Trip Report - Grand Indeed, Rafting the Grand Canyon
We have been home from our Grand Canyon rafting trip for a little over a week and honestly it all feels like a dream. Re-entry into "normal" life has been challenging to say the least, the first few days I found myself walking around in a fog and would cry at random moments. This adventure was the most challenging yet rewarding trip I have ever been on and would recommend anyone who gets lucky enough to either win a permit or get invited drop everything and go at least once.
We arrived at Lee's Ferry (the put in) on Monday, October 24th 2016 to allow a day to rig the boats. Everything needed for 22 days on the river must be brought down in rafts as there is nowhere to resupply. We had 9 rafts and 1 kayak to take all the needed gear down the river.
There was a calm, excited electricity at Lee's Ferry knowing that we were embarking on a 22 day wilderness trip with only ourselves to guide the way. We had maps, read many trip reports, watched you tube videos and had a few people who had been down before on our crew but we felt like modern day explorers non-the-less. My mind turned to John Wesley Powell often throughout our trip. In 1869 he, along with a few brave men, became the first known Europeans to transit the great unknown that was The Grand Canyon on a three month expedition that began in Green River, Utah. They had wooden boats, no maps or local knowledge, and very little in ways of provisions or gear. Present day river runners are blessed with many creature comforts that were not available to Powell and his crew. Every time I would get fussy and my thoughts begin to turn negative about loading or unloading all our gear I remembered how lucky we were to have all that we had brought. I would chuckle to myself and wonder if Powell would embrace all our modern luxuries or if he would shake his head in disbelief at all the stuff we "needed" to get ourselves down the river. My guess is probably a little bit of both.
After our mandatory National Park Service orientation talk we pushed off from Lee's Ferry around 10:30am on Tuesday, October 25th 2016. The canyon walls closed in around us almost immediately and the realization that we were essentially on our own became real. "The river only flows one way" whispered one of our veteran Grand Canyon crew members, Dudley. Indeed it does and we were riding the current through the Grand Canyon's entirety with a crew of 16 friends for 280 miles. While we may not have been the first to explore this majestic landscape that didn't stop us from feeling we were like Powell and his men, wondering what was around the next bend in the river, filled with both excitement and fear.
The days quickly started to blend together in a rhythm that only happens on the river. Derek and I slept on the boat as often as we could (in calm eddies without much rocking) so we would wake up with the sun around 6:45am and make our way to the kitchen. If we were on cook or dish crew I would start our chores while Derek would start to load the boat. I was usually the 1st or 2nd person up in camp and the rest of the crew would start milling around shortly after and begin putting gear away, cleaning up from the previous nights shenanigans around the fire and loading boats.
Once the crew was fed and the beach cleaned of all our human trace (minus the foot prints) we would chat about what our plans were for the day, big rapids we should scout, fun side hikes or other attractions the group wanted to stop at, where we should have lunch and our first choice for camp that night. Once we formulated a plan we would push off the beach and let the current take us further down stream.
Most of our crew was eager to step away from the river and explore the many side canyons, waterfalls and other attractions the canyon had to offer. While the river is the main reason most people come on a Grand Canyon river trip you would be missing out if you never climbed out of the main river corridor. Each side canyon had it's own personality with different rock formations, layers and colors. We tried to "do it all" and quickly realized you could do 100 trips through the canyon and still not see all it's treasures. My personal favorites were the hike into and slide out of silver grotto, hiking Matkat and the side canyon at Fishtail. Of course Elves Chasam and the Deer Creek waterfall were also really beautiful.
When John Wesley Powell first came upon Redwall Cavern he boasted that the natural amphitheater would easily hold 50,000 people. While his estimates are off by quite a bit, it is still impressive and alluring. We spent the better part of the day there by ourselves playing frisbee, hula hopping, taking pictures, having lunch and taking it all in. It is prohibited to camp there so the few hours you are able to spend become even more precious. We of course didn't want to leave and knowing the river only flows one way meant it would be a long time before we saw this magical place again, if ever.
The canyon has many personalities. At times it is serene, calm, majestic and at others it turns into a wild, playful beast never to be underestimated. While the river is mostly made up of peaceful, flat sections of water it is the roar of the rapids heard from sometimes a mile away that interrupts that tranquility and gets your heart pumping. These chunder filled rapids are what most people think of when you say you are going rafting on the Grand. Derek and I are experienced rafters but the rapids of the Grand Canyon are in a class by themselves and challenged us almost daily. Rated on a scale of 1-10 (1 being the easiest in the canyon and 10 being the most difficult) even the easiest rapids sometimes had huge waves and challenging eddy lines or whirlpools at the bottom. Derek rowed 99% of the rapids with me being the navigator, reading the map, pointing out obstacles and helping decide on our best option for lines through a rapid. I think we both came out better rafters and a better team.
Derek and I celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary while on the river as well as Halloween. It was a treat to have the Grand Canyon as a back drop to our celebrations.
There was a group from Jackson Hole who were camped upstream from us that we had leapfrogged a few times during the trip. We saw them at Elves Chasam and they dared us to capture their flag so Derek and Fletcher snuck over to their camp and stole it off one of their boats while someone was sleeping on it. Ha! It was all in good fun and we returned it the next day when they floated down to our camp. It made for some great story telling around the camp fire for both our groups!
The National Park Service and Bureau of Reclamation decided to do a high flow experiment (HFE) while we were on the river. They released aprox 38,000cfs which was a bit more than the normal 9,000-12,000cfs we had been experiencing the first two weeks of the trip. The HFE was to begin at Glen Canyon Dam on November 8th and last for 4 days and we were over 100 miles downstream when it began to hit us on November 9th at aprox 9:30am. When the water began to rise we were filtering water at Deer Creek Falls which is 137 miles downstream of the dam. When we noticed the water rising we quickly filled up our containers to be filtered later and made our way 4 miles downstream to Fishtail camp where we would wait out the 6 hours it would take to reach its peak and camp for the night. It quickly became apparent that being on the river while the water was rising was not a safe idea as a lot of big debris in the form of trees and logs came floating down with the initial release. So we set up camp, watched the water rise, placed bets on how high the water would get and hiked the nice canyon located nearby. We then enjoyed 4 days of big muddy water. Some rapids became easier, while others more challenging and if we hadn't felt like explorers before we most certainly did now. None of us were sure how the HFE would affect rapids, eddy lines and camps. It was new to all of us and our guide books were of little help in telling us what to expect. All in all everyone enjoyed the big water from the HFE, it was a treat to see the canyon with "flood" type waters that are all but non-existent after Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1964. The real challenge for most of us was catching eddies and the swirling whirlpools at the bottom of rapids. At the bottom of one particular easy rapid I remember a whirlpool quickly spinning our 17.5ft boat in two 360 degree circles like it was light as a feather. We kept our group tight through the rapids and ran a specific running order with a sweep boat bringing up the rear for safety. No one flipped or swam which was a blessing because a swim in the fast water could have been a long and dangerous one.
A good number of groups end their trips at Diamond creek and skip the final 55 miles of the canyon. We opted to float past Diamond, run the seven rapids that are below and then make a dinner stop at Separation Canyon. Separation Canyon is made famous by the fact that three men from John Wesley Powell's first expedition left their group and tried to hike out there. They were desperate to be finished with the canyon but little did they know they only had two more days until the canyon ended. I couldn't help but think of those three men as we ate dinner. They had braved 99 days on the river only to hike out here and never to be seen again. No one knows exactly what happened to them although the epitaph located at the camp indicates they were killed by "Indians". After dinner we barged up all the rafts together in a 3x3x3 formation and pushed off from Separation around 10:30pm under the full super moon. The sky was clear and the canyon was draped in moonlight as we floated the almost 40 miles to Pearce Ferry take out. It was one of the most magical things I have experienced and despite not wanting to close my eyes I had to make myself fall asleep at 3am. We reached the take out at 11am the next day and had the chore of de-regging and coming to terms with the fact our adventure was over.
A post about our trip would not be complete without mentioning our crew. When you read or talk about other people's trips the one thing that echos among all of them is the importance of choosing the right people to join you. Three weeks in close proximity with people in any situation can be challenging but throw in the challenges of the canyon and it becomes even more important to choose your crew wisely. I can honestly say I don't think we could have had a better group. Most of us were friends before the trip and grew to be family with an unshakable bond. We will always have those experiences to look back on and the obstacles we faced (taking out in the muddy mess at Pearce for example) made us come together. I have not laughed so hard in my life, been more scared (top of horn rapid), or felt so much jubilation (when we all made it through horn!) as I have on this trip. It brings tears to my eyes knowing we were able to share in all those moments together and help each other in all the ways needed to make a river trip like this possible. Cheers to all of you!