River a Mile Deep

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

Havasu Canyon (Photo: Michael Shapiro)

Canyon veterans warn that trips can fall apart during the final few days. Once Lava has been run and the group is no longer so dependent on one another, the theory goes, all the pent-up and buried resentments surface. But we’re a companionable, easygoing group. We know we won’t fall prey to petty disputes.

After a festive spaghetti dinner we gather round the campfire to chart the rest of the trip. Because we’re a bit behind schedule and have a set take-out date, Kristin suggests floating over the flatwater at night. Steve is dead set against a night float, his emotions amplified by alcohol. He conjures visions of bodies in sleeping bags rolling off the boats, never to be seen again. “I’d rather run Lava ten times than do a night float,” he exclaims. Kristin gives him a nonplussed look that says “Whatever,” and suggests we talk about it in the morning.

The homemade pies have survived for almost three weeks on ice, and perfectly cap our Thanksgiving feast. (Photo: Michael Shapiro)

With the return of daylight and sobriety, all is forgiven. At Granite Park Canyon (Mile 209) we find an expansive beach, set up a badminton net and prepare our Thanksgiving feast. A solo boater floats by. His name is Jake and he’s hungry for company, so we invite him to join us. We put the turkey in a metal drum and cover it with charcoal. Hours later it’s burnt to a crisp, but we scrape off the black crust and savor the feast of tender poultry, mashed potatoes, warm stuffing and unheated green beans—we didn’t have any more pots—straight from the can. For dessert we tuck into Martha’s home-baked apple and pumpkin pies, perfectly fresh after almost three weeks on ice, and toast one another with wine and beer.

Thirty miles downstream, a wide side-canyon opens to the north, seeming to offer a way out of the Grand Canyon. At this juncture, O.G. Howland asked Powell to abandon the river and end the journey. Howland said that he, his brother Seneca, and William Dunn were determined to leave. Powell took out his sextant and estimated the party was about 45 miles from the mouth of the Rio Virgen, their destination, the end of the Colorado’s course through the Grand Canyon.

“All night long I pace up and down a little path,” Powell wrote. “Is it wise to go on?” he wondered. “At one time I almost conclude to leave the river. But for years I have been contemplating this trip. To leave the exploration unfinished ... is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on.”

In the morning Powell asked Howland, Howland and Dunn if they still want to leave. The elder Howland said they did. Powell sadly accepted their decision and left them his boat, the Emma Dean, in case they reconsidered and wanted to meet the party downstream. The men were never seen again. They may have died at the hands of Indians or Mormons; they could have perished from lack of food or water; no one knows.

The author holding the celebratory tequila.

This place, at Mile 239, is named Separation Canyon, and we hike up to see a plaque in memory of the three lost explorers. We make camp here with deepening awareness that our journey is nearing its end. From Separation to the take out, the water is virtually flat, save for one nasty rapid caused by human intrusion into the river. It sounds strange to say it, but the river has been drowned, submerged by Lake Mead. The rapids are gone, buried by the tepid backwash from the dam downstream. The water here is stagnant and fetid. “Bathtub rings” from the rise and fall of the reservoir blanche the Canyon’s walls. Helicopters with sightseers from Vegas buzz overhead; motorboats storm upstream past our rafts, their passengers pointing their fingers and cameras at us. 

Just two days after leaving Separation’s beach, Powell’s party triumphantly concluded their journey. They had navigated and documented the entire run of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and Powell could not contain his glee.

How beautiful the sky, how bright the sunshine, what ‘floods of delirious music’ pour from the throats of birds, how sweet the fragrance of earth and tree and blossom. ... Now the danger is over, now the toil has ceased, now the gloom has disappeared, now the firmament is bounded only by the horizon, and what a vast expanse of constellations can be seen! The river rolls by us in silent majesty; the quiet of the camp is sweet; our joy is almost ecstasy. - J.W. Powell

As we paddle against the wind on Lake Mead, the Canyon widens. It’s more open here, and I feel we’ve been released from its magnetic grip. By late afternoon, the incessant hum of the planes and motorboats ceases, vestiges of the Canyon’s magic reappear. Lynsey plays her flute, conjuring native visions. On our last night camping by the river, a gibbous moon rises over our Hypalon boats, which make soothing whale-like sounds as they rub against one another. As tired and eager for comfort as I am, I savor these final hours in the Canyon, caressed by the muted lullaby of the submerged river.



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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