Motors or muscles?

Sailing with Disney

Story and photos by Dan Leeth

A canyon wren greets the dawn, its call a descending scale of flute-like notes. Campers' eyes open to the sight of distant palisades blushing in the morning sun. Here at the canyon bottom, nearly a mile below the rim, shadows will linger well into the morning.

One by one, folks crawl from sleeping bags, grab mugs and head toward the aroma of coffee and pancakes. Beside them flows the Colorado River, a football-field-wide channel of muddy-brown liquid. The nearby current laps the bank. Not far ahead, the ominous roar of rapids reverberates from riverside cliffs.

Stunning confines, tasty cuisine and the anticipation of coming cataracts-another day begins in the depths of Arizona's Grand Canyon.

Every year, more than four million tourists stand at the canyon's edge and gape down at its cliffs and chasms, shapes, shades and shadows. A mere 25,000 annually gaze back up from the river below. Instead of expansive grandeur, these lucky few see an intimate corridor rife with colors, textures, sights, sounds and smells.

Riverside landforms vary from sheer cliffs to tumbling slopes and skirted terraces. Surprises abound. Springs gush from cliff-side caves, waterfalls tumble over desert bluffs and tributary canyon slots lead to emerald grottos. Willows and tamarisks shade sandy benches. Coyotes, deer and desert bighorn roam streamside flats. Other than a pair of foot bridges near Phantom Ranch, the only marks of humankind are historic.

"There are not many places in North America where you can go for 18 days on a river trip and not go through communities," observes part-time river guide Matt Claman. "This is a very long stretch of uninterrupted river travel that also happens to have a lot of whitewater."

The Grand Canyon offers more than 150 named rapids. They range in scale from wavy churners to frothing maelstroms sporting waves higher than houses and holes that could swallow a Hummer. Bounding, bouncing and bashing through one of these can be a puckering endeavor.

Most river trippers experience the canyon's rapids on pontoon rafts powered by pistons. The motorized rigs stretch around 35 feet in length and can hold 15 or more people plus guides. Gear, food, fuel, spare engine and generally enough adult beverages to open a streamside speakeasy get strapped on top.

These floating motor coaches travel at around eight mph, giving gas-powered trips the advantage of speed. Passengers can traverse the length of the canyon in six days, with optional seven- and eight-day journeys available to those wanting more time for side-canyon exploration.

Motor rigs plow through whitewater, treating passengers to an amusement park-like, drenching ride. Riders, especially those near the bow, feel the thrill as waves of water pour over them. Because of their power and size, motor rafts seldom flip.

Motorized trips have their disadvantages. Passengers experience the din of engine noise, and those sitting near the back smell the exhaust. Guide interaction is limited, scenery passes quickly, and the shortness of the trips and size of the groups make it difficult to get to know fellow passengers.

"People go back to their cliques and families," observes Ryan Zimmer of Wilderness River Adventures. "You have a few people who mingle, but not many."

Then there's the speed. For those who think that even eight days in the bottom of the canyon is not enough, commercial outfitters offer longer, muscle-powered alternatives.

The most common go-slow options employ oar-powered, inflatable rafts. Floating at half the speed of piston-powered rigs, a full-canyon oar journey takes a dozen days or more. The unhurried pace allows more time for absorbing the majesty of the canyon. Vacations become experiences.

"You get people who come down here for 16-18 days and it's a completely different experience," says O.A.R.S. guide Bill Bruchak. "They become part of the place and end up taking it with them. That's what boatmen call 'getting it.'"

If motor rigs are the river's buses, oared rafts are its minivans. The rafts carry four to six passengers each plus an oarsman. Chummy seating and lack of engine noise gives guides the opportunity to share natural history, human history and a few tall tales from their own canyon history.

Their smaller size and lower-slung seating make oar-powered rafts feel more exciting in heavy whitewater. Although it happens infrequently, they flip more easily than their motorized brethren. Fortunately, they are far easier to turn back sunny-side up.

For those who think that watching a guide do the work is too sedentary, a number of companies offer paddle rafts. Passengers wielding plastic paddles provide the locomotion while guides bark instructions. Success in the whitewater depends on strength and teamwork.

Paddle rafting is not for the unfit. With 226 river-miles to cover, upper body muscles get a Bengay-worthy workout.

While paddling a rapid can be exciting, when it comes to whitewater, few rides compare to those provided by dories. These wood and fiberglass vessels carry four passengers and an oarsman. They are broad on the bottom and feature upturned ends with pointed bows and sterns. Costly, colorful and classic, dories are the sports cars of commercial river running.

They are also somewhat rare. Of the canyon's 16 outfitters, only two (Grand Canyon Dories and Grand Canyon Expeditions) offer dory trips.

The most maneuverable commercial craft on the river, the dories' hard sides, sharp bows and rocker-shaped hulls allow them to carve their way through a rapid like a Ferrari twisting down a race track. Guides carefully plot routes. Unlike rubber rafts that bounce off boulders, holes can result when a dory smacks a rock. Most are easily patched with fiberglass and epoxy.

Dories are also the most prone to tipping, and the easiest to right. To help keep the boats from going bottoms-up, passengers learn to lean into waves. After a rapid, they bail out the boat. The fun of a run can be measured by the inches of liquid sloshing in the foot wells.

Grand Canyon float trips are not for everyone. Nights are spent camping on sandy benches. Shelter comes in two-person tents, which participants erect themselves. Mattresses are foam pads and bedding is a sleeping bag. The bathroom consists of a military-surplus ammo can topped with a toilet seat, and the only bathing facility is the 45-degree river. There are bugs, bats, snakes, scorpions, rodents and the occasional skunk to contend with, along with ample blasts of wind, rain and heat.

Cell phones don't work at the bottom of the canyon, and there's no TV, WiFi, Internet, or even electricity to recharge an iPod. In the world of interconnectivity, it's the ultimate getaway.

On the other hand, most commercial trips provide guide-cooked dining with menus featuring fresh foods through trips' end. Experienced river runners share knowledge, stories and song. Hikes lead to waterfalls and pools nearly impossible to reach by any other means. Sunsets paint the sky pink, and starlit nights are simply stellar. Best of all, the river provides an ideal venue for testing limits, challenging fear or just contemplating the meaning of life.

"The greatest thing for me being down here is just seeing how it affects different people," says Wilderness River Adventures guide Paul Jones, "and trying to see how it has affected me."

Whether motor or muscle-powered, the experience is not soon forgotten.

Dan Leeth is a freelance writer and photographer based in Aurora.

If You Go

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association

AAA Connection

For a land-based Grand Canyon adventure, AAA offers the Rails to the Rim package aboard the Grand Canyon Railway. See your AAA Travel professional, call 866-235-7070, or visit