Kelsey, our guide, who sits on the
stern of our inflatable, steering with
her paddle, has us paddling hard to
maintain control while she makes sure
we’re clear on our commands. In the
past two weeks, since we put in at Lee’s
Ferry, we’d become a responsive bunch,
paddling in sync to her specific direction, absorbing what to do with our
body weight in
when to lean in,
when out, what
to do if she yells
“High side!” We
learned the hard
way where the
best places were to wedge a foot under
the floor straps or in between the inflatable’s pontoons, so we could paddle with
all our upper body strength and still stay
rooted in the boat.
The meandering Colorado had gotten more powerful by the day as the
striated canyon walls grew higher on
both sides of us. In the early part of the
trip, the riffles and rapids were exciting.
But every day since, they’ve gotten bigger, and we’ve grown with them, learning what to do, which was mainly to do
whatever Kelsey said to do, and to do it
fast. By week two, a rainstorm washed a
massive amount of water down the canyon walls, making the river a wild thing.
Normally, the freckled Kelsey wore
a bikini, faded shirt, beat-up straw hat,
sunglasses, and a life jacket – the picture
of an ultra-calm, extraordinarily com-
This is a Category 8 rapid on a 1-to- 10
point scale, with 10 being the most dif-
ficult. In theory, we all know what we’re
supposed to do if the raft flips or one
of us falls out – swim to a boat. And if
you can’t, then float feet-first on your
back through the whitewater with “nose
and toes to the sky,” and aim toward the
eddies along the banks. We’re on edge.
This is a big kahuna.
These are the final days of our two-
week, 226-mile rafting/camping adventure
down the Colorado River, through the
Grand Canyon. We’ve adjusted to a river
that has gotten more challenging as we’ve
gone forward – a trajectory that gave us
plenty of practice to learn in week one,
when the water wasn’t quite so explosive.
Every afternoon, we’ve hiked up the
petent river guide. Not now. Gone is the
hat. Her sun-bleached hair is tied up on
the top of her head, and she’s putting her
sunglasses into her dry bag and attaching
it to the inflatable with a carabiner. This,
we’ve learned, alerts us that something big
and white is about to happen – the same
way as when Sam, our trip’s fearless leader,
casually pulls the strap of his Indiana
Jones hat down
under his chin.
“A quick stop
before we go,” she
us toward shore.
“The second I
come down, we
push off. Double-check that your life
jackets are cinched in tight.” Then she
checks each of ours and pulls them even
tighter. “What we see up there is what we
want to find when we go through. If we
hesitate, it could change.”
We hold the raft at river’s edge as she
runs up the boulders like a mountain goat.
At the top of the promontory, she joins
Sam and takes in the long view around the
bend, down to the bubbling Upset, study-
ing the location of its tongue, its “line,” its
“holes,” its “pour-overs,” the way the water
and currents are crashing together on this
particular day, at this particular moment,
which is different from the last time the
guides navigated through it – before the
rainfall intensified the power and wave
train of the rushing water.
We stare up at Kelsey on the cliff and
chat nervously to lighten the tension.
FROM HAVASU’S AQUA
WATER TO THE WILD RAPIDS,
AMERICA’S GRAND CANYON
IS A FEAST FOR THE SOUL