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Rafting the Grand Canyon

 

3 Days in June 2005

Some of Jayne's favorite life experiences are related to the Grand Canyon.  As an Arizona girl, she made many visits, including hikes and mule rides down to the bottom, but she had not rafted the Colorado.  I have to admit that my only experience with the Canyon was our freezing trip in late 2003.  While discussing vacation options, Jayne's sister Miki recommended that we should try a rafting trip.

We found ourselves in Las Vegas in June (on business...really...I even got a plaque to prove it) and were joined by our goddaughter Kayla.  Since it's only a short hop to the Grand Canyon, and, there are more ways than a craps table to separate the sucker from his money, there are a number of expeditions to the Canyon that base out of Sin City.  

Your choices of Canyon tours range from short flights in a helicopter to 3-week rafting trips.  We chose a 3 day, 2 night motorized rafting tour offered by Tour West. Our tour would cover approximately 80 miles of the river, ending at Lake Mead.

After finishing our business trip, we transferred to the Riviera Hotel on Monday.  After relaxing around the pool, we met the Tour West representatives, signed liability releases, and met our fellow travelers.  There would be a total of 12 members of the group:  Jayne, Kayla, and I; Don, a retired business executive from New Jersey; Gary, a car dealer from Florida, along with his 3 adult sons; Alan and June, from Singapore; and Sam, with his 13 year old son Dante, from Las Vegas.  

We're up at 5 am Tuesday morning, and in place to meet the 5:45 am bus by 5:30... which doesn't arrive until after 6.  After a short bus ride, we arrive at Las Vegas North airport, ready and 'raring to go - along with about 75 other people.  The plan is to take a short plane ride to a ranch on the Canyon rim, then shuttle down to the river via helicopter.  

After checking in and getting our seat assignments, we settle in for the expected short wait to board the plan.  We are the "blue" group.  "Purple", "Green", "Red", and even the all-Japanese "Pink" group depart.  We wait.  And wait.  There is an initial delay while Alan and June are shuttled back to the hotel to pick up their picture ID (can't get on a Cessna these days without ID).  Then, there's a problem with the paperwork (Don's put on the wrong flight).  Then, "there's too much fuel on the plane".  Then, "OK, there's no plane right now, but have a free hot dog until the plane gets back".  Finally, around 10:15, we're on the way.  GC 002.jpg (202106 bytes)

Our 40-minute flight takes us over the Vegas metro area, then out over the Canyon.  We touch down on a dirt/tarmac strip GC 004.jpg (184051 bytes) and are shuttled up to the Bar Ten Ranch where we meet the helicopter, which will take us to Whitmore Wash. (Tour West runs two Grand Canyon tours: a 6-day trip that runs from Lee's Ferry, just south of Lake Powell, to Whitmore Wash.  The 6-day tour group is helicoptered out to the Bar Ten and replaced by the 3-day group.  The guides stay on the river for about 9 days, and carry all the supplies they will need on the raft.)

The  three of us are joined by Don on the third trip down to the river.  GC 005.jpg (283668 bytes) It's the first helicopter ride for both Jayne and Kayla, and as a special bonus, Kayla gets to ride in the co-pilot's seat. GC 007.jpg (186888 bytes) The short hop down to the river gives us a great view of the Canyon.  The chopper departs and we prepare our gear and meet the guides. GC 015.jpg (327925 bytes)

There are 3 guides: Shane, Matt, and Zack.  All have extensive river experience. Shane is the tour leader.  Matt is married to Shane's sister, and Zack is a third generation guide.  The three are young, personable, and will take good care of us over the next 3 days - driving the raft, educating us about the geology of the canyon, cooking our meals, and hauling the "can" toilet.

Kayla says that riding on the big pontoons is sort of like riding a fat horse - through a car wash.  

After a brief orientation, we're on the raft and headed down the Colorado.  

About the rafts... 

 

 Unlike the wooden rowboats that Powell's expedition used in 1869, modern Grand Canyon travelers have a number of options available, from kayaks to motorized rafts.  The rafts used by Tour West are around 30 feet long and are powered by one or two 30 hp outboard motors.  There is a central raft that holds all the gear necessary for the tour (and, when properly packed, provides some comfy seating, to boot), and two pontoons that are the primary seats.  Each pontoon has numerous hand-holds, which come in handy when you're bucking through a series of rapids.  The rafts are self-bailing, an important feature when a wave breaks over the bow and drenches everyone aboard.

Many canyon purists hate the motor rafts and prefer to paddle their way, while some of the day-trip motor rafts are smaller and faster than the overnight tourers.  GC 065.jpg (293285 bytes)  Each type has it's advantages, and it's up to you to select the best type of tool for the job.

The Canyon is magnificent - the cliffs tower thousands of feet above the river, which cuts through layers of rock.  Shane says that the oldest rock is over 2 billion years old.  We get our first taste of white water After an hour or so, we pull up on a handy beach and have sandwiches for lunch.

A couple of hours later, after running several more rapids, we take a short, vertical hike up a cliff to see some petroglyphs. GC 029.jpg (232105 bytes) Though some members of our group have mountain goat GC 033.jpg (90346 bytes) in them, the climbing was not the highlight off the tour for me, though the view was nice.  GC 027.jpg (318928 bytes)

By 5:30 or so, we've found our campsite for the night, right beside a rapid.  Some of us take a swim and ride through the rapids - too much fun.  Shane and the boys put together a dinner of swordfish that includes a Dutch oven chocolate cake.  Yum! 

Since the weather is clear, we set up our cots on the beach under the stars... GC 043.jpg (295960 bytes)

The sun rises early in the Canyon, so we're up around 5:30.  Breakfast is blueberry pancakes, fruit, and bacon - perfect fuel for the day to come.

The schedule today is pretty much like yesterday - cruise along, gawk at the amazing scenery, run a rapid, dry out as you cruise, repeat, repeat, repeat.  Today's off-boat hike takes us to see Travertine Falls... not as much rock climbing as yesterday, and a series of fixed ropes and simple ladders is a blessing.  In addition to several boat-loads of day visitors who roar up in high-speed rafts driven by Hualapai Indians, a group of geologists are camped at the falls.

Interesting formation near Travertine Falls

As the day progresses, the sky starts to look threatening.  The few raindrops that fall during lunch turn into a full-blown thunderstorm, with lightning, high winds, and heavy rain.  At one point, we beach the raft, and about 10 people huddle under a couple of beach umbrellas (I stayed on the boat under a cozy layer of life jackets).  The downpour stops in a few minutes and we continue on to our campsite.

Due to changes in the level of Lake Mead, fewer beaches on the lower Colorado are accessible, and it takes a while to find a suitable spot to camp. 

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Camp

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Someone needs a shower

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Cruising

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Early wakeup

  Due to the threat of more rain, we set up tents (insuring that the rain will stop) while Shane and the guys cook our supper of steaks.  We hang out after dinner, play a few songs on Kayla's guitar, and retire early, to occasional rain showers. A bit after midnight, the rain has stopped, the moon is out, and the novelty of attempting to sleep on the ground has worn off, so I decamp out to my cot.

We breakfast on French toast and sausage and by 7:15, the jet boat, which will shuttle us down the lake, arrives.  We bid adieu to our guides and enjoy a fast half hour ride down to the bus which will take us back to Las Vegas.

The driver is a friendly fellow, with some interesting tattoos, who informs us that our trip back should take about 1 1/2 hours, and would include a "mandatory" stop at a convenience store about 20 minutes away.  Looking forward to an early arrival back in Vegas, we pile on the bus, which begins its slow climb up from the lakeshore, made slower by the failure of the bus' brakes to release (complete with an acrid cloud of white smoke). The driver is finally able to get the brakes fixed and we continue on.  The bus is a bit warm, but we figure things will cool off soon.

After an hour or so, we reach the mandatory stop, and the temperature in the bus has now climbed into the 90's.  Our driver informs us that the air conditioner is broken, but he opens the emergency exits on the bus roof, which helps lower the temperature.

The return trip takes us across Hoover Dam (quite impressive), and we arrive back at the Riviera hot, tired, dirty, and ready to head home.  We're able to catch an earlier flight on Southwest (though it is delayed), and make it home in time to watch the Spurs win the championship.

2005 Steve Wood

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