A litre of water wouldn’t have been enough to quench my thirst, but a breeze from the depths of the canyon cooled my heated body. Perspiring under a clouded grey sky, surrounded by the massive granite walls, I looked dwarfed as I lifted my head—drenched in sweat, but with spirits high enough to face the next challenge.
“You are halfway down the trail,” said my fellow hikers, as I wondered what was in store for the rest of our trek to the Colorado River.
With much deliberation, I had signed up for the adventure of a lifetime, a dory (small fishing boat) trip on the Colorado River in the heart of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, US. The only other time I had felt such an adrenalin rush was when I bungee jumped some 600ft to touch the waters of the South Pacific. In this world wonder, to reach the river I had taken a 9.5 mile (15.3km) trek from the top of South Rim to Phantom Ranch, a historic location in the Bright Angel Trail, 4,600ft below the rim. Along the hike, through a stretch of trail aptly called the Devil’s Corkscrew, I gasped, looked to the heavens, and sat on rocks strewn beside the trail as passing mules looked at me in amusement.
On the trail I had watched in awe some of the sparse desert vegetation that littered the canyon floor—Sonoran oak and brittlebush, sun-soaked shrub and flowering daisies. When we finally reached the banks of the Colorado River, the environment changed.
The magic of a dory trip can’t be matched by any other kind of visit to the Grand Canyon. Its rapids are like a roller-coaster ride, while its side hikes are an exploration into the unknown.
With four dories, four guides, two assistants and 11 enthusiasts from across the world and across all ages, it takes a team to run the river course, and the guides have mastered it to the last half hitch. They don’t just row. They make travellers’ lives on the river easier in every possible manner. They cook, pack, wash, tell stories, sing and dance, and ensure the safety of their entire company.
On each day of the 12-day, 225-mile trip, we spent 6-7 hours crammed into our small fishing boats, two in the front, one in the back, and with our boatman in the centre. On the river, our guides told of the canyon’s history and mystery, imparted legend and lore, pointed out the natural phenomena and wildlife, and occasionally warned us of impending rapids.
Crossing each rapid is a mix of art and science. As we approached a rapid, instructions would come: Move to the right, helmets on, sit straight. It’s all about the 10-16 seconds of escaping the churning waters without flipping the boat. Once cleared, baling began, as guides checked the safety of other boats.
Every day, a conch shell signal would alert the party that morning was breaking, and we were ready to roll. Each evening, as we pulled into secluded beaches, we would discover a new world. We played bocce ball in the dwindling light of early night. Under clear skies speckled with countless stars, we dined on delicacies as fine as any resort cuisine. We found contentment in a perfect balance of sun, sand and sky, and just the right mix of travelling companions.
When we reached Lava Falls, everything came together. We had crossed Hermit, Granite, Crystal, and Gems—a series of continuous rapids where we had our moments, got pushed and pulled, lost an oar, hit a rock and dented the boat, but we sailed through without being swallowed by the river. Lava was decidedly different. Its dynamic, dramatic and powerful waves created anxiety in each of us even before we had glimpsed their first white water.
I sat with Duffy Dale, a boatman who has lost count of the number of times he has crossed the falls. After a brief strategic session with fellow boatmen, Duffy offered one last piece of advice: “If the boat tips, hold on to the rope line.”
In the next 16 seconds, we hit the first wave hard, and the second wave bulldozed us from the left. Duffy pulled an oar back, avoiding a 15ft wall of water approaching from the bow, allowing the dory to punch quickly through to the right. We cleared it, exiting with a boat filled with water, but still stable enough to make it downstream to Tequila Beach. We watched anxiously as the other boats successfully negotiated the rapids. Then, we screamed, hugged, high-fived, and scrambled around for wine and cheese.
“There is nothing in the world that can give you a bigger thrill and satisfaction than crossing the Lava,” Duffy said with a smile.
Arriving at Diamond Creek, it dawned on me that the adventure was over, far too soon. My dream of experiencing the heart of the Grand Canyon had been realized and, as I packed my belongings and helped place the boats back on a pickup truck, I recalled the incredible journey, the new-found friendships, the raging waters, a ding-up dory and the snippets of real danger that reminded me that I was alive. Somehow, this rugged and changing landscape has changed me in remarkable ways. Then and there, I decided I must return to this timeless place.