Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Colorado River Through Grand Canyon

Hermit. Crystal. Lava. To anyone who has had the pleasure of taking a river trip through the Grand Canyon, these names should sound familiar as they are just a few of the exciting and challenging rapids encountered along the way. If you haven't been able to take the trip, I strongly encourage you to consider it if the opportunity arises. For most folks it's a once in a lifetime experience, but regardless of whether you do it once or many times, what you gain in outlook and perception of what really matters in life is priceless.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that most people who visit the natural wonder of Grand Canyon only scratch the surface of what there is to see and do. Day hiking or backpacking will allow the fit and hardy adventurer to experience a small part of the otherwise enormous Canyon, but you really have to work at earning the rite of passage.

Alternatively many river trips travel the entire 277 miles of the river through the Canyon and can last anywhere from 3 to 18 days while transporting the passenger in relative comfort along the flowing waters. The hardest thing about taking this trip is deciding what and how much of your favorite beverage to bring for the inevitable happy hour on the beach at day's end.

Guided Vs. Private

All river trips in Grand Canyon require a permit, either with a commercial outfitter or as a private party. Until recently private trips were subject to a waiting list as long as 10 years or more, but changes have been made so that individuals can now secure permits in a weighted lottery. Check out the National Park Service website here for more information on the different types of river trips available.

A journey on the river with licensed guides can be expensive, and requires reservations as much as a year in advance. You do get what you pay for however as commercial outfitters supply knowledgable guides, all equipment including tents, sleeping bags, and life jackets, as well as fully catered meals. The guides are professional and well educated, and many of them specialize in biology, geology, and natural history. They provide a wealth of information about the incredible environment of the Canyon, and they know the best places to hike and explore along the way. Most guides love their jobs with a passion and do their best to teach and entertain while sharing a much beloved place with their guests.

If you're into doing it yourself and have extensive whitewater experience or know someone who does, private trips can be organized and outfitted locally. Private (non-commercial) trips have the advantage of lasting as long as 25 days, and offer the maximum opportunity for off-river hiking and exploration as well as moving along at your own pace. The potential downsides to a private trip are not knowing the hazards of the river as well as a professional guide, and the logistics for organizing and feeding a group over several weeks without resupply can be challenging.

Either way you do it, the experience is one you'll never forget.

Trip Options

For the purpose of this blog I am focusing on the commercial (guided) trip, since that is the type of trip most people will participate in. As mentioned earlier, commercial trips allow novice passengers to relax and let the boatmen/women do the work, while requiring only the ability to ooh and ahh at the everchanging but always spectacular scenery. There are several considerations to making your selection, primarily having to do with the amount of time and energy you can commit to - and let's not forget the economic cost. In general you can expect to pay anywhere from $175.00 to $300.00 per day/per person for the experience.

Motorized Vs. Oar/Paddle

Time is always a factor when you're on vacation, and many folks have a hard time getting away from work or life's other necessities for more than a week at a time. If you have your heart set on running the entire length of the river through Grand Canyon, you should consider a motorized trip.
Motor rigs like the one pictured here hold upwards of 20 passengers, and ride the roughest of holes and standing waves with ease while still giving riders a huge whitewater thrill. These boats typically cover the entire trip in 8 days, and they offer nearly as much off river exploration as longer trips since they can cover a lot of ground (so to speak) in a shorter time frame. The only real downsides are having outboard engines that can sometimes disrupt the natural peace and quiet of the Inner Canyon, and the inability to experience the calmer stretches while spending as much time as possible taking in the majestic sights.

If you are philosophically opposed to manmade intrusions spoiling the serene surroundings, consider an oar/paddle trip that covers either the upper or lower sections of the Canyon. Full non-motorized trips take at least 14 days, but selecting either the first half or second half allows for a shorter duration (typically 6 - 9 days) while giving passengers a generous taste of the river through the Canyon. The real challenge in doing this type of trip is that people who do the upper half will need to hike out of Grand Canyon at Phantom Ranch, a 9.5 mile trek uphill to the rim. If the lower half is selected, the reverse is true - a hike into the Ranch from the rim. Either way, there is a substantial physical challenge involved and this should be a consideration when booking the trip.

The best option if your time and finances allow is the full oar/paddle trip. This typically lasts 14+ days, and you can experience the sounds and sights of the Inner Canyon undisturbed by outside distractions. Some river companies offer trips where guides exclusively row the 6 - 8 person rafts, while others offer the option of passengers participating by using paddles to power the boats. There are also combinations available where paddle boats and oar boats are included on the trip so that passengers can elect to take a more active or passive role as they choose.

Oar/paddle trips tend to be more intimate, and the pace is often much slower than motorized rigs, especially since the boats are subject to slow river currents and upstream winds. In the rapids they are skillfully managed by the guides to avoid the worst of the turbulence while providing the most wild ride possible. It's even possible that a guide will allow passengers a turn at the oars in the calmer sections if someone wants a taste of the river runner life - be careful though, it can be very addictive!

Life On The River

Once you enter the realm of the Grand Canyon on the River, the outside world literally ceases to exist. Though the rim and civilization as we know it can sometimes be glimpsed from below, you might as well be on the Moon. Cell phones, internet, and the everyday hassles of your daily routine cannot reach you here. As the journey unfolds, you find yourself relaxing more and more each day as the cares of your life slip away. This is not a cliche - being down here without anything but the majesty and sublime beauty of the Canyon forces the mind to sharpen and focus on what is real. Over time pretensions and perceptions melt away until only the bedrock of your life remains. Many river trip participants find themselves looking at things in a new way after their trip, and for some it truly becomes a life changing experience.

Besides the opportunity to experience a world few get to see, you'll explore some of the many otherwise hidden and inaccessible side canyons that make up the overall Grand Canyon. You will see firsthand how water in a harsh and unforgiving landscape shapes life at the river's edge and on the dry and seemingly barren desert slopes just feet away. You will marvel at the complexity and variety of water and wind carved shapes and forms on display at every turn in the river's path, and be astounded as massive walls of granite and sandstone rise above you everywhere you look - for days on end. And while everyone begins the trip as strangers, by the time it's over you'll probably develop some life-long friendships as you share this incredible journey.

But don't take my word for it. Get on the river and see what happens - I promise you won't regret it.

1 comment:

  1. A great write up.
    I did an 8 day motorized trip around Labor day in 2005. I was back at work and for the next couple weeks I was wishing I was back on the river. Every once in awhile someone would show interest in the trip and I was probably glassy eyed while talking about it.

    "Caver" on rvnet