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Rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon

  • AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Motorized raft passes under Navajo Bridges, four miles below Lee's Ferry. The closer bridge was built in 1929 and is now reserved for pedestrians. The downstream bridge was built in 1995 for vehicles. It is the…
    AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Motorized raft passes under Navajo Bridges, four miles below Lee's Ferry. The closer bridge was built in 1929 and is now reserved for pedestrians. The downstream bridge was built in 1995 for vehicles. It is the last automobile crossing until the Hoover Dam, 350 miles downstream.
Published September 29. 2012 09:03AM

The Grand Canyon is one of the seven wonders of the world, and the best way to see it is by rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Before planning a trip through the Grand Canyon, be aware that certain types of boats are permitted to travel through the Grand Canyon National Park during certain times of the year. Also be aware that the base of the Grand Canyon is typically 20 degrees warmer than at the rim. In midsummer, temperatures can exceed 110 degrees. I opted for a September trip where temperatures typically peak around 90 degrees.

There are several ways to boat the Colorado. You can organize a private trip, and if you win a lottery, you and your friends can put together a flotilla of kayaks, rafts, dories and other craft. But unless you have extensive paddling and camping experience and have had at least one guided trip through the canyon, it's probably better to go with a licensed outfitter.

Outfitters offer trips in paddle rafts, oar rafts, and motorized rafts. A paddle or oar raft trip covers the roughly 188 mile scenic section of the 277 mile-long canyon from Lee's Ferry to Whitmore Wash in about 15 days. The sojourn can be completed in a week by either hiking in or out at Phantom Ranch, a nine-mile hike with a 4,500 foot elevation change, or by traveling in a motorized raft. A complete sojourn of the Grand Canyon would end at Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam.

I selected a one-week motorized raft trip with Hatch River Expeditions, the first outfitter to offer commercial rafting trips in the United States. Bus Hatch started running the rivers of northeastern Utah in 1929, and took his first group down the Grand Canyon in 1934. His son, Ted, took over the business in 1967, and Ted's son, Steve Hatch took over Hatch River Expeditions in 2004.

On this voyage, we had two 10-person motorized rafts. One was captained by 38-year veteran Jeff Voss. The second was captained by Steve Hatch, who was taking a break from the office. This was his first trip down the Grand Canyon in two years, and he was joined by his wife, Sarah, a former guide, his 11-year-old daughter Eva, and five-year-old son Cael.

The adventure started about 30 miles downstream of the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell at Lee's Ferry, Ariz. The weather was hot and dry, and the fledgling voters were invited to go for a swim, fully clothed, in the blue waters of the Colorado to cool off.

Ironically, it began to rain. Rain is unusual in the desert, but when it rains, it pours. They call it a monsoon, and we had rain for the next two days, turning the water brown from the runoff.

The Grand Canyon is all about geology. The ground has been uplifted over a period of two billion years, and the Colorado River has been carving its way through the rock formations for 17 million years.

The Grand Canyon has been home to Native Americans for over 3,000 years. The land supports a unique variety of wildlife which includes Grand Canyon rattlesnake, banded gecko, ringtail cat, desert bighorn sheep, beaver, coyote, mule deer, and great blue heron. Its flora includes jimsonweed, panel evening-primrose, soaptree yucca, ocotillo, and tamarisk, an invasive Eurasian tree that the park is currently trying to control with the introduction of the tamarisk beetle.

The Colorado River is the principle river of the southwestern United States and as it flows through the Grand Canyon, it produces some of the largest rapids in America. The Western states grade rapids on a scale of 1 to 10. Crystal Rapids and Lava Falls Rapids are class 10 rapids. On this September trip, Glen Canyon Dam was releasing 8,000 cubic feet per second due to drought conditions. A more normal release would be between 15,000 and 25,000 cubic feet per second.

The first Europeans to explore the Grand Canyon were the Spanish in 154. They spent the next 200 years trying to unsuccessfully convert to Native Americans to Christianity. As the United States expanded to the West, trappers and mountain men moved to the Grand Canyon.

In 1869, Major John Wesley Powell, with nine men, four boats and food for 10 months, led the first expedition to explore the Colorado River. In 1871, Powell named the gorge of the Colorado River the "Grand Canyon."

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