Rafting the Grand Canyon

Deep green and icy cold, the Colorado River rolls along, gnawing one more millimeter into the age-old canyon. Sunlight slits down between the 3,000-foot cliffs onto our small flotilla of five boats, four rubber rafts, and one wooden dory. We are two days into our two-week trip through the Grand Canyon.

Rounding a bend, we hear the roar of the rapids.The boatman drops his oars, stands tall on his seat, and strains to "read the river" -- to spot the telltale splashes of white that signal rocks below.

"Snug up your life jackets," he directs. "In case we flip, swim away from the boat so that you don't get caught between the boat and a boulder.Put your feet out in front, sit up straight, and fend off the rocks as you come to them."

The roar is like a freight train bearing down on us. The four of us scrunch down, brace with our feet, and cling to the metal rings at the bow of the boat.

We roll over the smooth-curled tongue of water at the top, are sucked down into the foaming jaws, and swallowed by an enormous wave -- a wall of water sweeps by the raft.

"Bail," shouts the boatman, struggling with his oars to pull us away from a huge boulder ahead. Grabbing buckets, we empty the raft, making it easier to maneuver. Just as we are about to hit the boulder, our boatman pivots the raft 150 degrees and lets out a whoop for joy, and we slip down into the smooth water beyond the rapids.

Rapids are rated on a scale of 1 to 10, and of the 161 rapids in the Grand Canyon, 26 are rated between 5 and 10. They have ominous names such as "Upset Rapids" or "Sockdolager" (which means "knockout punch"). Worst -- or best -- of all is Lava Falls, which is full of "holes" where water goes round and round a fearful 37 feet in a stretch of river 100 yards long. On the biggest rapids, we stop upstream to scout the water; on the smaller rapids, passengers have a chance to row. The boats are 18 feet long, 8 feet wide, and can be handled by the average person without much trouble.

Campsites -- beautiful beaches with white sand -- are plentiful along the river. There are no picnic tables; everything is wilderness, with nary a sign of any previous camper. No beer cans, no cigarette butts, no bathroom tissue. All expeditions are asked to carry out all their trash, even human waste.

We form a human chain and throw the rubber dunnage bags of clothes and sleeping bags up onto the sand bank. Dressed in bathing suits and sneakers, we follow the boatman up into the Silver Grotto, a series of five pools carved by the rains, one above the other.

Using a rope, we pull ourselves up a rock face, swim through a pool, climb another rock face, and swim the next pool."I can't believe I did it," says a one woman from the Middle West who had never been mountain climbing before.

Every day is a different hike. Some people stay at the beach and relax, but most of us don't want to miss the waterfall surrounded by maidenhair fern and moss, or the ancient Indian granaries high on the edge of cliff.

A sense of geology begins to build. This rock of ages, our earth, has been sliced like an orange and peeled back so we can see how it was made. The whole mass is tipped on edge, and we slip down through history day by day, as the canyon walls rise higher and higher. Each morning, an older layer of earth reveals itself above the waterline.

There is a science-fiction feel to the whole experience. We have left the present day behind, and no longer talk about decades or even centuries. Picking out the tracks made by a worm in the gray-green Bright Angel Shale puts us back 540 million years.

The climax is reached on a section called the Inner Gorge, where the walls climb more than a mile high and the river's edge is lined with jet black Vishnu schist -- 1.7 billion years old. (Earth itself is estimated to be about 5 billion years old.) Running through the metamorphic Vishnu schist are streaks of light pink granite that flowed, molten hot, into the cracks of the ancient black rock. . . .

I am jerked back to the here and now by the smells of dinner cooking. The boatmen are excellent cooks as well as oarsmen, and we are treated to enchiladas , fish stew, steaks, and cake baked in a huge Dutch oven surrounded by coals.

Then It's bed down under the stars.I grow attached to each of my own private campsites, some behind dunes, some hidden in the tamarisk bushes, some under overhanging cliffs (good for rain). My favorite was a sandy spot on a rock ledge about a hundred feet over the water, with spectacular vies of the canyon walls stretching off into the distance.

My trip was run by Arizona Raft Adventures Inc., PO Box 697, Flagstaff, Ariz. 86001, (602) 774-4538, and cost me $930, plus 5 percent tax. The service offers several trips, including motorized 35-foot rafts and paddle trips on small 18 -footers in which the six people aboard all paddle together. This is billed as "the ultimate white-water experience."

Grand Canyon Youth Expeditions, Route 4, Box 755, Flagstaff, Ariz. 86001, ( 602) 744-8176, offers the option (for advanced kayakers only) of using your own kayak and following along with one of the oar-powered raft trips.

For more information, or information about private trips, contact the River Unit of the Grand Canyon National Park, PO Box 129, Grand Canyon, Ariz. (86023, (602) 638-2411.

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