Grand Canyon Trip Report - by Tom Legere (Part 2 of 2)
July 18, 2016
Posted by Hawkeye,
06 January 2014 · 6,046 views
Day 8, River Day 6
The call that coffee was ready had not been shouted out but I was ready so grabbed my mug and set out through the morning darkness. There was none to be found but I did find Zack scrounging around in a raft for something or other. On asking him if the coffee was ready, he barely lifted his head to reply, “We can’t find any”.
No coffee. The thought of such a thing is enough to bring an instant withdrawal headache to any hard core coffee drinker but in the middle of the Grand Canyon, it is enough to evoke true feelings of horror and fear. No kidding, the morning we discovered we didn’t have any more coffee was the most dramatic situation we had thus faced, for the coffee drinkers anyway. The smug non-coffee drinkers were having a good laugh over it, watching the caffeine freaks try and figure out where they would go from here.
We were told by Scott the outfitter to use half a bag of coffee in a pot of water to make “cowboy coffee”. In the continuing chatter that was THE topic of conversation, with many people remembering Scott saying that specifically. To this day we don’t really know if he got the recipe wrong and we blew through our coffee too fast or they failed to pack enough but panic did indeed in sue when the shortage was discovered. No one had coffee to drink that first day and there were many sad faces, even some among the casual coffee drinkers who had come to appreciate it on dark and cool mornings.
Two hard-core coffee lovers had brought their own stashes, Lars and Tom. Almost immediately following the coffee discovery Tom was good naturedly threatened for a piece of his stash of Starbucks Via by Glen and he began to think about how he would share up it up over the coming 8 days. Lars stepped up to the plate the next morning and offered up a bag of Starbucks ground coffee, which was immediately thrown into service. We would end up accosting any river crew we met with offers to trade beer for coffee and we never left a negotiation without making some sort of deal. West Coast Johnny brokered a one-for-one deal for a number of Starbucks Via packets with a small group of American hikers we met who had hiked down into the canyon for Thanksgiving weekend. They definitely didn’t look like hard-core drinkers, and were likely thrilled to get a few beers to enjoy with the turkey they had hauled down into the canyon (they really did). The largest swap we did was with another crew like ours that coincidently had been outfitted by Moenkopi for their 21 day trip. “Trade coffee for beer? Absolutely!” was their answer to our offer. “We’ve got lots of coffee!”. Lots of coffee….outfitted by Moenkopi? Hmmmmmmm…….. The coincidence of it all was not lost on our crew. Could it have been possible that they got some of ours? Most of ours? No matter how you sliced it, we had not been given enough, even if we did use too much or Scott gave us the wrong preparation directions. We never did come across any lost coffee in our gear but we did manage to get through the trip without anyone having to deal with severe caffeine withdrawal symptoms. But it was a great experience of suddenly having something taken away from you unexpectedly that you are dependent on that you normally have an easy and endless supply of in your regular life and take for granted. I’d say that there were at least 7 people on the trip for whom lack of coffee was nothing to laugh about. From what I saw, I wouldn’t want to be driving in a major city if the same thing happened on a wide scale. One of my enduring memories of no-coffee day was of Zack downtroddenly staring at the ground, expressionless. I was likely not much better.
However, coffee or no coffee, we were about to face what would be our biggest single day of the trip (not counting the drama leading up to running Lava Falls) – four class 8 rapids. Everyone was totally stoked and had no time to worry about caffeine deficiencies. Crystal was the first one we ran, which meant picking a line out of a bunch of surging and crosscutting waves while avoiding a couple of meaty holes. Everyone got through, some with more style than others, but it was extremely exciting scouting it and then heading down a line that always, no matter where you’re paddling, looks totally different from the river. By now we were getting more casual about running stuff with no scouting – just a quick look - but today’s rapids were big enough to warrant scouts, offering lots of potential for trashing and getting the pulse rate moving. Up next was Granite, a very long, wide and hazard filled stretch of river offering everything from hero lines to a left sneak and everything in between…. lots of potential lines and just about everyone took something a bit different which was often the case on the trip and was great to see. Wayne ran close to the far wall, maybe a bit too close and flipped twice, looking at times that he might not make it back up. Zack and Brett ran next and both plowed into the same hole. While Zack punched through, Brett got flipped, taking a couple of tries to get back up, likely just because the times he tried to roll unfortunately coincided with huge waves washing over him Overall our biggest day yet and everyone, rafts and kayaks, did exceptionally well.
When you put cold water, dry air and sand together, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that people’s hands had started to get really rough by this point. Dry, chapped, cracked, even bleeding, it was tough to keep your hands soft. By the end of the trip I was having trouble doing up zippers and fastening buckles. While Zack had practically doubled over laughing at the white “Michael Jackson” gloves he spotted me donning before jumping into my sleeping bag one night, soon no one was laughing at anything anyone could do to save their hands. There were countless varieties of hand cream on the trip but nothing could compare to the smell, durability and performance of “Utter Butter”, which Mark had brought along. For the uninitiated, Utter Butter is a product to sooth cow’s sore teats but it works pretty well on humans and is one slick lube. Utter Butter jokes abounded…. it’s not tough to make ha-ha’s about a product named Utter Butter….but it was some popular stuff, and we were all grateful to Mark.
Yes. Mark Quackenbush, the captain of the kitchen, the compass of common sense and maker of practical decisions and well thought out plans. Another guy you couldn’t go too far wrong inviting to be part of a multiday trip. While most of us knew Mark at varying degrees before the trip, we soon learned more about his passion for kitchen organization, inability to sleep past 4:00AM and ingrained early morning habits (“first it’s off to the shirtter, then to make a coffee that I drink for the whole morning out of my mug”). While we had many good cooks who answered the bell before 6 in order to get the coffee and breakfast going for the crew, it was more often than not Mark that would fire up the huge sonic-blast propane burner to both get the water boiling and wake up the whole group. Mark insisted on order in the kitchen and was always a meal ahead, checking out the binder and figuring out what had to be defrosted; he was always alert to any unforeseen potholes that might stand in the way of a future meal unfolding smoothly. I also think he was personally responsible for scalding my hands with his incredibly hot dishwater (“You’ve got to have hot water to do dishes!!!!!!!!!”). If he never listened to the anguished cries of his own children when it came to water that was dangerously hot, which he told us he didn’t, it was no mystery why he wouldn’t listen to me. Mark also became famous for his cries of “They used just about every farmering dish in the place to make dinner”. If there was an award for worker of the trip that was a key part of keeping us on track in many respects it would go to Mark. Besides ruling the kitchen with an iron fist, he also became quite the rafter over the 14 days, having taken a raft position on the trip and never once putting his butt into a kayak (I think). One sad note about Mark though….on the way home he lost his beloved faded blaze orange toque, a piece of gear he was only separated from while on the raft and likely never without back home. After having made it all the way down the Colorado, he thinks it fell out of his vehicle at a truck stop on the way home. RIP orange toque….Value Village would have tossed you out of a donation box but you were everything to Mark.
Day 9, River Day 7
After a full-on day with the smallest campsite to date, a pretty calm day on the river followed and we ended up at one of the biggest and best sites to date. While a huge part of the trip is obviously the challenge and scale of the whitewater, the lure of drifting down the river on a raft is hard to resist. Many kayakers hung up their paddles and rafted for long or short times, drinking in the scenery and beer. I spent a few hours on Cale’s raft over the days and enjoyed the chance to raft a few smaller rapids, learning as I went, providing live comedy for Cale.
As usual, Cale did his part to keep the mood of the trip upbeat, things interesting, and was always contributing to the flow of the trip in one way or another. He was definitely not the lightest traveller on the trip, hauling along easily twice the gear of the lightest packer. While much of his load was clothing to be prepared for any situation, meticulously catalogued on the outside of his barrels, some of it benefited us all, like the hot pockets to warm feet or the little speakers that could often be heard playing music on the mellower sections of the river. While there is something to be said for the peace and tranquility of nature, there’s also something to be said for drifting along, rowing casually, sipping a can of beer listening to Garth Brooks drawl out “I’ve Got Friends In Low Places” or any of the many other songs on his ipod. I have lots of memories of people looking super chill, just lounging out, gazing at the rocks, listening to tunes and enjoying the ride. Something else Cale brought along was a series of index cards, one for each person for each day, to record some thought, memory or dumb ass thing one of us said. It became part of the nightly routine around the fire. As for the rapids, Cale pretty much mastered the raft thing, which surprised none of us.
One guy who didn’t EVER hop on a raft was our friend from Kingston, Seamus. He was determined to kayak the whole Grand Canyon. Armed with a large-scale map book, Seamus was always the go-to guy to determine what mile we were at and whether anything significant was coming up around the next bend. He had the “pull the skirt and stash the map” routine down to a science when a rapid was quickly approaching and easily turned wet, sticky pages of the map book with his gloves on. He did lose his map book once however and I believe Josh found it in an eddy downstream. About three quarters of the way through the trip he was not so lucky though, and lost his map book for good in a muddy, swirling pool of boils.
This site we stayed at tonight offered one of the most spectacular hikes of the trip across the river from our campsite, a chance to walk through the riverbed of an ancient chasm. Josh, Cale, Seamus, Zack, Jac took advantage of the opportunity, grabbed a raft and crossed the river before dinner to explore it. You may not know what a chasm is but if you saw a picture you’d immediately recognize one. It’s as if someone took a knife and sliced a wedge down a towering piece of rock, leaving a full-length gouge with a rippled pattern up and down the sides. It was one of those iconic formations you see in movies and postcards and was cooler than cool to walk through.
Every night on the trip had a slightly different group of people who shut things down and there were nights when just about everyone crashed fast and a few that for one reason or another were party nights. Only one thing was certain….Zack was a good bet to be the last man standing. He was up later at this camp, as usual, but was joined by Cale, Tom, Leah and Wayne. Nothing particularly special about this night, except for the fact Leah wasn’t making a secret of her fondness for scotch (who knew?) We had the music going and one of the fireside topics discussions was KWP, kayakers and paddlers in general. After a spirited debate we all came to the conclusion that paddling attracts a different sort of person, some may even say odd, different, perhaps eccentric, and that this strange mix of people from different backgrounds and outlooks is maybe the thing that endears us to each other and holds the whole thing together. And of course,, various KWP issues were brought up, argued about and beat fully to death. A memorable night and my favorite campsite yet so I decided to sleep outside under the stars on my Paco Pad. In the middle of the night I had to visit the groover and made my way across the site and finally found it, as I hadn’t visited it during the daytime. The Grand Canyon has to be the sweetest place in the world to take a crap. I could have stayed up all night gazing at the sky. It’s strange….in a place thousands visit each year, you can often feel like you’re the first one to venture through.
Sleeping on the rafts caught on amongst a number of the group that never went back to their tents. Lars started the trend, saying that he wanted to have “the full Colorado River experience” and besides, it meant that you just had to clean off a spot on the raft, lay down your Paco Pad (very thick, very durable sleeping pads a number of us opted to rent for the trip instead of bringing Thermarests), roll out your sleeping bag and jump in. No setting up a tent and taking it down every day. Bonus – the bathroom was right there if you needed it, for a pee anyway. Once introduced to the idea, Zack and Mark joined Lars and never went back to setting up a tent. I didn’t sleep on a raft but did sleep outside on the sand 4 nights. It was absolutely awesome - a sky full of stars overhead, with a cool breeze rolling over the bit of my face sticking out of the top of my mummy bag. Things were even more peaceful once I got through the first night without a visit from a scorpion or a rattlesnake.
Day 10, River Day 8
A cool but beautiful morning with a spectacular view following a great night. Dinner the previous evening had been Curry Chicken and Rice with Naan bread, finished up with a spectacular Apple Crisp made from scratch by Leah. The irony of it all was that she couldn’t have any because it had dairy ingredients it. It was given the baking treatment it deserved, in a Dutch oven, buried in the beach surrounded by hot coals. Naturally, the architect of the baking portion of the dessert was Lars. Who else?
Lars Hartling, last minute substitution for Manny Lawson, signed on to the trip after finding out about it from Martin Breu (Gonzo), with whom he attended a post-secondary outdoor skills and leadership degree program at Thompson Rivers University. Lars Hartling – somebody said the Dutch oven buried itself in the sand at the mere mention of his name. Lars Hartling – Chuck Norris apparently has a tattoo that says “Lars”. Of course, I’m just having fun but while it was a terrible to lose Manny at the last minute, at least we did pretty well by subbing in Lars. His family owns one of the premier, if not THE premier, rafting and canoe tripping outfits in the Canadian north, perhaps best known for running the Nahanni. He’s literally been taking part in, and running river trips since the age of 2. So the guy knows a bit about rafting, tripping, whitewater and all the tricks needed to make a trip cruise along smoothly. Along with Martin, Lars was one of the most valuable resources we had on the trip. Besides being able to ride a raft through just about anything with a smile on his face, he never once told any of us river tripping newbies how he would do something or what was the best way to do something. He just had a way of guiding us into doing stuff a better way, one example being how to expertly manage the camp kitchen with regard to having everything ready at the right time and with the least amount of wasted effort. He was the guy everyone wanted on their team. Up for anything, lover of scotch and ready with a bag of coffee when the shirt hit the fan, Lars pretty much became an honorary KWP member.
Paddling today was excellent, with lots of challenges, the highlight of which may have been us making it through Duebendorf successfully, where Leah exclaimed you had to “paddle like a bitch”, followed soon after by Bedrock, a great example of a highly rated rapid that was very tricky for the rafts but a relative piece of cake for the kayaks. All of the rafts made the line with varying degrees of style and success, which involved a sharp right turn and a huge mid-river rock island. That is, every raft except for Josh’s. Despite his formidable skills, he and Mark got stuck in a recirculating eddy that had the potential to flip the whole raft. While other rafters and paddlers quickly got onto the island with throwbags to assist and be ready in the event of a worst case scenario, a group of us watched from upstream. After attempting to get out at least three times under conditions that were absolutely exhausting, Josh broke through the eddy line and escaped. Though we had all respected him before, he showed extreme skill, persistence and cool under pressure in getting out of that mess. Basically unable to talk afterwards, he cracked a beer in the calm water and gazed up at the sky.
Tonight’s campsite is a long strip of land, with more than just sand, running along the river. I went for my second “bath” of the trip, which while refreshing was quite the ordeal of sinking sand, slippy rocks, and silty, cold water. Seamus took my cue and plunged in soon after, making shrieking noises but loving the end result. I took the opportunity to shave my neck, as the combination of whiskers, relentless sand, a tight gasket and many consecutive days on the river were getting mightily uncomfortable.
One thing about busy days, good food and warm sleeping bags…..many people have said they are sleeping better out here than they have in long time, though Seamus didn’t sleep so well tonight. He was woken up by the sound of something running around in the bushes outside his tent. While a lesser man would have cowered under the covers, he got up and chased it. Though it was hard to see what it was, it took off toward the river and jumped in, apparently familiar with the concept of swimming. It’s said that there are beavers and otters of some type down in the canyon but it was the only sighting we had of a creature like that. Seems like a strange place for a beaver because there really aren’t trees, just a few mangy bushes.
Day 11, River Day 9
There had been lots of relatively short side hikes on the trip so far but today was the long “whole day” hike that Gonzo had recommended and planned into our itinerary. After much discussion, strategizing, and argument, we figured out how we would do the hike. Imaging 16 people trying to set shuttle for a place they’ve never been to, all with different preferences and opinions, and you can imagine the scene: a typical KWP shuttle. Basically, our plan was for one group to get 3 rafts and 3 kayaks downriver to the end of the trail. The rest of the group would take 2 rafts and the rest of the kayaks, strapped to the rafts, and start at the beginning of the trail, which was upriver from where the first group started. The two groups would end up crisscrossing on the trail, meet in the middle of the 11km hike for lunch and then continue on, each group ending up where the other one started, where they would take the other group’s rafts and kayaks downriver to that night’s campground. If you understand the basic concept that’s all that matters but complicating things were details like ensuring there were enough PFD’s at each end for everyone that would be there and that everyone would have any necessary gear, necessitating the first group to carry their drysuits with them on the hike. The second group, starting upstream, did not have to run any rapids the first group did, so they didn’t have to gear up as thoroughly. But I digress…..suffice to say it was an organizational puzzle.
Josh, Lars, Gonzo, Zack, Seamus and Tom set out in the first group to paddle down the river to the end of the trail, hitting a number of rapids and passing through the narrowest part of the Grand Canyon, side to side, 76 feet at mile 135. Though this group had to put on drysuits, carry them all day and run this section of the river twice, at least the paddling was good. On getting to where they would leave the boats, they changed into their hiking gear, packed up their paddling clothing into knapsacks and started on the trail.
The 11km hike basically takes you up the side of the canyon and ultimately onto flat terrain that resembles what most people would think of if they imagined a typical western U.S. desert. To get to the flat terrain, where the two groups would intersect and eat lunch, there was a huge amount of vertical hiking to do up very rough trails featuring lots of loose rock, enough that you had to be careful not to start pieces tumbling down toward people below you. At other points there was genuine potential to end up sliding down steep embankments that would basically put you off a cliff where you would then die. Spectacular but at the same time they absolutely demanded respect. At other points it was just a narrow path with a death fall on the other side. There were no close calls but it was a place where you definitely had to pay attention to what you were doing. It was all fantastic, but the highlight had to be the clear waterfall-fed streams that created true oasis’s, complete with poplar-trees, green vegetation, and ground covered with dead leaves that could have passed for fall in Ontario. All this is the desert. Amazing.
The plains at the top looked very “cowboy movie-ish”. If it had been summer it wouldn’t have been a place you would have liked to be at high noon and it likely wouldn’t have been too hard to find rattlesnake or a scorpion. Having climbed a few hills, only to be thrust back down into a valley to be sent up another hill, the relatively flat plans were a treat. Eventually we spotted the other half of the group in the distance and we all stopped for a lunch of pitas, chips and water….there were fewer takers for beer than you might have expected. We didn’t linger too long because the day was passing by and both groups had to get through challenging terrain before making it back to the river.
Hustling along at a good clip, Gonzo and Lars ended up way out in front of the pack for our group, not because they were super keen or athletic, but because they had realized there was a good chance we were going to run out of daylight. While the other group had less time to hike and would be picking up the rafts and kayaks we had left which were much closer to where we would all camp that night, our group had farther to go and still had to paddle about two miles further then the other group,, through the same stretch of river paddled earlier in the day which contained rapids. You could only do the hike so fast though, because of the challenging terrain and the real possibility of taking a wrong turn. Big balls of the day award went to Seamus, who successfully completed the hike despite a serious fear of heights. It was sketchy for the best of us at times but it had to have been genuinely terrifying for him at times.
When we finally got back down to the river the sun was starting to fall, but that didn’t stop Zack from terrifying all the wildlife in the canyon (and us) with a butt-naked traverse of a slippy mountain stream feeding into the Colorado. Not sure if he did it, as they say, because it was there, or because the altitude was getting to him but he did manage to keep his hiking gear dry. Meanwhile, he quickly got dressed and into a raft with Lars while Seamus and I struggled to get changed, realizing the various neoprene socks and gloves we didn’t bother to bring with us for what we thought would be a leisurely daytime paddle might have been good for the same route through the darkness and cold.
With Gonzo urging us to hurry, we jumped on his raft and hit the river, which was soon completely dark, void even of moonlight as the section was narrow and deep. Either by luck or shrewd planning, Gonzo had a headlamp onboard, which he told me to wear while sitting at the head of the raft so he could at least see if we were heading toward any walls, rocks or bad looking water. After every rapid that would splash up and hit Seamus and I he would apologize…always the considerate professional raft guide. Being short of gloves and booties the trip was definitely a bit on the cold side but absolutely thrilling, rafting along in the darkness, only being able to see what the thin beam of light that shot out from the headlamp illuminated. At times we could see a light and hear sounds coming from Lars’s and Zack’s raft ahead but we didn’t know if they were on a good line or not so Gonzo was doing his own thing. I should likely have been more scared than I was but had tons of confidence in Gonzo, despite the fact he could barely see where he was going.
Meanwhile, the other half of the group downstream knew we would be eventually show up but without the knowledge of where the camp was. Having arrived around 2 hours before us, they had set up the basic camp and hatched a plan where one person would shout out a warning from upstream to both warn us that the camp, which lacked a good eddy, was approaching, but to also avoid having 11 people shouting confusing directions all at once. The rest of the crew gathered on the landing with lights and was ready to help us bring the rafts ashore. Just before reaching them we landed in a recirculating eddy that Gonzo had to fight to get out of but we eventually broke free and made it to the shore. If we had been twenty minutes later the plan had been to call the Parks Service to let them know that part of the group had become separated but was not knowingly in danger at that time. It was a great plan well executed…they even had hot soup waiting for us. Some of us didn’t end up eating until around 9:00 and it was a pretty early night for everyone at an extremely damp camp that was strangely wet despite any rain. It would have been difficult to fit any more adventure into the day.
Day 12, River Day 10
Some physical features made us think that there was some sort of spring or water running under last night’s site, creating heavy cold dew that soaked our tents. It was kind of a weird morning, waking up to see a site I never saw in the daylight, my tent soaked, grabbing breakfast before it was gone, trying to get my butt in gear after an exhausting day, all while trying to chip in with the rest of the team to get on the river in good time. Besides personal gear, there was always the kitchen to be broken down, the kitchen “floor” to be shaken out and folded, the dishwashing tubs to be stacked and packed, and the two hand wash stations to be dissembled, all of which had to be stowed in one large drybag. The fire pan had to be taken apart, ashes put in an ammo can and the ash catcher, basically a fireproof mesh sheet, had to be shaken out, folded up and packed. Then of course, was the task of dealing with the groover. After the series of progressively louder and more threatening warnings from Big B ( “45 mins for the groover…….20 minutes for the groover……the groover is getting packed up!!!!!) it would be time to don the rubber gloves, take it apart, apply just the right amount of powered bleach and deodorizer, pack it up and stow it all aboard Cale’s raft. To his dismay one day Cale discovered, once headed down the river, that someone had forgot the deodorizer, necessitating a mid-stream treatment program. Cannot imagine what floating down the river with numerous metal cans full of crap would be like in the dead heat of an Arizona summer.
After an hour or two of paddling in the cold water on a pretty much-overcast day, a number of people pulled chute on the kayaks and climbed aboard the rafts. It was a day mixed with some fairly long flats but also some decent rapids. Riding a raft through even moderate rapids doesn’t mean you can kick back on a chair and crack a beer however. On one rapid today while Cale was making his way thorough Brett got caught off guard and ended up having his head slammed into an ammo can so hard his neck hurt. Glen also felt the wrath of bouncing rubber on water at least once during the trip and was lucky he had his helmet on as it connected with something hard and metal. Running big rapids on a raft loaded with gear must like being on a trampoline, except that you’re being showered with cold water and working to avoid getting pitched out into the passing chaos while simultaneously trying to not get slammed into unforgiving steel boxes and framework strong enough to stand up to serious abuse.
We put on 28 miles today, way more than the average 18-20, trying to bank distance to allow for a layover day, which would mean being able to enjoy the luxury of not having to get up in the morning and break camp. Our site for this night however, featured one of the slippiest, steepest embankments at the take out yet. Whether he was trying to unload the rafts a little too quickly or was not paying attention, Tom’s feet flew out from beneath him and he slammed down on his back, completely covering the back of his drysuit and PFD with a layer of slick muddy silt. With not many other options to clean it off, he opted to wade out into the river and roll around a bit so he could hang it up and dry it off mud free. Unfortunately, he forgot that the first thing he had done when he landed his kayak was to relieve himself, starting out, of course, by undoing his pee zipper. Thinking he was done for the day he didn’t do it back up. So adding insult to injury, he found himself lying on his back in the river while his drysuit quickly filled up with cold, silty water. There was not much more to do at that point except laugh. The slick embankment claimed more victims but none more so than Zack, who was preparing get his bed ready onboard a raft at the brink of darkness but slipped as well, sending his sleeping bag into the muck. It’s hard for even a KWPer to laugh at something like that.
As usual, another great meal, this time tacos, followed by s’mores done on the fire for dessert. Through the darkness Mark could be heard raging “They used every dish in the godammed place and farmered up our washing system”. Eric replied to the stress by having another beer, on top of the many he enjoyed on the river earlier in the day, which likely contributed to his confused demeanour the next morning as he wandered about, musing out loud how he just couldn’t seem to get his shirt together. That was what often kept a lid on excessive drinking on the trip…there was just too much to do, too much to remember, too much to pack, too much physical activity in the day ahead to always be badly hungover, with the realization that anything left behind at a camp in the morning would be gone forever. Slightly hungover, OK. Badly hungover, bad.
Day 13, River Day 11
So the day to run Lava Falls had finally arrived. Although there are many other challenging points on the river above Lava, Lava is the one everyone talks about, with the power to flip rafts easily and featuring massive holes, one in particular, that definitely has the potential to hold kayakers. Besides being big, like everything else on the river it would be a personal first decent for all of us except Gonzo, so there were plenty of unknowns.
Despite what lay ahead, everyone was relatively chill about things, quietly tense but keeping their emotions outwardly under control, likely because they had gotten so used to running big new stuff with little or no beta. Lava Falls gets its name from the fact that there were one or more volcanos in the area at one point and the remnants of cooling lava manifested themselves in rough, porous, sharp, black rock that became increasingly visible as we got closer to the falls. 3 rafts were already at the takeout above the falls when we got there, off scouting.
It was a bit of a walk down the riverbank to where we could get a decent overhead look at the approach and the rapid itself. It was, as billed, huge, the most menacing feature being a wide mid-river hole near the top that definitely would work you really well and could possibly hold you. The most obvious line through, for kayakers anyway, started with a pretty decent “V”, the bigest decision at the entrance being how far left you dared to go, flirting with the huge hole at the top in order to position yourself as far away from the second river right hole as possible. The final feature to be avoided was a large but less threatening hole near the bottom of the rapid, also on river right. As usual, the wild card was the overhead scouting view versus the river view, which is always the case, no matter where you are boating.
After kicking around strategies and scenarios the first group of kayakers left, the rafters and others hanging back to watch and take pictures. As usual before a big rapid, everyone was pretty quiet, trying to stay cool but focused, hoping their own assessment of the rapid would keep them out trouble. There was little delay in launching, moving to the middle of the river and heading down, everyone making it through OK but having one of the biggest rides of the trip. Brett got flipped by a big wave skirting the edge of the huge first hole, Tom by another after almost holding but then succumbing while Jac’s kayak got shot completely airborne off the end of another. The rafts followed soon after, all running fairly close together with great lines running close to the river right wall. Along with the high of running a much anticipated and feared rapid, the sense of relief at everyone making it through OK and putting it behind us was felt by everyone. To top it all off, after checking a few known sources of fresh water along the river in the morning and coming up empty we found a spring on river left immediately below Lava Falls which would enable us to stock up on fresh water without having to settle buckets of silty river water overnight. So while Brett and Lars headed up that project, the food crew served up a lunch of pasta salad, apples and of course, beer. Despite whatever was ahead downstream, no one seemed to care after getting through Lava.
Unfortunately, what waited downstream wasn’t really tough water but really tough wind. Until this point in the trip we hadn’t had to deal with headwinds of any significance but almost immediately after putting on following the lunch break, a spookily strange warm breeze swept down on the river just before the wind got ugly (Cale diagnosed it as “Hooker air blowing in from Vegas” but we were unable to authenticate that theory). Though it didn’t break anyone’s jovial mood, it definitely made the going tougher to say the least. The most experienced and strongest rafters ended up being the ones to get the boats through the section, with Cale and Big B taking turns on our raft as you needed a combination of raft smarts and brute strength to punch thorough it and avoid getting blown into eddies where you would have to fight to near exhaustion to get out. It was so rough and windy that those needing to relieve themselves of excess beer could barely stand up on the side of the rafts to get the job done, let alone having to face the real possibility of having it all blow back on themselves and their fellow rafters.
We eventually made it to our site for the night, located at river mile 186, which was actually going to be our site for the next two nights, having finally put ourselves in a position where we could safely rest for a day. Gonzo rightly didn’t want to burn a rest day before Lava Falls, because if we ran into any trouble there and had to right a flipped raft, we didn’t want to put ourselves even further behind. The rest day was well timed because by this point, everyone was in need of a day to chill out and not have to hit the river in the early morning.
Ironically, after a pretty serious night of partying with everyone still riding the high of Lava Falls, we got hit with a major wind and rainstorm. While many hung out by the wind swept campfire alternately drinking and eating sand, not wanting to give in and take shelter in their tent, it never calmed down and only got worse. Leah picked a great night to get interested in drinking again, returning with Wayne to their site in total darkness over rocky, uneven ground to find their tent was gone. Loaded with their sleeping bags and some clothing, the wind had blown it over 30 feet from where they had set it up. By this point everyone was in their tents hunkered down, getting sprayed by sand that in many cases was blowing up and under tent flys and through the mesh material, depositing a thin layer of fine grit throughout the tent interiors. The guys who had been sleeping on the rafts to this point had to cancel those plans and quickly threw up their tents in the sandy, windy, rainy darkness. Halfway through the night Tom got up to check things out and found Glen desperately trying to stop his tent from blowing away, his fly having been trashed and interior of his tent soaked. Besides everything being soaked and sandy, the only other casualty of the night was the loss of one of the paddled tops from a raft cooler, which had not been secured and was never seen again. In retrospect, we likely couldn’t have picked a better night not to have to get up early and get going with the daily routine.
-hot food made by other people while you kick back with a drink
-the party raft
-running new rapids everyday
-side hikes and unexpected natural surprises and wonders
-no need to buy ice for the beer
-the groover, on a sunny day, in a great spot, with a great view. Can’t be beat.
Sorry, that was 11 things.
Day 14, River Day 12
The morning after the storm was relaxed and slow paced. Everyone gorged on eggs and Canadian bacon, eating more than usual, likely because they didn’t have to wolf it down and run back to their tents to pack up and hit the river. A very professional and civilized Zack was manning the grill, cooking eggs to order for pretty much as long as anyone still wanted to eat. It had gotten to the point where everyone needed a break, just about everyone’s hands were a disaster, and living in the damp and cold was taking a bit of a toll. Big B had come down with some kind of bug the night before and was just sleeping it off in his tent while some others took advantage of the opportunity to get cleaned up. None more fancy than John and Jac however, who thanks to John’s expert rigging skills enjoyed a hot shower with of one of those solar bags filled with hot water and hung from a couple of raft oars at the river’s edge. Tom and Seamus (not together) rode the coattails of that contraption and used up their remaining hot water. The campsite offered some excellent side hikes and various people took advantage, hiking up as far as the canyon walls would allow.
By this point we’d worked through a few of the games or activities that people had brought along but one of the sleepers of the trip had yet to immerge. Seamus, who had been lugging along the bocce set for the whole trip, also brought along a smaller, lighter diversion: a slingshot. Despite the obvious danger a slingshot might have been in the hands of a relaxed, well-refreshed KWPer, there was no serious carnage, except to the slingshot itself, whose rubber bands were pulled of it’s frame in a moment of enthusiasm by Cale trying to extract maximum g-force. Naturally, a competitive environment quickly developed, with shooters having a maximum of three tries to hit a gallery of full beer cans set up on a small log. As skill level eventually developed, the number of beers getting destroyed grew so we put an end to that as it just wasn’t right, even if we had lots of beer. Not sure if it is a game that would be appropriate for your average KWP weekend but it might just be a great low water Fun Run event.
General stupidity took centre stage throughout the afternoon, with Brett and John looking like homeless old men sequestered in their lawn chairs wrapped in sleeping bags sucking on beers. Gonzo told us that “11 of the world’s deadliest 10 snakes” live in Australia and there were serious doubts as to whether the cooking team would be able to adequately prepare the burgers scheduled for dinner that night. As the ravens kept circling and occasionally landing in rafts in an attempt to get at our food, some rafters floated by and were accosted by members of our group looking to trade beers for firewood. Despite their genial replies, I think the group on the river decided that it would be best if they just continued on and didn’t try to work out a deal with the impaired paddling group thoroughly enjoying their off day.
One of the things we didn’t have to do at camp this time was filter fresh water, because we had filled all our cans at the spring below Lava Falls. The usual routine was to let most of the silt settle in a pail of water overnight before running it through a battery-powered filter. To help hasten the settling process, our outfitter had provided a container of alum, a chemical which causes suspended particulate to bind together and settle to the bottom of the pail faster, thus speeding up the whole process. Great idea, likely works well but likely not such a good idea to put the chemical in a common Nalgene bottle without proper labelling. That’s what they did though and that’s what what led to Brett taking a swig out of it, which he reasonably assumed contained drinking water. It was all kind of surreal…our trip leader potentially poisoned, us out in the middle of nowhere and Cale on the satellite phone, trying to talk to either our outfitter or someone who knew something other than what they could tell us by typing “alum” into Google at the National Parks Service. At one point one National Parks person was ready to send in a chopper. About 3 calls later Cale was somewhat reassured that Brett would likely last through the night but was told that he should drink lots of water and might have to deal with some somewhat unpleasant side effects that involved the groover. The most incredible thing about the whole incident was that our outfitter had provided a potentially harmful chemical in an inadequately labelled container that most people know as one that typically holds drinking water.
Day 15, River Day 13
Rest day over, we awoke on Day 13 to find the coldest morning yet. The wash buckets had a layer of ice on the top and the foot pumps were frozen. The good news was that our fearless leader Brett did not expire overnight but the bad news was that cold cereal and cold yogurt were on the menu for breakfast. Breakfast wasn’t as harsh as the first cold hit murky water we got in the face on the river that day though, which felt uglier than usual.
A recurring topic of conversation on the trip was whether or not anyone would return to the canyon as late as we did, considering the weather we experienced. While it may sound like it was all rain and freezing temperatures, we did have lots of sunshine. The only problem were things like turning a corner on the river and suddenly running into the shadows, where you went from comfortable to cold. Or sitting on a lawn chair in the sun after setting up camp, only to have the sun drop out of sight by 4:00 or shortly after. Particularly bad was if you were on a raft, weren’t rowing, got wet from a rapid and then lost your sunshine, or hit a breeze on an overcast day. Ideally, the best time to start a trip may be to put on just a couple of weeks earlier than we did, which would mean you could still have campfires (fires are only permitted from roughly Nov-Mar) and you might end up with lightly warmer weather. Running the river in the summer has lots of negatives. First off, there are many more people on the river meaning competition for campsites, something you would have to deal with everyday. In the summer, you couldn’t have campfires but would enjoy daylight until late in the evening. And although it would obviously be warmer in the summer, it’s a LOT warmer…. it’s not out of the ordinary for temperatures to exceed 120 degrees F. People have trouble sleeping, let alone being able to hike without misery in the middle of the day. I guess it all depends on what you are comfortable with and what you are willing to put up with, with regard to heat or cold.
By this point on the trip we kept running into the same groups from time to time, as everyone launched at a different time and were taking either 14, 21 or 28 days to run either 226 or 260 miles, so the pace of the groups were all different. One guy from Lake Tahoe who we met for the first time today was an interesting dude…. definitely not a youngster (likely between 53-57), he was soloing down in a catamaran style raft, his 7th trip down the canyon in all. The solidarity of a solo trip is one thing but the obvious thing you face is what happens if you get yourself into a bad situation. He had run up to Lava Falls expecting to find someone who would at least be present if he had any problems but after waiting 3 hours no one showed up so it ran it alone. He ended up side surfing in one of the holes and luckily got out but it makes you wonder what would have happened if he had flipped and lost his boat. Pretty gutsy guy. More than one of the Americans we met made it clear that although they have kayaked the canyon before, the November temperatures were too cold for them to face in a kayak…..that’s why they were riding rafts. No matter how cold it was though, it was no match for spring paddling in Ontario, where the water is filled with chunks of ice and as I like to say, it’s so cold the water burns you. However, comparing spring paddling and the Grand Canyon trip, most of us agreed that spring paddling would never feel as miserable again, because at the end of the day back home at least you get to jump into a warm car and drive away to a pub somewhere. Here, on a cold overcast day getting off the river meant it was time to derig, get changed outside and set up camp, with a fire usually an hour or two away.
We started at mile 186 today and got to 209, which was great, along the way hitting a big class 6 rapid that will most likely be one of the last big rapids of the trip. We found a great site that had primo spots for everyone, and made excellent time due to our location when we put in and the timing of the bubble. Incredibly, when we unpacked our tents to set up for the night, some of them still frozen from when they were rolled up in the morning. As much fun as it all is, most people are, no surprise, looking forward to a hot shower, running water and seeing everyone back home. At the same time, most people are very much aware the end of the trip is close and don’t want it to end, so it’s kind of mixed emotions. Cancelling out any discomfort is the fact we landed in camp early, finding a wide-open space with sunny skies that last longer than some others we camped at because we’re not sitting at the bottom of a dark canyon. Dinner was served up early and those who decided to partake in the festivities made a night of it, which included Jac, after she was finished studying.
On almost a daily basis, Jaqueline, or as she is more commonly known, Jac, could be found studying for an exam she’d be taking soon after getting back to B.C., the questions all of which seemed to be about bears and other big furry things. Somebody or other was always chilling out and working on a beer in the early evening while sitting with her and running through potential exam questions. One of the two best-looking women on the trip, (ha ha), Jac was pretty much always up and bouncing around, keeping spirits light and people smiling. She was definitely the resident flora and fauna expert on the trip, actually able to correctly name birds (as opposed to most of us, who would say something deep, like “I just saw the coolest bird”) and she was just about always up for a drink, hike, or whatever was going on. She also came to the trip properly experienced on the oars and was able to pilot the raft down pretty meaty lines as well as being willing and able to run anything on the river in a kayak. Above all, she provided us all with Hawaiian leis on the last day to appropriately mark the occasion.
Thursday night also marked the first night Zack and I started calling everyone over to the kitchen for one on one video interviews to capture some thoughts about the trip as it came to a close. Battery power was limited so we tried our best to get to the meat of things quickly. It was a lot of fun, and best of all we didn’t run out of power.
Day 16, River Day 14
To no one’s real surprise this morning was the coldest one yet. Shirts, gloves and PFD’s that hadn’t been dried properly the day before were frozen solid and had to be dipped in the river to thaw them. Nalgene bottles could be turned upside down with the lid removed, and only the smallest trickle of water would emerging. Of course, washing your hands was more miserable than ever. Despite the cold though, the sun was shining and we all had a great laugh blowing up our drysuits with the raft pump. People with newer suits that could hold the air looked like superheros…..don’t know whose idea it was but it was hilarious.
The day was one of those where the biggest rapid of the day came right at us at the put in, a long series of huge haystacks headed up by a massive crashing wave somewhere between 12-14 feet tall. You could run a sneak around it but everyone in the kayaks hit it head on, the results depending on the timing of where the wave was at then you hit it. Some rode the crest, others had the wave fold back down on them when they were halfway to the peak. It was the type of wave that none of us had ever experienced before paddling the Grand Canyon…. absolutely huge.
The day was a mix of decent rapids and small ones, a pretty average stretch of Grand Canyon paddling, one of the highlights of the day being a side hike up the left bank of the river to see some spectacular rock features, the coolest being a hole round and smooth enough that you could climb through approximately 8 feet straight down to a flat rock ledge below. The hike to the spot accented again the fantastic variety of rock found in the canyon, perhaps the most amazing aspect of which is the variety that can be found in many spots. Granite, sandstone, sedimentary, glacial boulders, volcanic debris. How they all ended up in close proximity to each other is amazing.
Our biggest challenge of the day ended up being finding a suitable campsite. Either they weren’t big enough, were in the shade or lacked decent eddy access to allow the rafts to pull in. Not being far from the takeout we were left with few options and had to stop at a site that looked absolutely tiny where it looked like we would have trouble setting up all the tents, let alone a kitchen. Most of the space was on a sandbar that had to be accessed across a mushy, sandy trench. Big B took care of that though, by tirelessly shovelling sand until it was filled in and could be walked over. In the end the site proved us wrong…. there was lots of room for everyone, the kitchen, and a row of chairs facing the setting sun alongside a table loaded with snacks that wouldn’t look out of place at a decently stocked Christmas party. And it featured cheese.
Cheese. Cheese. And more cheese. Did we have cheese on this trip! While we would marvel at the number of breakfasts that included bacon, nothing compared with the wonders of the cheese world that were carefully packed for us. We would have likely filled 2 more groovers if it wasn’t for all the cheese….maybe that was the idea. Though I will likely forget a few varieties, here’s what I can remember:
By the end of day 12, we had gone through 3 sets of four work teams, leaving us with two days remaining to cover the chores for. We decided to absolve all the main rafters from formal task assignments, as they had done so much for the group as a whole over the course of the trip.... making sure the rafts were docked and secured, that all the gear was loaded in it's assigned place (because there are right and wrong places for everything) and most importantly, making sure everything was secured properly with cam straps. We all did our best to expedite the loading process in the mornings by hauling the group gear (kitchen, groover, various ammo cans) down to the appropriate rafts, as well as our personal stuff to the specific rafts where it had been riding for the whole trip. Well, most people had a regular raft and guide they threw their drybag and barrel on to. Tom never really noticed the pattern….he was determined not to be last one loading his stuff, but failed to cotton on to the finer points of the process. Zack picked up on this randomness on the second last day, incredulous that Tom had never caught on to this aspect of the rigging. Tom didn’t see it as a real problem though, because his personal philosophy about group dynamics and getting along was to just pitch in, lead if he was expected to, follow if someone else was leading, go with the flow but always doing his best to take a stand and get off the fence with an opinion if a hard decision had to be made. All admirable traits when it came to getting along with others on the trip and traits that most others on the trip shared. Perhaps these were more of the things that were part of the reason we all survived the trip without interpersonal carnage. Still dude, you didn’t notice the raft-loading pattern?
Weekend Tom. While the majority of us on the trip knew each other before the trip, some people knew each other better than others. On one day early on, Seamus paddled up to Tom, cleared his throat and asked, "So why do they call you Weekend Tom"? Tom, not really knowing what to say, because no one had ever really explained why he was called Weekend Tom, thought about it for a minute and told him that when he first joined the club, people were somewhat surprised that this middle aged father could become quite a bit more animated, usually on the weekend, usually at night. But not always. The persona came and went. There was no better answer he could really give but by the end of the trip Seamus could provide an answer of his own. While no one, even Zack, was able to shut down the camp every night, Tom did what he could to keep things going, often donning his A-Team styled party vest (The A-Team, 80’s TV action show, not the Gauley Fest road tripping and paddling team), imitating coke-fueled beasts from obscure Canadian movies, and threatening people who dared burn too much wood, all while keeping his headlamp shining on for no apparent reason, perhaps in an effort to illuminating the dark skies, prompting John to perfect his own Weekend Tom imitation, featuring a bewildered glaze with headlamp pointed upward, punctuated with the cry of "Tom, your light is on!!!!!!" Like everyone else though, there was limit to Tom’s endurance around the fire, because two weeks is a long time, the water too big and the mornings too cold and early. Amazingly, he only got two soakers over the course of the trip, and neither came as the result of jumping from raft to raft in the dark, looking for beers that should have found been located earlier in the day.
Day 17, River Day 15
Despite our best efforts, there was still lots of beer left after our last river night. Morning came cold and early, as we had to get packed up and down river to meet up with our outfitter at 10:30 to derig the rafts, roll them up, and load the truck and trailer. People started to pack up their tents in the darkness before sunrise, with most just dressing in clothes, not drysuits, planning to ride rafts, taking safe lines to avoid getting splashed. Leah, Wayne, Tom and of course, Mr.-I'm-Going-To-Kayak-The-Whole-Grand-Canyon Seamus opted to pull on the drysuits one last time and paddle to the end. While it was a bit of effort for just over 2 miles of paddling, the final stretch had more whitewater than we expected and was absolutely worth it (and for the record, Seamus did complete the paddle, being the only person to kayak every bit of the Colorado we travelled, and he made it to the takeout first.)
The de-rigging went well, as Brett had reviewed Moenkopi's suggestions with us and the team went at it with gusto. Along with the work were beers...lots of them, so by the point the truck showed up some members of the crew were pretty lit up. Directing us on the finer points of the derigging and loading was Marilyn, a key Moenkopi staffer who also happened to be the woman who coordinated and packed all the food for our trip, definitely no small task. While I have no way of knowing for sure, Marilyn looked the part of someone who wasn't new to the outdoor life.... lean and strong with long flowing grey hair and a big smile and chill demeanor. She expertly directed a bunch of increasingly buzzed, very excited people who had just finished an epic trip and who were looking forward to hot showers, food that was made for them and seeing loved ones they had a new appreciation for. Deflating and rolling up the rafts turned into a party of its own, with people tumbling around on the rafts to push the air out between drinks.
While we continued to pack up, a guy pulled up by himself in a long green Liquid Logic Stinger. His name was Danny and he was just finishing a solo trip through the canyon in 7 days (which he completed, after us inquiring, without rolling once). He picked up his permit through the once a month "clearance" the National Parks Service holds to offer up permits people are unable to use. From his home in Brooklyn, NY, he had 1 hour to decide whether to grab the available solo permit that had come up. He took it and ended up renting a kayak and arranging shuttle and pick-up from Moenkopi. He and his kayak rode the bus back with us to Flagstaff. Needless to say, he was a very good paddler and cool guy.
The takeout at mile 226 is located on native land and because of this, each of us had paid around $60 as part of our payment to Moenkopi for this privilege. The trip from the takeout to the highway was crazy.... about an hour and a half over the bumpiest road most of us had likely ever rode on. The van was an 80's era full-sized Ford that had seen many miles before. With Marilyn at the wheel, we bumped, drank, and occasionally danced our way along, listening to classic rock and hoping that the van wouldn't break down. While Leah busted out her smooth moves to tunes like 38 Special's "So Caught Up In You", Eric passed back beers from the front on demand. The stake truck and trailer hauling all our gear and piloted by Marilyn's son had to take a few stabs at some of the steeper hills and blew a tire along the way which necessitated an unscheduled stop to change it. The temperature kept dropping the higher we climbed and eventually we were back into the snow again. Shortly after getting out to the highway we switched out of the vintage Ford shuttle van and into the bus we'd rode to the canyon in at the beginning of our trip.
By the time we got back to the riverhouse we'd debated who and how the hot showers would be allocated but in the end it didn’t really matter because everyone was preoccupied with repacking their gear from the outfitters drybags, making phone calls, securing boarding passes and generally reconnecting. Being out of touch for a couple of weeks means things happen, some not so good. Zack got some bad news about his mother's health and had to change his flight, deciding to head off with John and Jac to Vancouver, leaving all of us feeling bad about his having to end such a great trip on such a serious and sad note. Snow, which started our trip, was now ending it, and no pizza or other restaurants we called would deliver in the storm. Since no one in our group wanted to or was sober enough to drive, we decided to just eat leftover food from the trip, which was a mix of cold cuts, salad, eggs, toast, hummus, and of course, cheese. There was lots for everyone as we spent the rest of the night packing and watching videos.
Lars was the first one out of the house at 4:45AM, having to catch an early morning train to eventually meet up with his Dad in New Mexico where they were attending an outdoor industry trade show. While the rest of us were getting picked up at 6:15AM, Josh was hanging around until 2:00 in the afternoon and Martin was leaving at some point to head down to Costa Rica. After piling into an Arizona Shuttles van in the morning and skidding down a snowy road, we picked up some other people in Flagstaff, transferred to a larger vehicle and headed for Phoenix.
Two of the other people we picked up were part of a 16 person, 21-day trip that had just gotten off the river before us. For the most part, they were a group of professional raft guides from the Upstate/Central New York area on a trip of their own. The biggest difference between their trip and ours was that their trip leader was the kind of guy who wanted to rig the whole trip himself, without the help of an outfitter. He had spent months preparing for the trip, and drove a trailer full of gear west from NY, unfortunately running into some vehicle trouble along the way, which put a huge amount of pressure on the group to get organized in Arizona and make it to the put it at Lee's Ferry on schedule. The only thing they got from the outfitter was a groover. As part of their plan, responsibility for food was divided among their group, with each sub group being responsible for a set number of days of feeding the rest of the crew. Once in Arizona, the group spent over 9 hours in a Safeway shopping and packing groceries for the trip, but because the leader had been late in arriving, there was no time to deep freeze their food as planned, which just made things more difficult. After hearing about Moenkopi and taking a look at the binder they provided to us, which provided details on o
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!