An eight-day rafting trip through America’s most treasured natural wonder reveals as much about the Grand Canyon’s ancient history as it does about the intrepid spirit of the boatmen—and women—who ride the river that runs through it.
By Aaron Gulley
Photographs by Jen Judge
AT LONE CEDAR CAMP, 37 KILOMETERS down the Colorado river’s inexorable rush through the Grand Canyon, the first wake-up call of our trip is early and abrupt. “Coffee!” howls Billy Shores, the boats’ lead swamper and designated breakfast chef.
Being barked at so early in the morning—half past five, to be exact—would ordinarily irritate me, but down here Billy’s cry glances off the canyon’s limestone walls and is instantly dissolved by the staticky din of the river. From my cot, I stare up at cliffs that rear almost two kilometers skyward. In the millions of years it took to achieve such monumental stature, this rock has witnessed continents being created, oceans rising and falling, and the evolution of single-celled organisms into human beings with rubber rafts, Gore-Tex, and the nerve to launch themselves into this formidable chasm.
It’s a weighty thought to wake up to—in the Grand Canyon, such existential moments come as fast as the river tumbling past lone Cedar’s sandy beach—but before I can really turn it over, I need a cup of joe. In the camp kitchen, Billy and his fellow swamper Erica Byerly, the apprentices who do much of the grunt work on the river, are busy frying bacon and scrambling eggs in anticipation of the 28 hungry clients about to descend on breakfast.
Mike Rayes, the quiet boatman heading the second raft in our party, is checking the pressure of his boat’s pontoons and loading camp chairs into its holds. And the woman in charge of delivering us safely and happily down 300 kilometers of the most muscular river in the United States, alpha guide Ariel “Earl” Neill, is hefting gear along the sandy river shore and looking none too pleased.
“You can’t just yell it. Sing it!” Ariel reprimands Billy as she passes through the kitchen. “A wake-up call has to make people want to get out of bed.”Ariel, on her 96th passage down the river, understands what Billy, on his 15th trip, doesn’t yet. At US$2,680 a seat for eight days of rafting through one of the world’s natural wonders, most clients expect indulgence with a side of adventure—not the other way around.