"Whoa, that's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life," my 9-year-old nephew Deegan whispered, staring at a night sky that was pitch black and dotted with starlight.
Worn out after a day of rafting, nearly a dozen of us were zipped into sleeping bags, strewn about the sandy banks of the Colorado River like pieces of driftwood tossed ashore. The wild river bubbled a few yards from our feet, invisible except for a few moonlit ripples.
I had to agree.
That calm scene near Arches National Park in Utah was a startling contrast to the chaos of an August morning two days earlier. That's when 10 assorted family members and I gathered in a Twin Cities suburb to pack ourselves into a 36-foot RV – an RV that I drove 2,600 miles on our collective quest to raft a stretch of the Colorado River that borders the national park.
The trip was inspired by my mom, aka Grandma Mary, whose appreciation of the Colorado is fierce. For years, she has paused before family meals to give thanks to the hands that made the meal and for the "hardworking Colorado River," for providing power and water to people and fields, ensuring fresh vegetables for Minnesotans in January.
So when Grandma turned 70, she didn't want a typical party blowout. She wanted a family white-water pilgrimage to the high desert of Utah. After years of talking about the power of the river, she'd finally get the chance to experience it with some of her offspring.
Getting to the river, and getting on it, though, were no easy feats.
The Colorado, perhaps best known as the river that forged the Grand Canyon, traces a meandering 1,450-mile route from the central Rocky Mountains of Colorado to the Gulf of California in Mexico. It slices through seven states, two nations and 11 U.S. national parks, so there are a mind-boggling number of ways to get on the water.
Travelers with plenty of time – and money – book multiday float trips through the Grand Canyon in Arizona that start or end with a helicopter ride out of the canyon. There are easy, rollicking half-day trips along an untamed section of the river that parallels an interstate just below its source in Rocky Mountain National Park. Several outfitters offer lazy day trips on a calm stretch of water below the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, one of two major dams that create massive reservoirs that help quench the thirst of 40 million people.
None of the options were right for our multigenerational group, ranging from 7 to 70, including a few non-swimmers, a couple who had never camped and a few bad backs and knees. I combed the internet in search of an organization such as Twin Cities-based Wilderness Inquiry, which aims to let people of varying abilities experience the wilderness.
After dozens of searches, I hit the Google jackpot with Splore, a nonprofit outfitter that provides "adaptive adventures in Utah." I quickly booked an overnight trip. We were assigned a trip leader, Smiles, who was more than willing to accommodate the many needs of our group, including my 7-year-old niece, Faith, who was about half the minimum weight requirement for the trip.
Smiles signed her emails "River love," so I knew we'd click.
TO MOAB, BY RV
Our launch point was just north of Moab, Utah. There, the Colorado glances the southeast border of Arches National Park, known for its otherworldly sandstone rock formations and pink sunsets. With no direct flights from the Twin Cities to Moab, we'd have to pack camping and fishing gear, fly to Denver and then rent several cars for the drive. Too complicated.
What we needed was a motel on wheels. I rented a 36-foot Class A with five TVs, a bedroom with king-size bed, a set of bunk beds, a convertible sofa and a dinette that quickly becomes a bed. There was only sleeping space for eight, so I brought a tent and one of my brothers followed behind in his minivan packed with more camping gear.
On a mid-August morning we packed every corner of our Costco-on-wheels with snacks, drinks and instant meals and hit the road just before rush hour. With just two days before meeting Smiles in Moab, we barreled through southern Minnesota and northern Iowa before heading west to Nebraska. As we crossed the Plains, stiff winds buffeted the broad sides of our RV like a hulking metal prairie schooner. The needle on the 80-gallon gas tank slid toward empty with alarming speed; I was too horrified to calculate our fuel mileage.
Though there were 10 of us packed into only a few hundred square feet – about the size of my sister's kitchen – everyone found a place to nap, cuddle with the kids or stare at the scenery. Twelve hours and 700 miles later, we pulled into a campsite along Lake McConaughy north of Ogallala, Neb., and camped in the shade of a cottonwood forest.
On Day 2 we needed to cover less ground, but much of it was along a jaw-droppingly scenic and heart-poundingly steep stretch of I-70 through the Rocky Mountains.
Our 26,000-pound big rig (not including people and cargo) struggled to crest the stunning Vail Pass, but we sailed across the Continental Divide through the longest mountain tunnel on the interstate highway system. During uphill sections, we struggled to keep moving at half the speed limit; the downhill stretches weren't much easier. Passing "Check brakes frequently" signs, I kept the engine in low gear, doubling what is normally a three-hour drive.
Finally, we pulled into a campground near the entrance to Arches National Park – in time to see the sun set, bathing a moonscape of stacked rock formations in the filtered pink light of sunset.
COMFORT ON THE COLORADO
Early the next morning, we broke camp and drove north of Moab to a takeout spot along the river. We parked the RV, loaded into a Splore van, and headed upriver to meet Smiles and our other guides. We gathered under a park shelter to talk about our expectations and the rules of the river.
Smiles had kind eyes and a mischievous grin and she quickly charmed all of us. The guides herded us into several rafts, including an inflatable two-person kayak and a much larger pea-green oar boat dubbed the "Seldom Seen Smith," named after a fictional river guide who plots to sabotage a dam along the Colorado as part of a gang of environmental activists. He was created by Edward Abbey in his novel, "Monkey Wrench Gang," a book that I had coincidentally brought on the trip.
Seldom Seen Smith was packed with all the essentials: coolers, tents and cooking gear. To make the ride more comfortable for Grandma's tender back and knees, Splore tethered a white plastic lawn chair and a big patio umbrella to the deck.
With Smiles at the helm and Grandma Mary under the umbrella, the two of them channeled Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in "The African Queen," the iconic flick about an uppity British missionary and a coarse Canadian captain who battle rapids and other challenges on an ill-fated steamboat trip down an untamed East African river.
We battled nothing. The water was calm, the current swift and the scenery spectacular. We floated past Fisher Towers, jagged limestone formations that rise from the desert mesa like petrified shark fins in an ancient seabed. And during the first stretch of calm river, Smiles told us it was time to tighten our PFDs and get wet. Faith was first in the water, but we all followed, floating weightless as we trailed in the calm wake of the rafts. I tilted my head to watch mosquito-small jets trace their way across a bluebird sky and twirled like a human gyroscope in a calm eddy.
Back in the rafts, we bounced our way through our first set of rapids, a gentle washboard of rocks and ripples. We jumped back in the water, floating until we got warning of the next set of rapids. For several lazy hours we repeated this cycle before landing on a sandy stretch of beach where we'd camp for the night. Part of the Splore crew got there ahead of us to get a start on setting up the camp kitchen, where they cooked chili and cornbread.
We played a few camp games, but the hijinx didn't last long and as the sun set, our camp grew quiet and the river dissolved into darkness. From the clearing where we'd laid out our tents and camp pads, the opposite bank of the river was barely perceptible except for a faint Etch-a-Sketch panorama of sandstone buttes and towers.
The next morning, after French toast and coffee, we wasted no time getting back on the river, repeating the pattern of the first day. We were all feeling more comfortable on the water, but still not bored with the scenery. A mountain goat stood amid boulders just beneath the surface of the water.
As we neared the end of the trip, Smiles said there was one more set of rapids and they'd likely be the worst we'd rafted.
"Who'd take their turn in the Duckie?" Smiles asked.
Eager to get just a little closer to her beloved Colorado, Grandma raised her hand, strapped on a helmet and the two of us slipped into the flimsy little blowup. There was no turning back. We paddled into the quickening current, and the rapids closed in on us. We plunged, paddled harder and steered the bow of the boat straight into the curl of a wave. It doused us in cool river water.
In what seemed like the snap of a finger, it was over and Mom and I drifted into calmer waters, relieved we hadn't capsized. We heard clapping. We held up our paddles, saluting the river and our traveling companions.
Within a couple of hours, we'd arrived at Takeout Beach, where we unloaded the rafts. Avoiding the work – and a goodbye to the river – the kids and one of the guides did cannonballs and cartwheels off the front of a raft. We hugged our guides and thanked them for being part of our family, and for keeping us safe and happy.
Back on the road I had time to think about the Monkey Wrench Gang and Edward Abbey, who said, "The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders."
Abbey, in the fictional characters he created, protected the river by blowing up bridges and dams. With her unpopular dinner blessings, Grandma Mary had committed her own quiet act of environmental terrorism. I have no doubt that the next time she tells us to put down the forks and show a little love for the hardworking Colorado River, we'll all be a little more grateful.