home.
Copyright (c) 2000 Terry Gliedt. Direct comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Revision: Jul 29, 2003