Grand Canyon whitewater rafting tour: A grand American adventure

Captain Bob is obsessed with "the potty", as he calls our portable toilet.

He is obsessed with finding "the perfect potty spot" each afternoon as we beach the rafts at yet another campsite. He is obsessed with finding a spot that balances privacy with majesty, with making the user feel secure but also awed. He wants it to be the best outdoor potty experience you have ever had in your life.

Once, he printed a calendar of his 12 favourite potty-spot views in the Grand Canyon, so people could admire them year-round.

Captain Bob is one of two guides who are shepherding me and 18 other travellers down the Colorado River. The other is a young man named Glade Zarn, who challenges me to think about the Grand Canyon in an equally orthodox way. Up there, Glade says, gesturing towards the top of a cliff, is what he calls the "rim-world." We live our lives up in the rim-world. But down here on the river, well, this is the canyon-world.

For eight days and 445 river-kilometres – the time and length of my journey – we are existing in a parallel dimension. A parallel dimension of ancient stone, white-water rapids, and exquisite potty views. The first man to record his experience of floating through the Grand Canyon was Major John Wesley Powell, who set out in 1869 with nine men and four boats to see where the river went. It took him months, and it was an extraordinary ordeal: four men abandoned the effort along the way, three of whom were never seen alive again (legend has it they were killed by Native Americans). But Powell was astounded by what he saw.

"The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself," he wrote afterwards. "The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail."

These days it is possible to recreate Powell's trailblazing expedition with considerably less risk. Every year, about 20,000 people brave the river for trips lasting up to 21 days, in a variety of vessels that range from the relatively comfortable (motor-driven rubber raft) to the borderline terrifying (kayak).

Powell was voyaging into uncharted wilderness: "What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not." Now every rapid and rock is named, the wilderness is thoroughly mapped, and even a 70-year-old man in a leg brace can make it to the end of the canyon unscathed.

The Grand Canyon remains, however, just as indescribable as Powell found it. No written account, detailed drawing, high-resolution photograph, or GoPro video can do justice to the wonders hidden along those kilometres. Language and illustration combined still fail. The Grand Canyon is one of the most sublime sights on earth. I start at Lees Ferry, in Arizona, after a long bus ride from Las Vegas. Our two motorised rubber rafts, waiting by the bank, are modelled after pontoons used during the Vietnam War, and they look capable of withstanding heavy assault. They are piled high with bags, waterproof ammo cans (to protect our valuables), and us, eventually.

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We break into two groups and drape ourselves over the cargo like seals on an iceberg. The cold water is the first shock: it is almost freezing, which makes for an unexpected contrast with air that hits you like an oven blast. Acoustics in the canyon are eerie, too, so our voices seem to boomerang off the walls back into our faces.

"My first impression is that the Grand Canyon is grand," notes an optometrist from Indiana, to general agreement, then agreeable echoes. It is a strange thing to find yourself on rubber rafts with 18 strangers in the wilderness. It reminds me, immediately, of a lifeboat. Civilisation has sunk and we have somehow managed to escape it together. Everyone is tentative at first, nervous as we slide along the river between walls that are climbing so imperceptibly that we barely notice we're descending deeper into the ground.

Any shyness disappears after lunch, when the first rapid arrives. Think of a wall of water slamming into your body, sudden darkness, bone-deep cold, everybody screaming as water roars around your head. It is hard to stay aloof after something like that. "I only cried a little bit," whispers the optometrist, whose name is Nancy. She is sitting near a group of men from Texas and a couple from San Francisco who are here to celebrate their son's bar mitzvah. Everyone is drenched. We are all in it together from that moment on.

That evening, Bob and Glade park the rafts on one of the many sandy beaches that line the Grand Canyon, a product of the sediment flowing constantly downstream. As they set up a surprisingly functional kitchen and set to creating a three-course meal with their assistants, the rest of us find camp spots. Tents are unnecessary here, even a nuisance. I fall asleep under the open sky and wake during the night to so many stars that it looks like television static overhead.

The next day, I begin to sense a routine on the river. It begins with hot coffee, a generous breakfast, packing the boat with military precision. Then we all climb aboard, push off the sand, and mentally prepare ourselves for the kind of the thing that Powell once dreaded: "The sound grows louder and louder as we run, and at last we find ourselves above a long, broken fall, with ledges and pinnacles of rock obstructing the river. There is a descent of perhaps 75 or 80 feet on a third of a mile, and the rushing waters break into great waves on the rocks, and lash themselves into a mad, white foam."

Powell and his men once found this terrifying. But we can barely get enough. Entire hours disappear in cycles of anticipation and release, wet and dry, the fiery sun and chilly shadows as the canyon walls grow ever higher around us. It is not all rapids, though. Sometimes we stop to hike up side canyons that recede into little more the crevasses with a waterfall at the end. One morning, we arrive at a giant, natural amphitheatre carved from red sandstone.

On another, we reach the junction of the Colorado and Little Colorado River, which is warmer than the main channel and the colour of milky laundry detergent. We hike up the side river and watch as people take turns body-surfing back. But what strikes me most is how, even though it looks like wilderness, a surreal and gorgeous spectacle of layered Paleozoic rock, this grand landscape is profoundly riddled with human stories.

Bob and Glade lash the rafts together often, and as we float through gentle patches of the river, Glade tells a story about a pair of thrill-seeking honeymooners who met an unfortunate end here. Or about the ancient Anasazi people who built granaries into the canyon walls, and grew corn along the rim where the temperature balances ideally between cold winds and hot updraft.

Some of the stories are surprisingly modern. One day at lunch, my attention is drawn to a glimmer of something high up in a cliff. In 1960, two airplanes clipped each other and tumbled out of the sky. One just crashed, but the other collided with the wall at such a high speed that the aluminum melted instantly and ran into the cracks. There were no survivors. Hermit Rapid is a little less grisly. It was named, Glade tells us, after a hermit moved down to the river in 1900, and then abandoned it in 1919 after deciding there were "too many people".

The rapid throws us up and around like the spin cycle on a washing machine. For most of the days, the sun shines high and bright – and so fiercely that my lips begin to crumble into dust. But then the clouds roll in and a light rain begins to fall. The temperature drops precipitously. It is at this moment, huddled in the back part of the raft, nicknamed "the chicken coop," that I realise another benefit of a trip like this. It is not an exaggeration to say that America is a deeply divided place now. People seem almost incapable of civil discussion. And yet, for these eight days on the river, everyone on the rafts pulls together in a spirit of bipartisan solidarity. A sample population of the country – people from Texas, Chicago, Arizona, California, Martha's Vineyard, and New York – somehow manage to come together around a campfire and share stories without ire or animosity. To travel along for the ride is to see an unexpected glimpse of the US at its hopeful best, actually united.

By the end of the week, everyone is so comfortable with each other that we can blare the soundtrack to Mad Max as we laugh our way through yet another rapid. The raft feels invincible. There is no challenge we cannot overcome. Bob and Glade are master chefs who can whip up steaks and chocolate cake at a moment's notice. The potty spots just get better and better.

Powell once wrote, "With some eagerness and some anxiety and some misgiving we enter the canyon below and are carried along the swift water." Powell felt anxious because he had no idea where the river would end. We feel anxiety too, but for a very different reason: because we know exactly where the river ends, and because we dread having to go back to the rim-world when it does.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/usa

Nps.gov/grca

RAFT

Grand America Adventures offer an eight-day Grand Canyon Rafting Tour. The tour is seasonal, running weekly between May and September. Groups run at a maximum of 28 people (14 each raft), though there may be fewer earlier in the season. Prices start at $A3598 a person, and include meals and return transfer between Las Vegas and the Colorado River. See adventureworld.com.au, call 1300 295 049

STAY

Sleeping equipment is provided on the river. In Las Vegas, a pre-departure meeting is held at the Residence Inn by Marriott at the Hughes Centre. Because the tour leaves from here at 5am, it is advisable to stay overnight beforehand. Rooms are not included in the tour price.

FLY

American Airlines offers direct flights between Sydney and Los Angeles daily. Connecting flights from Los Angeles to Las Vegas depart frequently – an extra one hour and 20 minutes. See americanairlines.com.au

Lance Richardson was a guest of Grand America Adventures and American Airlines.

FIVE OTHER WAYS TO SEE THE GRAND CANYON

1 Several operators out of Las Vegas offer helicopter sightseeing tours to the Grand Canyon. These can last several hours and take in the west of the canyon, Hoover Dam, and Lake Mead. Some land on private plateaus for drinks and snacks overlooking the Colorado River.

2 Several years ago, the Hualapai Tribe built the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a steel and glass loop that juts 21 metres over the edge of the canyon, with a sheer drop below. The Skywalk is easily accessible – just two hours and 15 minutes from Las Vegas – but eye-wateringly expensive at $82 a person. See grandcanyonwest.com

3 The best public viewpoint is the South Rim Historic Village in Arizona. The village offers several places to stay, including the excellent El Tovar, which was built by the Santa Fe Railroad in 1905. It is possible to take mule rides from here, though you should book well in advance. See grandcanyonlodges.com

4 The North Rim is far less visited than the south: only 10 per cent of visitors make it to Coconino County. But there is a lodge and campground, and the views are just as breathtaking. A good alternative for people who don't mind some extra travel to avoid the crowds.

5 Just 41 kilometres east of the South Rim Historic Village is Desert View, most identifiable by the historic watchtower designed by Mary Colter. While rafting the river, this watchtower is plainly visible from below, a beacon of the rim-world.

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