Editor's note: This is a special advertiser-supported article from the Essential Guide to Paddling The Parks.
I've often said that if you've seen one Grand Canyon you've seen them all. Well, that does make some sense because, after all, there's really just only one in the world. And deep in the bottom of this desert chasm lays the main culprit of erosion, the granddaddy of all American waterways: the Colorado River. It's the big ticket, the plum, the one that challenges all paddlers and rowers.
Whether by dory, rowboat, raft, or kayak, it's an exhilarating and beautiful paddle for more than 200 miles. But it's not for the faint of heart, or those looking for a quick excursion. It's a real commitment. There is, of course, plenty of whitewater, with such intense, legendary rapids as Lava Falls, Crystal, Hance, and dozens of others. The anticipation as you approach these throaty cataracts will peg your pulse as you drop over the lip. But the experience is much more.
Commercial Vs. Private
There are a number of ways to experience the Colorado within Grand Canyon National Park, from commercial rowing trips to self-guided private rowing permits. The prized private permits are awarded each February via a lottery system by the National Park Service, and chances are now about one in eight that you will win one; a few years ago the waitlist was as long as 25 years. Floating through Grand Canyon is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but it's one that requires river knowledge. You'll need a strong, experienced leader who knows the canyon before the river rangers will let you shove off.
If you're not ready to lead your own expedition, there are more than a dozen commercial outfitters that will make it easier to get on the river, and take you down it in as few as three or as many as 18 days. O.A.R.S. is one such outfitter. Founded in 1969 by boatman George Wendt, O.A.R.S. leads three dozen trips a year down the "big muddy,' as it used to be called before upstream dams filtered out the silt. The trips are lead by well-tanned and well-musculed men and women rowing 18-foot inflatables and sturdy dories.
Surrender To The River
During this, its 45th anniversary, O.A.R.S urges you, "to just surrender yourself to the beauty, exhilaration, and renewal that this canyon provides." You'll come away from their trips refreshed, tanned, with sand in your hair, and an unstoppable grin and attitude.
Your brain will get a workout as well, as river guides are born storytellers. You'll learn the history, science, and tall tales of the canyon. The guides, with four passengers per boat, only row four to five hours a day, a pace that allows patrons to hike the backcountry of the canyon to little-known grottos, waterfalls, and Native American sites. Then it's back to a starlit camp dinner, as the river glides silently into the night beside your bedroll.
Some O.A.R.S. guides are now in their fourth decade on the job, a lifetime of learning the ways of the river.
"We don't just zip through the canyon in eight days," says O.A.R.S boatman Steve Markle. "We take our time."
And the best way to protect these rivers, he says, is to take people down them.
Taking time on the water is important. But the Grand Canyon is also the Greatest Earth on Show! While fiction authors muse about time travel, this is the real thing. When you push off from Lees Ferry into Marble Canyon, the walls start to rise above you as you descend. New layers of stone are revealed, showcasing older and older eras, millions of years in the past.
There are the long languorous stretches between whitewater, quiet and removed, that can make for a long paddle in a kayak or paddle boat. The world stands still. There are pristine beaches and side canyons, wildlife, flowers, and remains of previous cultures.
It's a trip into Middle Earth minus the dwarves (hard-working, bearded river guides might count). The looping river can seem like the most romantic place ever. O.A.R.S. guides will show you where to swim in the warm, shockingly turquoise waters of the LIttle Colorado River, stand beside Deer Creek Falls, and spend a day hiking up Havasu Creek to visit a native village. You'll make friends with your guides, and bond with your river mates as you share the natural world together.
The Canyon has been known to lure adventurers into its depths where they end up spending their lives exploring the wonders. One trip is not enough time to really know this place: there's just too much to see, too many side canyons, too many trails, too many ways to slip your boat down a glassy tongue into a maelstrom of whitewater. An O.A.R.S. guide can help you find your way, and see things you may have missed by yourself. If this sort of trip appeals to you, they'll also guide you down dozens of rivers around the globe, from Alaska to Peru, India to California.
Head down the river, and you'll want to come back as often as you can to the most amazing place you'll ever know. It does change lives, I know: I still hear the river every night in my dreams.