By Hannah Taylor
Paddlers: Gill, Mark, Joseph, Rick, Bruce, Patrick and Dwight
Two years ago I sent Patrick, my partner, an email with the title ‘Paddle Down the Grand Canyon’. On the very next line I wrote, “I NEED to do this. I have set a calendar alarm for February and we should apply each year until we get it! There’s some pretty big rapids.” And that’s how it all started.
However, we didn’t have to apply each year because only a few weeks after entering our first US National Parks Lottery for a non-commercial Grand Canyon permit we were told we had been successful. I was grinning from ear to ear and so was Patrick. We opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate.
In the following 18 months there was a lot to plan not least of all finding another six people to join our team. Time ticked on until eventually we were ready for the adventure. Two UK friends were joining us and we had arranged to meet four Americans from California. It’s fair to say we were an inexperienced bunch when it came to oar rafting but there was a sensible amount of white water knowledge amongst the team.
Arriving into Las Vegas it was too damn hot but ‘The Strip’ is as bonkers as you’d expect. Thunderstorm floods settled on the main boulevard causing mayhem! Little did we realise at the time that the same weather pattern would also be turning our lush green river into muddy bath water. It was monsoon season after all and perhaps we should have done a little more homework.
Our team of eight had 16 days from put in to take out for our trip permit and we chose to do one of the longest variations pulling out at Pierce Ferry totalling 281 miles.
Once at a very hot Lees Ferry we start inflating and rigging boats. A good job we only do this once. We loaded coolers full of food/ice/beer/gin/vegetables the list goes on. We planned to be eating fresh vegetables on day 15… and huge steaks on day five! We have a huge four-burner stove, washing up buckets, three full size folding tables, chairs and umbrellas. It’s camping but not as I know it. We have a Portaloo of a sort called the ‘groover’. Essentially a large ammunition can with a toilet seat on top. Everything that goes down the river must be packed out… and I mean everything! Further down the line we come to resent unpacking, hauling, setting up, breaking down and repacking quite so much stuff.
A debrief by the ranger the following morning talks about some of the issues the canyon can entail, snakes, bark scorpions, heat stroke. At one point he reminds us… “You’re going on holiday in an oven.” He wasn’t wrong. Although we came to realise quite quickly that it was way more of an expedition than a holiday.
We finally cut loose from the bank and drifted down the Colorado River! The moment we had been waiting for. Spirits were very high. Gill and myself chose to paddle the inflatable kayaks (duckies) along the first stretch as there no significant rapids. We float down the river full of expectation. I’m taking my lead from Gill and we’re both surprised at the size of the riffles. If these aren’t even graded I can’t quite imagine the size of what is yet to come.
The water is incredibly cold, probably 5 Celsius. It’s come from the bottom of the dam about 15-miles upstream and warms up only slightly over the 280 miles. Hyperthermia is a real issue if you end up accidentally swimming.
A tributary that seems to be pumping in liquid mud soon muddies the green water of the Grand Canyon. From here on out the river is like chocolate milkshake. Full of fine brown grit that finds its way into everything. It will stay that way right up until the end. Even the usual turquoise waters of the Little Colorado run thick and brown. We’ll find only a few cherished places in the next 16 days where spring water runs clear and we get the chance to clean and splash around.
On the second day I get my own chance to row a raft. I’ve no real experience and this size boat in the UK just doesn’t work but I get to sample how an 18ft inflatable raft that weighs about 1.5 tons feels. Heavy but also strangely light. It turns well with the long oars but for now I only attempt flat water and riffles.
Day two also introduces us to our first significant rapid, House Rock, a class 7, at 17 miles down. We stop to scout. The rapids turn a right hand corner so you enter centre and move right avoiding the huge wave train and the canyon wall on the left. We talk through the plan and the third boat (my boat) holds back so I can capture video footage of the others. It’s incredible how tiny the 18ft rafts look when seen from this vantage. It really adds a sense of scale as we watch them ‘bob’ along to the bottom.
Our raft went down the centre and attempted to move right but it’s easier said than done and we’ve never taken on a rapid this big. We shout instructions to each other but our oarsman wasn’t able to move the boat. We hit the huge wave train at its biggest wave and sideways on. The raft is shunted almost vertical and sideways. Even our 18ft and 1.5 tons are like a plaything in these waves. The raft was practically vertical and what was our floor was no longer there… and neither was Patrick! He was tipped out of the boat and into the rapid.
Good fortune played a part and he wasn’t far from the raft. One pulse of waves pushed him towards the raft and he managed to grab the spare oar strapped to the side. He hung on for dear life as the boat and water around him pushed this way and that. With another pulse of water I get a firm grasp on his PFD and he manages to haul himself back into the raft. He’s shocked and cold but ok. Joseph keeps the raft steady until we reach safety. It was a close shave and it all happened in the blink of an eye. After the initial rush of adrenaline and excitement the people on our boat grow a little quiet and I’m sure they’re all contemplating, like me, just how close we came to flipping and how on earth we are going to handle bigger grade rapids.
Days melt into each other. We have days of blazing heat and quite regular thunderstorms. Patrick begins to row a little more and discovers having a lot of grunt is quite helpful. He can manoeuvre the boat well but has little experience about which lines to take and what the water is doing. It’s a steep, wet learning curve.
Around day five we have a hellish day. We have to run a class 7, four class 8s and a class 9 rapid, not to mention several small rapids that we’ve already become quite nonchalant about. It’s physically and emotionally draining for everyone, not only the oarsmen and the consequences of getting it wrong can be bad. Patrick and Joseph row our boat and take advice on lines from the more experienced people in the team. We row conservatively looking to stay out of the big wave trains and away from holes and obvious rocks. Always looking for sneaky ways through. “It’s a marathon not a sprint” we were once advised.
On one of the rapids we get an oar blade snagged between some rocks, it snaps in half and we get pushed into the worst of the rapid and all we can do is square up to the on coming waves with one oar! We survive and the advice of ‘T-up’ becomes our mantra.
We float through some of the most incredible scenery you’re ever going to see! Being there, in the bottom of it, looking up, it’s almost too much to take in. The colours, rocks and sheer scale of the Canyon, provide the most awe-inspiring backdrop to our experience. But the Grand Canyon is more than just rapids and water – there are many elements to explore. The myriad of side canyons, some accessible by boat others you’d need a climbing rack and rope to access. Little oases of cool with fresh running water hide up steep cliffs. There’s even evidence of previous occupation and exploration throughout the ages which are astounding. Man made wonders that are dwarfed by the natural wonders around them.
It all sounds incredible and it was, but it’s easy to forget how much hard work is going on as well. Cooking breakfast for eight people every morning, preparing lunch, monitoring our food, filtering water, packing away the kitchen and getting it stowed on the boat all takes time and effort. I would say that like all great adventures it was 80% hard graft, which made it what it was. I’d had ideas of sunbathing in the back of the raft, perhaps going for a swim but those ideas quickly fade. Full hat, glasses and long sleeved shirts were the order of the day. Doused with breathtakingly cold muddy river water on a regular basis.
After a week or so everyone began to relax. We had proved we were capable and the challenges ahead felt manageable. I took to the oars again myself successfully tackling a long grade 4.
There were moments of relaxation. Patrick and I became aficionados of mid-morning or afternoon naps on the back of the boat wedged in between drybags. All valuable down time to keep you going.
On the whole trip we only had one rest day, which was at the mouth of National Canyon. There’s was fresh water running higher up and it provided a great day of canyon exploration, shade from the heat and a sense isolation that can sometimes be hard to find. We found pools deep enough to jump into and slots tight enough to bridge hands and feet across. It was a welcome change to the muddy waters of the Colorado.
On the eleventh or twelfth day there was still one big rapid left to do. The Colorado through the Grand Canyon saves the best till last – it was the infamous Lava Falls. Infamous because it can bite. A grade 9 rapid with a huge pour over ‘raft flipping’ hole on river left that should be avoided at all costs. Needless to say there are also numerous monster waves throughout.
Lava Falls was everything I had expected and worse. All other rapids we had encountered had a way through that you could visually see, a place where the quieter water lay and an 18ft raft could sneak through. Lava was different! It was big, munchy and waiting to eat us up. We scouted the rapid on river right and there was a sombre feel to the group. Finally, after much pointing at waves, routes, holes and places to avoid everyone walked back to the boats. I felt physically sick. I was tempted to avoid the rapid under the guise of filmmaking and clamber along the shoreline once the boats were through…but deep down I knew I had to face up to our nemesis or I would forever be disappointed with myself.
We pushed back into the current. The oarsmen were quieter than usual. A right line was the general consensus but there was going to be a huge wedge of luck to getting through. Patrick, Dwight and I were in the lead boat. We hit the tongue first and pulled hard right before the oars were knocked out of Dwight’s hands.
We lost the line and from there it was a case of T-up or go over. Dwight managed to get the oars again just in time to hit another huge wave square on. The pulses of water knocked the oars from his grip again. A desperate scrabble for the oars ensued as we could see one of the biggest waves at the bottom that we had been desperate to avoid was right in our path.
The water reacts to obstacles like rocks, ledges and holes by becoming stacked or bunched against these obstacles and creates waves that stand in place. The wave stays there and the water flows through it. We were about to collide with our wave. If we got it right we could flow through without flipping. We crashed into the wave, a wall of water went over the front knocking Patrick and I down. The boat stalled but then bounced up and over the worst of it. We made it – if only just!
Our two other boats we’re less lucky. The oarsman on the second boat made a good entry but was pushed hard right and got stuck spinning against a huge rock. Pulsing up and down against the slab and being spun at the same time. Our third boat fared no better, like us they had been knocked by the power of the first waves and had lost the grip on their oars. Whilst reaching back for his oars Mark was dumped into the water. We had a long swimmer… someone who was in the rapid. This was really not good. Fortunately, Joseph scrambled to take Mark’s place and steered as best he could through the rest of the rapid.
I can’t imagine what swimming Lava Falls must be like but what I do know is the ashen, pale face of that oarsman as he was pulled out of the water is as close as I ever want to come to knowing.
Our second boat, still spinning and swirling in their deceptively dangerous monster rock eddy finally managed to get out and pushed through the rest of Lava Falls to join us. Everyone had a fairly emotional reunion. We were all in one piece and alive to tell the tale. Lunch in a shady spot enabled us to gather ourselves physically and emotionally. We had taken the worst and we had made it. There were still rapids to run and days to paddle but we felt we’d put the most serious stuff behind us.
The next few days were very calm. The river was still flowing fast but it was deeper and there were no significant rapids. We eventually passed through the Grandwash Cliffs and suddenly the Grand Canyon disappeared. We were now essentially in Lake Mead, which is created by the Hoover Dam that feeds Las Vegas miles ahead.
Early on the final morning we beached the boats at Pearce Ferry and derigged. Waiting for the outfitters everyone was quiet, tired and introspective. It certainly struck me that it was going to take a while to absorb our whole experience.
Hannah is a freelance filmmaker and head honcho of Maia Media based in Manchester, UK. She loves to combine her passion for the outdoors with her creative talents and specialises in creative video production with a focus on outdoor adventures, action sports, travel, tourism, culture and lifestyle.