River a Mile Deep

Travel Stories: Michael Shapiro rafts down the Colorado in the wake of Captain John Wesley Powell

05.02.12 | 4:57 PM ET

The calm before the storm: Our boat captain, Owen, on the bow as we drift in the flat water approaching Lava Falls.(Photo: Michael Shapiro)

Our boats are four in number. Three are built of oak, stanch and firm (with) water-tight cabins. ... These will buoy the boats should the waves roll them over in rough water. The fourth is made of pine ... built for fast rowing. ... We take with us rations deemed sufficient to last for ten months.
        -John Wesley Powell from
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, 1875

The Canyon walls glow golden-red as the mid-morning sun rises above the rim, warming us on a frosty November morning. It’s the first day of our 24-day trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Gear, clothes and food are strewn across the beach. We pump up our inflatable Hypalon boats and fill our coolers at Lee’s Ferry on the eve of a 297-mile journey.

John Wesley Powell, who made the first descent of the Colorado 140 years ago, packed flour for unleavened bread, bacon, dried apples, coffee and whiskey. The basics. For our trip, we pack pasta and pesto, fresh organic broccoli and carrots, homemade apple and pumpkin pies, and a whole turkey, frozen in a block of ice, for Thanksgiving almost three weeks after our launch.

Powell, a geologist, explorer, and Civil War captain who lost most of one arm during the Battle of Shiloh, set out in 1869 with nine other men to attempt the first descent of the Colorado. Among Powell’s fleet were boats called Maid of the Canyon and No Name; the boat I’ll help steer down the river is the Black Pearl. We learn from Johnny Beers, of Canyon REO, the company renting us the boats, that the Black Pearl was recently washed out of a Canyon camp by a flash flood and floated 40 miles downstream. When found, it was upright, a map book still atop a cooler.

An auspicious story, calming on the eve of a trip down one of the most ferocious whitewater rivers in the world. Much more reassuring than the blown-up photos on Canyon REO’s office wall showing a 1983 flip in Crystal rapids.

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Unlike most trips down the Canyon, we’re guiding ourselves rather than relying on a commercial outfitter. We have 16 people in five boats; rowing is shared but each boat has a captain responsible for rigging and getting the raft safely through the most fearsome rapids.  Some of us are old friends. Others we just met the day before.

No one in our group, other than me, has been down the Colorado through the Canyon before, and I’ve done it only once, 12 years ago, at a different water level. It’s a river whose hydraulics are unlike any other, with pounding waves higher than our 16-foot boats, and sucking holes that can flip a raft and hold on to its passengers, recirculating boats and humans like a washing machine. It’s called getting Maytagged.

At Lee’s Ferry, we wrap duct tape and cardboard around our bottles of tequila, gin and Jack Daniel’s to protect our good soldiers from the rapids ahead. After a frosty November night, our group leader, Kristin, a 26-year-old Outward Bound guide from Moab, Utah, calls us together. We meet with a Grand Canyon ranger who makes sure we have all the necessary equipment: maps, ropes and other safety gear, and a “groover” for human waste.

Why is it called a groover? Back in the early days of rafting, the groover was nothing more than a large metal ammo box lined with a Hefty bag, so after sitting on it rafters would have a long groove on each cheek and thigh. Modern groovers have toilet seats but the name has, well, stuck.

Steve Sommer, one of our boat captains, exults just after we begin paddling downriver. (Michael Shapiro)

By early afternoon we’re packed, rigged and as ready as we’ll ever be, so we push off. The Canyon is wide at Lee’s Ferry, and the early afternoon sun illuminates the sculpted rust-colored walls. I share a boat with Owen, an Englishman in his early 40s with a dry sense of humor who came to the western U.S. to teach snowboarding and do some tech work. Owen, our boat captain, takes the first pulls on the oars.

The feeling of the journey’s first moments, especially on a naturally flowing waterway, is euphoric. Our companions hoot and cheer as we hit our first rapids. Powell had similar feelings when he navigated the first whitewater of his trip: “We thread the narrow passage with exhilarating velocity,” he wrote, “mounting the high waves, whose foaming crests dash over us, and plunging into the troughs, until we reach the quiet water below.”

We wake before the sun tops the rim on day two and see our fully laden boats on the beach, high and dry. The river has dropped precipitously, a result of timed releases followed by curtailed flows from the Glen Canyon Dam upstream. Without the dam we probably wouldn’t have enough water to be boating in November.

But I’d trade that in a second to get rid of the blockage that inundated a canyon many believe was as beautiful as the Grand, but in a gentler, more seductive way. Former Sierra Club president David Brower called the 710-foot-high, 300-foot-wide dam “America’s most regretted environmental mistake.” The reservoir the dam created is called Lake Powell, which I’m certain would make old Captain Powell, who reveled in the beauty of this place, wince.

We know that eventually the water will rise and allow us to get our boats back in the river, so we wait.

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Michael Shapiro is the author of A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration (Travelers' Tales) and wrote the text for the pictorial book, Guatemala: A Journey Through the Land of the Maya. His article on Jan Morris’s Wales was a cover story for National Geographic Traveler -- he also writes for such publications as Islands, Hemispheres, American Way, Mariner, The Sun, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. Shapiro volunteers as a guide for Environmental Traveling Companions, an outfitter that takes disabled people on whitewater rafting and sea kayak trips. He can be reached through www.michaelshapiro.net.


19 Comments for River a Mile Deep

Sean 05.02.12 | 7:11 PM ET

Epic Michael.  Thanks for sharing this journey in this format.  I’m going to go find Powell’s notes now.  Cheers to you and hope all is well.

Mark Halbert 05.07.12 | 7:51 AM ET

This looks like a great adventure——are there many tour operators who take people down the Colorado River and Its Canyons ?

ecothreesixty (Barnes) 05.07.12 | 9:59 AM ET

Sounds like the trip of lifetime.  Also like the mixture of old friends and total strangers.  It can be really nice to meet and make new friendships with old friends around. 

The pictures of you as Lilliputians at the Redwall Cavern is impressive and the pictures I could find online of Glen Canyon prior to the damn look absolutely stunning. 

Hugely envious.

Michael Shapiro 05.08.12 | 3:34 AM ET

Mark: yes, there are many tour operators on the Canyon. You want to go with those who use human-powered boats, not motorboats. Trips typically 7 to 18 days - go for the full trip if you have the time and money. The shorter trips are just segments.

Also thanks to Tom McKinnon, who gave us permission to use that killer Lava Falls shot (on p6 of this story). That images shows better than my pictures how ferocious Lava is. Tom asks that we dedicate that photo as follows: “In memory of Greg J. Coln, 1956-2009.” Coln was the owner of Mountain Man Rafting in Creede, Colorado, and his wife and grandson still run that business, McKinnon told me via email. Coln died of natural causes, not on a river.

Trip to India 05.08.12 | 6:07 AM ET

Oh boy, I have been dreaming about rafting since I was a kid. Unfortunately, I could only get to raft on quite slow, boring rivers… seems like you had so much fun there. Excellent photos mate! Made me kind of envious, the place was perfect! My favorite picture was the canyon’s sculpted walls. Cool site!

Cheers
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Laura Read 05.08.12 | 11:11 AM ET

Nice story, Michael! My parents did the trip back in the ‘70s. I’ve never forgotten their stories of adventure and beauty, but still haven’t rafted the Colorado, myself.

Laura Read 05.08.12 | 11:13 AM ET

Nice story, Michael! My parents did the trip in the 1970s. I’ve never forgotten their stories of adventure and beauty.

Nicholas Marks 05.12.12 | 7:40 PM ET

Sounds like an incredible adventure. The water looks very calm, must be fit to do it, can’t just float with the current.

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