Travel: Rafting with the Hualapai

October 9, 2010


Second in a series

When it comes to whitewater rafting, certain rivers pop into mind. Folks talk up the American River and the Kern River and the Upper Sacramento, or the Lower Klamath. All fine places, I’m sure.

But in the West, the Holy Grail of all rafting experiences has to be the Colorado River, cutting a mighty swath through the Grand Canyon, providing both a physical challenge and an incomparable visual feast for the eyes. People talk about spending one-two-three weeks on the mighty Coiorado, rafting by day, camping by night.

I spent five hours.

It was my first time ever on the Colorado. First time ever on a raft, a true baptism by water–mostly water up my nose and in my mouth.

Our hosts were the Hualapai River Runners, who offer a combined whitewater rafting experience and helicopter ride to tourists at Grand Canyon West, home to Arizona’s newest tourist destination–Skywalk. They’ve been in operation for 37 years and draw heavily from tourists visiting Vegas.

The base camp for the trip is the Hualapai Lodge in Peach Springs, about 90 minutes east of Kingman on historic Route 66. The hotel, comparable to a Holiday Inn Express, is clean. The staff is friendly. The hotel restaurant serves up good food for cheap. It’s enough to make you forget much of the poverty that seems to envelope this main town on the Hualapai Reservation. Plan on staying two nights. You’ll need the second one to recover.

The old white school bus loads in front of the hotel promptly at 8 a.m.  You quickly come to appreciate why the Hualapai don’t invest much money on transportation. The ‘road” out to Diamond Creek is mostly dirt and gravel and the bus even ends up fording small streams in the final miles of the hour-long ride. Still, it’s exciting as you enter the canyon. The road twists and turns. Solid rock surrounds you. Finally, the Colorado greets you.

It’s quiet at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, especially on this far western end. The Hualapai river guides are waiting. Slip on that life jacket. Stuff your belongings in the watertight compartment and follow your boat assignment.

I end up in Boat No. 1 with 7 other people. The two Yuppies from Hong Kong on a two-month odyssey across the country. The retired, though clearly athletic, couple from Florida. And my favorite, the Puerto Rican couple from Long Island who won the trip in a bowling tournament. This sounded like The Poseidon Adventure. Our guide was only 18, but he’s been on the river since 14. It seems a rite of passage for all young Hualapai to work the river.

For the record, the Hualapai do things differently. Most whitewater rafting is measured on a difficulty scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most challenging. On the Colorado, the Hualapai just double everything and use a scale of 1 to 10. We’re warned that most of the rapids will be an “8.”

The other difference is the boats themselves. These aren’t rafts. You don’t paddle. Actually you just hang on to the bar. The boats are all motorized and the guide determines the speed. Four people can sit on each side of the boat, gripping the bar behind them.

Or not.

The first rapids, a “7” approached only minutes after departure. I reached behind me and grabbed the bar with both hands, ready to lose my whitewater rafting virginity. We hit the rapids. Water sprayed in my face. Went in my mouth. I cursed loudly.

And I went flying forward on to the floor of the boat.

“Come sit in the middle,” the guide said, pointing to the seat just in front of him with special hand grips. The wimp seat.

Actually, I was fine with it. Sitting is the middle gives you the best view and the most direct chance to get soaked, which I did. We kept going — 1-2-3-4 different rapids, most of them “8.” Always the same. Tense up. Get psyched. Scream like hell. And then you want to do it again.

The young guide was cool. One advantage of the motorized boat was easier navigation. We were able to turn around and go through some of the rapids multiple times. Or we’d drift off to the side and watch other boats roar through. It’s around this time when you have that moment of Zen when you’re saying to yourself, I’m really here. I’m on the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I made it.

Travertine Falls

It only gets better. First stop is Travertine Falls, aptly described as one of the most beautiful hidden treasures of the Grand Canyon. Only a short hike from the river, almost all the fun is getting there. You have to climb up the side of a boulder using a rope ladder, cross a small stream, climb up another ladder, and walk back about 300 yards in a cavern to see the “hole in the ceiling” created by the cascade of water. Most folks opted to have their picture taken under the falls. I was wet enough already.

Back into the boat once more. We went through several more rapids. It never got old. The Yuppie husband from Hong Kong asked permission to sit in the very front of the boat and experience the Full Monty that the Colorado had to offer. I gladly stayed in the rear.

Second stop was lunch on a sandbar. A half hour break to wolf down a sandwich, chips, and a soft drink before searching out a friendly bush for personal business. Everyone seemed excited, eagerly swapping stories about surviving the first half of the trip.

There were to be no more rapids after lunch. The tone and the mood on the boat changed dramatically. We settled into a nice, steady pace, breaking out the cameras, staring up in awe at the palette of colors on the canyon walls towering above us. You survived the challenging part. Congratulations. Now, just relax. Enjoy the scenery.

Near the end, we make one final stop on a narrow sandbar, just wide enough to get out and stand. For about 20 minutes, we got to wade and swim in the Colorado, careful not to venture too far out for fear of being caught up in the swift current. Another Moment of Zen. I’m swimming in the Colorado River.

We pulled into the dock, just below the helicopter pad, right around 2 p.m. Five hours on the Colorado River. To be honest, I’ve had enough. It was fun. I can say I did it. Now I just want to get back to hotel and collapse.

It is not that easy. First, is the helicopter where safety understandably comes first. Weight determines who gets on and when. So while my new friends from the boat left on the first copter, I had to wait more than 30 minutes to be called for the eight-minute ride out of the canyon and over to Skywalk. I opened my eyes only once while in the canyon. I don’t do well, I suddenly remembered, in helicopters.

We were taken to Skywalk to wait. And to wait. And to wait. It’s the one apparent flaw in the Hualapai system. There were nine boats that day, so the bus doesn’t leave until everyone from all nine boats land and take the helicopter over to Skywalk. I hadn’t brought any cash on the river. I spent more than 90 minutes staring with longing at the concession stand. I would have killed for a Pepsi.

The group eventually straggles in and the old white school bus magically reappears. The driver, the same woman from the morning, announces that she knows a short cut, so the trip back to the hotel will only be two hours long, most of it on –you guessed it — a dirt and gravel road.

It is almost 6:30 before we are back in Peach Springs. A quick dinner. Early to bed. No trouble sleeping that night. A quiet end to a magical day I’ll always remember.

Hualapai River Runners offers whitewater rafting on the Colorado River March through October. The fee is $249 per person, plus another $79 for helicopter and bus transportation. Lunch is included.

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In August, my wife & I took the Jeep tour down the same road to the river. Great time…It was the same price ($249 per person) as the Eurocopter tour, but this way we got up close and the guide was very educational. Part of that package was the 1 hr tour in the Grand Canyon Caverns, west of Seligman.

Best way to do this for us was to book a room in Laughlin on day one, days two and three, go to Williams and get a historic Rte 66 motel room, then wind down the last night back in Laughlin. Takes the hurt out of an otherwise long drive. Thanks for the article.