Photo: Rowing Grand Canyon

Rowing the Colorado in a dory is the slowest and longest of Grand Canyon river trips, leaving plenty of time to explore the Big Ditch.

Photograph by Kerrick James

By Jim Gorman and Robert Earle Howells

The most stunning river in the nation demands an American original: the human-powered wooden dory. Stern, graceful, and guaranteed to deliver a visceral, feel-the-river-in-your-bones thrill, the dory has been a canyon icon since John Wesley Powell captained a proto-version down the Colorado River in 1869. No disrespect to reliable, bouncy rafts, but when you hit any of the Colorado’s 47 major sets of rapids in a dory, its rigid, narrow prow rides the froth like a spooked bronc under the steady control of an expert oarsman (a dory rower will apprentice for nearly a decade, longer than any other guide in the canyon).

Happily, the boats are also extraordinarily maneuverable, which may explain why pioneering river rat Martin Litton still paddles one. Even better: A trip on a dory is the slowest and longest of Grand Canyon river journeys, 15 to 18 days. That means time to debark and hike to places like Vasey’s Paradise, a ferny oasis where a waterfall tumbles into the canyon; rest in solitude inside Red Wall Cavern; climb to Anasazi granaries 1,500 feet (457 meters) above the river. You leave all sense of ordinary time behind, and life is reduced to the basics: Float. Eat. Drink. Gape. And hold on!

Need to Know: The Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association has an up-to-date list of dory guides.

Originally published in the March/April 2009 edition of National Geographic Adventure magazine


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