Lining up Government Rapid—Lava of the Juan

From my toes to my fingertips, every fiber pulled on the oars. I stole a glance shoreward to measure our progress against the wind. Willows bent and ribbons of sand swirled along the cliffs, snaking out of the canyon into space. Everything seemed to be in motion, except our raft. My strain held us stationary in the wave-tossed water, and then a stronger gust sent the boat sliding sideways across the river, straight for the dancing willows. Sometimes, I thought, it’s best to just hunker.
Such theatrics are hardly what I conjure when planning a San Juan river trip. This is the mellow river, a class II desert fairyland float through warm sandstone and spectacular, confused landscapes of canyon and valley and circular river bend. I don’t run the San Juan for high drama. But you never know what lies ahead on the river. This is precisely one of the lessons the river teaches through Grand Canyon Youth, a nonprofit based in Flagstaff, Arizona. GCY serves middle and high schoolers, educating them in ways both direct and subtle, and letting them be little river funhogs for a spell. That’s where I come in.
Five of us sat with our backs against a boulder for ten minutes while the weather front passed. When we set off again, it was into an aromatic rain-freshened desert, and the weather remained near perfect for the remaining five days of our San Juan trip. A bitter wind and salty rain is a small price, it seems, for sweet sunshine.

Storm light at Stairmaster Camp