River a Mile Deep
Travel Stories: Michael Shapiro rafts down the Colorado in the wake of Captain John Wesley Powell
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.
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.
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.