Adrift in the Grand Canyon

Water level ... through whitewater in the Grand Canyon.
Water level ... through whitewater in the Grand Canyon. 

 

Through hell and whitewater, Elisabeth Hyde takes a roller-coaster ride down the Colorado River.

' Just two rules!'' our guide Ed shouts as we glide towards Crystal Rapid, where towering waves collapse upon themselves into a maelstrom of churning froth. ''Rule No.1 - stay in the boat! Rule No.2 - stay in the boat!''

''What if we fall out?'' my 13-year-old daughter asks. ''Don't,'' Ed says bluntly.

My husband and our three teenage children are in the middle of a 13-day, 360-kilometre trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon with Arizona Raft Adventures.

This is the most dramatic portion of the 2330-kilometre river, which starts high in the Rocky Mountains and empties into the Gulf of California in Mexico. (Theoretically, that is; sadly, little if any of that water actually reaches the sea these days due to excessive irrigation.)

On the first day, the 22 of us stand at the starting point, the river beach at Lee's Ferry in Glen Canyon national recreation area, blinking at the sight before us: a long line of six-metre rafts, masses of gear and an army of river guides scurrying about. This will be our world for the next two weeks.

We are a disparate group: our fellow passengers range in age from our 13-year-old twin daughters to a couple in their mid-70s. You can't be shy on a Grand Canyon river trip. Not when you're spending two weeks with two-dozen strangers, floating down one of the biggest rivers in North America.

You're on the water for five to eight hours every day and when you're off the water, you're eating, sleeping and bathing together.

Our party fills five inflatable rafts, each rowed by a guide and four or six passengers. All the gear we could possibly need is strapped into these boats: giant coolers of food and drink, folding tables, cans of propane, pots and pans and medical supplies and even a tidy toilet system. It's the tightest packing system I've ever seen, so tight that passengers ride perched on the side tubes - prime seats, after all, with padding and great views.

Few people pitch tents; most unroll a mat on the beach and sleep under a sheet. At dawn, the mournful call of a conch shell signals that coffee is ready. It would be nice to linger over the hearty breakfasts (eggs, french toast, pancakes and fresh fruit) but the guides always want to put in some river miles before it gets too hot and soon we're pushing off, back out into the current of bubbles, dwarfed by the massive rock walls.

Rock, rocks, everywhere: the Grand Canyon is all about geology. During the calmer stretches our guides point out the various layers towering above us. Terracotta sandstone, flaky grey shale, massive maroon cliffs streaked with black - I keep straining my neck gazing up at the steep walls closing in on us. Bighorn sheep pick their way up steep hillsides and sometimes water trickles out of the rock itself, nurturing lush hanging gardens.

It's brutally hot in July. Midsummer temperatures can soar above 43 degrees and the guides encourage us to cool off by jumping off the boat midstream. Tightly buckled into life jackets, we fling ourselves into the mocha-coloured river only to thrash to the surface, gasping from the shock of the five-degree water.

Riding the rapids in the Grand Canyon is a Disneyland-ish experience - one second you're plunging straight down into the trough of a wave, the next you're getting drenched with cold spray as the boat shoots up and over the crest. It's a white-knuckle, roller-coaster ride that has people screaming with the thrill of it and even an anxious mother like me can forget to fret about her children during the adrenalin-fuelled episodes. Only at the bottom of each rapid do I turn around to make sure my kids are safe.

Which brings us back to Ed's rules. The only one who violates them during the trip is me.

We hit one rapid at the wrong angle and the boat rises up and ejects me into the foaming madness. For the next 45 seconds, I get sucked down and spun around and finally spat up into sunlight, gasping for air.

Am I scared? A little. Exhilarated? More than I've ever been and my main wish is to go back and do it all over again.

No trip to this area is complete without a hike into the side canyons. Some are hot and dry and require a bit of rock scrambling. By far the most mesmerising hike is up Havasu Creek, which runs a milky, aquamarine colour from the travertine mineral deposits. The path winds through jungly thickets; paradisiacal gardens spill from moist cracks in the rock. We hike the five kilometres to Beaver Falls, where a succession of calm pools provides an afternoon of swimming in sharp contrast to the hot, stark beauty of the canyon itself.

By the time we row the last stretch, towards Diamond Creek, our clothes and hair are full of silt but nobody cares. Some people are ready to return to civilisation; others, like my husband, want to drive back to the start and do it again. The trip leaves me with a desire to run away and become a river guide. ''There are just two rules,'' I imagine saying to my passengers. ''Rule No.1 …''

Getting there

Qantas flies to Flagstaff, Arizona, for about $1480, to Los Angeles (14hr), then a Horizon Air flight to Flagstaff (90min). Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. United, Delta and V Australia also have fares but not great connections. Australians must apply for US travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

Rafting there

Arizona Raft Adventures, based in Flagstaff, runs a range of Grand Canyon trips from April to October, including eight- to 10-day motorised trips, six- to 14-day all-paddle trips and six- to 16-day motorised/paddle trips. It costs from $US1920 ($2190) a person, including all meals and camping equipment. See www.azraft.com.

- Guardian News & Media

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