(This is the second part of a two-part series. Click the following link to read Part I of our Grand Canyon Rafting Adventure)
Bedding down in the Grand Canyon meant finding a spot along the surprisingly beach-like banks of the Colorado and pitching a tent; although our tent went mostly unused. After the first night, we found we preferred sleeping directly under the stars.
Without the overwhelming light pollution of our native Manhattan, the night sky lit up like a Christmas tree. Even though I was exhausted by sundown most days, I’d still spend a couple of hours each night watching satellites drift past billions of stars before drifting off to sleep.
Morning came with a rising sun that painted the canyon in hues of red light and bluish shadow. One of the things we found most rewarding about our trip was seeing how the canyon changed throughout the day and with each passing mile. From striated red sandstone cliffs illuminated by soft evening light to towering black schist shining beneath a mid-day glare, we didn’t just experience one Grand Canyon, but dozens. Every day and every hour offered something remarkable and new.
Yet after a couple of days we settled into a routine. We had some descent sized rapids under our belt, and gotten a bit used to the beauty that permeates everything in the Canyon. We might have even felt like we had experienced everything the Canyon had to offer.
That was until we saw the Little Colorado River.
Dissolved minerals paint the Little Colorado a shocking electric blue, which contrasts stunningly with the surrounding red landscape. Four years later, it is still the most memorable thing about our week-long journey through the Canyon.
Because of its shallow water depth, people don’t generally raft the Little Colorado – they body surf it.
After encountering nothing but freezing cold water for several days, we couldn’t wait to get into the lusciously warm and invitingly turquoise river. We weren’t quite prepared, though, for its power.
On my first trip down I had all I could do to keep my head above water. Mostly, I failed. Preoccupied with the more pressing issue of breathing, I didn’t spend much time trying to navigate the maze of rocks the current always seemed to send in my direction. My inattention to that particular detail yielded predictable results. Slightly battered and with lungs half full of water I eventually managed to pull myself back ashore.
Having survived the encounter, I naturally went back upriver for another go. With my newly acquired body-surfing expertise, I jumped back into the torrent and, well, had the exact same experience – underwater most of the way, pinballing between boulders.
Perhaps this is an activity best left to others.
We had far more success tackling various hikes into side canyons. One of the benefits of rafting the Colorado is that exploring the wonders of the lower Canyon doesn’t require a 5,000 vertical foot hike down from the rim, and then a similar climb back up.
And there is no shortage of amazing stuff to explore. We found hidden pools and majestic waterfalls tucked just out of view.
These natural wonders came as no surprise. The Grand Canyon absolutely teems with them. But one thing we never expected to find was a manmade wonder, too.
Perched high on a canyon wall, we climbed to the ruins of an ancient Anasazi granary called Nankoweap. I’m told that the trail to the granary from the rim is one of the most difficult and dangerous in the Grand Canyon. Had we not floated to the foot of the trail we’d probably never have gotten to sit here:
Our trip through the Canyon was surprising in other ways too. When we set out, we thought the bulk of our entertainment would come from rafting through tumultuous whitewater. But compared to the ever-changing beauty of the Grand Canyon, our first experience rafting large rapids deserves only a footnote. When we eventually return, it won’t likely be for the thrill of the rapids, but to spend another week in awe of nature’s magnificence.
None of which is intended to downplay the Colorado’s awesome power. Even with a large raft, our extremely experienced guides obviously took the river deathly seriously. The crew’s mood changed noticeably leading up to what they called “Earn your paycheck day,” a five-mile stretch of river through three enormous rapids culminating in the Class 10 giant called Crystal.
The frivolity that floated lightly along the river with us during most of our tour was gone that day, replaced by serious faces and specific instructions. For good reason too. Crystal tossed our twenty-person, pontoon raft around like a small toy. We descended into holes that seemed larger than the raft itself and slammed into towering walls of water on the other side. At times, the entire Canyon drowned in an ocean of white.
Bucking and submerging, turning and bending the raft, crew and passengers eventually emerged safely on the other side. Crystal was done with us and everyone’s mood lightened once again.
The seven-day trip that we originally worried would be too long ended too soon. It’s true that we were tired of the heat and the cold. We looked forward to sleeping in a comfortable bed again. More than anything we were in desperate need of real, preferably hot, showers (as much for others as for ourselves). But for all of that, we still had no desire to leave.
We wanted to keep traveling.
We could have made a quick stop in Las Vegas for a little recuperation before jetting off to . . . somewhere. It didn’t really matter. Anywhere but the trip back to our “real” lives in New York.
“Go big or go home” was our motto for seven glorious days. On the eighth day we chose home.
The tight schedule that nearly torpedoed our entire trip in the beginning also prevented us from seeing the Canyon the way most tourist do – from the rim. Almost immediately upon getting off the raft we had to scurry to the airport to catch our return flight. We imagine ourselves to be the only people to have seen all 280 miles of the Grand Canyon from its floor but not a single glimpse from the top.
That is until now.
Four years, and an entire lifetime, later we returned to the Canyon to complete some unfinished business. In honor of our earlier trip, we wanted to experience it “Big.” And we did.
Stay tuned, the adventure continues.