Captured by the Colorado

There are uplifting experiences to be found in the depths of Arizona's Grand Canyon, writes former Otago Daily Times editor Robin Charteris. 

We've rafted the Shotover and the Sun Kosi, canoed the Zambesi and cruised the Danube - but no such wonderful river trips present the ordinary package tourist with a combination of scenery, history and adrenaline as does whitewater boating on the Colorado River, deep in the Grand Canyon of Arizona.

Judi and I, well into our 60s now, did grumble a bit about the ungainliness of clambering into the eight-passenger, outboard motor-powered pontoon boat perched on the edge of the fast-flowing but flat and otherwise benign-looking muddy-brown river, reached after a heart-stopping bus drive down a steep and winding dirt road to the floor of the mile-deep canyon.

Embarrassment, though, was quickly forgotten as we and our very much younger American shipmates were raced around a corner and into the first of a succession of swirling and foaming grade 7 whitewater rapids [the Colorado is the only river in the world with rapids rated out of 10; all others are on a scale of five].

"Hang on tight like I told you," shouted Cole, our Hualapai Indian guide and driver. "First one up's a doosie."

A "doosie"? It was a douser, a surging, racing, whirling mass of brown and white foam into which our craft plunged and bucked. Water, masses of it and cold, rose from the V between the twin bows, loomed over us and crashed down, battering, drenching and chilling.

We were to stay soaked to the skin for two more thrilling hours as, buddy boat close by, we surveyed then battered our way through a succession of grade 6 and 7 rapids and even a grade 8 that Cole said dropped us fully 15ft (4.5m) in a few seconds.

My eyes were closed for most of that one, white knuckles clinging desperately to the safety rope beside my hips.

"Always lean in, not out," Cole had said. "That way, if you fall you fall inside the boat." His good advice was well taken by Judi, who did lose her grip on the grade 8 rapid but fell forward into the water-filled bottom of the boat rather than the river and emerged laughing with relief.

The 20km-long rapids section of the river trip passed in a flash. There was little time between rapids to take in the canyon itself; we were flat out hanging on and surviving, it seemed.

But the adrenaline rush was only part of the experience. This is the Grand Canyon, described as the world's most spectacular example of the power of erosion - a chasm 443km long (measured by river course), up to 29km wide and 1.6km deep that has taken between three and six million years to form, and is still being formed.

The powerful forces of the rushing river, of rain, snow, heat, frost and wind, go on sculpting and melding the fantastic shapes of precipitous bluffs and towering buttresses.

After the rapids, on the 45km flat section of our five-hour river ride, we drift leisurely along and look up from the river - straight up, almost, a mile to the top.

There's wall after sheer wall, buttress after buttress, cliff, canyon, arroyo, gulch; colours too, browns, golds, red, white; curves and contours.

Above it all, a narrow band in the distance, is the clear cobalt-blue Arizona sky. We and our fellow passengers, Americans all, are simply awed.

A New York husband and wife, plus 12-year-old son, on their first visit outside their state, are so proud of their country they're almost crying.

Two newlyweds going to live in Namibia hold hands and drool at the scenery; a 30-something guy on his own softly croons "America the beautiful". Two elderly Kiwis just stare and stare in wonder.

It's hot down here, now that we've dried off somewhat; under the noon September sun, 100degF (37.7degC) plus, but there's a cooling effect from the river, 150m wide and running quite fast.

The water's at least 30m deep, says Cole - no wonder the 2250km-long Colorado, which drains nearly 12% of the United States, is recognised as one of the country's great river systems.

Today, following recent rains, the river is high and muddy brown but it runs clear most of the year.

We have a sandwich lunch on the river in the shade of a towering bluff and drinks from Cole's large chillybin. There's a beautiful waterfall up a side canyon to visit, and we continually scan the canyon walls for cougar and big-horn sheep.

We see neither, not even near small patches of wild tobacco that the sheep like to browse. A few gnarled forms of cacti and some twisted, tussocky weeds are the only vegetation.

Further east, below the South Rim of the Grand Canyon at Indian Gardens, near the Bright Angel Trailhead, terrain and climate are kinder; Havasupai Indians farmed there until a century ago.

Another Indian tribe, the Hualapai, has the concession to run the river trip we're on.

While many companies offer commercial trips on the Colorado, all are 7-10 day rafting, canoeing, rowing or motor trips. Charges are high - $US200 to $350 a day - and it can be difficult to get a booking within six months.

The Hualapai River Runners provide the only one-day trip on the river, with up to nine rafts available, and waiting lists seem short.

The Hualapai Nation originally lived on two million hectares. Its 2100 members now have a reservation of 400,000ha that includes 160km of the Colorado River and south rim of the Grand Canyon.

It owns and operates Grand Canyon West, a commercial tourist operation whose facilities include the much-hyped Skywalk, a vertigo-inducing horseshoe-shaped, glass viewing platform jutting out 1430m above the canyon floor and popular with tour groups from Las Vegas, three hours by road or 30 minutes by helicopter to the west.

We spot helicopters everywhere as we prepare to beach at the end of our river trip. I count 12 in view as they ferry tourists from Las Vegas to the Hualapai's own heliport and airport on the canyon rim, and deposit others on the riverbank for brief boat trips on the river.

It's a sophisticated operation, with its own air traffic control system, one far removed from the tranquillity we've just experienced.

That's how we leave the riverbank - in another burst of adrenaline, in a natty, five-passenger chopper that whisks us straight up the mile-high canyon wall to civilisation. Talk about the icing on the cake!

No matter it's then a two-hour bus trip back to our Hualapai Lodge on historic Route 66 at Peach Springs, from whence we'd started; we need some down time. Running the Colorado River has been an exhilarating, exciting - and absolutely uplifting - experience.


On the river

• River trip operates mid-March to October 31 each year.

• Costs $US328 ($NZ399) per person, buses and helicopter included.

• Hualapai Lodge accommodation (optional) $US90 ($109) per room per night.

• Book through any travel agent. [Robin and Judi Charteris, on a private visit to North America, were guests of Hualapai Tourism for this experience.]