ESCAPE TO THE BOTTOM (WITH LIFE PRESERVERS)
Among the 16 outfitters licensed to run canyon rafting trips, only Arizona River Runners was willing to accept an eight-year-old. The problem isn't safety, the tour operators explained, but holding a child's attention during a nowhere-else-to-go-if-you- get-bored boat ride. But they thought Jake could handle their Three-Day Escape, a sort of Grand Canyon sampler that begins and ends, oddly enough, at the Las Vegas airport.
The journey was an almost perfect way of easing up on the canyon. The first day was all about readjusting our eyes and ears to the dry, enormous, boldly colored, starkly sculptural landforms; to distances that seem to have no end; to silences that wrap around you like a blanket. Just before noon, two small planes flew our 28-person group from Vegas up the length of Lake Mead (once the lower 40 miles of the Grand Canyon, before it was flooded in 1935 by the colossal Hoover Dam). Skirting the canyon, the plane climbed over forests and emptiness before setting us down abruptly at the landing strip next to Bar 10 Ranch, a 60,000-acre cattle spread near the North Rim. For the rest of the day, we rode horses, shot skeet, and listened to cowboy songs before bedding down in a bunkhouse. One way or another, our focus changed. We were briefed about the bottom of the canyon: it's a desert environment inhabited by scorpions but not mosquitoes. The river water is always cold (about 60 degrees) because it now comes out of pipes near the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam.
At 8 a.m. it was time to take the helicopter plunge into the canyon itself—six minutes in bright sun as we followed a gradual slope, one minute in an exhilarating drop. Soon we stood shivering on a small beach still darkened by morning shadows, about to enter what Major John Wesley Powell, the first person to travel here by boat, had in 1869 called the Great Unknown.
Powell and his crew of 10 had rowboats, but we went in large blue inflatable rafts with outboard motors— the kind of vessel environmentalists call "baloney boats." The motors move the rafts at 9 or 10 miles an hour, twice the river's speed. Except for the rapids, where you hold tight to a rope and get sloshed by icy brown water (very fun, according to Jake), you drift through the canyon at a cyclist's pace.
Our two-day route took us through a dozen-odd rapids in 50 miles of the canyon's western end, where cactus-like plants send up slender, frog-hand strands of pale green. Even at noon, the walls of the layered rock looming overhead—red, tan, pink, brown, or gray—seemed almost uniformly black. Farther on we came to a section of the canyon where the Colorado has dug through rocks so deeply buried that few human eyes have ever seen them. This black stuff, the heart of the earth, is Vishnu Schist, mud that was compressed and heated more than 1.8 billion years ago.
Along the way we were drenched by rapids and dried by the sun; we stopped at one beach for sandwiches and at another for a frigid shower under a waterfall. As the day lengthened, a sense of the energies that sustain the earth seeped into us. That night we unrolled sleeping bags next to a Vishnu Schist boulder that seemed to smolder from all the sun it had absorbed. Bathed in moonlight, we lay watching the heavens. Then Jupiter peeped out from behind the canyon walls and, soon after that, Saturn. It looked as if the earth were part of a parade of celestial bodies out for an evening stroll.
On our third day, though we weren't quite ready to escape the Escape, we transferred to a powerboat that took us to a tour bus. Two and a half hours later we were ensconced at Las Vegas's MGM Grand for the night. Jake spent a full hour and a half in the marble bathroom's Jacuzzi.