A Journey Down the Colorado River with Captain John Wesley Powell
by Michael Shapiro
Our boats are four in number. Three are built of oak, stanch and firm (with) water-tight cabins.… These will buoy the boats should the waves roll them over in rough water. The fourth is made of pine…built for fast rowing.… We take with us rations deemed sufficient to last for ten months.
—John Wesley Powell from “The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons”
What a difference 140 years makes I think as we pump up our inflatable Hypalon boats and fill our coolers at Lee’s Ferry on the eve of a 297-mile journey down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. John Wesley Powell’s rations on his 1869 expedition included flour for unleavened bread, bacon, dried apples, coffee and whiskey. The basics. For our 24-day trip, we pack pasta and pesto, fresh organic broccoli and carrots, homemade apple and pumpkin pies, and a whole turkey, frozen in a block of ice, for Thanksgiving two and a half weeks after our launch.
Powell, a geologist, explorer, and Civil War captain who lost most of one arm during the Battle of Shiloh, set out in 1869 with nine other men to attempt the first descent of the Colorado. Among Powell’s fleet were boats called Maid of the Canyon and No Name; the boat I’ll help steer down the river is the Black Pearl. We learn from Johnny Beers, of Canyon REO, the company renting us the boats, that the Black Pearl was recently washed out of a Canyon camp by a flash flood and floated 40 miles downstream. When found, it was upright, a map book was still atop a cooler, Johnny said. An auspicious story, the kind of tale that whether true or embellished is calming on the eve of a river trip down one of the most ferocious whitewater rivers in the world. Much more reassuring than the blown-up photos on Canyon REO’s wall showing a 1983 fatal flip in Crystal rapids.
Unlike most trips down the Canyon, we’re guiding ourselves rather than relying on a commercial outfitter. We have 16 people in five boats; rowing is shared but each boat has a captain responsible for rigging (strapping the gear down) and getting the raft safely through the most fearsome rapids. But no one in our group, other than me, has been down the Colorado through the Canyon before, and I’ve only done it once, 12 years ago at a different water level. It’s a river whose hydraulics are unlike any other, with pounding waves higher than our 16-foot boats, and sucking holes that can flip a raft and hold on to its passengers, recirculating boats and humans like a washing machine. It’s called getting Maytagged.
As the sunset turns the canyon walls golden red, we finish packing our provisions. I wrap duct tape and cardboard around our bottles of tequila, gin and Jack Daniel’s to protect our good soldiers from the rollicking rapids ahead. After sleeping fitfully through a frosty November night, our group leader Kristen, a 26-year-old Outward Bound guide from Moab, Utah, calls us together and we meet with a Grand Canyon ranger. He makes sure we have all the necessary equipment: maps, ropes and other safety gear, and a “groover” for human waste.
Why is it called a groover? Back in the early days of whitewater rafting, the groover was nothing more than a large metal ammo box lined with a Hefty bag, so after sitting on it rafters would have a long groove on each cheek and thigh. Modern groovers have toilet seats but the name has, well, stuck.
After months of planning, preparing and provisioning, we’re off. The Canyon is wide at Lee’s Ferry, and the early afternoon sun illuminates the sculpted rust-colored walls. I share a boat with Owen, an Englishman in his early 40s with a dry sense of humor who came to the western U.S. to teach snowboarding and do some tech work. Owen, our boat captain, takes the first pulls on the oars.
The euphoria of the journey’s first moments, especially on a naturally flowing waterway, is palpable. We hear hoots and cheers from our companions upstream as we hit our first rapids. Powell had similar feelings of exultation when he navigated the first whitewater of his trip: “We thread the narrow passage with exhilarating velocity,” he wrote, “mounting the high waves, whose foaming crests dash over us, and plunging into the troughs, until we reach the quiet water below.”
We wake before the sun tops the rim on Day 2 and see our fully laden boats on the beach, high and dry. The river has dropped precipitously, a result of timed releases followed by curtailed flows from the Glen Canyon Dam upstream. Without the dam we probably wouldn’t have enough water to be boating in November. But I’d trade that in a second to get rid of the blockage that inundated a canyon many believe was as beautiful as the Grand, but in a gentler, more seductive way. Former Sierra Club president David Brower called the 710–foot-high, 300-foot-wide dam “America’s most regretted environmental mistake.” The reservoir the dam created is called Lake Powell, which I’m certain would make old Captain Powell, who reveled in the beauty of this place, wince.
We know that eventually the water will rise and allow us to get our boats back in the river, so we wait. “That’s what I like about there not being other groups around,” says Lynsey, an easygoing outdoor leader and flute player. “There’s no one to laugh at us,” she says. “We can laugh at ourselves.”
* * *
The sun is going down and the shadows are settling in the canyon. The vermilion gleams and roseate hues, blending with the green and gray tints, are slowly changing to somber brown above, and black shadows are creeping over them below; and now it is a dark portal to a region of gloom – the gateway through which we are to enter on our voyage of exploration to-morrow. What shall we find?
Powell’s description shows not just apprehension about the monstrous rapids he expected downriver, but his appreciation of the natural beauty of the Southwest. Unlike the dour explorers of his time, Powell appreciated the glory of the landscape.
Consider what his contemporary, Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives, who attempted to navigate the Colorado in 1857, said about the Grand Canyon and the river that runs through it: “The region…is altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless the be last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado River…shall forever be unvisited and undisturbed.”
Today several million people visit the Canyon each year and about a million of those hike into it, according to the National Park Service. About 20,000 people raft the Colorado River each year, mostly on guided commercial trips. The figure would be far higher if the park didn’t restrict the number of boaters with a lottery permit system. Until a few years ago, there was a waiting list to get permits for non-commercial trips, like ours, down the Colorado. When the list stretched to more than 20 years it was phased out and replaced with the lottery system. If boaters can’t use a permit, they can cancel, which happens with some frequency for cold-season trips – that’s how we got our winning lottery ticket.
On Day 2 we catch an eddy and pull over to scout House Rock Rapid, our first real test, 17 miles down from the put-in (starting point) at Lee’s Ferry. To scout we hike above the rapid to see it. Unlike Powell, we have a detailed map that suggests routes through the rapids. But the river is ever-changing. Boulders tumble into it and can make formerly safe routes hazardous; the powerful current can rearrange rocks, and a rapid can be easy at low water but frightening at higher flows – or vice versa. So we scout and understand the name of this rapid: the current plunges against a rock the size of a house, creating fearsome hydraulics.
In the rapids a fast funnel of waves coerces our boat to the left, toward the canyon’s south wall. Lateral waves push the boat sideways. Owen pulls at the oars with all his strength – we get just right of two mammoth waves and a hole that could flip a boat. I peer into the churning maw of the rapid’s recirculating hole as we clear it, the dark waves crashing in upon themselves.
We celebrate that evening at House Rock camp, just below the rapid, with gin-and-tonics and feast on fish tacos and fresh organic salad with goddess dressing. That evening I read of Powell’s reliance on “flour that has been wet and dried so many times that it is all musty and full of hard lumps.” Hanging off the side of each of our boats is a mesh bag filled with beer, staying cool and ready in the 50-degree river water.
The next morning we scramble up eggs with spinach and cheddar. I overhear Kevin, the youngest member of our group at 22, say “I don’t need the hot cock this morning.” Startled, I see Victoria, a nurturing soul who’s become our camp mom, reach across the table, grab a bottle, and say, “I’ll take the hot cock anytime of day.” They’re talking about the Sriracha chili sauce, with its proud and upright rooster on the label.
* * *
In the evenings Powell’s party dispelled “the gloom of these great depths” by sharing Civil War stories around a campfire; many of his crew had fought in the conflict. Though we cook on propane stoves, we too build fires and share our “war stories” of prior river adventures, love gone awry and the misguided exploits of our youth. We brighten the cold, dark evenings with tiki torches and strands of battery-powered twinkly colored lights that we drape around our chairs, adding a note of festivity to our home for this one night.
And we sing songs like The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and Bob Dylan’s “Wagon Wheel,” tunes that would have been as timely and at home in the 19th century as they are in the 21st. Our voices are leavened by Lynsey’s plaintive flute and Kevin’s acoustic guitar, toted on river in watertight cases. Kevin, who just completed college, is considering a career in outdoor education, like his older brother Steve, a trip leader for Outward Bound and one of our five boat captains.
Powell wrote that his men would occasionally “shout or discharge a pistol, to listen to the reverberations among the cliffs.” We blow off steam with pyrotechnics, setting an open can of collected bacon grease on a grill atop our campfire.
“Is everyone at least ten feet from the fire?” Steve shouts as he fetches water from the river. Neil, a mellow river ranger and one of our boat captains, says “No, they’re about two feet away.” Steve: “Then get the first aid kit!” Steve has attached a pail of water to 10-foot-long oar and moves toward the fire. Some in our group start chanting: “Ba-con bomb! Baaa-con bomb! Baaaaa-con bomb!” Steve yells at us to back away and pours the water into the can of bubbling bacon grease. It explodes, sending a plume of flame 15 feet into the air, as we leap away and howl.
* * *
In November, only one group is allowed to start a trip down the Colorado each day, compared to five or six in midsummer. We have the glorious feeling of having the entire Canyon to ourselves. And while our coolers and bar are extravagantly stocked, we’ve made a point to leave behind most of modern society’s distractions. We don’t bring a boom box – our music is homegrown – and cell towers are beyond our reach. One concession is a satellite phone in case of emergency.
Powell’s party had its share of technical equipment too, most notably barometers for measuring altitude. Early in his exploration, before reaching the Grand Canyon, Powell’s boat No Name was dashed to pieces, its hull caught in a turbulent rapid. The crew survived, but Powell’s treasured barometers were in the stranded No Name. The captain sent two men into the river to rescue his instruments. “The boys set up a shout, and I join them,” Powell wrote, “pleased that they should be as glad as myself to save the instruments.” When the men returned, he saw they also salvaged a three-gallon keg of whiskey. “The last is what they were shouting about,” Powell noted dryly.
Drink is what we shout about when we reach camp the next afternoon. As the sun disappears it gets cool, so we attach a propane tank to a camp stove and make some hot buttered rum. Over a dinner of pesto pasta with spicy sausage, I consider how decadent our trip is compared to Powell’s expedition, whose members ate the same drab food every day and often huddled under cold, wet blankets. Until they lost blankets after one of their boats capsized, leaving some men shivering in the frigid night with nothing more than a canvas tarp to cover them.
We flick a Bic and have a cook fire, our waterproof sacks keep our compressible zero-degree sleeping bags dry, and our inflatable boats can navigate even the Canyon’s most ominous rapids, sparing us the torture of carrying boats over crumbly canyon walls around the biggest drops, as Powell’s party did.
Yet we share Powell’s appreciation of the Canyon. We see the “cathedral-shaped” buttes, towering monuments, and “grandly arched” half-mile-high walls reflected in calm stretches of the river, and the polished ochre spires that tower above it all. Our spirits soar as we float through Marble Canyon, with its pink and purple hues and “saffron” tints.
At a bend in the river, we find a deep oval opening scoured into the rock by millions of years of the river surging into it. Powell estimated that if it were a theater it could seat 50,000 people. Now called Redwall Cavern, it’s a perfect spot for an impromptu game of soccer, and we exhaust ourselves chasing a ball over the sandy beach. A Frisbee gets pulled out and flung towards the water. We dive off the boats attempting to catch it, plunging into the chilly eddy like eager dogs.
Just downstream we pull over to explore a delicate waterfall spraying from peach-colored rocks. Lush green vegetation surrounds the cascade; the sunshine lights up the misty veil with all the colors of the rainbow. Powell named this place Vasey’s Paradise for a botantist who had previously traveled with him through the Southwest. Downriver we hike into Nautiloid Canyon – I expect to see fossils of chambered nautiluses preserved in stone but we find evidence of yard-long creatures with tail fins for propulsion that I learn were ancestors of squid.
Every day my sense of wonder grows, I write in my journal, as the walls around me start to glow deep red in the dawn light. I appreciate the perfect balance of water, desert, cliff and sky, and find myself agreeing with desert gnostic Edward Abbey who wrote: “There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid west so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city were no city should be.”
We take a day off from paddling and spend a layover day at Nankoweap, the first place we’ll camp for two nights. High above us native peoples built granaries to store their grain. I hike a few hundred feet above the river to explore what appear to be windows in the Canyon walls. I sit alone among the ancient spirits and feel gratitude for this trip, the bounty in my life, and the now famous vista of the Canyon as it bends to the right and the river disappears from view.
With limited rations, “an unknown distance yet to run” and “an unknown river yet to explore” the mood of Powell’s party turned serious at the Little Colorado. For us, the Little Colorado is another gorgeous canyon feature to explore. The sky-blue river is brightened by chalky mineral deposits which have ever so slowly created tiny (a foot or two high) travertine falls, little steps in the river over which the shiny water fans. I sit mesmerized by the sounds of dozens of these falls and their gentle music accompanied by the song of canyon wrens overhead.
Back on the water, upstream gales hit us full force. The strength we’ve built during a week of rowing helps, but still we make only 1 mile per hour, compared to our average speed of 4 or 5mph. At camp we play bocce among the stones, thickets and sand, the terrain adding new elements to the old Italian game. That night we make s’mores from graham crackers, chocolate bars and toasted marshmallows. River guides say most accidents happen on land on that night is the closest I’ve come so far to injury. As Jason, who is Kristen’s boyfriend and so pretty I call him “Boy Band,” tells a story he excitedly gestures and a flaming marshmallow vaults off his stick and leaps across the fire, landing on my leg. But the burn is mild and easily remedied with cool water.
As we break camp on a rainy cool morning, I put on my Neoprene hood for the first time – it’s a wetsuit for the head and makes me look like a dorky aviator from the 1930s. I can’t picture Powell or his rugged men in one of these, but I’ll gladly put vanity aside and don the hood, my fleece top, nylon splash jacket and Neoprene booties to stay warm.
After ten days I feel in tune with the cadences of the canyon, but our isolation is interrupted by a stop at Phantom Ranch near the bottom of the Bright Angel Trail. This is a popular lodge and campsite for those hiking deep into the Canyon, and it’s where we bid farewell to three members of our party, who hike out to return to commitments above the rim.
Though I’m tempted to eschew Phantom Ranch’s conveniences, I go to its pay phone for two reasons: to tell my girlfriend and mother that I’m having the time of my life, and because it’s my birthday and I want to hear the voices of my loved ones. It feels strange to touch a credit card and money. When an operator asks for my zip code to authorize the card, I can barely remember it. I reach my mother and she recounts the story she tells me every year: how at my first Thanksgiving, when I was a week old, I was placed on the table as the centerpiece and the turkey was bigger than me.
On the way back to the boats I catch the eye of a mule deer, a young buck who lets me get within a few feet of him. The deer doesn’t seem to fear people, perhaps because in this park deer can’t be hunted. I meet a couple of tourists from South Korea, who are astounded that we’re in the midst of a 24-day voyage. The young woman touches my shoulder in farewell; it seems that a part of them wants to connect to our journey. We refill our big plastic water jugs and get back on the river.
* * *
There is a descent of perhaps 75 or 80 feet in a third of a mile, and the rushing waters break into great waves on the rocks and lash themselves into a mad, white foam. We step into our boats, push off, and away we go, first on smooth but swift water, then we strike a glassy wave and ride to its top, down again into the trough, up again on a high wave, and down and up on waves higher and still higher until we strike one just as it curls back, and a breaker rolls over our little boat. Still on we speed…until the little boat is caught in a whirlpool and spun around several times. —J.W. Powell
The Colorado welcomes us back with some of the most technical and scary rapids on the river. Most rivers have a rating scale of Class I (flat water) to Class VI (virtually unrunnable), but the Colorado is graded from 1 to 10. Today we have several Class 10 rapids, the first being Horn, a mess of towering waves, rocks, chutes and holes. While Owen scouts, I put on my dry top with rubber neck and wrist gaskets to keep the water out. In the rapid we get knocked sideways, then slide backwards for a minute before Owen pulls the boat away from a gaping hole and into the calm water below.
Next is Granite. We spend more than half an hour scouting, searching for a route through it. As arduous as carrying the boats around the rapids would be, gazing at Granite almost makes me consider portaging. But that’s not an option. Steve, only 24 years old, has volunteered to be lead boat. A true outdoorsman, Steve has been nonchalant leading us through all the rapids during the past few days.
But Granite is different than what we’ve seen so far: it has more hazards than we can count. The only possible run is a thread-the-needle along the right wall: if you get too far left an angry set of waves will probably flip you, too far right and you’ll be slammed into the north wall. Steve’s eyes blaze with fierce determination as he enters the river. He eludes the biggest waves, pulls back hard on the oars to stay off the wall and he’s through. Up close, as we run it, Granite is faster and harder to read than from the river bank, and we get bounced around near the bottom, but with some strong, well-timed tugs on the oars, Owen pulls us to safety.
Hermit has a 20-foot curling haystack wave in the center, is even bigger that Granite. But it’s a straight shot down the center. Just hit it hard and straight, and enjoy the ride. The wave is longer than our boat, but we keep the boat straight and have a clean roller-coaster run. We float to camp to the celebratory sounds of cheers and beers being popped. My birthday celebration has begun.
On a sandy beach that evening I’m offered the camp throne, a reclining nylon chaise lounge. My other chair, battered by the river, is missing an arm – we name it the John Wesley Powell because he’d lost his arm before his Canyon journey. I dig out the bottle of Herradura tequila I’ve brought for this night, passing it around the campfire circle for all to swig. The group presents me with a blueberry muffin cake baked in a Dutch oven, a large, covered cast-iron pot that’s set on coals for baking.
When I first considered a 24-day Canyon trip, it seemed like a long time. At the halfway point, I feel time slipping away. There’s so much to see every day in the side canyons: the fern-shrouded waterfall at Elves Chasm where Kristen others leap naked into the pool below, Blacktail Canyon with its magical concert-hall acoustics, and Deer Creek Falls, a thundering 100-foot-high cascade next to the river. I’m in no hurry to return home, but I am ready for some rest.
We take a layover day at Galloway Camp where we enjoy a warm solar shower (the water heated in a dark bag attached to a hose and shower head). A drove of about eight bighorn sheep stroll right through camp, scampering up an impossibly steep hillside as we approach. We wash our clothes in buckets of river water and drape them over the spindly desert trees.
I sink deeper into the Canyon’s natural rhythms. I put away my watch and tell time by the progression of Pleiades, the Big Dipper and Orion across the night sky. We’ve become a resourceful group—we fix broken chairs with extra straps, we patch boats if they spring a leak, and erect shelters with tarps and oars when it rains. I appreciate this sense of self-containment and the group’s confidence that we have the ability to handle almost anything that comes our way.
As we travel deeper into the crucible, past rock walls more than a billion years old, the Canyon gets steeper and narrower. Our sense of isolation intensifies. “It seems a long way up to the world of sunshine and open sky,” Powell wrote. And it is: in the heart of the Canyon the walls are 6,000 feet—more than a mile—high. The sun shines through the sharp, narrow slot for an hour or less each day this time of year; we warm up when the river bends to the south and catches the late autumn sun in the southern sky.
* * *
By late August of 1869, Powell’s crew had traveled for three months since beginning their journey at Green River City. By the time they reached the deepest part of the Grand Canyon, Powell wrote, their canvas tent was “useless,” their rubber ponchos lost, “more than half the party are without hats, not one of us has an entire suit of clothes, and we have not a blanket apiece.” When the rain pours down, “we sit up all night on the rocks shivering, and are more exhausted by the night’s discomfort than the day’s toil.”
At Ledges Camp we sleep comfortably atop Thermarest pads on shelves of shiny black gneiss. I fall asleep to a column of stars visible through the Canyon’s slot, the occasional meteor shining brilliantly for a flash before being consumed by Earth’s atmosphere. I dream of a tiger in a cage; so lonely it’s going crazy. It needs to roam. Then I dream of traveling across the U.S. entirely by water with my brother. Perhaps the inescapable Canyon is taking an emotional toll after all.
“Are we running Lava tomorrow?” Nathan, a wiry and strong former collegiate soccer player, shouts to our campfire circle. “Because if we are,” he announces as he puts down his beer, “I need to stop drinking right now!” A few miles downstream, Lava is the most intimidating rapid on the river, with a precipitous 15-foot drop that tumbles into a recirculating ledge hole and ferocious lateral waves that seem to upend boats for kicks.
The mood the next morning is serious, quiet. We tighten lines on the boats so if we flip we won’t lose our gear. Without a word we start stretching, we want to be limber, ready, in case we swim in the frothy madness. As we row downriver, the steep red walls widen slightly. Layers of basalt give way to black volcanic rock, the river’s descent gets steeper. The water picks up speed. We hear the rapids’ roar before we see Lava and pull over at the scout point just as two boats from the trip ahead of us are about to run the gauntlet.
At this water level the forgiving left chute is too shallow to run. The center hole must be avoided at all costs. So we’ll run right. The first of the other trip’s two rafts, a solo boater on a catamaran, drops in. The boat is buried by a crashing wave; when it emerges, its pilot is gone, swept out by the rushing waters. The next boat gets slapped sideways by the first couple of grinding curlers, by the third its downstream side starts to rise and we watch helplessly as the boat flips, dumping everyone on board into the hammering current. We exhale when we see everyone flush out safely below.
At each of the life-threatening rapids we’ve run, Owen has rallied us by sounding his kazoo-like horn, a sort of Cavalry rallying cry. Each boat captain taps the top of his or her head, river sign language for “OK” and “Ready.” Owen blows on the kazoo but there’s no sound—it’s waterlogged—an ominous sign. He blows the water out and tries again—nothing. Then he shakes it out; the third attempt yields a warbled call, enough sound to give us superstitious guides inspiration for the run ahead.
Our map-guide says running through Lava takes 20 seconds. But we all know how long 20 seconds can be if things don’t go well. And if they don’t, it will take much more than 20 seconds to pick up the pieces and put everything back together again.
Steve, in our lead boat, drops in—we can’t see his run from above—but Boy Band stands atop his boat and shouts: “one boat through!” Nathan follows and gets slapped around—he looks a bit sideways and one side of his boat starts to rise, but then it comes down and he’s through. Kristen and Neil roll into it; we drop in just after them. It’s hard to see exactly where we planned to enter—the frothy green and white maelstrom makes it almost impossible to chart a course.
But Owen is on target and hits the first wave hard and straight, just like you’re supposed to. We break through the first hurdle, hit the V of the second wave right where we want to and punch through. Several 15-foot curlers break over our boat then we hit a wall of whitewater. The Black Pearl seems to stop, suspended above the mighty Colorado in slow-motion. Then the river grabs us and drags us through the final drops. We’re through the worst of Lava Falls. From here it’s a roller-coaster of waves to the bottom of the rapid. We pull over at Tequila Beach, named for post-Lava celebrations, break out the Sauza and Hornitos, and pass the bottles around. The group that had the flip and swimmers is there too. We compare notes, borrow their Hula hoops and whirl as ecstatically as dervishes.
We’ve made it through the big rapids; all we need to do now is find a beach to sleep on. Kristen pulls us over about a mile below Lava, but the beach is tiny and covered with prickly shrubs. The group revokes her status as trip leader for the rest of the day. Owen, the only sober one among us, is given command. He locates a fine camp, and we play bocce on a spit of beach so close to the river that we sink up to our ankles in the watery sand.
Powell’s journal suggests his party portaged the boats around Lava Falls and had a clear sense that they were near the end of the journey. They too celebrated after Lava, stumbling upon an Indian garden with ripe green squashes. Powell excuses his “robbery” by “pleading our great want.” After so many meager meals, the captain is exultant: “What a kettle of squash sauce we make! True, we have no salt with which to season it, but it makes a fine addition to our unleavened bread and coffee.” Powell estimates his team covered 35 river miles that day. “A few days like this,” he writes, “and we are out of our prison.”
* * *
Canyon veterans warn that trips can fall apart during the final few days. Once Lava has been run, the theory goes, all the pent-up and buried resentments surface, and group cohesion suffers. But we’re a companionable, easygoing group. We know we won’t fall prey to petty disputes.
After a festive spaghetti dinner we gather round the campfire to chart the rest of the trip. Because we’re a bit behind schedule and have a set take-out date, Kristen suggests floating over the flatwater at night. Steve is dead set against a night float, his emotions amplified by alcohol. He conjures visions of bodies in sleeping bags rolling off the boats, never to be seen again. “I’d rather run Lava ten times than do a night float,” he exclaims. Kristen gives him a look that says “Whatever,” and suggests we talk about it in the morning.
With the return of daylight and sobriety, all is forgiven. At Granite Park Canyon (Mile 209) we find an expansive beach, set up a badminton net and prepare our Thanksgiving feast. A solo boater floats by. His name is Jake and he’s hungry for company, so we invite him to join us. We put the turkey in a metal drum and cover it with charcoal. Hours later it’s burnt to a crisp, but we scrape off the black crust and savor the feast of tender poultry, mashed potatoes, warm stuffing and unheated green beans – we didn’t have any more pots – straight from the can. For dessert we tuck into Martha’s home-baked apple and pumpkin pies, perfectly fresh after three weeks on ice, and toast one another with wine and beer.
Thirty miles downstream, a wide side-canyon opens to the north, seeming to offer a way out of the Grand Canyon. At this juncture, O.G. Howland asked Powell to abandon the river and end the journey. Howland said that he, his brother Seneca, and William Dunn were determined to leave. Powell took out his sextant and found the party was about 45 miles from the mouth of the Rio Virgen, their destination, the end of the Colorado’s course through the Grand Canyon.
“All night long I pace up and down a little path,” Powell wrote. “Is it wise to go on?” he wondered. “At one time I almost conclude to leave the river. But for years I have been contemplating this trip. To leave the exploration unfinished…is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on.”
In the morning Powell asked Howland, Howland and Dunn if they still wanted to leave. The elder Howland said they did. Powell sadly accepted their decision and left them his boat, the Emma Dean, in case they reconsidered and wanted to meet the party downstream. The men were never seen again. They may have died at the hands of Indians or Mormons; they could have perished from lack of food or water; no one knows.
This place, at Mile 239, is named Separation Canyon, and we hike up to see a plaque in memory of the three lost explorers. We make camp here with deepening awareness that our journey is nearing its end. From Separation to the take out, the water is virtually flat, save for one nasty rapid caused by human intrusion into the river. It sounds strange to say it, but the river has been drowned, submerged by Lake Mead. The rapids are gone, buried by the tepid backwash from the dam downstream. The water here is stagnant and fetid. “Bathtub rings” from the rise and fall of the reservoir blanche the Canyon’s walls. Helicopters with sightseers from Vegas buzz overhead; motorboats storm upstream past our rafts, their passengers pointing cameras at us and gaping.
* * *
Just two days after leaving Separation’s beach, Powell’s party triumphantly concluded their journey. They had navigated and documented the entire run of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and Powell could not contain his glee:
How beautiful the sky, how bright the sunshine, what ‘floods of delirious music’ pour from the throats of birds, how sweet the fragrance of earth and tree and blossom.… Now the danger is over, now the toil has ceased, now the gloom has disappeared, now the firmament is bounded only by the horizon, and what a vast expanse of constellations can be seen! The river rolls by us in silent majesty; the quiet of the camp is sweet; our joy is almost ecstasy.
As we paddle against the wind on Lake Mead, the Canyon widens. It’s more open here, and I feel we’ve been released from its magnetic grip. By late afternoon, the incessant hum of the planes and motorboats ceases, and vestiges of the Canyon’s magic reappear. Lynsey plays her flute, the sweet music conjuring native visions. At night a gibbous moon rises over our Hypalon boats, which make soothing whale-like sounds as they rub against one another. As tired and eager for comfort as I am, I savor this final night in the Canyon, caressed by the muted lullaby of the rippling river.
Michael Shapiro is the author of A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration and wrote the text for the pictorial book, Guatemala: A Journey Through the Land of the Maya. His article on Jan Morris’s Wales was a cover story for National Geographic Traveler and won the prestigious Bedford Pace Award. He also writes for such publications as Islands, Hemispheres, American Way, Mariner, The Sun, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. He works as a freelance editor and has helped his clients get published in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Huffington Post.
Shapiro volunteers as a guide for Environmental Traveling Companions, an outfitter that takes disabled people on whitewater rafting and sea kayak adventures. He lives with his fiancée and cat in Sonoma County, California, and can be reached through www.michaelshapiro.net.