Down the Grand Canyon in Dories

Richard St. John – story and photos
Other photographers credited at bottom of photos

Click photos to enlarge
Then Back Button to return to this page

Our friends Paul, Debbie, and Tom ask, “Want to go on a trip?” One of Conde Nast Traveler’s ’32 Trips of a Lifetime’. A seven-day, 87-mile trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. And instead of rubber rafts you ride the rapids in wooden dories.

Wooden dories! Flashback to me growing up in Nova Scotia. Dad and I would sometimes go out to sea with our fishermen friends and watch them haul in nets full of cod and tuna. And the start of the adventure was to always hop into a little wooden dory that only held 5 or 6 people and row out to the big boats. I fondly remember the little dories, and this would be a different adventure with the promise of chills, thrills, spectacular scenery, and an education. So Baiba and I join the trip. - 001

Turns out to be a nice small group of 16 plus guides.

Group photo

Group photo

Four wooden dories carry us down the Colorado River. - 002A

And two big yellow inflatable luggage carts bring the gear. - 037

OARS – Outdoor Adventure River Specialists organize the trip. - 005

And they live up to their name. No motors on these boats. Oars are the engines. - 034

Our chief river guide Regan Dale has rowed over 35,000 miles in the last 35 years. - 008

Regan prefers to row standing up. We prefer to sit and watch. - 009A

Our guides won’t let us row. Why not? Because we couldn’t row a dory if our lives depended on it. And our lives do depend on it, as you can see here.

photo coconino

photo coconino

So our guides calculate a safe route through the rapids and skillfully row around the rocks.

Our job is to hang on for our lives and scream loudly.

photo colorado-river-rafting

photo colorado-river-rafting

Then, once safely through the rapids we bail out the 5,000 gallons of water now in the bottom of the boat. And talk about cold! The water is 40º and the air 110º. Our feet are in a freezer and our bodies in an oven. - 014

Grand Canyon rapids are rated on a scale of 1 (wimp) to 10 (killer). On this trip, 19 of the rapids are rated 5 or higher. So when the guides ask us to put on helmets, we brace for a roller coaster ride. - 017

And we also put on these zippy new lifejackets that double as diapers. - 019 - 018

 For moments like this when we’re scared shitless.



Sometimes the river becomes a brown color. Guess our diapers leaked.

photo -

photo –

I ask our guides, “What makes dories so great in the big waves?” They answer, “Flat bottoms.” Yes I can tell you, my bottom is as flat as a pancake after bouncing up and down on that hard seat all day.



Dories also have flat bottoms with no keel, which makes them very maneuverable. So to avoid rocks, our guides can row straight into one wave, then turn the boat sideways over the next wave, and go backwards through another, all within seconds.



Let’s see this big, ugly, motorized rubber raft do that. Ha! Bet you wish you were in agile little dories, don’t you! - 025

Oops! I spoke too soon. A rock just punctured one of our hulls. - 027

But it doesn’t take on much water and the experts repair it quickly, thanks to me not helping. - 028

Whew! it’s absolutely exhausting running the rapids and watching our guides do all the work. Time for a snooze. - 029 - 030 - 031 - 031A

Interspersed between the wild rapids are nice stretches of calm water where we just float down the river. - 033 - 036 - 038 - 010A - 120

 Put your feet up, throw a line off the boat and catch a few trout. - 032

No roar of engines to scare wildlife along the riverbanks. So deer, bighorn sheep, and little creatures pay no attention to us. - 039 - 039A - 040

Look! A California Condor. Wow! Only 72 are still flying in the wild, and they’re on the Endangered Species list. These huge birds are almost as rare as an honest politician, but they’re making a comeback thanks to conservation. - 041

Ravens, on the other hand, are definitely NOT on the Endangered Species list. Instead, they’re on the Endangered Belongings list, constantly swooping down trying to steal everything we own. - 042

We watch as this Raven unzips the bag, pulls out the blue pouch, then rejects it and flies away with a tube of Blistex instead. No more dry beak for this bird. - 043

A short hike up the Little Colorado River is like instantly being transported to the Mediterranean Sea, with vivid turquoise water. - 065 - 066 - 067 - 068 - 069

Unlike the big Colorado River, this Little Colorado is warm enough to swim. If you call this swimming. - 072 - 071 - 073 - 073A

Time to set up camp. We form a chain to pass along the waterproof bags that hold our clothes and sleeping bags. - 045

The crew unloads cooking gear, widescreen TV’s, the surround-sound system, and Lazy Boy recliners. - 047

Well, actually the chairs are inclining, not reclining. - 048

The wide-screen TV’s are sunglasses. - 049

And the surround-sound system is the river. - 051

Or an acoustic guitar. - 052

No phone. No computer. No internet. Why aren’t we bored? - 053 - 100

Instead of Facebook there’s RealFaces. - 054 - 055 - 057 - 056

Sleep by the river. No rain. No tent. Look up at the stars. - 059

But watch out for scorpions. They like to crawl under your sleeping bag. - 060

And watch out for sand. Apparently wind can only blow sand particles 3 feet off the ground. Just high enough to get into everything we have, including ears, noses, and cameras. - 061

This is our luxury restroom, set up at each camp. The toilet is actually a portable people pooper-scooper, ensuring that all the crap brought into the canyon is also taken out. - 062

Thanks to this “No stool left behind” conservation policy each campsite is pristine and looks like humans haven’t set foot here before. - 058

The river is an equal opportunity employer, so all guides, women and men, do guiding, rowing and cooking. - 075

Of course, men only want to cook if the stove resembles a barbeque. Want your husband to cook more? Put a barbeque and some charcoal on top of your kitchen stove. - 077

I was expecting meals of dried camping food that tastes like cardboard. Instead we have fresh fruit, veggies, meat, and no two meals alike. Want cilantro for the stir-fry? They have it. - 076

Eggs to order and fresh trout just pulled from the river. - 079

And even a birthday cake on the beach. - 081 - 080

On this special Conde Nast trip we’re fortunate to have Dr. Andre Potochnik as our trip guide. - 082

Here Andre gives us a fascinating talk on the stones. - 083

No, not the Rolling Stones. Andre is a noted geologist, so this is his idea of a rock band. It’s even older than Mick Jagger, by a few million years. And much prettier. - 084

Andre has been a canyon expert and guide for over 30 years. He literally knows the Grand Canyon inside out, and on river stops and hikes he explains how it all evolved. - 121 - 086 - 088 - 089 - 094 - 123 - 093A - 095A

As our dories glide down the river, we start seeing images in the majestic canyon walls. “Hey, it looks like a face has been chiseled into that rock.” - 097A

“Over there – an awesome castle that looks like it was whittled away by aliens.” And we’re not even on drugs. - 096

Which begs the question: Back in the 60’s was it somebody floating down this river who looked up at the incredible stone formations in amazement – and for the first time uttered these words: “Hey man, I think I’m stoned?” - 098

Finally our wonderful ride down the river comes to an end, and we say goodbye to our great guides and little dories. - 099

A short walk to the famous Phantom Ranch, where we spend the night. This is the first roof over our heads and real beds in a week. But something is missing. Sand. And looking up at the stars. - 102

What comes down, must eventually go up. So we rise at 4am when it’s cooler, and start the long hike from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the top, along the Bright Angel Trail. - 103

Why that name? Well, the Angels were obviously brighter than us. They had wings and could just fly up the hills. We mortals only have legs. So most of us do a long, steep, uphill hike for 9.7 miles, while others hop on mules and let it them do the walking. - 104 - 105 - 106 - 106A - 110A - 110 - 109 - 113A - 114 - 115

Finally, after a nice 6-hour hike uphill we stand at the top of the South Rim. Now 5,000 feet higher than the Colorado River, and looking down instead of up at the spectacular Grand Canyon. - 116 - 118 - 117

Makes you feel humble doesn’t it?

And a great trip comes to an end.

Happy trails and rivers!

Richard St. John


To see more photos click here