I try not to call anything the “trip of a lifetime.” It seems so cliche, even insincere.
But for a guy with almost no experience with river trips, getting an invite to join a private launch in the Grand Canyon is about as improbable as it gets. This is the finest river trip in the lower 48, nothing can touch it for length, wilderness qualities, or scenery.
The invite came with an asterisk; it was going to be cold. My buddy called it “enjoyable suffering.” Three weeks in the Grand Canyon, starting in mid-January. As inconvenient as the cold may be, it also happened to overlap the Vancouver Olympics, and I had already committed to a seasonal gig for six weeks, hoping to drop a few dimes back in the piggy bank before spring rolled around.
I was bummed, and ultimately had to decline.
Yet as winter wore on, the contract job I had been planning on slowly became less and less attractive. The term of the contract was shortened. Then shortened again. And still yet again. The uncertainties began to pile up, and then came the regret.
And now, with the starting dates in Vancouver changing by the day, there was actually room on the calendar. The frustration was mounting quickly, and I needed a diversion.
So I pulled out of Salt Lake, taking the long route north to Seattle for a week to visit with friends – only to find (not surprisingly) that winter had as firm grip of a grip on the Pacific Northwest as it did on the Colorado Plateau. The rain was pouring down, the cold was piercing, and my thirst for some adventure seemed unquenchable for the foreseeable future.
And then it came. My buddy Scott, whom I’d shared a entire (or meager?) 4 days with on the river, had a few spots open up on a Grand Canyon river trip that launched February 26th. The spot was mine if I wanted it. For the second time in two months, I had an invite for a trip I figured to be once in a lifetime. I turned it down once already – I’d be damned if I did it again.
The extent of my river experience is essentially nil. I had been on exactly one multi-day float trip in my life, and it was fairly obvious I’d be the ultimate rookie on this trip as well. Not only did I have almost no river time, here I was about to embark on one of the biggest river trips of them all. How in the world did I end up here?
About all I knew was that this adventure had always seemed just out of reach, and the opportunity to experience it brought a great deal of humility and gratitude. So with little in the way of experience or preconceived notions, I hopped out of the back seat of the outfitter’s truck at Lee’s Ferry, wandered somewhat aimlessly down the ramp to piles of gear and boats, where I was greeted by 11 strangers, 1 familiar face, and the first few little riffles of what would be nearly 280 miles of (almost) completely undeveloped wilderness. Little did I know I was about to enter a playground grander than anything I’d ever imagined.
Prelude to the Grand
I had always heard Marble Canyon described as a “prelude to the Grand,” and figured it to be somewhat disappointing compared to what lies farther downriver. It took a total of about 4 hours for me to completely erase that ridiculous assumption from my mind. With each mile we float, we descend deeper and deeper into the depths of the earth’s history, lazily floating through canyons that took eons to form, reading the rocks, and casually watching hundreds of millions of years of the earth’s history unfold before us, like pages from a book too large for a man to possibly write.
I found myself surprised by the rate in which the evolution of the canyon unfolds, and the glimpses into the relative recent geologic past it provided. Essentially, the top layers of limestone and sandstone are the closest a floater can get to recent time; young layers, most recently alive. Some canyons are full of marine fossils that are easily recognizable. Around the bend are caverns that in Powell’s time, were rumored to be large enough to seat 60,000 people comfortably. Huge springs spill out of the limestone walls, wrapping the walls in riparian vegetation. And when the canyon finally relents for a moment, the relics of ancient ones who once wandered these enormous corridors are simply awe-inspiring. And to think, this is just the beginning?
But ultimately, I think it is the passing through marble that really puts you in your place, that actually gives meaningful perspective to what the scale of this place really is. In terms of dimension, It is here that the walls grow and grow and grow, while the boats seem to shrink and shrink, and shrink, eventually being diminished to the size we’ll live at the for the next 3 weeks.
As the walls continued to climb ever higher, so did the excitement. It wasn’t but 4 miles after we put in that we realized the river has a magnetic force drawing people here, and not just those on the river. As we passed under the Navajo Bridges, we noticed a crowd of people on them. Taking a closer look, it looked like they had a bungee cord below them as well. Immediately, we called for them to jump, hoping we’d see it right as we passed below them. Almost on cue, the jumper went spread eagle, throwing himself off of the 400 foot tall bridges, free-falling towards the river, directly over our heads. Among the shouting and cheering, we all shook our heads wondering if that really just happened, was it really legal, and how far up there is it? Quite the scene for the first few hours on the river.
And by day two, the real excitement on the river picked up as well. We entered the roaring 20’s, and quickly learned why the name is fitting. First, we ran House Rock, which resulted in the first boat popping an oar, and going way too far left, into what I am still fairly sure is one of the biggest holes on the river. Fortunately, the boatmen got it straightened out, and punched through without much drama. The next few boats, following the same line, also had some pretty wild rides, including one guy going for a quick swim, and pulling himself back on to the boat, in time to get the boat righted, just in time to punch the wave. The rest of us learned quickly. We are cheating right.
We had a few more big rides through the twenties, including tiger wash and georgie rapid. It was indeed a sobering wake up call, knowing the big waves were nowhere in sight yet. Truly, in terms of whitewater, the roaring 20’s and Marble Canyon are but a prelude to the Grand. Fortunately, those few days on the river were all the mentoring our boatmen would need, and with one more exception at Lava, the float went phenomenally well.
And so, we spent the next 5 days or so floating through mostly tame water, relaxing, and enjoying the sights (and sites). Hot Na Na, Nautiloid, Silver Grotto, Vasey’s Paradise, Redwall Cavern, Saddle Canyon, Buckfarm, Triple Alcoves, Nankoweap.
The list seems to never end, and with every new bend in the river, came the constant feeling of “I have to get back to THIS place again.” I’ve got a list of about 40 places I swore I have to get back to. Which, I imagine, only compounds the problem. Because certainly those trips would lead to 40 more…
Entering the Grand
There is a fairly obvious change in the geology that marks the distinct end of Marble Canyon, and prior to the section known as the Inner Gorge. The walls fall away, and the canyon becomes a much wider, seemingly less intimate place.
And in our case, if the obvious change in geology wasn’t enough, we were given some other, more extreme cues. Namely, the most intense windstorm I think I can remember. The wind was so vicious, it virtually slowed all progress to a halt, and drove a light rain horizontal against the current. It eventually sent a fellow boater into a huge eddy field that, combined with the gusts, effectively ended all downstream travel. As we slowly slipped past him, he gripped one oar with two hands, pulling mightily to try and break through. Alas, he gave up on his fruitless effort, instead making his way to shore to make camp.
An hour of painstaking progress gained us about 1 mile on the river, and it was time to cut our losses and lick our wounds. We got off the river, scrambled to set up camp, and prepared to hunker down. But then, just as we finished camp…. Relative calm. The storm slowly broke. The sun creeped back out. The wind stilled. And an afternoon of phenomenal light and drama began to unfold over Cardenas Creek. It was an amazing dichotomy to watch unfold, and certainly one of my most memorable days on the river.
Battling the natural forces deep in the bottom of this huge canyon is something of a humbling, yet inspiring feeling. Yet, at the same time, there is a certain amount of feeling helpess, knowing these forces are so much bigger than us. Ultimately, it’s the canyon that decides who gets safe passage. Sometimes the river is kind, pleasant and beautiful. And others, it is raging, angry, and terrifying. And often, it is a little of both.
There was a lot of talk that night around camp about what lie ahead. In short, we had three of the biggest whitewater days on the river, with rapids like Crystal, Hance and Horn. For me personally, I knew I had never seen such big water, so the nervous energy was both exciting, and slightly nerve-wracking. The ambient temperatures hadn’t been what I’d consider exactly warm lately, and my borrowed dry gear was slightly better than plain old rain gear. I’d like to think I wasn’t too worried about swimming, but ultimately, I’m glad I never HAD to do it. Nonetheless, after a few tame days floating in Marble, I think the group was now focused intently on what lied downstream.
Day 7 dawned clear, a welcome sight that gave us some confidence before running Hance and Horn. We got to Hance fairly early in the morning, and got out to take a scout. Hance had two fairly obvious lines, one that stayed left, and avoided the biggest waves, and another that went right down the gut, over the top of some of the biggest haystacks yet. Everyone in our party took the cautious line, and made it through with little issue.
We stopped at Phantom long enough to refill water, but quick enough to run Horn, sparing some time time for a safety margin. Again, we scouted Horn, and quickly learned that the water was too low to split the horns, and we’d instead have to go down the tongue towards the pit of doom, and pull hard left across the tongue to avoid it. The group all ran it well, and relatively easy, but I can tell you that sliding past that churning madness within a few feet is enough to get anyone amped, especially while the boatmen rowing your boat is cursing wild profanities, and digging in the oars to avoid it. There are few things so intense as the anticipation of a huge rapid, followed by the sigh of relief that comes from making it through clean.
We made camp at Trinity, and celebrated our epic-free day. Trinity has a beautiful granite narrows that flows into the Colorado at river level, and with a few hours of daylight, I grabbed my camera gear and went for a walk. Kiersten and I were chatting at one of the waterfalls, and I had my camera on a tripod set to long exposures, when we both got startled and looked up. A bighorn ewe had stumbled over to the falls, presumably to find a drink, when she looked down, only to find us staring right back up at her. She quizzically analyzed us for a moment, and then darted around the falls and around a bend before I could snap a photo, but it was one of those truly awesome sights.
Day 8 dawned with partly sunny skies, and a downstream breeze that would push us towards the most intense day of rapids of the whole trip, including Hermit, Granite, Crystal, and “the Gems.” Nearly everyone who had run this river has a history with this particular stretch of river it seems. In particular, I was interested to see the fabled Crystal Rapid, which had caused a two-day search and rescue just days before we got there. A huge flood in 1966 created Crystal, with it’s enormous holes and punishing rock garden down low. Today, the rapid is not quite as intense as it once was, and we were granted very easy passage by way of a river right sneak. No one had the courage to run the huge line way out left. Not that I, or any other sane person I know could fault them.
We made it into the Inscription Camp that night, above Bass, as another big storm system began to move in. That night, after we loosened up a bit from the day’s adventure, we were treated to one of the more memorable sunsets of the trip. I climbed up on to the granite bench behind camp and wandered over the granite gorge for a few hundred yards to an overlook, and watched as the threatening clouds dropped rain to the south, and a sliver of orange and reds began to creep into the horizon. It was a beautiful, but ominous sight that would be familiar for the next few days.
With the biggest of the rapids now behind us (until Lava) I decided it was time to have a little fun with my packraft, and see if I could run a few rapids with it. I paddled down to Shinumo falls where we caught up with a kayaking group from Seattle. I was greeted with laughter and a quick interrogation of “what in the HELL are you doing in that thing?”
I ran a couple small rapids, and was starting to feel comfortable in my 4.5 pound craft as we began approaching Hakatai rapid. From the very low seat of an Alpacka, it’s pretty hard to see where the action is, and I made the mistake of following too closely to a raft. Short of the long, as I dropped into the tongue, I saw a breaking wave that I was certain I couldn’t avoid. As I crested it, I tried to lean forward and keep from flipping, but it was like a giant hand of water slapped me clean out of my raft. A short swim followed, and Craig quickly picked me back up. With the cold water, I deflated the packraft and called it a day.
The inner gorge is truly a spectacular stretch of river, and it seems to last for days. At river level, the walls are mostly dark granite, and the canyon feels so much more intense. Which is why this section of river has some of the most memorable features, like Elves Chasm, Blacktail Narrows, and of course, some very obvious displays of one of the canyon’s most bizarre features; the Great Unconformity.
John Wesley Powell outlined the unconfomity when he made the first canyon descent in 1869, noting how nearly 1 billion years of the earth’s geologic history is completely wiped away. In few places in the world is such a large conformity easily viewed as it is in the Grand Canyon. While I can’t pretend to wrap my head around the whole scene, it is one of the phenomenal stories that canyon tells.
We spent the next few days simply taking in the sights. Occasionally, there were a few rapids that demanded some attention, but none quite so intense as what we’d already seen. In fact, the biggest obstacle now was reading the water well enough to avoid countless huge eddies. Every stretch had something more amazing to see, to experience. Matkatamiba, Mt. Sinyella, the confluence of the rich blue Havasu Creek water and the muddy silt-filled Colorado, National Canyon, and the huge glowing corridors of the middle granite narrows. However, our casual days never ended without at least one reference to what lies ahead. The biggest rapid of the entire trip…
The rapids, if measured individually, are not necessarily frightening in and of themselves. Most of them feel entirely manageable. But when evaluated as the sum of all the rapids, the sheer endurance required to navigate all of them without incident becomes what I consider damn near heroic.
The same, however, cannot be said of Lava. That one rapid, evaluated singularly, is goddamned scary. To my novice eyes, there was no clear line, no sneak, no cheat, no guarantees. It was river wide, and it was angry. As the group scouted, I snapped a few photos, generally kept to myself, and nervously awaited my chance to run it.
I had agreed to ride with Mike in the big 18 foot boat, to help give him some weight up front, and also because he planned to be the first boat down, which would give me a chance to take some photographs. Earlier, I asked what the odds of a swim are in this spot. Mike answered almost maniacally, “50/50.” Fair enough. Mentally, I prepared myself right then to swim.
Staring at the horizon line of the river, it’s almost impossible to see where we are going. There’s only one direction down there, yet it seems so easy to get lost in there. I had no idea where the ledge hole was visually, but there was no mistaking the turbulent rumble below. The roar alone is frightening, and when you finally see the violent mayhem unfolding, it’s too late. I only barely started to make sense of where we were when we coasted right by the monstrosity, just kissing the right edge of the river’s most infamous hole, and slid perfectly into the tongue where we punched the huge v-wave. And then, in what seemed an almost picture perfect moment, we crested another large wave, slipped to the left of cheese grater rock, and out into the last of the haystacks where we let out a few cheers of excitement and relief, before quickly eddying out for the rest of the group, knowing that the river may not afford such uneventful passage to everyone else.
I jumped out of the boat and headed up to the rapid to take some photos. The very next boat belonged to another group, and was piloted by Stanley the Manley, who we had met earlier the night before in a comical drunken campfire exchange. He was indeed a character, and rumored to take the biggest lines in the river. He certainly did not disappoint. Taking a total of about 12 seconds to scout the rapid, he was back in his 12-foot avon heading straight into the beast. As he dropped down the first fall, he over-corrected, spun backwards, and hit the small right hole square on, where he and his boat were spit out like a cheap sunflower seed.
A majority of the runs were relatively smooth, with the river letting everyone get a small taste of it’s true power, but ultimately letting most of the boaters pass by safely. But Stanley wouldn’t be the only swim at Lava. One of our other boats had lined up in position perfectly, but while scanning the horizon made, a few quick strokes to the right of the ledge hole, only to be greeted by a sucker hole that promptly corkscrewed the boat, sending a passenger tumbling into the waves, while the boat and it’s oarsman flipped upside down.
I am certain that swimming big whitewater ranks as one of the most terrifying experiences to have anywhere, let alone in such a committing wilderness. You can only truly appreciate how strong and how scary big water really is once you’ve felt the commotion of a hundred different currents trying to tear your limbs from your body in one moment, while a split second later trying to smash your body into hundred meaningless pieces. Staying calm and collected takes a level head and well tempered nerves. Watching helplessly from the sideline as swimmers went careening down some of the longest falls on the river did nothing to assuage that feeling.
It’s hard to compare the rest of the trip to Lava, at least in terms of huge rapids and nervous energy. There is a tangible nervous energy in the hours and minutes leading up to running it. Everyone knows it’s coming, and everyone knows the consequences. It only seems natural that a long stretch of decompression and relaxation is in order. Make no mistake, we celebrated accordingly that night.
The remaining few days of the trip seemed to float by in one beautiful blur of canyons, sunrises, and sunsets. Somewhere along the way, we regretfully said goodbye to half the group, who, owing to time constraints, exited at Diamond Creek. The remaining 6 of us floated on towards Pearce Ferry, looking forward to the hours of endless vistas, slow moving current, and time to relax and reflect on the ebbs and flows of the Grand. It was a perfect ending to a perfect trip. A few days later, in a moment of almost pure anti-climax, we rounded a mundane bend in the river, got our first glimpse of the cars, and with almost no words spoken, we made a few strokes towards reality, and landed on shore for the last time.
So as we pulled away from Pearce Ferry, 4 people strong in the pickup with three de-rigged boats in-tow, there was an unspoken concession that the trip truly was over. Joshua trees flew past the windows of the truck as we raced through the eastern end of the Mojave, and it became quickly apparent to me, as my my eyes casually glanced over the seemingly barren land before us, that life above the rim does seem to pale to what we just experienced. With a tone of reflection and perhaps a bit of disappointment, my friend said “I wish I was on the river for another couple weeks.”
With the unfamiliarity of a now not-so-distant reality beginning to slowly creep back into all of our thoughts, I could only think of one response.
“Shit man! I wish I was on the river for the rest of my life.”