Paddling the Grand Canyon
by Tom Todd
Click on the photos to see larger images
"We'll ferry across the river and meet in the eddy on the far side." Easy enough in this quick moving water of the Colorado River. As I am swept downstream, I ponder what I've gotten myself into. At this point it is a minimum of 5 days before I can get out of the Canyon without an emergency helicopter ride. The cold water sweeps me faster downstream and I pick up the pace to maintain my position. I've just loaded all my equipment onto the support raft. All I've got is my wetsuit, PFD, paddles, bailer, and a water bottle. My, this river is wide, I'll pick up the pace some more. Can I paddle this river, one of the biggest in the world? The group is beginning to assemble in the eddy. The canyon walls aren't that impressive here in Lee's Ferry, one of the only quiet and accessible points along the entire distance of the Marble and Grand Canyons through which this Colorado River flows. I'm almost there. Fourteen days of paddling in bigger water than I've ever seen before and here I'm getting a workout just ferrying across to the first eddy. My mind is racing. I reach the eddy and watch as the other paddlers arrive. Four kayakers, seven, eight, nine solo canoeists, we wait for Bob Zazzara to get into his canoe and paddle to us. I've just had a workout after 5 days driving across country. Only fifteen miles downstream from the Glen Canyon dam, the water is cold and so clear I can see the bottom at 20 to 40 feet on this overcast day. What happened to the muddy water of the Colorado? Will I survive? What was I thinking last spring?
I was leading a trip on the upper Millers River from South Royalston to Athol during the spring of 1998. During lunch the conversation meandered on to paddling the Grand Canyon as Bob Zazzara was asking Don Getzin about paddling the Grand Canyon. It turns out that Bob Z. was organizing a 1999 trip on the Grand Canyon. I was interested and peppered them with questions for the rest of the trip down the Millers.
Apparently the NY-NoNJ Chapter has been informally organizing off the record trips to paddle the Grand Canyon for several years. The trips have been with an outfitter, Tour West, and are chartered by Bob Foote, a well known canoe paddling instructor. Skip Morris and Mimi Quigley have been on them. I sent Bob Z. my $200 deposit.
Now for the wait. I asked Skip and Mimi all I could think of. I got out and paddled as much as I could, trying ever more difficult rivers. I re-outfitted my boat to securely glue in the saddle. I signed up for a five day paddling course at Nantahala just to improve my skills. The instructor told me I would get trashed … a great confidence builder.
Most people decided to fly out there but I wanted to take my canoe, as I'm familiar with it. It is big and stable. I finally agreed to drive out with Linda Polstein, 67, a veteran Grand Canyon paddler. Five days before the scheduled put in, I drove to Linda's house in Pleasantville, NY, loaded as much as possible into our canoes and hoisted them onto the top of her car. Finishing packing, I crawled into her rollaway in her rec. room with paddling ribbons stuck to the wall above her collection of arm weights. We were off the next morning at 6 AM headed west.
Linda, "there's a cop behind you with his lights flashing." We've made good time and are driving north down one of the river valleys leading to the Grand Canyon. This is only the second "inconvenience" of the trip. The first being new tires and an alignment near Memphis. In the distance I can see a narrow slit carved in the flat valley floor not realizing that this is the upper part of the Grand Canyon, technically Marble Canyon. After a quick tour of Glen Canyon dam we head to Marble Lodge, our last sip of civilization for 14 days. We drive across Marble Canyon Bridge looking down into where we would be paddling in 12 short hours. As we drive into the Lodge parking lot we see paddlers working on boats all over the place as last minute adjustments are made. It's hot, dusty, and windy. Next is dinner, a meeting, then back to my room for 3 hours of furious re-packing as I try to get all the stuff I brought into a manageable pile of drybags. "What would Skip have done?" I ask myself. 5 AM wake up call, breakfast, and then a quick drive to the Lee's Ferry put in.
The adrenaline is pumping. We pass balancing rocks as the road weaves down to the river. On the riverbank are rafts and boats of all sorts. Pandemonium. There is our raft, 35 feet with 100 HP, and two large white tubes lashed to the sides with "Tour West" emblazoned on the side. We unload the boats, line up our gear for loading on the raft, and do the final set up of our canoes. What have I gotten myself into? We form a luggage brigade to load our equipment into the raft, and then each quietly launch our boats, each with his own thoughts.
We are a motley crew. Linda, my diminutive 67-year-old driving partner is a veteran of a previous paddle down the Canyon. Rennie, a gung ho southern paddler, lost a leg to gangrene in a Mexican driving accident. Pete, an ex stunt man with a southern drawl, has been paddling for only 3 years. Bob Z., the organizer of the trip, is a big guy who I call Little Bob and who is always late. Kathy, Bob Z.'s girlfriend, has a great smile and we learn a underwater swimming ability. Jan from Jamaica Plain, was ready to tackle most everything. Cleo, the best paddler, is from the south. This is his second trip to the Canyon. Phyllis, Cleo's significant other, will be riding the raft with her great smile. Jeff has just had a baby and left his wife at home, bringing his brother Randy to ride the raft. Jerry is one of the characters on the trip as he paddles his "Easter egg" kayak. Al and Kent are relatively quiet and competent kayakers.
Our staff includes Bob Foote who has chartered the raft and is our canoe and paddling guide. Jason Foote, is Bob Foote's 16 year old son and a nationally rated swimmer. He'll be the swamper (go'fer) on the raft. Josh Lowery is our rescue/safety kayaker. He is a veteran of more that 75 trips down the canyon, a true hedonist with a famous laugh, but mostly very little to say. In charge of us all is Dave, a Grand Canyon river guide since 1972 who likes our longer trips. He's an excellent cook and an expert and very sociable guide.
The rapids are easy so far. Just smooth rolling waves as the river drops over the till washed in from side canyons. On one of these, as we round a gradual corner, I get knocked over by surprise by a reflection wave off the wall. I'm glad I'm wearing my wetsuit. The 42-degree water is a shock in the hot air as I climb back into my canoe; my ego seriously damaged as I'm the first to swim. Three miles down; 222 to go.
As we proceed down the river the canyon walls rise above us are closing us in, entrapping us as we look up to the narrow slit of sky we can see above. The walls almost seem to join as we pass under the Marble Canyon Bridge towering above us holding little specks of people looking down at us. This is the last bit of civilization until we reach Phantom Ranch in 5 days.
I resolve to pay attention, as the rapids become a little rougher. The next several rapids dump water in my boat as waves come over the bow, stern, and sides; necessitating bailing at the bottom of each rapid. A couple more people swim, but my increased attention and taking the easier route down has saved me.
Below a long rapid, I've bailed out, and we're paddling in the flatwater of this huge river. The water swirls left and right, upstream and downstream, up and down, reacting to the water cascading down from the rapid above. I bump into Cleo as he paddles a current in front of me as someone bumps into the back of me. Suddenly my stern drops, tips me to my off side and over I go. As soon as I extract myself from my thigh straps I feel my legs getting sucked down and the pressure on my ears increasing. I shoot my free hand straight up and fortunately am just able to grab the gunwale of my upside down boat, before I'm sucked down. With all my might I pull myself to the surface, the buoyancy of my PFD insignificant compared to the floatation in my canoe. Cleo yet again helps me into my boat as anxiously I ask him if there is another of those whirlpools approaching.
A stop for lunch set the pattern for the trip. We paddle up to the beached raft, get out of our boats to stretch our legs as the crew pass around two canisters of Pringles (vitamin S for salt) and set up a table with all sorts of sandwich fixings, lemonade, cold cuts, sliced tomatoes and pickles. After a rest, we jump into our boats as the crew packs up the raft and shoves off.
The next rapid is one of the big ones. House Rapid is named for a big rock against which all the water piles up into two big waves as the river turns a curve.
Rapids on the Colorado have their own special 1 to 10 rating scale with one, Lava, getting a rating of 11. House Rapid, mile 17, rating 7, 8, or 9 depending on the river level, is formed by the till washing down Rider Canyon forcing the water against the wall on river left. House Rock is on the wall on river left. It piles the water up into two big waves. Across the top of those two big waves is a reflection wave. The goal is to paddle down the tongue and into the eddy on the inside of the curve. The top of the inside has some holes so no sneak route is possible. Bob Foote warns me that if I take a correction stroke instead of a power stroke I will be on top of the big waves. I can walk around, my option. I watch as for the most, the others make it. I paddle down the tongue with good speed, cross the v, but need a correction stroke and here I'm being pushed up the second of the big waves. Just as I rise to the top of the wave, the reflection wave hits me from the side like a giant's finger flicking me off the edge of a wall, my paddle bracing against nothing but air. It feels like I'm falling 10 feet down into the trough of the wave and then a turbulent swim holding onto my canoe to keep my head above water … some of the time … until Bob Foote helps me do a self rescue.
We paddle down to mile 21 and stop for the night at North Canyon. A few of us hike up the canyon. The few pools are drying up as the tadpoles wriggle around in the mud, desperate for a good shower. Just as we set up camp a big wind hurls dust down the canyon followed by about 10 minutes of rain. I discover the tent I have is missing a pole and can't be set up properly. I decide to sleep outside on my cot with a tarp ready to pull over me if it rains. I have a comfortable nights sleep on my cot as I did every night … not once needing my tarp. My thoughts wander as I looked up at the bats flying overhead. Three swims in the first day and thirteen days to go. Skip and Mimi had fewer than that for their whole trip. I look up at the canyon walls. This is god's country.
I awake to a camp stirring with a hot breakfast being made by the crew as everyone packs up camping gear into the drybags getting ready for the day's paddling. A hearty breakfast is ready with sausage, eggs, cereal, or flapjacks. The bags gradually pile up on the beach next to the raft while each person in turn takes the PFD "ticket" to the portable pot.
Grand Canyon rules are carry in, carry out EVERYTHING. We have 4 portable pots with us for 18 people for 14 days. The Canyon must be kept clean for the next. The rules are: pee into the wet area along the river. Without rain, everything would smell if people peed anywhere else. No liquid is allowed into the pots to avoid the weight and the smell. After use, a little dry Clorox is sprinkled in to kill any development of smell. Then wash your hands with antibacterial liquid soap, rinsing with a little foot pump spigot attached to a bucket of water.
Everyone ready, we form the morning ritual brigade to load our bags onto the raft. Tarps are tied over the bags to keep the splashes off. Last call and the pot is loaded. Everyone jumps into the boats and we're off.
A check of the guide map shows rapids with ratings of 5,5,7,6,6,5,6,5,4,4,2 ahead for the day. I'm apprehensive to say the least, but the fantastic scenery of the ever-changing walls awes me at the same time. We have scouted several rapids but as our collective skills improve we don't scout rapids with a rating 6 or below. This is a day full of paddling. Each rapid is relatively short and there is a stretch of flatwater to bail out, rest, and, yes, look at the fantastic scenery. These are deep-water rapids with big waves. I'm beginning to see the pattern. Paddle fast down the tongue and cross the side waves before you get hammered by the big wave at the bottom of the V formed by the tongue. Then ride out the chop at the bottom or head for the eddy.
We stop occasionally for a rest and the crew brings out fruit and king-size candy bars. Often I'm tempted to portage around a rapid, but Bob Foote points out a route and after watching others, I decide to paddle. There are many rapids I would have portaged without Bob's considerate encouragement.
The second night's campsite is at South Canyon, mile 31. This is a beautiful site with Anasazi Ruins, "the ancient ones", up on the cliff for a quick hike. We also hike about a quarter mile down the talus slopes to Stanton's Cave. A short distance further, I spot a desert big horn sheep down by the shore, and we scamper down to get a closer look. A mother and a lamb stand up from their hiding place. Since the canyon walls just downstream drop directly into the river, we have the family cornered and they have to run between us back upstream towards our campsite. Jerry and I get ok photos as they bolt past us. They run down into camp and right by the rest of the gang.
From our campsite we can look down to Vasey's Paradise where water shoots out of a couple holes in the vertical canyon walls. We get back to a fantastic dinner of chicken and beef fajitas. I watch the sun play its setting hues of reds and oranges marching up the canyon wall. A clear sky gradually lights a few stars as the sun sets and soon the sky fills with more stars than you ever get to see. The Milky Way is painted as a bridge across the canyon. Normally a night owl, I'm physically and emotionally drained from the excitement of the day. I can only watch the bats for a few minutes before I drift away after a perfect days without swimming.
Day 3 is a long stretch of flatwater. The decision is to load all the boats onto the raft and ride the raft for the day.
First stop is only a mile away. Redwall cavern is cut out in the side of the vertical canyon walls. One cannot even fathom how big it is, even when everyone is scampering around on the sandy beach inside it.
Two miles further, a short hike up Nautiloid Canyon has 2 to 3 foot long fossils in the rocks. Another couple of miles we pass the test bores for the once proposed Marble Canyon Dam. Riding the raft we marvel as the canyon wall change: columns here, flat walls there, twists and turns, rock layers come and go. Huge overhangs and caves are along the banks. In another five miles we stop to hike up Saddle Canyon to a lovely waterfall, hanging gardens, and a swimming hole. Three more miles and get come to our campsite for the night.
A quick hike gets us up to an overhang in which there are the remains of a small boat that an old prospector must have stashed for his return to the canyon. The more adventurous of us hike over the Nankoweap Canyon wash and up the steep canyon walls the Anasazi Granaries. Some of the wooden poles from 800 years ago are still sticking out of some of the granary caves that would be difficult for a trained climber to reach.
On the trail back to camp I accidentally kick a prickly pear cactus and spend some time pulling thorns out of my sneakers. We stop for a dip in a stream before getting back to supper. I spend some time pumping the water filter. This is a large ceramic filter. We need to filter about 30 gallons of water a day for cooking and our water bottles. Now the filter needs cleaning about once every 3 gallons. When we started we could do about 5 gallons, but the river is getting muddier. The confluence of the Little Colorado is only 8 miles downstream from here and we'll have very muddy water from there to the end of the trip. Eventually we will be down to 1 gallon between cleanings. Everyone gets to pump water.
Early to bed with another starry light show. We get up for breakfast as we watch the sun march down the canyon walls. The goal is to get launched before the sun hits our campsite and the heat becomes unbearable. Our guide, with 30 years of experience is an expert at selecting sites so that the sun doesn't heat us up too much in the evening or in the morning. The temperatures are in the 80's and 90's, cooling down to the 70's at night. I tried to sleep near the river as the cool water cools the air. Most nights I slept without even a sheet on me. … best of all, no bugs.
The days are getting hotter and the lunch stops are in overhangs with some shade. Below the confluence with the Little Colorado the river is much muddier. We pass a group of row frame rafts. Each raft has two or four passengers and a guide rowing. They are piled high with equipment. I'm glad I'm paddling my own canoe rather than riding a raft.
Each day brings on new challenges, excitement, and wonders. In the interest of being brief (you laugh) I'll just hit on some of the highlights. The days continued with mixtures of more and less challenging rapids intermixed with short and long hikes that were unbelievably varied. I get the hang of the rapids and haven't had a swim since the first day. Names of impending rapids are bandied about to intimidate us. Chuar, Unkar, Nevills, Hance, Sockdolager, Zoroaster, Horn Creek, Granite, Hermit, Crystal all tease our imaginations, but the ultimate is Lava, the one rated eleven. 'You gonna run it, I'm not gonna.'
I find that as my skills increase and my confidence increase I'm heading for the bigger and bigger waves in the rapids. I learn to set my paddle in the trough, take the power stroke for the final pull over the crest, correct at the crest to face the next wave, and recover on the back side of the wave. I'm glad I'm in the canoe as many more waves completely crash over the lower kayakers. One wave crashes over me as I take my power stroke over the crest. I'm not sure I'm still upright. I open my eyes to muddy water streaming from inside my helmet down the inside of my Croaky attached sunglasses. I can't see anything and can't get my glasses off to see where to turn. Hey … I'm having fun. The more full my boat becomes the more stable I am. … I'm having a blast. The water has gotten so full of silt from the flash floods that the foamy "whitewater" no longer turns white. You can't tell where the waves are breaking. Wow, what a thrill.
I can't begin to convey all the feelings and experiences of the trip. I maintained a daily diary of the trip and didn't even to look at it for this story, the trip is so imprinted in my mind. I hope I've given you a lust for going on such a trip.
As we approach the last days of the trip, I find myself already wishing that we were just beginning. I resolve to come back and do it again. On our last night, Dave brings out ice he has preserved for 15 days for our lemonade. With only a few miles to go, I'm melancholy that this is almost over. In my cot I watch the bats overhead before I roll over butt naked, to sleep.
I awake to see the moon setting over the western canyon wall as the rising sun splashes brilliant orange and tan tones on the canyon wall. I hop up to photograph it. One more chance to get that perfect photo. We pack up camp one last time for the final float to Diamond Creek. For miles we've been able to see Diamond Peak, several thousand feet high, which is lower in elevation than our put in.
There are still a few more rapids and I go at them with all the gusto I can muster. I've only had five swims total, three on that first day. The take out at Diamond Creek is along side a Rapid. If you miss it, it is another 25 miles to the backwaters of Lake Mead and then a long paddle to a taken out in Lake Mead. I'm sorely tempted. Our vans and trailers arrive. We pack our duffel into the vans and tie the boats on the trailer as our crew disassembles our raft for packing into a truck. It is the first time we really get to see how sophisticated and massive our raft is. The two hour trip up Diamond Creek Canyon is at times boisterous and at times meditative.
This was a completely outfitted and guided trip. With few responsibilities other than pumping some water, washing your dish, setting up your tent, and loading the raft, you have much more time for hiking, reading, writing, swimming, and relaxing. I hope to have a story soon about a winter trip recently run as a "private" trip. See the Paddling Opportunities if you are interested in paddling the Grand Canyon. Let me know If you'd like me to write more about this trip in the next WrapAround
Copyright 2000, Tom Todd. All rights reserved.