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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What I didn’t know was what a Grand Canyon hotshot Ariel had become. “She’s one of the best on the river right now. Probably the best,” Mike Rayes told me one night over a glass of bourbon. And since Mike, a veteran guide with more than 250 Grand Canyon trips under his belt and a legend in his own right, didn’t speak up a lot, I listened. I found out that we were floating with a seriously pedigreed crew. Lead swamper Billy Shores, whose father had been a guide on the Colorado for decades, grabbed the family oars at age 14; five years later, he is steering his first boat down the river. Erica Byerly, whose aunt Karen is immortalized in bronze on the South Rim as one of the most renowned water women of the Colorado, is assisting on her third Grand Canyon passage. Even one of our passengers, an off-duty guide named Carl Macdonald, is a minor river celebrity with 150 trips to his name. “It’s tough getting a job on this river,” Erica told me. “Maybe it’s family, maybe it’s knowing someone. But you don’t just roll up and become a guide.”

But Ariel did. After realizing she didn’t have the cash for college and working to support herself on an oil derrick, she found her way to the Grand Canyon through a friend, worked her way up the river caste system, and earned a boat to guide.

Aboard her S-rig, it’s easy to see why. on big rapids such as Crystal, a ferocious churn of white water 158 kilometers downriver from our put-in at Lee’s Ferry, Ariel takes the helm and blasts through the seething froth like an ambulance through New York gridlock. And when the Colorado is smooth, she hands the tiller to Erica, climbs up on the boat’s hummock of gear, and narrates the river’s history in prose as vibrant as the ocher cliffs above us.

She recounts the disastrous 1889 expedition of Frank Mason Brown, the real estate magnate whose quixotic vision to build a railroad through the Grand Canyon led to 11 deaths—his own among them. And there was William Wallace Bass, a miner who settled on the canyon’s South rim in 1885 and began bringing clients on rim-to-rim hikes by way of a rugged footpath and rudimentary cableway.

Ariel often circles back to Georgie White, a hard-living woman whose brainstorm to repurpose army surplus rafts for commercial use brought motorized rubber boats to the Grand Canyon in the early 1950s. And if she was famous for introducing mass tourism to the river—only 100 or so people had navigated the canyon’s section of the Colorado before the advent of rafts—White, who guided in a leopard-print leotard with a can of beer in one hand and a cigarette on her lip, was famous for her eccentricities.

As Ariel narrates these tales, I begin to understand that not only is the Grand Canyon a geologic wonder, it’s also a living monument to America. For almost two centuries, this great gash in the Arizona high country has drawn visionaries and dreamers looking to make their names, amass fortunes, and chase adventures. It’s emblematic of the hope and ambition that characterized the boom days of the Wild West. And even today, through careful management as the centerpiece of Grand Canyon National Park, it remains an obscure and uncommon experience, with only 27,000 of the park’s 4.5 million annual visitors witnessing the canyon from the river. It also continues to beckon adventurous spirits.

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