Grand adventure over Colorado rapids

The others were aboard the rafts, looking up toward me as I clambered over the red rocks. Ahead the white water of the Colorado River loomed; the midmorning "break" added to the anticipation of Hermit Rapids ahead.

Then, almost unthinking, I stooped over, got fingers under a leafy bit of green -- and picked up a small piece of plastic. Not more than two inches long, yet it was what I had become so conscious of -- litter.

After eight days on the Colorado through 226 miles of the Grand Canyon, I find that remembrance mingling significantly with the scenes of grandeur.

"We leave no litter." The boatsmen of the Diamond Adventures firm were quite clear the night before our departure. Gathered at the Holiday Inn in Page, Ariz. -- where the Lake Powell Dam was clearly seen from our room -- Dennis "Lizard" Hopkins stressed the point. And he and our three other boatsmen backed it up throughout the trip.

Each item, each can top, each bit of scrap paper, was removed from each campsite. Used charcoal from the night's meal was sacked and placed back on the 30-foot neoprene rafts.

Our family of five, together with 20 others, "signed on" more than a year before the trip, space being so tight. We had tried an oar-powered trip on the Green River in Utah some years before, but found slow current meant rowing into late evening, preventing any hiking or side canyon trips.

Motorized rafting insures those delightful expeditions up Havasu Canyon, the Little Colorado River, Phantom Ranch, Deer Creek, and others. Our speed was hardly fast, averaging between four and five miles per hour.

"Lizard" admitted that sometimes traffic on the Colorado is heavy."Havasu Canyon becomes Have-a-Zoo," he said, recalling the time 22 large rafts were lined up for that vantage point; another 17 at Deer Creek.

However, he feels traffic has decreased in the past two years. The limit entering the river daily is now set at 150 persons at Lee's Ferry, south of Page. The National Park Service estimate 11,000 persons yearly are on the River.

During our eight days we saw no crowding; only three other rafts were seen of our size and two smaller ones. We appreciated the quietness of our motors, found no odor from them; prevalent feeling of the boatsmen was that the motors did not stir the river significantly to bother the fish.

The sight of the few other rafts had a positive aspect -- water fights with the occupants helped cool us off! In the gorge the temperature soared above 115 degrees, hotter as we dropped deeper and deeper. Water temperature, however, was only 51 degrees.

In the nights, the granite walls radiated heat, eliminating any need for sleeping bags. My own selection of three jeans, three shirts, and assorted other clothing diminished to one pair of bathing trunks worn 24 hours daily!

Diamond Adventures is one of 33 such firms supplying boats, food, camping gear, and pilots for rafters. At one point, someone made a small complaint, perhaps about the red ants and the heat; the boatsmen responded gently, using a line from the Diamond literature: "Remember, you're signing on for an adventure, not a tour; there's a difference!"

That difference is full of thrills, awesome scenes, geologic awareness, waterfalls, rapids -- about one an hour throughout the trip -- and reflection. You forget about the inconveniences readily.

The rapids -- especially Hermit Rapids and Lava Falls -- were tremendous splashes, plunges, and precautions. Sturdy lines along the length of the basic raft and the outrigger pontoons were there to be held tightly.

We switched positions frequently, everybody getting a share of the front "horn" position on the pontoons.

"Sure, there's danger," said Jack Kloepfer, our second in command; "we lay down strict orders and we have a good record."

Stories of terrifying dangers and accidents in the rapids stir visions, but the boatsmen could recall only two times in the past seven years when emergency help was needed. Neither incident stemmed from being tossed into the whitewater.

But there's enough challenge to keep the crowd screaming during those one-minute plunges into the rapids -- and that's part of what the approximate $ 500 cost per person was intended for.

"Lizard" Hopkins is typical of the trip leaders; a graduate of Northern Arizona University in biology, he has made 67 trips through the entire canyon.

He has been with the Diamonds eight years. "June is the best time for a river trip through the Grand -- not quite as hot. August? Unpredictable; it can be rainy. We're never sure."

We had no rain on our trip -- but did look for "warm spots" while on the river the second day, with overcast skies. Our trip was the last week in July -- the only open time available when we applied the previous year.

Camping was with cots, settled in convenient areas around the campsite. And the white sand was as abundant as that on Florida beaches, though the scenery varied and the shafts of rocks surrounded us.

Plenty of skyscraper rocks, deer, ringtails, red ants, plenty of lizards -- both the chief boatsman and the originals! -- but, thanks to the efforts of so many adventurers, there was no litter to speak of at all.

We all agreed diligence was paying off in keeping it what we all want -- a truly "Grand" Canyon.

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