Paddling along a peaceful stretch of Colorado River
An easygoing, and short, canoe trip along the Colorado River in northern Arizona.
The New York Times
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There we sat, five paddlers in three canoes on the Colorado River in northern Arizona, simply observing. The setting sun washed the 1,500-foot canyon walls in hues of coral; cotton-puff clouds dotted the pink-tinged sky. The still surface of the river so perfectly mirrored the cliffs that it was hard, at a glance, to know where the river ended and the cliffs began. Except for a few ducks dallying on the shoreline, we were alone.
Though in some ways this 15-mile stretch of river with its sandy beaches, rich archaeological history and unspoiled scenery is a dead ringer for parts of the Grand Canyon farther downriver, there are some key differences — most notably that it's about 200 miles shorter than the Grand Canyon trip, requires no special permits and is significantly more tranquil, with none of the boat-tossing rapids that can occur downriver.
So while a trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon takes at least a week to float (more in a boat with no engine), requires a permit that can take years to win and includes some fierce rapids, this journey takes only a day or two and is perfect for beginner boaters.
Sandwiched between Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon — two of the Southwest's most popular boating destinations — this stretch of flat water is often forgotten by kayakers, rafters and canoeists. Yet it's almost laughably easy to get to. Instead of heading downstream from Lee's Ferry, where most river trips through the Grand Canyon begin, you go upstream. And while avid boaters might want to paddle themselves upriver, it's far easier to get a lift to the Glen Canyon Dam, then paddle downstream with the current.
Kayak Powell, an outfitter based in nearby Page, Ariz., recently made it even easier to organize a trip. Its new shop, Adventure Center, rents canoes, kayaks and gear (such as life jackets and waterproof sacks to keep clothes dry). Last year, Kayak Powell also started arranging boat shuttles upriver with a local fishing guide or Colorado River Discovery, a small sightseeing company.
One weekend, four friends and I decided to test the waters. We picked up our boats from Kayak Powell, tied them to the roof of our truck, then drove to Lees Ferry, where the extent of our indulgent packing became embarrassingly clear as we transferred bundles of firewood, coolers filled with food and beer, folding chairs, books, flashlights and a handful of yoga mats from the truck onto two mint-green pontoon rafts that would take us upriver.
A chipper college student named Rory Glover captained the boat I was on, and, as we motored upstream, the red walls of the canyon grew taller and steeper as if we were entering a kingdom of giants. Jagged sedan-sized boulders lay partway down grassy hillsides, multihued canyons twisted up from the river, and empty beaches beckoned from the banks.
We passed an antique road built along a steep bank that was used by ferry passengers more than 100 years ago when this was the only place westbound pioneers and traders could cross the Colorado River for 700 miles.
After what seemed like a dozen hairpin bends in the river, the Glen Canyon Dam appeared suddenly like a misplaced skyscraper, an imposing 710-foot-tall work of concrete that stretches between two cliffs. Though the dam has sparked controversy in the past and has drastically changed the natural flow of the Colorado River, it does offer a few perks for river runners, ensuring year-round flows and filtering the water from the bottom of Lake Powell before pouring it into the river below. That translates to water so clear that trout are visible 15 feet below the surface and to water temperatures that are bone-chilling, even in the height of summer when the air temperature often tops 100.
After Glover dropped us on a sandy beach just below the dam, we set off downstream. The current was strong enough to whisk us along in our canoes without much hard work, allowing the scenery to distract us.
Four miles and about 90 minutes later, we arrived at Ferry Swale, one of six sandy campsites, each with a composting toilet, maintained by the National Park Service. With all of our many imported comforts, this was five-star camping. After setting up our tents and cooking dinner, there was blissfully little to do but watch hundreds of stars glimmer into view as night fell.
River trips on peaceful stretches like this invite laziness and lingering, so the next morning we lounged about and sipped coffee, and did some cursory yoga. Finally we tossed our gear into the canoes and headed downstream again.
One of the remarkable things about the Colorado is that no matter how many people have traveled it and no matter how many have tried to plunder it, from railroad builders to miners and even Hollywood movie crews (parts of "The Greatest Story Ever Told," "Broken Arrow" and "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" were filmed here), it retains a palpable sense of wildness. Our relative solitude — during our two-day trip we saw only a handful of anglers and one group of kayakers — amplified our feeling of adventurousness.
On a particularly wide and inviting sandy beach, we pulled ashore and followed a path to the cliffs and some petroglyphs — a series of three bighorn sheep and what looked like deer or antelope strutting in lines of six and seven, and figures and zigzags — probably etched in the rock about 800 to 1,300 years ago.
At the end of our trip, as we drove from Lees Ferry back to Page, I glanced over the multicolored cliffs set ablaze by the sunset across the flat valley. The Colorado River's gorge cut through the desert like a thin wound from a sharp knife. From afar, one would never know that one of the West's mightiest waterways flowed in that slim crack in the desert floor.