The seven natural wonders of the world. Only nature can create places so magnificent, so colossal, and so unbelievable that mankind struggles to find suitable words to describe them. These places must be seen in order to be believed; Mt. Everest, Victoria Falls, The Great Barrier Reef, Paricutin, the Harbor of Rio De Janerio, the Aurora Borealis, and the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.
Deep in the desert of Arizona, the Colorado River has carved a 277 mile long, 6093ft deep gouge in the Earth’s crust that stretches up to 18 miles wide in places, displaying two-billion years of the earth’s violent geologic past. A few lucky members of our crew had the amazing opportunity to experience this natural wonder in the raddest way possible; by rowing rubber rafts through it on a private permit! This is a brief description of our very human experience within the most magical place I have ever been so blessed to explore.
The Grand Canyon is the Holy Grail of whitewater fanatics across the world. Many boaters will wait their entire lives to get on a private permit, and most will never have the opportunity to do so. Each step of the process is more difficult than the last. The difficulty of permitting pales in comparison to the symphony of logistics, the nightmare of meal planning, and the burden of assembling all the proper equipment. However, all the preparation in the world will lend you very little confidence when you’re looking down the barrel of Lava Falls or Crystal Rapid. A lifetime of boating skills, a solid crew, and nerves of steel will help, but eventually you have to run the meat and there’s no way to cheat.
Rig to Flip. It’s not just a saying, it’s gospel. Rigging your boat will become the bane of your existence, but it’s not as bad as losing all the gear and food you’ve packed to get through 21 days of isolation on the river. Straps, ropes, nets, dryboxes, drybags, frames, ammo cans, coolers, and carabiners become your very existence. The wet bowline covered in sand destroys your hands, making the straps slice your dry fingers like a knife. Everything has a place and a purpose. You wouldn’t want to lose all of the meat and beer in your coolers, which are doubling as seats, so they must be strapped tight to your oar-frame, then covered up with your Paco Pad, which you’ll need to sleep on the rocky shore. Metal frames strapped to rubber rafts provide a stable fulcrum, which is necessary for your oars to propel your vessel away from obstacles or towards an awesome wave train.
Your whole life packed into a few drybags and dryboxes makes you reconsider all the pretty little junk you left behind at home. What do you bring? Well, the ability to stay dry, start a fire, or sleep in comfort will trump all modern amenities, and there’s no “app for that”. Every day you must carefully consider how to pack your stuff into your bags and boxes so that it's accessible when you need it, then plan how everything will rig together in the raft so that it cannot be lost to the powerful whitewater. This process must be completely undone every evening for camp, and repeated every morning before departure. Everything that is packed-in must also be packed-out… EVERYTHING. Every speck of trash, every can, food waste, and even solid human waste must be carried out in ammo cans to preserve the wilderness environment. The “Groover” may underwhelm many people as the only toilet option, but if you put it in a great spot with an awesome view, you can watch the sunrise light up the canyon walls while handling your morning “business”.
The whitewater within the Grand Canyon is extremely challenging, treacherous, and very high volume. In rafting terms, it’s world-class “big water” rapids are so stout that they are not measured using the international scale of “Class-I” through “Class-V”, but rather they are classed on their own scale. The Grand Canyon Scale further separates rapids into difficulties ranging from Class-1 through Class-10. Class 1 being moving water, and Class 10 being the un-runnable Pierce Ferry Rapid just past the takeout. The two most challenging rapids that your team must navigate are Crystal Rapid (8/9), and one of the world's most infamous rapids, Lava Falls (9). Many other challenging Class-8 rapids must be navigated including Hance Rapid, Horn Creek Rapid, Granite Rapid, and Hermit Rapid. In between the big boys lie many Class 7’s, 6’s, 5’s and 4’s that are not to be disrespected. In the Grand Canyon, every rapid, every eddy-line, and every wave must be approached with skill and caution. Every water feature in the canyon has the power to flip or surf your raft at high-water. Our group had one flip at Crystal Rapid, where one of our 18ft gear boats loaded with 2,000lbs of supplies ran the meat of Crystal and was pirouetted upside down into the air by the immense force of 17,000cfs of water. What a sight to behold! It took 9 full-grown men with ropes to right the upside-down behemoth, but the rig was so tight that nothing was lost in the process.
The absence of digital screens in your face resets your circadian rhythm and makes you realize how dependent upon them we have become. Your technological junk has no valuable use here, and it is quite difficult to keep these devices dry, charged, and intact. The smallest things become the most valuable; your headlamp, your sleeping pad, your river gear, a hearty dinner, a cold morning in a warm sleeping bag, a cup of gritty cowboy-coffee, Dr. Bronner's soap, a quick December bath in your birthday suit, or 5 minutes of sunshine since you decided to go rafting in a deep canyon around the Winter Solstice.
We had the pleasure of a full moon on a clear night, which lit the canyon walls in a ghostly manner, but made the beach bright enough for us to play two games of horseshoes by moonlight. Even better than the full moon was the new moon, creating an ink black sky full of the brightest stars, their colors now visible through the longest moonless night of the year. The Milky Way was undeniably vast, and meteors streaked across the sky by the dozen, some even streaking from one canyon wall to the other.
One of my favorite memories from the Grand Canyon will be the times when we crossed paths with other groups. You get to know the members of your own team so well while spending all your time together rafting, hiking, scouting, cooking, cleaning, and sitting around the fire every night, but eventually the human soul craves contact with others. On one particular occasion roughly two weeks into the trip, we had taken a day off the river, a glorious "layover day". That afternoon, another group from Lake Tahoe pulled over and asked if they could camp on the same gravel/sand bar with us, so we excitedly waved them in! About an hour later, it was getting dark when a third group from Colorado came around the bend. The next camp was miles downstream, so we called them over to camp with us as well. That night was awesome! Three teams of people from across the US, about 36 of us total, sat around a three-firepan fire and told stories. I remember looking around at one point and seeing everybody in little groups talking to people from the other crews mixed in together. Nobody was with members of their own group, and everybody was enthralled with the conversations they were having. Nobody was sitting silent, just sharing and learning with each other while smiles and excitable reenactments abound. There was not a single cell phone or modern amenity, just old time story-telling and getting to know each other around a fire in the middle of nowhere at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I believe this was one of my favorite parts of the trip, going back to an older time where people relied on each other for entertainment, stories, beta, etc. It seemed much more real than the digital world in which we have enveloped ourselves in the last decade, and I truly miss it already. I hope to cross paths with our canyon friends again, but if not I suppose it'll make our one-time acquaintance that much more special.
Until next time, we will constantly be captivated by the memories of our trip through the Grand Canyon, and hopefully one day soon we will get the opportunity to do it all over again!
Adventures in Whitewater