The map below illustrates stops along the 135-mile route down the Colorado River from the put in point to the take out point. You can zoom in and click on each number to view extra photos and videos of the trip.
“The glories and the beauties of form, color and sound unite in the Grand Canyon...”
– John Wesley Powell
Each spring, a group of UC Davis student scientists and their professors take a whitewater rafting trip through the Grand Canyon to study a river that sustains 40 million people. Capital Public Radio’s Amy Quinton traveled with them.
I’m in a raft on the Colorado River, about to hit the fastest, steepest and most treacherous rapid in the Grand Canyon — Lava Falls. Here, the river drops 27 feet in a span of several hundred feet. The raft’s direction or momentum is not up to me. My fate is in someone else’s hands, someone far more experienced than me. Ann Willis, a researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, guides the boat with precision.
“You hanging on?” Ann asks as we approach the monster and hear the screams from rafters in front of us.
I tighten my grip on the raft’s straps. Then we see it, a wave of freshwater as big as I’ve ever seen, and it’s about to hit us straight on. The wave knocks me back. My feet fly up in the air. But I hold on. Freezing cold water, gritty with Colorado River sand, is shoved up my nose and into my mouth. I swallow. For a second I feel like I’m underwater. Then we’re out of it. It takes 30 seconds.
Piloting through the rapids, Ann remains calm and on task, until we come out of them drenched but unscathed. Then she smiles. You can tell this river wakes her soul. She says this river is a powerful force, mostly beyond her control.
“But if you can find a way to work with it, you find a lot of strength in yourself to have a really graceful and elegant place in this kind of chaotic and unpredictable environment."
She says she carries that with her all the time. It reminds her that she’s capable of more than she thinks.
“Particularly being a woman in engineering and the sciences, having these kinds of experiences to go back to when I’m sitting in a room full of highly experienced older men, gives me a place to anchor myself and to play a role that’s valuable."
Just as a river can transform a landscape, a river can transform people. It can give us power and easily remind us when we are powerless. It can teach us, inspire us, and even shape who we become.
I discovered this during a 10-day whitewater rafting trip down 135 miles of the Colorado with a group of UC Davis graduate students, their two professors, and their university rafting guides. We were 31 total, in eight oar-powered rafts and three kayaks. Most of the students were women in their 20’s. Most of the guides and kayakers were men. By design, almost everyone was a scientist in a different discipline: ecology, geology, geomorphology, hydrology, biology – even a few engineers. Each spring, this “ecogeomorphology” class takes the journey through Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park.
For Ann, the trip was a chance for her to share how empowering and transformative a river can be. For the students, it was a chance to connect their schooling to the natural world and to visualize the science that inspires them. For everyone, it was a reminder of the value of stepping outside of the box we put ourselves in every day.
Eight Miles Down
It’s day one on this cold March day on the South Rim. The temperature is below freezing. The sun is just beginning to rise, shining its light on rock layers that span 1.8 billion years. Many of the students, who are seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, stare silently at its beauty.
It’s an eight-mile hike down Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River, where our river trip begins. We’ll drop almost a mile in elevation. The cold air keeps our pace quick.
Carson Jeffres, a young athletic fish ecologist with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, walks next to me. He’s tall and energetic, hiking in sandals with his kayaking helmet strapped to his waterproof backpack. I can barely keep up with him.
“This is the beginning of our adventure through time, from dinosaurs to before life on Earth,” he says.
The rock layers of the Grand Canyon tell the Earth’s history. Our hike begins on the very top layer, Kaibab Limestone, formed about 250 million years ago, before the age of dinosaurs.
Carson has been on this annual UC Davis river trip seven times as a student and a researcher and he's passionate about teaching. He wants the trip to shape the way students think about the environment––viewing it holistically, with everything being connected to everything else––as he experienced it during his first trip in 2002.
“It fundamentally changed my career and my understanding of watershed science and what it means to do what we do … working with other people from different disciplines and how it affects me as a fish biologist,” says Carson. “This is my way of giving back to the class.”
The interdisciplinary emphasis is reflected in the course’s mouthful of a name, Ecogeomorphology, a branch of watershed sciences that examines the links between the physical and biological dynamics of rivers.
Every step on this trip is a lesson - and not just about geology. The Colorado River, which carved this landscape, is now controlled by dam releases; its flow diverted to irrigate agriculture and provide water and power to almost 40 million people across Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico.
“With all this diversity of students and expertise, the idea is they teach each other about the different aspects of the river, and we just kind of help guide them along,” Carson says.
The temperatures rise as we descend. Before noon, it’s 50 degrees warmer. I can hear the river before I see it. We are close to a rapid. It rages.
As we reach the river, we can see the 18-foot rafts lined up on the shore. Our rafting leader Jordy Margid and fellow guides with UC Davis outfitter Outdoor Adventures put the boats in further up river at Lee’s Ferry and have already been on the river for more than a week. The rafts will carry us and all our gear and food for 10 days down the river.
Before we climb aboard, Jordy gives us safety lessons. The most important signal is to pat your head if you fall off the raft, letting everyone know you’re okay. There is no cell service in this wilderness. If someone gets hurt, there is a satellite phone to call a rescue helicopter. All the warnings make it clear that once we are on the river, we can only go down it.
It’s our first full day on the river. I’m in the raft with Julia Michaels, a graduate student studying ecology. She is reclined on her side at the front of the boat.
She has always wanted to see the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon but never found the right group willing to hike down.
Julia says when she heard about the opportunity to go with scientists, she jumped on it.
“You could go to a parking lot with an ecologist and have a great time,” she says. “They’ll start pointing out the names of weeds and they know the names of all the plants.”
Ann Willis is guiding our raft. She became a guide 13 years ago, shortly after graduating from college. Her connection to the river runs deep. She speaks to the rhythm of her strokes.
“I think these river trips are so important because there is so much about them that’s different than the way people experience everyday life," says Ann. “You really don’t have anything except yourself.”
Rapids have different classes of difficulty on a scale of one through 10. Tens are impossible to raft. We go through a series of rapids known as the gems. Crystal is our first, a Class 8 with a 17-foot drop in elevation. Then Sapphire, Turquoise, Emerald and Ruby.
Ann is confident riding every one of them. She says her first river trip helped build that confidence.
"The only other thing I found even more empowering was childbirth,” she says. "That was a high I rode for a long time."
Ann, one of two female guides on the trip, is also an environmental engineer. She didn’t start out as one. After college she says she felt insecure and directionless. Then she took her first river trip.
“I just felt like my soul had been plugged in,” she says.
Rafting made her feel energized and engaged in the environment around her. It gave her the confidence to follow her curiosity.
“Ultimately, I felt like science was something that just made a lot of sense to me and would satisfy my need to really understand how things work,” she says. ”I’m kind of – not a distrustful person – but I just want to know. And it’s not enough that someone tells me something is so.”
She and other scientists on the trip are adventurous, driven solely and passionately by curiosity. They want to see what’s around the river bend, what’s in the next side canyon or what lies under the rocks.
“That’s what makes this trip, and us, so inspiring," she says. “My daughter asks me what I’m doing when I’m on these trips. And I just tell her, ‘Science.’”
Ann has a two-year-old at home. And though I didn’t know it then, she was rafting down river while pregnant with her second child.
“I’d like to help people understand,” she continues, “that there is a whole body of science that is hands-on and applied and adventurous and can really speak to an energetic curiosity that goes way beyond labs and microscopes and computers.”
That’s part of the reasoning behind these river trips. Jeffrey Mount, a former geology professor at UC Davis, didn’t want to teach geology just in a classroom. He started the annual raft trips decades ago with some undergraduates who worked at Outdoor Adventures. Jordy Margid was one of those students.
Science, Ann says, isn’t just about discovery. “This science is for inspiration.”
Life slows down on the river. You no longer think about email and cell phones. All of the daily stresses are no longer top of mind. Instead, a new rhythm sets in. Carson Jeffres calls it “river time.”
“I’m in river time in an hour after I hit the river now,” says Carson. He says the instinct to reach for his phone disappears. “It used to take me longer and the thing that you’ll find is that once you get off the river, it’s hard to get back to real world.”
“River time” hits the whole group by day three.
We’re drifting mostly on flat water through Earth’s basement, the lowest strata of rocks known as Vishnu Schist, about 1.8 billion years old. It’s quiet. We hear just the sound of oars gently hitting the water and the tiny chirps from the canyon wrens. Occasionally, raft guides and students whistle bird calls, listening to them echo off the canyon walls. The students now seem more comfortable with one another, more laid back. They begin to sing together as they float.
Time on this river trip is marked by group screams. “COFFEE!” means its 6 a.m. “BREAKFAST!” means it’s slightly later. “GRAND CANYON!” is a midday outburst of sheer joy rafting through one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
“SCIENCE!” is usually bellowed just before dinner. We circle in camp chairs for a pop-up science class.
By design, students teach the lessons, one or two lessons a night on issues that range from the environmental legacy of uranium mining in the canyon, to water rights and the Colorado River Compact.
The Great Unconformity
Blacktail Canyon is a slot canyon that is one of the best spots for a geology lesson. It’s where 550-million-year-old Tapeats Sandstone sits on top of Vishnu Schist. The missing billion years of geologic time between them is called the Great Unconformity.
There are several major unconformities in the Grand Canyon, but you can touch this one.
For Nicholas Pinter, a UC Davis professor and geomorphologist, it’s a must-see.
“You cannot be down here looking at 1.8 billion years of earth history and not be awestruck by that, and the goal here is to share that awe,” Pinter says.
Students learn something else here too; slot canyons can sound like the inside of a cathedral.
As we walk deeper into the canyon we begin to hear music.
One of the raft guides brought a guitar, another his ukulele.
The guides and some of the students take turns playing and singing - folk songs, pop songs - whatever inspires them.
Lauren Foster is the most vocal in the group. She’s a bundle of energy and laughter. And she constantly asks questions.
The hydrology student is from the Colorado School of Mines, here on an interdisciplinary grant.
And she plays guitar through the entire 10-day trip.
“That’s probably the most important part of my life,” Lauren says. “I’ve only done one trip without it.”
Group Sings To Lorde's 'Royals'
Bananas Are Bad Luck On a Boat
Never bring a banana on a boat – ask any fisherman. If a banana is on board, fish don’t bite, boats have mechanical failures, crew members slip on peels. They’re just plain bad luck. Not one bit of science backs this up; it’s merely superstition. Still, these scientists were destined to test that theory.
On day four, Lauren wakes up and puts on a banana costume over her wetsuit. Julia Michaels joins her in the costumed escapade, wearing a long silver-sequined robe with a boa-like fur collar.
The bad luck struck at Bedrock, a Class 7 rapid where rocks split the river in two. Julia, engineering student Derek Roberts, and Lauren, are in a raft guided by Avi Patil, a UC Davis graduate and an emergency room doctor at Stanford Hospital.
Here's what the guidebook says about Bedrock rapid: “The easy run is to stay right…the left run is not recommended.” Avi, who hadn’t flipped a boat in 19 years of guiding, took the left run. The boat flips. Julia, Derek, and Lauren fall out of the raft.
“I was under water as soon as I was out of the raft and was pretty disoriented and kind of opened my eyes to look for sky and just saw darkness,” Derek says.
Julia, still glittered with sequins, gasped for air.
“I was 90 percent focused on trying to catch my breath in between having water shoved down my lungs. You just felt so completely powerless. It really made you understand how forceful water is…you would just be sucked under and pop back up and sucked under.”
Lauren, informed after the rapid of the superstition about bananas, ditched her costume.
The wind starts to pick up after Bedrock. Guides are tiring so we eddy out. Carson Jeffres decides to give a quick lesson on river hydraulics.
“We’re looking for those big holes,” says Carson. You can see holes in the water. Waves seemingly skirt around it or flow straight down into it. Carson explains that the water is reversing back on itself.
“If the raft goes into that and the hole is big enough that water reverses itself and the raft goes with it and flips upside down.”
At this point, the wind is blowing so hard, Carson is wearing goggles to prevent the sand from getting in his eyes. He’s facing the group, looking directly into the torrent of blowing sand. He stops talking momentarily.
“I’m sorry, I’m just filling my mouth with sand.” He spits it out and continues the lesson. If you have to hit a hole, it’s important to enter it straight on with speed.
“You want as much momentum as you can,” he says, and spits sand out of his mouth again.
“Does anybody know why we’d want to straighten it out instead of hitting it sideways?” asks guide Larry Guenther.
“Harder to tip the boat long ways,” shouts Lily Tomkovic, a hydraulic engineer and PhD student.
“Bingo,” says Larry. He points horizontally. “Your long axis is this way, it’s easier to roll it.”
“Rotational inertia,” says Carson. Lesson over.
“I’ve lost most of the enamel on my teeth,” he says. Then he thanks a student for the goggles. I’m not sure who brought the goggles, or why, but they seemed appropriate. We get back on the river.
Yeah, Fish Sex!
Truman Young, a UC Davis professor and restoration ecologist, said he would give a dollar to the first person in the group to point out wildlife we hadn’t seen yet. That kicked off a number of outbursts from students the rest of the trip.
Katie Smith spotted the most wildlife, naturally, because she is a wildlife biologist. I think she’s fascinated by anything that moves that is not human.
“IT’S A BIGHORN, A BIG ONE. LOOK AT THAT BIG MALE, IT’S A BIG ONE!” Katie shouts from her raft a few days later.
The sheep was quite impressive, standing on a rock ledge on the canyon wall, watching us float by. It was as if he had granted us permission to pass through a territory he clearly commanded. It wasn’t the first big horn we’d seen on the trip, but definitely the first big male, with hefty curled horns to show for it.
At each camp, even before pitching her tent, Katie would place her motion-activated night vision video camera where she could most likely find wildlife – under a rock ledge or along a sandy path.
She captured video of a ringtail cat eating a scorpion. We also found kangaroo rats and deer mice. We saw bats and collared lizards and really tiny frogs.
Someone saw a rattlesnake at night along the rock ledge where they slept. Thankfully I did not.
But when it came to wildlife, nothing was quite as eye-opening as watching fish mate.
Our trip coincided with the spawning of flannelmouth suckers in Kanab Creek, a tributary of the Colorado. On day five, we hop out of our rafts and tromp through knee-high freezing water to watch.
The flannelmouths are one of only a handful of native fish species that survived after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam in the early 1960s. The Colorado River has the lowest diversity of native fish of any river system in North America. Carson says there are very few suitable spawning grounds in the Colorado, so a lot of the fish spawn in tributaries.
Carson can rattle off the names of fish as if they were members of his own family.
“The speckled dace are doing quite well, but no one notices them, they’re only three-inches long. The bluehead suckers are doing ok. The bonytail chub are no longer here at all. The pikeminnow are no longer here at all…”
He’s as excited as a child seeing something for the first time, even though he’s seen flannelmouths spawn before.
“It’s amazing to come see them in this clear water this close and you can really get a grasp of what’s happening when you stand five feet away from them to watch them spawn,” he says.
Carson turns to the students. “This is where we get to have fun fish talks. These guys have fleshy papulose lips.”
“Oooh, tell us more,” shouts one of the students, sounding sexually intrigued.
“Yeah, I know, it’s very exciting,” says Carson. He tells them male fish are competing to get as close to the females as possible while she’s releasing eggs. Flannelmouth suckers congregate closely together and release eggs and sperm at the same time. Eggs are fertilized in suspension, then sink to the gravel below.
“Is it always one female? And then the males are like, ‘Oh she’s going for it, get her’?” asks Lauren Foster.
“She’s dropping eggs and then all the guys are like, ‘Hey, look over here, let’s get in there,’ and then they’re fighting to get in there,” says Carson. “And then the next female will start laying eggs and they’ll run over there. It’s not the most romantic way to make babies.”
“So how do you tell which one is female besides all the dudes on top of her?” asks another student.
As Carson begins to explain the distinguishing marks, someone walks too close to the fish and scares most of them away. The entire group moans in unison.
“She’s trying to mate dude!” Lauren shouts.
“Should we walk up to the corner and see if we can see more?” asks Carson. Everyone screams, “Yeah!”
The Big Day
Packing up camp and rigging the boats takes a few hours every morning, but it is part of the daily rhythm on the river.
Once everything is packed, someone screams “Last call for groovers.”
Groovers are the toilets. “Leave no trace” is not just a motto here; it’s a rule for the 30,000 people who raft the river every year. Guides rearrange everything to fit––human waste and all—and strap down the loads.
The rhythm feels different on day seven. An excitement and nervous energy fills the air, especially among the guides. Today we hit river mile 179, and go over Lava Falls.
“It’s the rapid of the whole trip and it’s the one that everybody waits for,” says Carson. “When you see it you’ll understand why.”
Lava Falls is a Class 9 rapid with a 13-foot drop in elevation. It’s followed immediately by Lower Lava with a 14-foot drop. There’s also a dangerous hole in the rapid, called Ledge Hole. This group calls it a bus hole, because it is as big as a bus, and it consistently flips rafts.
Ann says if you run the rapid right, the experience stays with you the rest of your life. “If you’re in the right spot, being in the boat and being in the water feels like exactly the same thing.”
Julia Michaels and Derek Roberts are excited about Lava, despite having flipped at Bedrock.
“I’m ready for a second swim,” says Julia, taking comfort in knowing now what to expect if she falls out again.
I’m in Ann’s raft today because I’ve come to trust her. Millie Levin, a UC Davis geology student who is by far the tiniest person in the group, is sitting next to me. She chose Ann for the rapid because, “She never seemed to miss her mark.”
UC Davis ecologist and raft guide Ryan Peek points out that our dry suits are appropriately colored for our all-female boat.
“You guys are the pink boat today,” Ryan teases.
Millie fires back. “Hashtag Women in STEM.”
Millie has her Go-Pro attached to the boat, facing all of us. I have a Go-Pro on my helmet. Go-Pro’s are ubiquitous among those who go through the Falls.
No one goes down the rapid without scouting it first. We pull our boats over and watch another group of rafters run the rapid. We see a raft vanish in the "V wave", where two waves come together forming a “V’ shape. It’s spit out a few seconds later.
At this point, I just want to go. Get it done. Go through it. Talk about what happens after it’s happened. But that, it seems, is not the way this group thinks. Scientists love analyzing.
Now it’s our turn. The roar of the rapid grows louder as we slowly approach it.
Ann screams, “YOU HANGING ON?”
“WE’RE HANGING ON,” Millie replies. We safely pass the bus hole on our left. A few mild waves hit us and we get drenched. “No big deal,” I think. But then the waves get bigger.
Millie sees the dreaded V wave. She slumps low in the raft, holds her breath and closes her eyes. The wave smacks us straight on. Millie opens her eyes and sees my feet flying in the air from the force of the wave. Thirty riotous seconds before we’re in the clear.
“WAY TO GO ANN!” we scream. Go-Pros are turned off. We drift and watch the others come through. No boats flip.
We pull the rafts onto what’s become known as “Tequila Beach” to celebrate. Everyone retells their 30 seconds. There are screams and high-fives.
“I’m just so thrilled at how well it went. I just love doing this. I just love it,” Ann says with a wide smile. “There was this slow moment in time when I suddenly became aware of the enormity of the rapid around us, where our boat seemed like it was just sliding straight down one wave and all I could see in front of us was this vertical wall of water.”
She pauses. “And there was a moment when I just stopped and thought, ‘I wonder how this is going to go?’” She laughs.
“And you saved my life going over it, so thanks,” I say.
Natalie Popovich, a graduate student in economics, is the only non-scientist in the group. She says she signed up for this trip for no other reasons than the thrill of rafting. She got her kicks on the Colorado, but also became smitten with the scientists’ exuberant passion for their fields of study.
“Not to say that economists aren’t passionate too,” Natalie says, “but I’ve never heard people talk about rocks and trees and animals in such great detail, with such enthusiasm for such prolonged periods.”
A botany lesson in a sandstorm comes to mind.
“What’s gone to heart is just seeing how these people…like maybe there’s 40 mile-per-hour wind, sand blowing in your eyes, but we’re going to stand here, damn it, and learn about this cactus. It’s not because anyone has to, they want to.”
Natalie doesn’t have a dissertation topic yet, but this trip may have illustrated the importance of that decision.
“You may as well pick something that you wouldn’t mind standing in a sandstorm for,” she says.
Matt Weber sits next to Natalie in the raft. He’s tall and fairly quiet. Matt is studying how rivers change through time, how they scour and move dirt, sand, and rocks.
“If we can understand that, we can understand how to restore rivers,” he says.
Matt says this trip is an amazing experience, not just because of the beauty of the canyon.
“You get exposure to almost all of the processes that form landscapes. You get to experience them all here, landslides, rockslides, debris flows, the amazing power of what wind erosion, water erosion do to a landscape,“ he says. “It’s very awe-inspiring.”
The trip also inspired some in the group to push themselves to new heights, quite literally.
Katie Smith, the wildlife biologist, is not afraid to pick up any critter that comes her way, but she’s not thrilled about heights.
“It was terrifying,” she says of her treacherous hike up Deer Creek Canyon. Getting to the canyon from the river meant climbing almost straight up, scrambling over rocks and balancing on narrow ledges. “That was the most scared I’d ever been of falling to my death.”
There is reward in stepping outside of labs and classrooms and connecting to the landscape, especially for a group of people who study natural sciences.
“We all share the same spark of enthusiasm,” says Julia Michaels, sitting in the sand on the last night of our trip. “Whether we are super accomplished or just starting out. What we all have in common is this sort of spark. It’s such an awesome, awesome feeling. I can imagine 30 years from now being a professor. I will use examples from these last 10 days for the rest of my life.”
Lauren Foster, who has put down her guitar momentarily to talk, says this trip is more than a class, more than just a river trip. Something bigger is at play.
“This trip brought me together with people I didn’t know, with disciplines I didn’t know, to see something that is one of the most beautiful things on our planet,” says Foster. “I just can’t imagine having a trip like this anywhere. I think anything could be fascinating if you brought together this much enthusiasm.”
You always hear that rafting on the Colorado through the Grand Canyon is a once in a lifetime experience. But most people who get the opportunity, speak only of the river’s rapids and the majestic canyon walls.
What makes a river trip inspiring are your fellow travelers. This group of scientists see the world around them more profoundly, from multiple angles. They see beauty in the way the water moves, in the way a river shapes a landscape, in the way rocks tell a story, in the way plants and animals survive, in the way the world works.