Letting go to the Colorado

Photos by Max Finkelstein

By Max Finkelstein and Constance Downes

There is a moment when all talk stops. The water is glassy smooth, inexorably pulling the raft into the ‘V’ towards a thin line where the river seems to end. A few wrinkles appear in the surface of the water as the raft accelerates smoothly. All discussion is over. There is no going back now. The mind-deafening roar of the rapids inexplicably fades away. There is just you and the river. This is our favorite moment.

Twenty-six years. That’s how long it took to get a permit to run the Colorado River. Permits for private trips are allotted by a weighted lottery system. Don’t ask us to explain how it works. It’s more complicated than income tax. In fact, the person who ‘won’ the lottery isn’t even on the trip. He couldn’t go on the allotted launch date. Our friend Alastair took over as Trip Leader and invited us, and the rest. So get in on the lottery right away! It could be a long wait, but it’s worth it.

Like school kids on a field trip, we pile out of the passenger van that has shuttled us from Flagstaff to the put-in and rush down to the water’s edge. The river here is clear and green – and cold! Red sandstone cliffs rise hundreds of feet above the river, but we know the canyon walls here are pipsqueaks compared to what is to come. We are at Lee’s Ferry, the starting point for trips on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

The big white truck backs slowly to the water’s edge. Following the detailed briefing from the outfitter, Beth, and Ranger Peggy, we unload our gear – 4 rafts, one inflatable kayak, aluminum frames, folding tables, coolers filled with enough food for 16 hungry rafters for 18 days, an air pump, water filter, and a whole lot of beer and wine. The four yellow rafts, lie on the sand like flattened jelly fish washed up on the beach. All we have to do is inflate those yellow jellies and move all that stuff from here 227 miles downstream to the next road access to the river, Diamond Creek. Simple. “But can we fit in all the beer?” wonders Sean, our most experienced rafter. Connor, our youngest expedition member, at 21, is wondering: “Did we bring enough beer’?

Connie and I are also asking ourselves questions of self-doubt, as the gear is sorted, the rafts inflated and assembled, and all the gear, including the beer, stowed away. Have we bit off more than we can chew? Ahead wait more than 100 rapids, scorching sunny days, windstorms, landslides, rattlesnakes and scorpions, any maybe a few hangovers. Are we up for this?

“Definitely”, says Connie. “Or, at least, I hope so”.

Our expedition participants come from many walks of life, and collectively we bring a vast amount of relevant life experience to the expedition. We range in age from 21 to 71. Connie and I are experienced wilderness canoeists, but have only been in rafts a few times, and had time for just one training session on the Ottawa River earlier in the summer. Sean, Gaye and Robby are the only members in our group that have been down the Colorado, and that was more than two decades ago. But they are very experienced rafters, pioneers of the rafting industry on the Ottawa River. Their wives also bring valuable skills. Cheryl and Dee are medical experts, and Dee was a rafting guide on Pennsylvania’s infamous Youghiogheny River. Sean’s wife, Kirsten, is a fitness instructor – we are looking forward to Zumba classes on the river. Our trip leader, Alastair, worked for Wilderness Tours rafting company for many years and runs his own voyageur canoe company. His wife, Darlene, is also medical expert and an ardent forager. There are three brothers and two sisters on the trip. Alastair’s brothers Don and Andy are both paddlers, and Andy has, by popular acclamation, the best river hair in the group. Andy’s son Connor is a lifeguard and is full of youthful energy and ready for adventure. Darlene’s sister Arden, and her husband Mike are super fit, fly their own plane and are both retired homicide detectives. Who knows what talents and skills they will contribute? Our nephew Devin, a white-water kayaker and firefighter specializing in water rescue, rounds out the crew.

Each raft has an ‘oarsman’, plus three paddlers. Connie and I have done enough paddling that we know what is going to happen when you stick a blade in the water, whether it is a paddle blade or an oar. However, it takes a little time to adapt our paddling skills to rowing, and there were a few hair-raising moments in the first few days when we either under-estimated the speed and power of the river, or over-estimated the speed of the raft to avoid a nasty situation. But we manage to arrive intact and upright at the end of each rapid. Almost everyone took turns rowing with instruction from the most experienced rowers. But it was the river that taught us the most.

The Colorado is big and feisty. The drops are big, 15, 18, 25 feet and more in a single rapid. She taught us that you cross eddy lines at your own risk. She may let you through, or she may bounce you back to just where you don’t want to be. There are waves as big as houses, some will let you pass smoothly over them; some will smack you backwards. There are raft-eating ‘holes’ and raft-ripping rocks, lined up like fangs. But sometimes there are stretches of light-hearted riffles that bounce you through like a ‘lazy river’ ride at a theme park.

The rapids are rated from 1 (easy, but don’t try it in a sprint canoe) to 10 (yikes!). The names still strike anxiety and awe in our hearts – Granite, Crystal, Dubendorff, Hance (30 foot drop!), and near the end of trip, the fearsome Lava Falls awaits, like a final exam at the end of your semester. Add to the mix sheer cliffs, water as opaque as a chocolate milk-shake, and the roar of the rapids, like an on-rushing locomotive coming to met you head-on. We float around a shadowed bend, dark shadows cast on the canyon walls beckon us onwards like bony fingers, the sound of the next rapid a mere whisper. The current quickens as it sweeps you around the bend, the whisper turns to a roar, and the river disappears over a razor-thin horizon in front of your eyes…..

But a trip down the Colorado is much more than rapids. It is a journey through time, as the river cuts ever deeper, revealing ever-changing layers of limestone, shale, slate and sandstone, until it cuts into the true stuff of continents – billion-year old Zoroaster Granite, banded with pink, cream and black, and polished black-as-night Vishnu Schist. It feels as if we are on a journey not only to the beginning of the earth’s history, but also to its centre! And where the canyon is at its deepest and darkest, deep within the recesses of Zoroaster Granite and Vischnu Schist – that is where the most fearsome rapids lie.

Photo by Constance Downes

It is a journey through beauty so overwhelming, it is beyond words. We feel privileged, awed and astounded, and, dare we say it, close to God. Beauty comes in all sizes and shapes, from the polished rock sculptures that look like they were lifted from a museum of art, to the tracks of lizards in the sand, the burst of crimson of a monkey flower blooming on the canyon walls beside a seep, or the delicate red flowers on a tiny pincushion cactus that look like miniature candlesticks; creamy white stalactites at the bottom of a 3,000 foot cliff, the graceful curve of the horns of a desert bighorn sheep…this is a list without end. At night, we lie in our sleeping bags staring up at a strip of inky black sky between the sheer canyon walls, with stars as bright as we have ever seen.

And we pinch ourselves to remind us that this not a dream. We are really here. And we did bring enough beer. And then we just let go to the Colorado.