Mainstream AdventurerEd Lowry loves the Colorado River. A lot. That's why he's been leading excursions along the West's most famous waterway for the past 47 summers. He's not just a river guide, though; the 79-year-old adventurer also serves as erudite lecturer, part-time chef and captivating storyteller.
By Amy Abrams
Grand Canyon The evening cocktail soirée in Marble Canyon sets the tone for the expedition party's upcoming weeklong escapade — riding the rapids down the Colorado River. Despite living out of a boat, sleeping on the ground, and occasionally encountering scorpions and snakes, the party participants will not exactly be roughing it. They'll linger over bacon and eggs for breakfast, enjoy a sizzling steak for dinner and, on day four of their journey, celebrate with a tequila party.
After being on a pontoon boat for 190 miles as the water winds between immense walls of primordial rock and through dozens of thrilling whitewater rapids, this group of 28 travelers will emerge wholly transformed at Diamond Creek. It's often said that there's no more exhilarating way to see the Grand Canyon than from the bottom up.
Their venerable host is Ed Lowry, who possesses a unique distinction that makes him perfectly qualified as their guide. For the past 47 summers, without missing one annual trip, Lowry has headed an expedition party along this spectacular stretch of river. At age 79, Lowry serves as tour leader, erudite lecturer, part-time chef and captivating storyteller around the campfire each night.
His long-standing role as Grand Canyon guide occurred more by accident than by design. Almost 50 years ago, when the Bureau of Reclamation threatened to build a dam, potentially halting further river runs, Lowry embarked on his first whitewater trip. Although Congress ultimately relinquished the plan, Lowry began his lifelong enchantment with one of Mother Nature's most magnificent designs and Arizona's greatest treasure.
"It's hard to imagine, but I was one of only about 400 folks who had ever rafted that remarkable stretch of river in 1965," Lowry says. Today, many more ride the rapids through the Canyon. In fact, approximately 10,000 people make the trip annually.
People often ask Lowry what keeps him going back to the Grand Canyon year after year. He explains that change is a permanent resident there. "Whether it's sunrise, sunset, a storm or a full moon quietly shining down on the layers of time, there's always something novel to behold," he says.
For Lowry and most visitors to the Canyon, the destination also possesses the promise of a spiritual epiphany. "It's a magical and transformative journey," he says. He adds that the trip is one of self-awakening and renewal. "The rocks rising from the river are 2 billion years old," he explains. "It certainly heightens your humility and the realization that we're merely guests here on the planet."
Indeed, Lowry's soft-spoken and humble demeanor is antithetical to his impressive list of accomplishments within the greater Phoenix community over the past 50 years. There, he has served as a high-powered attorney (after graduating from Stanford Law School), mayor of the Town of Paradise Valley for three terms, president of the world-renowned Heard Museum, president of the Scottsdale Bar Association, and chairman of the Arizona State Commission on Uniform State Laws.
Well-known within Phoenix's political and legal circles, Lowry culls a guest list for his Grand Canyon excursions that encompasses a who's who of Arizona residents, as well as visitors from all over the country. Among the most notable, Barry Goldwater joined Lowry's jaunt to the Canyon in the summer of 1993. It would be the last trip to one of his favorite locales for Arizona's five-term senator and onetime presidential nominee.
Famed Arizona painter Merrill Mahaffey runs the river with Lowry year after year. This summer will mark Mahaffey's 28th trip. "Those river trips with Lowry changed my life," the artist says. While Mahaffey had painted the Canyon from its rim, it wasn't until Lowry encouraged him to experience the Canyon from the perspective of the river that Mahaffey's paintings were showcased in the collections of the country's most prominent museums.
The highlights of the journey for Mahaffey are destinations favored by many participants, and include Saddle Canyon, where red-rock cliffs turn scarlet in shadow and rise more than 3,000 feet above the river. They also include the three pounding waterfalls at Deer Creek, one of which plunges more than 100 feet to the river below. Meandering through historic ruins tucked within the Grand Canyon's walls and hiking among towering cliffs of ancient rock also rank among the most memorable experiences for trip participants.
Lowry has hosted more than 1,200 people over the years, and all of them heard about the trip through word of mouth. Lowry has never advertised the annual excursions. "Participants are my friends, and friends of friends, and family members, too," he explains. "What are really wonderful are the lifelong friendships forged from folks who never met before. We're a family for those days on the river, and it's always hard to say goodbye at week's end."
Though often reluctant to relinquish their laptops and iPhones, few people are ever in a hurry to rejoin the fast-paced world after their journey. "It's endearing to see how each person's façade melts away once removed from civilization," Lowry says.
It's a trip that most attendees long remember and relish. One year, Lowry received a letter from a participant many months after the trip had ended. It read: "No vacation will ever measure up. Thanks for ruining all my future vacations."