Grand Canyon. Colorado River
Grand Canyon. “When people first call to inquire about rafting the Grand Canyon,” Breck Poulson observed, “they ask about the rapids—how big are they, how gnarly. The night before the trip begins, it’s still about the rapids. But when they’ve actually been out on the river for a few days, it’s no longer about the rapids. It’s about a life-changing experience, getting away from the real world, experiencing a genuine adventure and the magnitude of the canyon. By the end of the trip, the rapids are an afterthought.”
Grand Canyon. Neither the deepest nor widest gorge in the world, the Grand Canyon is nonetheless recognized as one of the planet’s most awe-inspiring erosion events—a 277-mile-long chasm that yawns from four to eighteen miles and reaches depths of more than a mile. Scientists believe human presence in the canyon dates back thirteen thousand years. It was not until 1869 that the first men of European descent, under the command of Major John Wesley Powell, navigated the Colorado’s roiling waters. Powell (who had lost most of his right arm in the Civil War) and his nine fellow sojourners did not have the benefit of rubber rafts or detailed guide books; they ran the Colorado in wooden dories that had been built in Chicago and transported west.
The section of the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon—either 186 or 225 miles, depending on where you take out—is one of the world’s preeminent river adventures. Yes, there over forty rapids rated V or higher. Yes, the conventional rating scale of I to VI that’s used on most western rivers is discarded in lieu of a 1 to 10 scale (with both Crystal and Lava Falls coming in at a solid “10”). But as Breck described, it’s the hikes to hidden waterfalls, crystalline creeks, ancient Indian ruins, and the sandy campsites beneath unblemished night skies that make the Grand Canyon a must-float for any serious paddler. Though a finite number of permits for very experienced do-it-yourselfers are issued each year, most Grand Canyon rafters will opt to go with an outfitter. Oar boat trips take twelve, fourteen, or sixteen days. Breck, a veteran of more than one hundred Grand Canyon floats, described the dynamics of this epic adventure. Grand Canyon.
“On the night before the trip, when we do an orientation, people always have a deer-in-the-headlights look,” he observed. “People are wondering what they’ve gotten into. After the put-in at Lee’s Ferry, people are still wondering what they’ve gotten into. After the first few rapids, people are starting to get a feel for the canyon, but they’re still in their own little groups. After the first night, people are discussing the night before, the moon, the stars. By the time we make our first stop and take our first hike, the different groups are starting to intermingle and form friendships. After running a few of the bigger rapids in the Inner Gorge (Unkar, Nevills, Hance, Sockdolager, and Grapevine among them), we’re jelling together as a big river family working our way downstream.”
Grand Canyon. The vistas of the canyon from the Colorado River are beyond words; in some places, rafts are more than a mile below the rim, which can’t even be viewed from the water. As most days entail between three and five hours of floating, there’s plenty of time to get out and explore the canyon. Breck described a few of his favorite hikes. “The first is at Nankoweap [Trail], where we can walk up to see the Ancestral Puebloan granaries. The Ancient Ones used crevasses in the rock to store grain and supplies after spending the winter months in the canyon. From the granaries, you can see all the way down to the canyon that forms the Little Colorado. It’s an astonishing view, one of the best of the trip, and the hike only takes an hour. At mile 136, we reach Deer Creek Falls. You can hike above the falls to a point high above the Colorado. There’s a spot here called ‘The Patio’ where Deer Creek gathers before heading for the falls. There’s nice shade, and you can cool your feet off in the river. If you don’t feel like hiking, you can swim in the pool that’s created by the falls. The water’s always clear.”
Of the seventy-two named rapids that punctuate the Colorado’s Grand Canyon stretch, Lava Falls—near the trip’s conclusion—garners much of the mindshare. “People are talking about it all the way down,” Breck added. “‘What’s it like? What’s it like?’ Anticipation certainly builds, to the point where people start picking out where they’re going to sit in the boat when Lava is run. It’s almost like a sporting event. When you get through, your team has won.” In terms of overall difficulty, Breck places Hance, Horn Creek, and Crystal at the top of the list. In terms of overall fun, he likes Hermit. “Hermit always has five big roller-coaster waves,” he continued. “Even our thirty-seven foot motor rafts can be buried in there. There are no big turns, no technical moves you need in Hermit. You just head down the middle of it and get soaked.”
Grand Canyon. There have been many rapids for Breck Poulson to recollect from his many years on the Colorado, yet one of his fondest memories concerns a family he guided. “We had a father on one trip with two teenage daughters,” he recalled. “It soon became apparent that the girls didn’t want to go.
“On that same trip, we had an older man, close to eighty. It was obvious he was going to need some help, especially with the hiking. The crew managed to get the kids working together with the older guest, to the point where they were helping him on the hikes. As they began helping the older man, they started getting along better and better with their dad. It was fun to watch their change of heart and the evolution of their relationships with the older guest and their father.”
BRECK POULSON took his first river trip through the Grand Canyon in 1973. Since then, he’s been down the river more than one hundred times. Today, he serves as general manager of Wilderness River Adventures and director of tour operations at Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas.
If you go to Grand Canyon:
Getting to Grand Canyon: Groups generally assemble in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is served by several carriers, including Alaska Airlines and US Airways.
Best Time to Visit Grand Canyon: Most commercial trips run between May and October.
Level of Difficulty of Grand Canyon: Extreme for do-it-yourselfers. Inexperienced paddlers will be fine on guided trips.
Guides/Outfitters at Grand Canyon: There are a number of outfitters authorized to lead trips through the Grand Canyon, including Wilderness River Adventures.
Accommodations at Grand Canyon: The Flagstaff Convention & Visitors Bureau highlights lodging options for before and after your float.
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