Below the rim

16 days in the Grand Canyon



There is nothing quite like it… a deeply entrenched water corridor… through a desert wilderness of overwhelming beauty, [where] contact with nature is direct and powerful.” David Lavender, River Runners of the Grand Canyon


This adventure was a second chance for me to experience a journey that ten years earlier had held me entranced by the new world I had entered. An invitation to travel 280 miles on the Colorado River, descending through a billion years of geological time in the Grand Canyon, is not one to dismiss lightly. I certainly wasn’t about to do so when an opportunity unexpectedly came my way again in 2015.


Our sixteen-strong group spent an afternoon rigging five rafts below the controversial Glen Canyon Dam at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona — a unique spot where access to the river isn’t restricted by sheer cliffs.


The water at Lee’s Ferry is beautifully clear, but just downstream, at its junction with the Colorado, the Paria River delivers cloudy sediment from the plateau that it drains.

As we put the frantic last few days of preparation behind us and launched the next morning, the others whooped and hollered with excitement while I floated along in the swift, ice-cold current to photograph in what would be the only section of crystal clear water for the next eighteen days.


Anticipation builds as the first big rapids approach and at House Rock rapid we had at least one very anxious raft passenger!


Despite having an affinity for water, the real interest for me laid in opportunities to explore away from the river and photograph people in the environment.


“Side canyons, some attainable by trail and some not, offer unexpected plunge pools, waterfalls, banks of ferns, brilliant flowers. One can swim, hike, climb, fish, take pictures, hunt for ancient Indian petroglyphs, study botany or geology in what has been called the world’s greatest open textbook, or just sit still, watching small creatures go about their business while the variegated cliffs take on the rich hues of sunset.” David Lavender, River Runners of the Grand Canyon



At the impressive Redwall Cavern, a huge cave in the sandstone that no river runner visits without uttering expressions of awe, Jon dug into the sand with specific location instructions from a Kiwi mate. Buried deep was a bottle of home-distilled whisky, a special treat to be enjoyed only by those offered the secrets to its hidden spot.


To beat the heat I took to hiking and photographing at night, which had the added benefit of opening up possibilities for taking more interesting images.


The severe contrast between light and shade in the inner gorge of the canyon made photography a challenge. Once or twice, storm clouds threatened overhead, adding a new dimension to the predominant colour palette of blue sky and orange rock. As we passed through Deer Creek, a nearby forest burn off introduced a strong distant haze bringing artistic ‘aerial perspective’ to the landscape.

Camp activity revolved around food and drink — naturally enough. Our outfitter, Ceiba Adventures, had done a stellar job on provisioning and going hungry was happily not an option the way we were travelling. A few trout caught along the way enhanced the culinary experience.


Everyone with an interest in tackling the Colorado River hears about the big rapids. While their significance in the overall picture is perhaps overstated, there is no doubt that a few make a strong impression and require those responsible for rowing a raft or paddling a kayak to sit up and take notice of their topography. Scouting and working out the best line to run them is all part of the excitement.


The intense desert summer heat was our only real tormentor. It never left us alone, not even at night. At times, facing the wind felt like sucking air from a blowing hair dryer positioned inches from your face. Sleeping on a raft at night when the wind died down, partly cooled by the remaining wisps of breeze floating over the river, was one way to try and get relief.


Fun in the water was the name of the game for our group and any chance to leap out of the rafts onto an array of floating options was taken. Our collective stand up paddle board skills were best suited to a calm river but bodyboarding was something everyone enjoyed no matter the conditions we faced.


This is a river trip that changes AND challenges people, no doubt about that. I feel a third trip, maybe even a fourth, in my future. It’s just that kind of journey — one that draws you in again with the knowledge that there is more to discover, more to learn. I’ll be back.