Raft over the river and through canyons

“Whoa, that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” my 9-year-old nephew Deegan whispered, staring at a

“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.

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.

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.

Our guide Smiles had kind eyes and a mischievous grin, and she quickly charmed all of us. The guides herded my extended family 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, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” a book that I had coincidentally brought on the trip.

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 personal flotation devices 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 rafting company 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 hijinks 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, Mom 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 the two of us 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.”

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