A Grand adventure

Posted: Thursday, August 04, 2005

Unless you're heading to the airport or the hospital, I can think of few reasons to wake up prior to 5:30 a.m., especially when you are about to undertake one of the most grueling days of white water that you can raft in North America.

I let my father know of these feelings interlaced with a few expletives as he woke me up the eighth morning of our 18-day, 226-mile trip through the Grand Canyon as three of the Colorado River's largest and most notorious rapids loomed ahead on the day's agenda.

Most adventure sports in the 21st century require 20-year-old bodies and 50-year-old wallets, and our journey was no exception. So our 13-person armada consisted of about a 3-to-1 money-to-muscles ratio.

It doesn't only take money to raft the Colorado River; it also takes time and patience. Rafting the Grand Canyon in a private group is such a desirable trip that the National Park Service recently had to stop adding names to the permit waiting list because of the overwhelming demand. It took our permit holder 15 years to make it to the top of that list.

We set a personal record for getting on the water that eighth morning, having cooked and eaten breakfast, broken down camp and had the boats loaded before it even hit 7:30 a.m. Our first stop of the day was at Phantom Ranch, the only hint of modern civilization on the entire river. After filling up our water jugs, it was only a short hike to the cobblestone cottages and air-conditioned tavern where we had ice-cold lemonade and sent postcards home via pack mules.

A rumor kept persisting over the first week that first lady Laura Bush and daughter Jenna were rafting with a commercial trip only several miles behind us. We later spoke with their guides, who confirmed their presence and praised their river behavior, and we found out they had hiked out the difficult trail from Phantom Ranch. We pushed on down the river joking about the Secret Service posted on the canyon's edges or swimming stealthily beneath the rafts, trying not to focus too much on raging rapids that lay ahead.

It all began with Horn, a rapid that can only drive fear into the heart of an accomplished rafter when you enter its jaws. We scouted the rapid from river right and could observe a massive lateral wave that erupted at the base of the tongue, followed by large hydraulic waves that were intermittently spaced for about 30 yards. It was the largest rapid we had seen up to that point and it immediately instilled in me a daily dose of respect for the river and the terribly awesome forces of nature. One thing that is different on the Colorado River from the majority of other rivers, is the rapids on the Colorado are rated from class one to 10, with one being a mere riffle and a 10 being a doorway to the unknown. Most other rivers are rated class one to six. In most guidebooks Horn is a Class 8 rapid, but its size and ferocity also depends on the river's flow.

After watching several of our oar boats successfully run their lines, our five-person crew mustered the courage to run the 13.5-foot paddle boat straight through the belly of the beast. Our nerves were all on edge after we flipped the boat on a Class 5 rapid several days before, sucker-punched by a lateral wave similar to the one we were about to hit head on. We had a great approach and sailed smoothly down the line we intended before crashing into the lateral wave, which hooked my brother in its horns and pulled him into a ride he won't soon forget. I found out at that point that it's probably a good idea to double check your throw-line before you head into a Class 8 rapid, as I fumbled with the line and found it was tied backward, and hence virtually ineffective. But it was entertaining to say the least as we rode the hydraulics up and down and watched him like a cork in the sea trying to keep his head above water.

Not too far down river we came to our next big challenge, another Class 8 rapid named Granite. Another private group that we had grown friendly with was camped at the scouting point and playfully tried to psyche us out while enjoying frozen margaritas from the shore. Granite is a bit more technical than Horn, and as we followed one of our oar boats and lost sight of them over the tongue we could hear the peanut gallery on the shore erupt in excitement, which could only mean one thing. As we got to the top of the drop, we could see the shiny black bottom of their raft bobbing out of control, but had no time to concentrate on anything but our own execution of the run. After narrowly avoiding a hole that I dubbed the garbage disposal, we ran a smooth line, earning the respect of the peanut gallery and ending up being the rescue boat at the bottom of the rapid.

After getting the boat flipped over, we still had the most exciting rapid of the day left, another Class 8 named Hermit. Hermit is the kind of rapid that can cause a mutiny on a paddleboat. It's so ominous that many are too afraid to ride the tongue through the wave train. The majority of our boat crew wanted to run the rapid to the far left and avoid the large holes at the bottom. I vigorously debated with my brother that the river was just too powerful to avoid the wave train and too dangerous not to hit it head on in fear of getting sucked sideways into its grip.

As my pleas fell on deaf ears, we went to the left of the tongue, avoiding a lateral wave at the top of the rapid before getting swept back into the main current, straight toward the wave train. We were completely at the mercy of the river gods as we came over the crest of a large wave into the womb of a giant hole and shot up through the enveloping wall of water as my brother yelled obscenities in my ear.

By the end of the day I hit a metaphorical wall that left me tired - a really good tired. It was the kind of tired that floats through your bones and leaves you so drained after you've put everything on the line that you don't dare try to sleep in fear of losing the amazing feeling of the day. After completing the trip of a lifetime, I found a new perspective on life. But I also found one more acceptable reason to wake up at 5:30 a.m. in hopes of feeling that tired again.

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