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Marking a milestone birthday with a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon

Written by Bridget Williams / Photography by Tony Bailey

“Don’t think, just do,” river guide Mackay said to me in a Yoda-like fashion as I peered over the edge of a crag above the Colorado River in the belly of the Grand Canyon. It wasn’t so much the height that prompted my hesitation, rather a genuine fear that the shock of hitting the 50-ish-degree water and the subsequent swim to shore would induce a heart attack. Among the fellow travelers who’d gathered on an adjacent rock to watch the spectacle was my father, camera at the ready to capture his eldest daughter in action. I’d planned a trip to the 70 million-year-old natural wonder to mark his seventieth birthday, and not wanting ever to deny dear old Dad a photo opportunity, I swallowed deep and launched myself into the air. Seconds later, emerging from the depths of the blue-green water, I felt a rush of relief and fully alive from the invigorating polar plunge. The jump was part of my second Grand Canyon rafting trip with Western River Adventures, this time a three-day float encompassing the lower 100 miles of the Canyon. While celebrating a milestone birthday was the impetus, I was also enticed by the fact that at the trip’s end, I could say I had rafted the entirety of the Grand Canyon, from Mile 0 at Lee’s Ferry to mile 277 at Pearce Ferry. Western River Expeditions is a leader in top-notch rafting vacations, having pioneered the concept more than five decades ago. Based on my last experience, I didn’t even consider another rafting outfitter when planning this trip. While short in duration, the three-day holiday offered a packed itinerary and the Western River version of “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” namely planes, helicopters, and rafts. Following a crack-of-dawn charter bus ride from our hotel in Las Vegas to the airport, a scenic small craft flight over Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam took us to a remote dirt landing strip at Bar 10 Ranch, located on the North Rim of the Canyon. From there, we boarded a helicopter for a dramatic flight into the Canyon, landing at Mile 188, just below the infamous Lava Falls rapid and the spot where my trip five years earlier had ended.

A pair of J-Rig boats dubbed the “Cadillacs of the Colorado,” were “parked” at the river’s edge. Weighing 10,000 pounds without passengers, Western River Expedition’s patented boats are capable of supporting 66,000 pounds. Four long tubes in the front provide a bucking-bronco-type ride through the rapids for up to 12 guests. Just behind, elevated seating atop the food coolers offers a less wild ride, with the area near the boat captain and dry bag storage that keeps passengers’ gear secure and dry at the rear of the craft is the place to be for kicking back and just soaking in the scenery.

Having paddled my way through Class V rapids on more than one occasion in West Virginia, I can say that I much prefer letting the quiet 4-cycle outboard engine do the heavy lifting and expert maneuvering as we powered through the rapids, which are rated on a scale of 1 to 10 due to the technical challenges provided by the unique environment. As a passenger, it’s best not to get hung up on ratings, as several of the most fun rapids fall lower on the scale but provide the biggest bounce! Unless you are a hard-core outdoorsman or woman, the bottom of the Grand Canyon is likely one of the most remote places you’ll ever find yourself. With no cell service or dedicated bathrooms (except for the private “port-a-potty” set up at camp each evening), the experience is not quite glamping, but not exactly roughing it either, making it ideal for those with little-to-no camping expertise. The majority of daylight hours are spent floating downriver on the boat, with bits of whitewater interspersed with stretches that are smooth-as-glass. With temperatures at the bottom of the Canyon sometimes as much as twenty degrees warmer than at the rim, the quick chill prompted by punching a rapid is soon a distant memory. By the end of the first day, you might find that your neck is sore from craning in all directions to appreciate the vastness of the landscape, which ranges in width from rim-to-rim from 600 feet at Marble Canyon, near mile zero, all the way up to 18 miles. Though indiscernible while rafting, there’s a 1,000- foot drop in elevation as you travel from the North to the South Rim. Rocks rule as the star attraction, although the Canyon is home to 70 species of mammals, 250 species of birds, 25 types of reptiles, five species of amphibians, and, surprisingly, just eight fish species, six of which are only found in the Colorado River. Guests on spring trips have the added bonus of potentially peeping the fleeting blooms of wildflowers.

After a full day of rapid-running, making stops for scenic hikes, and “nature breaks,” a riverbank campsite is chosen for the evening. Guests work together to create a “fireline” and offload everything stowed on the boat that’s needed for the evening, an exercise that’s the embodiment of the idiom many hands make light work. Western River provides cots, tents, sleeping bags, chairs, and a drybag for your personal duffel bag. Our travel mates ranged from a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with their children and grandchildren to newlyweds who pivoted to a stateside honeymoon after the pandemic canceled a planned European adventure. Nearly a third of campers went all-in on the dark sky experience by skipping the tent set-up and opting to snooze under the stars. You will definitely not go hungry with hearty buffet-style meals that leave you wondering how the guides pull off their culinary wizardry in such a primitive setting. With advance notice, guests with dietary restrictions can be amply accommodated. As dinner wraps up and the sun dips behind the canyon walls, conversations continue in the darkness, with brief pauses to admire a sky splatter-painted with billions of stars. On the flip side, the “call to coffee” coincides with the emergence of dawn’s first light. Breakfast is served, the camp is dissembled without

leaving a trace, and the boats repacked before many of us would be finishing our first coffee of the day at home. The heart and soul of Western River Expedition trips are its guides, who work tirelessly to ensure that every guest has the best experience possible. Becoming a professional guide is a distinct lifestyle choice. Western River has several guides who’ve transitioned into “grown-up” lives but can’t resist heeding the river’s call and continue to return to lead a few trips each summer. Shortly after disembarking the helicopter I was delighted to see a familiar face in guide Mackay, who was in his first season as a guide during my seven-day trip in 2015. During long stretches on the water, guides provide levity, share interesting tidbits about

Canyon lore and geology and provide essential safety reminders. They occasionally spring into action to throw themselves on top of a passenger to prevent them from falling off the raft, which happened as we punched through a rapid on day two. Knowing what to expect, I admittedly wasn’t as gobsmacked by the scenery as I was on my inaugural journey, and that’s often the case for any place you return to more than once. Still, there’s much to be said for experiencing something familiar through the eyes of someone who is seeing it for the first time. An enduring expression of awe on my dad’s face, combined with a slew of superlatives rolling off his tongue from the trip’s start to finish, erased any hint of been there done that nonchalance I would have otherwise exhibited. The National Park Service regulates the number of permits it issues for rafting trips, meaning that it’s wise to plan well in advance, although I have COVID to thank for a relatively last-minute opening for our early spring trip. Rates for a three-day Grand Canyon rafting trip with Western River Expeditions start at $1,600 per person. For more information and reservations, visit


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