By Robert Ross

Grand Canyon River Rafting,  It’s Up Close and Personal!



“I’m suffering from a mid-life crisis, so I decided to come to this place to find my spiritual self” said one participant. “My wife said we were going river rafting in the Grand Canyon, for me it was either go, or look at getting a divorce!” another stated. “Well, I’ve found my spiritual self, so I’ve decided to put it to use” another confidently asserted.  And so it went, as we introduced ourselves, and gave our reasons for going river rafting in the Grand Canyon. Twenty-nine reasons, twenty-nine people, from all over the country — mostly professional, some married, some single, some young, some older, all excited about the adventure that was yet to come.

 We gathered at an area called Lee’s Ferry, in Arizona, at the Marble Canyon Ranch. Lee’s Ferry is about a five-hour drive northeast  from Las Vegas, Nevada. The group was eager, all anticipating the next six days. We were about to embark on a 187-mile white water river rafting trip down the Colorado River, which included the Grand Canyon National Park.

Our guide for this six-day adventure was Tom Wolfe, with Arizona River Runners. He introduced himself and his team, appearing to be a little shy and awkward about being in front of a group of strangers. He was about forty, dark skin from years of being on the river, long dark straggly hair, tied in a pony tail, and wearing a long sleeve whitish colored shirt that looked like it hadn’t been washed for a week or so. Tom answered our questions in an informal manner, often laughing.  In a way, Tom was a throwback to the sixties, back to the earth, a love of nature type of guy. As the days passed though,  Tom would not only show himself to be a skilled boatman, but would impart something else — something that only years of working on the river could instill.

From the Marble Canyon Ranch, we boarded vans for a ten-minute drive to the river’s edge. After packing our luggage into waterproof  bags, we boarded two rafts. Each raft could hold fifteen people, one boatman and one assistant. The raft had an outboard motor. Oar trips are available (no outboard motor) but since we were covering a lot of miles, having an outboard motor was the most practical approach. On the rafts we would be carrying all of our food, gear, water and cooking supplies. In other words, everything we needed for the six days was on that boat.

We launched the boats, and it wasn’t long before we reached our first white water rapids. Anticipation and white knuckles (from gripping a safety strap) were the prevailing methods of preparing for it. Our first rapid was exhilarating, a bit like riding a roller coaster and having someone throw buckets of ice water on you as the coaster twisted and turned. With our first rapids under our belt the trip was officially anointed.

The rapids we would be encountering during our six-day adventure were rated by our guide. He put the rapids on a scale of one to ten, ten being the strongest. We were always sufficiently warned when the big ones were coming. Rain suits were put on, if they weren’t already on, gear was double checked, and we were told to stay off the outside pontoons. In other words, it was “hunker down and hold on!”

Packing for a six-day white water rafting trip presented some challenges. But in retrospect, there were four or five must-have items, the rest were optional and added to one’s comfort. The  must-have items were plenty of strong sun screen, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, a rubberized rain suit, which would be on and off (mostly on) during the trip, and lastly, some sturdy sandals for walking in the water, getting on and off the boat (stepping in water), and for taking hikes in and across streams. They recommended Teva-type sandals; a good recommendation.

Some patterns established  themselves early in the trip. We would rise with the sun, go to sleep with the dark. On the boat, we would have a “pit stop” mid- morning and mid-afternoon. Lunch was usually around noon. And the rafting day would end at about five or so. Sodas, trail mix and lollipops were passed around once or twice a day in large zip lock bags. I noticed that the Tootsie Roll lollipop was, in a way, a barometer of people and their state of mind. On day one of our journey, only a few took a lollipop. But, by day three, I glanced around, and noticed that just about everyone on the raft had a white lollipop stick protruding from their mouths. The lollipop was a metaphor, signifying that we had arrived. We were all kids on an adventure now. We had our lollipops and we had Tom, who, from time to time would read us poems and tell us stories about adventures and deaths and tragedies on the river. By day three we were on the river, both in body and spirit. We had left the world of work behind us — and we were kids once again . . . kids floating down a river, occasionally pulling the lollipop from our mouths and using it as a pointer — “look at that! . . . look at that! . . .” was the cry.

As the trip progressed, the days began to blend into each other. One thing was constant though, we were surrounded by magnificent golden brown jagged canyon walls, which were huge, and would dwarf the Empire State Building. Sometimes on our journey we would pull over and go for a hike. One day around mid- morning, we hiked up a tributary about a half mile or so, taking our life jackets with us. The tributary water was a deep turquoise blue — incredibly beautiful, like the pictures that are sometimes seen of isolated beaches in the South Pacific. We put our life jackets on, upside down, like diapers and slid down a rocky waterfall into crystal clear blue water. Like kids . . . on an adventure, laughing, giggling, and making noises as we splashed into the main pool of water.

Each day, as the rafting portion of the day came to an end, we would pull up to a sandy beach area, get off the boats and each of us would quickly scout out a piece of turf that we would call home for the evening. As quickly as we disembarked, we would gather back at the boat and do what was referred to as the “duffle shuffle.” Perhaps twenty of us would line up facing each other — ten on each side taking items and duffle bags from the boat — handing them down from person to person, depositing them on a dry area of the beach.

Usually at about five thirty or so, some snacks would be put out — crackers, cheese, hors d’oeuvre type things. We were encouraged to bring beer, wine or our favorite beverage, so this was our cocktail hour. It was time to meet with others, talk about the day, laugh, relax and prepare for dinner. Dinner was always a treat. It could be anything from barbequed chicken to spaghetti. After a long day on the river, whatever they made, it seemed to hit the spot. After getting our food, we would sit on the ground, or perhaps on a rock, eat and talk. It was uncanny how there could be a loud buzz of talk and laughter one minute and almost in unison everyone at dinner knew they had about twenty minutes to get back to their campsites, and prepare before darkness set in.

And so the trip went — endless beauty, great food, good camaraderie and the constant sound of water gurgling as the boat cut its way on its journey downstream. Six days to refurbish the soul. Six days to reflect. Six days to marvel at the unending beauty, which included the Grand Canyon. Six days to get up close and personal with the Colorado River.

We ended our adventure at an area call Whitmore Wash. From there, a helicopter would pick us up — four at a time — and lift us out of the canyon to the Bar 10 Ranch, about a ten-minute flight. As we waited, a noticeable excitement hung in the air. We had finished a great adventure. We were happy. Tom was there, shaking hands — making jokes and waiting for that unique sound.  Then, in the distance, at first faintly, chit-chit-chit-chit-chit-chit-chit-chit — it was unmistakable. Rounding the bend about a hundred feet from the water, with the canyon walls as a backdrop the first chopper was seen — at first, appearing no bigger than a hornet. As it grew closer, we grabbed our hats and turned away as a powerful wind whipped through the group as it landed.

Group by group, we shook Tom’s hand and were whisked away. As the chopper I was on  made its way up and out of the canyon, I reflected a bit on Tom, our guide. He brought something to the trip that was hard to describe. Perhaps it was his rugged individualism, or his gypsy-like appearance, or maybe it was the way he read poems and writings that set him apart. Whatever it was, it was clear, early in the trip, that Tom was more than just a guide. He was the embodiment of a boatman — from early pioneer days to the present. He had the spirit of the river, of the canyon, and of those who gave their lives as river runners before him, in his heart and in his soul. We were lucky to see the river with Tom as our guide. We were lucky . . .

For further information, visit  your favorite search engine and plug in “Grand Canyon River Rafting.” There are a number of companies that schedule trips. Arizona River Runners, Western River Expeditions and Diamond River Adventure are three companies which we saw operating on the Colorado River.

Copyright 2002 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved

Robert Ross can be reached by e-mail at: 

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