River a Mile Deep

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

Launching in November, we feel we have the Canyon to ourselves. (Photo: Michael Shapiro)

In the evenings Powell’s party dispelled “the gloom of these great depths” by sharing Civil War stories around a campfire; many of his crew had fought in the conflict. Though we cook on propane stoves, we too build fires and share our own kind of “war stories”—of prior river adventures, love gone awry and the misguided exploits of our youth. We brighten the cold, dark evenings with tiki torches and strands of battery-powered twinkly colored lights that we drape around our chairs, adding a note of festivity to our home for the night.

We sing The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and Bob Dylan and Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” tunes that would have been as timely and at home in the 19th century as they are in the 21st. Our voices are leavened by Lynsey’s plaintive flute and Kevin’s acoustic guitar, kept dry in watertight cases while we’re on the river. Kevin recently completed college and is considering a career in outdoor education, like his older brother Steve, a trip leader for Outward Bound and one of our boat captains.

Lynsey plays her fiddle during an impromptu afternoon recital on a riverside beach. (Photo: Michael Shapiro)

Powell wrote that his men would occasionally “shout or discharge a pistol, to listen to the reverberations among the cliffs.” We blow off steam with pyrotechnics, setting an open can of collected bacon grease on a grill atop our campfire.

“Is everyone at least ten feet from the fire?” Steve shouts as he fetches water from the river. Neil, a mellow river ranger and one of our boat captains, says “No, they’re about two feet away.” Steve: “Then get the first aid kit!” Steve has attached a pail of water to a 10-foot-long oar and moves toward the fire. Some in our group start chanting: “Ba-con bomb! Baaa-con bomb! Baaaaa-con bomb!” Steve shouts “Back away!” and pours the water into the can of bubbling bacon grease. It explodes, sending a plume of flame 15 feet into the air, and we leap away and howl.

In November, only one group is allowed to start a trip down the Colorado each day, compared to five or six in midsummer. We have the glorious feeling of having the entire Canyon to ourselves. And while our coolers and bar are extravagantly stocked, we’ve made a point to leave behind most of modern society’s distractions. We don’t bring a boom box—our music is homegrown—and deep in the canyon, cell towers are beyond our reach. We carry one satellite phone in case of emergency.

Powell’s party had its share of technical equipment, most notably barometers for measuring altitude. Early in his exploration, before reaching the Grand Canyon, Powell’s boat No Name was dashed to pieces, its hull caught in a turbulent rapid. The crew survived, but Powell’s treasured barometers were stranded in No Name. The captain sent two men into the river to rescue his instruments.

“The boys set up a shout, and I join them,” Powell wrote, “pleased that they should be as glad as myself to save the instruments.” When the men returned, he saw they also salvaged a three-gallon keg of whiskey. “The last is what they were shouting about,” Powell noted dryly.

Drink is what we shout about when we reach camp the next afternoon. As the sun disappears it gets cool, so we attach a propane tank to a camp stove and make some hot buttered rum. Over a dinner of pesto pasta with spicy sausage, I consider how decadent our trip is compared to Powell’s expedition, whose members ate the same drab food every day and often huddled under cold, wet blankets—or worse, a tarp, which some used when their blankets were lost in a capsized boat.

We flick a Bic and have a fire, our waterproof sacks keep our compressible zero-degree sleeping bags dry, and our inflatable boats can navigate the Canyon’s most ominous rapids, sparing us the torture of carrying boats over crumbly canyon walls around the biggest drops, as Powell’s party did.

Yet we share Powell’s appreciation of the Canyon: the “cathedral-shaped” buttes, the towering monuments, the “grandly arched” half-mile-high walls reflected in calm stretches of river, and the polished ochre spires that tower above it all. Our spirits soar as we float through Marble Canyon, admiring its pink and purple hues and “saffron” tints.

On the beach at Redwall Cavern, we’re dwarfed by the overhanging wall. (Photo: Michael Shapiro)

At a bend in the river, we find a deep oval opening scoured into the rock by millions of years of surging river. Powell estimated that if it were a theater it could seat 50,000 people. Now called Redwall Cavern, it’s a perfect spot for an impromptu game of soccer, and we exhaust ourselves chasing a ball over the sandy beach. A Frisbee gets pulled out and flung towards the water. We dive off the boats attempting to catch it, plunging into the chilly eddy like eager dogs.

Just downstream we pull over to explore a delicate waterfall spraying from peach-colored rocks. Lush green vegetation surrounds the cascade; the sunshine lights up the misty veil with the colors of the rainbow. Powell named this place Vasey’s Paradise for a botanist who had previously traveled with him through the Southwest. Downriver we hike into Nautiloid Canyon—I expect to see fossils of chambered nautiluses preserved in stone but we find evidence of yard-long creatures with tail fins that were ancestors of squid.

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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!


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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