Sunday, July 6, was the beginning of a trip of a lifetime! Me and fifteen other hardy souls were about to embark on a 16-day river adventure, rafting and camping the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
For anyone who has ever thought of doing such a thing, every day brings a new panorama, a new set of thrilling rapids – and a new place to hide the “groover!” The ecosystem of this National Park is very delicate; all water – and I do mean ALL water – goes in the river, no exceptions. All trash, of course, has to be carried out. Minor inconveniences when you consider the magnificence of the experience. Apparently you can burn your trash, but we didn’t get that organized.
The trip was originated by Brooks Hinerman and consisted of an odd assortment of paddlers and never-even-been-on-a-river-before novices (usually girlfriends and wives who got talked into this). There were two GCA members in the group,me and Steve Toebben, son of Roger Toebben, who flew into Flagstaff (our starting point) from Alaska, where he is now stationed in the Air Force.
Steve took over the place Betty Rose was going to assume. We had already gotten both of our tickets to fly out there when she realized that a trip of that length, with no layover days, would be too much. After much soul-searching and a few tears, we put the invitation out over many paddling links, and Steve stepped up to the plate. Steve was already familiar with the wild-west kind of big river rafting, having guided on several western rivers. This was a dream of his, too, so a deal was struck.
All the intricate financing and arranging had been done with a sixteen-member group in mind. Meals for 16 people, 16 days, five rafts, full camp kitchen, water filtration and all the etceteras had to be figured out. PRO out of Flagstaff was the outfitter handling all the details.
Thank goodness Stuart Everett had the foresight to print out an itinerary of each day with a potential camp put-in, a list of the rapids for that day and their class, and the various hikes that could also be squeezed in – if there’s any daylight or energy left!
By the way, the rapid classification system for the Colorado River is on a scale of 1-10; Crystal in the middle and Lava at the end are both Class 9 big raft-eating rapids. Every day we navigated a mighty series of named classed rapids and in between were the unnamed ripples, some of which would be at home on the Gauley! But even given the big water, there was a clear line through most of them. We didn’t loose one single raft.
This was my virgin voyage piloting a 2,000 pound inflatable barge. The river moves along at a 5 mph clip and the water temperature hovers around a cool 47 degrees with air temp up to 120 degrees. For this trip, Glen Canyon Dam released between 10,000-17,000 cfs.
The canyon is almost a mile deep (or high, from our perspective). From the put-in at Lee’s Ferry to the take-out at Diamond Creek is 225.9 river miles. There are a total of 89 classed rapids and at least 61 listed hikes along our route (a total of 91 hikes total if you really don’t want to miss anything!). At the take-out, it costs $100 each to ride through the Hualapai Indian Reservation (Grand Canyon toll road). So much for the numbers.
The way to survive 16 days in the high desert is to stay close to the river! For sleeping it was recommended buying a good mesh cot and setting it up as close to the river as possible (beware the high water mark: the river fluctuates during the night!). I chose to sleep on the raft – cool breezes off the river made me glad I included a lightweight flannel throw as well as a couple of cotton sheets.
For clothes, don’t bother spending a bunch of money on expensive SPF shirts and things; Goodwill outfitted me with several white cotton shirts, some throw-away pajama bottoms and cheap shorts. Red clay – aren’t we familiar with that stuff already – abounds and isn’t worth trying to get out.
But one does need to cover up from the unrelenting sun: hats, umbrellas, socks under your Tevas, and – nail polish! The ladies in the group accommodated all with lovely shades of pink. Guess what happens when your feet stay wet for 3 weeks? I didn’t want to find out either. Oh, another foot tip – grease and duct tape. Dry air cracks the feet (duct tape) and intensive cream/Vasoline might keep them from getting that way.
Something I realized if I ever get back there is the food situation. We all voted on our preferences on the listserv set up for the group. There were a couple of vegetarians, so they had to be considered. At the end, we had to give up the “halibut” and the “steaks” due to budget constraints, but the food PRO provided was massive.
We could have really done with much less quantity and much less food prep for every meal. For the first few days we stopped for lunch and set up the full kitchen. Finally we got smart and prepared the lunch stuff at breakfast (breakfast being: pancakes, eggs, bacon and sausage!); that was a colossal improvement. Toward the end, we all just wanted a bowl of cereal. But no one went hungry and we didn’t have to eat pb&j’s day and night.
Another thing to consider if any of you make this trip – set up a duty roster! We pretty much winged it and relied on the volunteerism of the group, which if you, dear reader, have ever had much experience in, usually means some folks wind up doing most of the work! Others are willing to sit back and watch, scratch their nose, take a nap, read their book.
First of all, locating a proper crapper spot, filtering much water for supper/breakfast/lunch next day, setting up the camp kitchen (no small task), cutting up veggies for all the many stir fries we had, etc., etc. Then, next morning, packing all that stuff back into the rafts. I did get an appreciation for how little it takes to actually survive, though. And wondered how the heck William Powell did it.
Okay, you’ve waded through the gory details about the trip; now for the rapids! Legendary “House Rock” rapid (mile #17.1) is a Class 7 and a piece of cake according to this writer. That was on the morning of the second day; after lunch we tackled the fabulous “Roaring Twenties,” a series of very many Class 4, 5 and 6 rapids interspersed with a whole bunch of “smaller” ones! (Remember how I described “smaller” earlier?) Sprained a knee in the middle of “Tiger Wash” (mile #26.9). That kept me from hiking back to Silver Grotto, where we stopped for the night.
The next few days were mainly marked by several side trip hikes. Day four’s big hike was to the Nankoweap Grannaries (didn’t go all the way up on that one, either!). The last part of the hike looks like it’s straight up to old Anasazi granneries carved into the rock high up the canyon wall.
Day six started the beginning of really big rapids continuing for four days through the “Jewels” past Phantom Ranch. “Hance,” Class 8 (mile #77.2) and “Sockdolager,” Class 7 (mile #79.1) were the ones to ace on that day.
Next day, after hiking back to Phantom Ranch (mile #88.1) and posting two postcards via mule express, we began the ordeal of Really Big Water! “Horn Creek,” Class 8 (mile #90.8) led into “Granite,” Class 8 (mile #93.9) and “Hermit,” Class 8 (mile #95.5). “Crystal Rapid,” a Class 9 (mile #98.9) began the series called the “Jewels” – “Agate,” “Sapphire,” “Turquoise,” “Emerald,” “Ruby” and “Serpentine” all followed in rapid succession.
As an aside: since coming home, there have been reports of three rafts getting stuck in the boulder pile below “Crystal,” requiring the Park Service to intervene. I took the safe right line like any normal boater should: others, who wanted to risk death and destruction, took the “hero” line on the left. If you can keep yourself from ferrying back and forth below the rapid, chances are you’ll miss that pile.
On day eight we finished up the “Jewels” and enjoyed the next several days of excruciating beauty. No rapids over Class 7. For your information, on day nine, there is a seven mile loop hike that folks can take, getting out of the boats at Thunder River (mile #134.3), spending the night and hiking to Deer Creek (mile #136.2) to get back on the water. No one in our crowd had hiking fever that bad.
Day eleven brought us to the base of Havasu Canyon, a long hike with a series of turquoise blue pools and waterfalls stair-stepping up to the rim. Day twelve was the hike to National Canyon, which I did make. The whole route was marked by hundreds of side canyons, each one providing a day’s worth of separate adventure.
Day thirteen (of course!) we finally arrived at our day of reckoning: “Lava Falls,” Class 9 (mile #179.7), the nastiest rapid in the gorge. We spent plenty of time scouting from the rocks up above the falls. River guides, printed for each raft by Stuart Everett, proved invaluable. Each major rapid had the “survivors” line clearly explained. After thoroughly securing any loose things, we began our descent. Several brave souls ran the rapid in their kayaks. We all made it through, smiling and exhausted!
The next day was a pretty easy one for rapids mostly marked by hikes, one of which was to the “Book of Worms” fossil site. Then our final full day of paddling, day fifteen, had several smaller rapids, nothing above Class 6, and included the odd Pumpkin Spring, an arsenic-infused bath right by the river. They say it’s safe to enter, but I declined, having plenty of arsenic in me already from many years in the construction field.
One more night sleeping on the raft and then a six mile float to the take-out the next morning. I realized that the current does not slow down when entering into the lower part of the canyon. Not being sure of that, we kept the paddles fairly even to an average of 15-16 miles per day.
We actually could have spent more time in the upper part of the canyon and put in a 40-mile push to the take-out at the end. You know what they say about hindsight. Something to consider when you, dear reader, are planning your own Grand Canyon Adventure!
Well, that’s it. Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek, over 200 miles of pure glory. For me, this was just my first trip. The Canyon will see me again.
by Will Gosney
(ghost-written by Betty G. Rose, Grand Canyon Widow)