Part Outward Bound, part summer camp, rafting on the Colorado River is a grand adventure

THOSE gathered at the chopper pad at Hell's Hollow seem like old friends.

They're laughing and hugging and tearfully waving good-bye as the helicopter lifts them, a few at a time, out of the canyon and back to civilization.

Less than two weeks earlier, this same group met for the first time near the pool at the Empire Motel in Page, Ariz., to receive instructions for their raft trip through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River.

Twelve days and 182 miles later, they've just shared a remarkable experience - an experience that participant Debbie Dark, a nurse from Pennsylvania, describes as "part Outward Bound, part summer camp, and part spiritual retreat."

If you're more than 12 years old (some less-strenuous trips allow children as young as eight), you can take a trip down the Colorado. Our trip was in an oar-boat, in which four or five passengers ride with an experienced oarsman who rows the entire way.

"This is a very accessible sport," says boatman Floyd Swank, a veteran of nearly 50 canyon trips. "If you can hang on and scream, you can go."

While this is essentially true, hanging on sounds a little easier than it is. The Colorado rapids, legendary for their sheer volume of water, are so powerful they are rated on a 10-point scale instead of the 5-point scale used for other American rivers.

Approaching a 10-foot wall of water and realizing that it's about to break over your head, or, more precisely, you're about to break through it with your head, can be disconcerting even to an experienced river runner.

The rapids are not the only physical challenge. A 12-day oar-boat trip also can involve daily hikes in some of the many beautiful side canyons along the river. These hikes can be arduous; some require bouldering or rock-climbing maneuvers. Mostly, however, they just require stamina, and lots of it, to keep up with the pace set by the mountain goat-like boatmen who act as guides. You don't have to go on the hikes - staying on the beach to relax and enjoy the sun by the water's edge is always an option.

But the sights in the side canyons are always worth the effort: sparkling waterfalls, crystal pools, colorful wildflowers, and wildlife - we glimpsed a rattlesnake on one of our hikes.

As Katie McAlister, a photographer from California who has been on three canyon trips in two years, put it: "I'd have a hard time staying behind - I know I'd miss something wonderful, and I don't want to miss a thing."

For most urban dwellers such a raft trip is fairly primitive. There are no showers, and the river water is too cold (usually between 46 and 50 degrees F., even in summer) for frequent baths.

The "bathroom" consists of an Army-surplus ammo can topped with a toilet seat, and just getting there can pose a problem, as it's located in a remote and often nearly inaccessible part of camp to afford the user some privacy. "That was hard for me," says Phil, a policeman from New York City. "I actually got lost once on the way to the john. I'm used to the bathroom being down the hall."

In spite of all these challenges, or perhaps because of them, the groups tend to bond quickly. Strangers seem like old friends after only a few days. "You see people at their worst here," says Swank. "They're soaking wet, nearly hypothermal, dehydrated, dirty, but they're a pretty tight group by the end of the trip."

For me, making the trip is worth the challenges because I love being in the canyon. I love the sound of the river as it roars over the rocks, and I love its faintly musty, sweet, damp smell.

I love looking up at the towering walls, at rocks older than life on this planet, at night skies so full of stars that they seem bright even on a moonless night.

But most of all I love the feeling that being in the canyon gives me - a feeling of being connected again to nature, of being a part of the universe. It's a feeling I've never felt anywhere else.

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