The Grand Canyon is a well-known national treasure that has been photographed many times over by those lucky enough to visit, but few visitors are brave enough to raft along its treacherous waters. “There’s no other way to see 230 miles of the Canyon besides going through it,” says Zack Ventrella. Last summer, Ventrella and 14 of his friends undertook a self-guided rafting trip down the Colorado River and used Go-Pros to document their awesome 16-day adventure.
While Ventrella describes himself as laidback, he sees the rafting expedition as a positive challenge. “It was a wakeup call to push myself,” he admits. His outdoorsy crewmates included my brother Dan Maurer, an adventurer and one of the coolest guys I know. While many from the group have backpacked the Canyon and traveled the world, only four members of the group are knowledgeable about rafting, but they all can agree that this trip was a character-building experience. “Not having much experience and throwing yourself into some of the world’s biggest rapids can be daunting, stupid and overwhelming,” says Maurer, “but pulling into that boat ramp on the last day with no injuries, knowing you succeeded by using your own power, is a huge sense of accomplishment. When you can still surprise yourself, it’s a good feeling.”
The group utilized five 16-to-18-foot rafts, each with two riders up front and one rower in the back, and the rapids’ whirling currents created an exciting journey. As a rower for outdoor enthusiasts Julia Josefchuk and Anthony Mancini, Ventrella now expresses pride and relief that he was able to keep his raft-mates from going overboard for all 16 days. One rapid was a grade-A beast called House Rock, which Josefchuk remembers as the scariest and most exhilarating portion of the trip. “Our boat went down the wrong path into a huge hole,” she recalls. “We did everything opposite of our plan and got tossed around and somehow didn’t flip.” As scary as it was, the event instilled the group with confidence to face future challenges.
The task of riding Colorado’s rapids requires strategy and teamwork more so than physical strength. “When the odds are against you, you can’t muscle out of it,” says Maurer. The ability to work together was a vital component of the trip, and the group put a lot of trust in one another to make that happen. “I think a lot of trips go wrong when people aren’t doing their part to help the greater whole,” says Mancini. The team’s system for accountability included continual head counts and life-vest checks.
A lack of creature comforts created an additional challenge, as the group had no cell phone reception, GPS trackers or running water for three weeks. This forced the team to use a box for a toilet and to spend hours filtering the muddy river into drinkable water to stay hydrated in 118-degree temperatures. The Canyon’s fresh springs did provide some relief, and Josefchuk earned the nickname “Magellan” by mapping springs locations and guiding the rafts down the right paths. “Accessing fresh water really means life or death,” she notes. “People lose sight of that in our society, because we can just turn on a tap and have water.” On one fortunate evening, a downpour of rain was like manna from heaven. “There were probably 30 waterfalls that came to life,” Mancini describes. “Then we looked upriver toward the canyon and saw rainbows. It was amazing to see the Canyon in its glory, the way it was created and how quickly it could come to life and how quickly it could shut off the faucets.”
An experienced hiker, Mancini experienced nature in a new way while rafting. “When you backpack in, you can see for miles,” he notes. “[But] on the river, you’re in narrow corridor and have little scope of where you are, so it’s a totally different perspective.” Maurer has many international travels under his belt, but he sees the Grand Canyon as one of the most diverse and spectacular sites in the world. “We had a group of friends floating down the middle of this mighty river surrounded by vibrant colors in a tiny pocket of the world,” Maurer muses, “[and] I’d look around and think, ‘Hmm, no one can hear you scream now.’” All joking aside, a Colorado River rafting trip can be a dangerous endeavor — a group can defeat the rapids or require a rescue by a helicopter with only a few places to land in the Canyon.
The group’s tales ranged from peaceful to terrifying to beautiful to match their shifting emotions during the trip, but the teammates all followed one saying: “face your danger, pull away,” an old river adage that advises rafters to face the boat toward a dangerous obstacle (i.e. a rock) while pulling the oars away from it. This is also a good mantra for life in general, as a person can have more strength facing danger head-on than when trying to maneuver around it.
For anyone considering rafting along the Colorado River, the team offers some advice: raft with someone who is experienced, be aware of your surroundings, and understand that your actions can affect others. “Don’t challenge Mother Nature,” Maurer warns. “You have to adapt to her plan rather than try to fight it. Once you accept this and become part of nature, it’s one of the most freeing experiences ever.”