Rafting the Grand Canyon

  • Whiskey in hand, trip leader Ariel Neill is considered one of the Grand Canyon's top river guides.

    Whiskey in hand, trip leader Ariel Neill is considered one of the Grand Canyon's top river guides.

  • An aerial view of the Colorado River and the rafts' take-out point near Bar 10 Ranch, 300 kilometers downstream from Lee's Ferry.

    An aerial view of the Colorado River and the rafts' take-out point near Bar 10 Ranch, 300 kilometers downstream from Lee's Ferry.

  • A pit stop at Redwall Cavern.

    A pit stop at Redwall Cavern.

  • Billy Shores on the river.

    Billy Shores on the river.

  • Turquoise waters at the mouth of Little Colorado River.

    Turquoise waters at the mouth of Little Colorado River.

  • One of the more easy-going stretches of the river.

    One of the more easy-going stretches of the river.

  • Prehistoric Pueblo Indian granaries in the northern face of Nankoweap Canyon.

    Prehistoric Pueblo Indian granaries in the northern face of Nankoweap Canyon.

  • The rafts sharing a beach with other boats.

    The rafts sharing a beach with other boats.

  • An eddy in the river.

    An eddy in the river.

  • The view downriver from Nankoweap Canyon, at river kilometer 85.

    The view downriver from Nankoweap Canyon, at river kilometer 85.

  • Looking over the Colorado Plateau near Lee's Ferry on the post-float flight back to Page, with 142-meter-high Navajo Bridge in the background.

    Looking over the Colorado Plateau near Lee's Ferry on the post-float flight back to Page, with 142-meter-high Navajo Bridge in the background.

  • Tools of the river guide's trade.

    Tools of the river guide's trade.

  • Billy Shores, the trip's lead swamper.

    Billy Shores, the trip's lead swamper.

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The setup at Wilderness River Adventures, one of the premier outfitters for this northern Arizona excursion, is pretty deluxe. After serving us coffee and hot breakfast, the four guides load up our two 11-meter S-rigs—inflatable nylon rafts buoyed on each side by pontoons and propelled by 30-horsepower four-stroke motors. The mass of gear these boats can carry in their holds is staggering: easy chairs, sturdy cots, kitchen equipment, a week’s supply of liquor. Dry bags full of bedding and clothes are arranged into comfy seating above. Guests don’t lift a finger beyond bucket-brigading gear to shore in the evening and erecting their own cots, and in the few minutes it took me to do that each night, Ariel and her team would stack the hors d’oeuvres table with cheese plates and shrimp cocktails and ice for our gin and tonics. Big platters of grilled pork chops or prime rib would arrive shortly after, followed by trays of fresh-baked brownies or cheesecake. “Plain or blueberry?” Erica would goad.

Things weren’t always so breezy along the Colorado. on the very first voyage down the river in 1869, an expedition team led by one-armed Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell portaged their heavy wooden boats around some 100 rapids. They lost one craft and a third of their provisions just 16 days in, and subsisted for the next three months on starvation rations of flour balls, dried apples, and beans.

The Grand Canyon’s history is scrawled with countless such tales of peril and audacity, a fact that weighs on me as we float leisurely down the river with cases of chilled beer and what seems like enough food to sustain Powell’s entire trip. It’s not like I want flour balls, but shouldn’t any excursion into such a wild and storied place have at least a little adventure? Has commercial guiding sucked this epic chasm dry of all its vigor?

Ariel tells me that the canyon is still plenty unpredictable and fierce. “This is an expedition, not a vacation,” she says. “you’ll see.” Sure. Now, how about some more chipped ice in my bourbon?

WITH RIBBONS OF brunette hair and a body built for little black cocktail dresses, Ariel Neill is not your typical river guide. I first met her at a thousand-dollar-a-night luxury retreat in southern Utah a few years back; I was there to cover the place for a magazine, she was moonlighting as an outdoor guide for the resort, and neither of us could otherwise afford to be there. Ariel, who was striking enough to stand in as a model for the magazine’s photo shoot, mentioned while posing by the pool that her real job was running rafts in the Grand Canyon.

You have two options if you want to raft the canyon. The first—and the most difficult—is to organize a self-guided trip, which involves a daunting multi-year lottery process to get a permit. The second option is to go with a commercial outfit like Wilderness River Adventures, whose excursions can generally be booked less than a year in advance. I wasn’t patient enough to wait for a private trip. Besides, I knew Ariel.

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