Rite of passage
By raft through the Grand Canyon
There’s a tiny speck of something in the sand. A broken corner of a potato chip, perhaps. In a sweep of Arizona where everything is defined by its epic size, it’s odd to watch my river guides suddenly obsess over something so small. “Where did it go?” one asks anxiously.
A feverish search for the morsel ensues, as the guides comb the sand like crazed prospectors panning for gold. Soon guests are searching too. “Was it a sour cream and onion Pringle or nacho cheese?” one asks. “They have different colours so I need to know what I’m looking for.”
Then in a triumph of persistence, more than 20 minutes after the search began, the world’s most wanted Pringle is unearthed (for the record it is nacho cheese), before being carried like crime-scene evidence on to our raft and safely deposited in a bin.
To the casual observer the episode might have looked like a slightly obsessive-compulsive approach to litter, but in the Grand Canyon National Park it is simply an example of the “leave no trace” policy in action.
Such is the aesthetic magnificence of the place it would take a rare kind of insensitivity to pollute it in any way. Leaving no trace is literally the only thing the park asks; it’s an easy bargain to uphold in exchange for the privilege to gawp at such awe-inspiring, pristine beauty.
There are various ways to visit. Many involve pulling up at a carpark, walking to a crowded lookout and taking whatever defensive measures are necessary to avoid getting decapitated by a selfie stick. Or there’s the Brady Bunch option, where you can hire a mule to take you and your wisecracking housemaid on a butt-punishing trail ride. Both options have their merits, and there’s no belittling the extraordinary spectacle of looking down into the canyon from its highest rims. But it’s something else to witness it from the river 1850m below.
Like any respected elder, the Grand Canyon deserves to be looked up to, not down on. And even the most slowwitted traveller should see that it’s easier to grasp what makes a thing “grand” when it happens to be dwarfing you.
The river option requires time. The Colorado River stretches 446km through the Grand Canyon and, depending on the craft, it takes anything from five to 23 days to complete its mesmerising, rapids-filled length.
You’ll also need luck or at least a keen capacity for planning. Only a handful of tour operators are licensed to take visitors down the river, and most trips book out a year in advance. For many Americans it’s seen as a quintessential experience through the nation’s most iconic natural wonder. In my rafting group, four are taking the trip for the second time, and one guest is on his third. He has brought all his children and grandchildren because he wants to share the transformative enchantment of his previous adventures.
The river has a hypnotic way of making not just family members bond, but strangers. Spending six days with anybody in close quarters on a sodden triple-rig raft will invariably bring you closer, but there’s another bewitching force at work that seems exclusive to the Colorado River. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the benevolent vibes of the Navajo, Havasupai and Hualapai, the native American tribes whose spiritual connection to this river has a way of rubbing off on you.
It is felt most sharply during a side-trip to Havasu, the most improbable collection of opal-blue pools and waterfalls to be found in a desert. Havasu’s swimming holes aren’t just blue, they’re 7-Eleven slurpee blue. It’s the kind of colour that glows, and the incandescence is so inviting it’s easy to forget these pools also possess tearaway currents that will suck you towards the nearest waterfall if you lose your footing.
It’s not quite as perilous as it sounds. Most waterfalls, although forceful, are only about a metre high, so it’s not out of the question to treat the whole system of chutes and cataracts as one giant natural waterslide. There’s no historical evidence the Havasupai ever saw their home as a water amusement park, but there’s no evidence they didn’t. And to spend an hour or two hiking and swimming in this hidden Elysium is to taste something of the impulse that connects a people to a land.
Long days on the river, and at camp each night, make detachment impossible. Life on the raft works best when everyone’s working for the common good, such as selflessly handing around the never-shrinking inventory of lollies; fetching cans of beer from the drinks bags that drag in the water to keep the beer cool; joining the all-in Broadway sing-alongs; sportingly averting one’s eyes whenever anyone needs to spend a penny, which, thanks to the ales, is practically every 10 minutes; and collectively yielding to the river folklore and poetry that the guides infectiously recite in down-time between rapids.
Even the seating arrangements are rotated with egalitarian frequency, although civility and fairness might have nothing to do with it. On my trip the people who on day one perched themselves at the front of the raft to be closest to the white water were begging for dry refuge up the back by day two. The famous rapids of the Colorado might be one of the trip’s biggest drawcards, but to confront them head-on is a brutal test of will.
Crystal is the rapid with the scariest reputation, and by all accounts it’s the most difficult for pilots to navigate, but on our run it is Hermit Rapid that proves the rudest assault. It consists of a series of 10 waves that smack the raft with varying levels of ferocity.
A small wave will merely drench you completely, whereas a serious wave is like an aquatic wrecking ball to the face. It’s a bit like attempting rodeo riding on the world’s wettest bull. By wave No 6 I am giving serious consideration to jumping overboard, where I wager I couldn’t possibly be as wet as if I stayed on the vessel.
The water is nerve-spankingly cold. And the coldness is all the more remarkable given that, during my trip in July, the temperature away from the river is never south of 40C, so it is not at all uncommon to feel both too hot and too cold within the space of a few seconds.
In this environment, shade becomes paramount. And river guides have a knack for finding patches of it that not only provide respite from the heat, but reveal a whole new side to the canyon. The most exquisite of these is Redwall Cavern, a prosaically named but spellbinding oddity that’s part beach and part cave, with a yawning curved ceiling that resembles a giant limestone bedsheet, billowing in suspension above an unmade bed.
This is the site of the infamous Pringle hunt. And I’m glad my group leaves nothing behind. The “leave no trace” policy has particular pertinence in light of plans to build several hotels and a tramway down to the Little Colorado confluence. The theory goes that the project will provide much-needed jobs to the Navajo, as well as allow people who lack the fitness to hike, or the time to boat, to enjoy a below-the-rim experience.
But the confluence is a delicate, magical place. And if the developers know their history, they’d be aware industrial additions to the Grand Canyon never make it a better place, only a diminished one.
People come to this great wonder to be touched; to be put back in their place by its ancient, imperious, god-like walls. Leaving nothing behind is the surest way of ensuring the Grand Canyon will forever leave a mark on us.
• raftarizona.com • nps.gov • visitarizona.com
Clockwise from top: rafting in the Grand Canyon; the view from above; Redwall Cavern; Havasu Falls