Buchta, left, and Justin Buchta, right, after
navigating the Duckie inflatable kayak through a set
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
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.
had to agree.
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.
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
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.
to the river, and getting on it, though, were no easy
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.
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.
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.
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.
signed her emails "River love," so I knew we’d
MOAB, BY RV
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
ON THE COLORADO
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
take their turn in the Duckie?" Smiles asked.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.