Captured by the Colorado

Published online: Nov 01, 2011 News Robin Charteris -
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There are uplifting experiences to be found in the depths of Arizona's Grand Canyon, writes former Otago Daily Times editor Robin Charteris.

We've rafted the Shotover and the Sun Kosi, canoed the Zambesi and cruised the Danube - but no such wonderful river trips present the ordinary package tourist with a combination of scenery, history and adrenaline as does whitewater boating on the Colorado River, deep in the Grand Canyon of Arizona.

Judi and I, well into our 60s now, did grumble a bit about the ungainliness of clambering into the eight-passenger, outboard motor-powered pontoon boat perched on the edge of the fast-flowing but flat and otherwise benign-looking muddy-brown river, reached after a heart-stopping bus drive down a steep and winding dirt road to the floor of the mile-deep canyon.

Embarrassment, though, was quickly forgotten as we and our very much younger American shipmates were raced around a corner and into the first of a succession of swirling and foaming grade 7 whitewater rapids [the Colorado is the only river in the world with rapids rated out of 10; all others are on a scale of five].

"Hang on tight like I told you," shouted Cole, our Hualapai Indian guide and driver. "First one up's a doosie."

A "doosie"? It was a douser, a surging, racing, whirling mass of brown and white foam into which our craft plunged and bucked. Water, masses of it and cold, rose from the V between the twin bows, loomed over us and crashed down, battering, drenching and chilling.

We were to stay soaked to the skin for two more thrilling hours as, buddy boat close by, we surveyed then battered our way through a succession of grade 6 and 7 rapids and even a grade 8 that Cole said dropped us fully 15ft (4.5m) in a few seconds.

My eyes were closed for most of that one, white knuckles clinging desperately to the safety rope beside my hips.

"Always lean in, not out," Cole had said. "That way, if you fall you fall inside the boat." His good advice was well taken by Judi, who did lose her grip on the grade 8 rapid but fell forward into the water-filled bottom of the boat rather than the river and emerged laughing with relief.

The 20km-long rapids section of the river trip passed in a flash. There was little time between rapids to take in the canyon itself; we were flat out hanging on and surviving, it seemed.



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