“Grand Canyon Express” Chronicles a 225 mile, five-day sea kayaking trip on the Colorado River

 

“Grand Canyon Express”

Featured in the July/August 2004 American Whitewater Journal, page 36.

The story of me and five friends paddling 225 miles of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park in five days. Since this trip, the Park Service has changed the permitting system and greatly shortened waiting times for trips. http://americanwhitewater.org/content/Journal/index/issue/4/year/2004/


Above Lava Falls

Like many of the seven thousand six hundred paddlers waiting for a Grand Canyon private permit launch date I thought I would never get to launch. In fact, in eighteen years when my permit slowly works its way to the top of the list and I receive my date, I figure I will be too old, too fat, and have too many responsibilities to take most of a month off and paddle the Colorado. The only alternative to waiting for decades or paying for a high priced commercial trip is to attempt to obtain a cancellation date. (A trip made available most likely due to the participants growing too old, too fat, and accumulating too many responsibilities.) The problem is that cancellation dates are often given out only one month before the launch date; which makes it tough to find sixteen buddies with enough money and time to participate on one month’s notice.

This past fall I was confronted with this exact problem. While calling the Park Service hoping to obtain a cancellation launch date I made it through the busy phone lines and a Ranger answered. I’ve dialed this number hundreds, maybe thousands of times in recent years and always gotten a busy signal or recording. I could not believe it. A real, talking Ranger had offered me a launch date for the Grand Canyon. I yelled “yes”, answered a few questions, said good-bye, and began running around my office hugging everyone in sight. A few minutes later I was back at my desk, staring at my calendar and fighting back tears. The permit was good for up to twenty one days of bliss on the river. I, however, just realized I had to be finished with my 225-mile trip in five days. I continued to stare in disbelief; prior commitments left me with only five days to paddle the Colorado.


American Whitewater Journal cover photo about our trip

What should I do, call the Park Service and cancel? Never. But 225 miles in five days, is 45 miles per day! Having never paddled more than fifteen miles in a day, 45 would kill me. A few hours later my buddy Jonathan, who regularly winds down after work by paddling long distances for fun, called me. I told him of the dilemma. He assured me that this was no dilemma at all. In fact, this sounded like the perfect vacation to him. He explained, “We borrow hybrid kayaks, go fast, and knock the entire trip out in five days.” I thought he was nuts. He continued,” It will be like backpacking. We pack everything we need in our boats eliminating the need for rafts. With the current we can average nine mph so we only have to paddle five hours per day.”

I had never heard of a “hybrid” kayak. Jonathan described them to me. They are about 11 feet long, can handle big whitewater, and have hatches like a sea kayak for camping gear.” These boats are meant as a crossover between touring and whitewater. Maybe I was desperate to go but the more I thought about it the more I knew it was doable. I am used to paddling four to six hours a day and I can live out of a backpack for five days. By the end of the day I was back on cloud nine. I began the preparations knowing in a few weeks I was going to paddle the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Immediately I noticed how smooth this trip was going to be. Normal preparations for a Grand trip take weeks of planning, as rafts have to be rented, and a kitchen capable of feeding sixteen people three meals per day has to be organized and stocked. Normal trip leaders spend hours trying to accommodate the individual needs of every group member and make sure sixteen friends will cooperate and get along for a multi-week trip. The entire preparation process for this style of trip took four hours. I arranged a shuttle through the Hualapai Indians, bought the same type of food and supplies I would normally backpack with, and shoved all of my gear in the convenient deck hatches of a borrowed Prijon Yukon Expedition.


Letting a storm pass under a cliff

Now the tough part: finding friends willing to participate in such an endeavor. Of course, Jonathan Shanin was in. Jonathan is a past member of the U.S. kayak marathon team. He actually enjoys paddling long distances. He could not wait to leave me begging for mercy while trying to keep up with him. Pete Persoljia smiled as I asked him to join us. He loves a challenge and knew we were clueless as to what we had chosen to do. Chris Pesce quickly signed on. Chris owns a videograghy service on the Ocoee and hand paddles while filming raft trips for an extra workout. Jonathan, Pete, Chris, and I had all traveled together on adventures before and you could not ask for better partners on a journey.

Rounding out the team was Spencer Solem and Erik Boomer. Spencer had lived out of a kayak on long trips before and video boats the Gauley during the fall. Erik met us at the put-in, literally. I only knew his brother Abe and none of us knew Erik before the trip. Abe showed up at my doorstep a few months earlier wondering if there was any whitewater in the area. My house is ten miles from the Ocoee! He was just learning how to paddle and was cartwheeling a few days later. Abe had wrestled for Nebraska and was possibly the best athlete I have ever known. He stayed with me for a month and became a solid kayaker. When this trip fell into my lap I immediately asked Abe to join us. Because of family obligations, Abe had to pass but asked if his sixteen year old brother could take his place. Sure, I told him, why not? Abe is one of those guys you just do not question. He said his brother would be fine and that was the end of the discussion.

After three weeks of anticipation we arrived at Lee’s Ferry. The Grand Canyon is incredible. The vivid landscape, the openness, and the powerful river have always entranced me. The excitement of camping on the beach before starting the trip is overwhelming. The Lee’s Ferry Ranger inspected our equipment and filled us in on proper camping etiquette. By now our trip seemed completely normal. The Grand Canyon in five days; I was sure this must be a regular occurrence. Then Chris, asked Ranger Hall how often people paddle the entire canyon in five days. Ranger Hall started laughing. He wasn’t aware of anyone doing this before. I could have read Chris’ expression from a mile away, “What has Jeff gotten us into?” I was starting to sweat it. What had I gotten us into? Was it even possible to paddle forty five miles per day for five days? Could these hybrid kayaks handle the whitewater? Were my friends going to hate me after this? It turned out I had unwittingly created a whole new kind of Grand Canyon adventure. The following are my journal entries from our incredible five day odyssey.


Deer Creek Falls

Day One: I cannot believe the speed of these kayaks. Paddling at a normal pace we knocked out the 4.5 miles of flat-water from Lee’s Ferry to Navajo Bridge in thirty minutes. When I realized we could truly move at nine mph, the monkey was off my back. I could easily paddle at this pace for five hours a day. Badger Creek Rapid proved to be a good test for the performance of a hybrid in big whitewater. No problem, these boats maneuvered well and punched the biggest, gnarliest holes. The roaring twenties were incredible. Through this section there is a sizable rapid spaced every mile. The rapids are similar in difficulty to those found on the Lower Gauley. There is nothing like finishing a big rapid and looking back at your friends all bombing through in perfect formation. By five o’clock we rolled into camp at mile 45. At the beginning of the day we didn’t know if we could take the mileage or if these kayaks could handle the whitewater. Neither was an issue. After a gourmet dinner prepared by Chef Pete, I fell to sleep watching a meteor shower. I had just had the perfect day.

Day Two: Day two was incredible. We started with a little surfing at President Harding Rapid. Heading downstream we encountered very mild whitewater. We were thankful to be in speedy fourteen foot kayaks. The incredible scenery rolled by. We broke for lunch at the confluence of the Little Colorado. To our surprise the Little was aqua blue, no sediment. The Hopi Indians believe their ancestors emerged from their previous world within this watershed. If there ever was a Garden of Eden, we had found it. The little Colorado is truly a magical spot. During the next ten miles of paddling we realized how encompassing the area is. Until now the inner gorge and the immediate vertical walls were all you could see. Now, the full height and distance to the rim is exposed. You see the multiple stair-step vertical cliffs and talus slopes rising back from the river for over ten miles and 4500 vertical feet. Soon the whitewater intensified. Starting with Unkar Rapid we went head to head with some big holes. Nevilles, Hance, and Sockdolager all blew by. We finished the day with Horn Creek rapid. I had always heard that Horn Creek consisted only of waves. I floated to the horizon expecting a big wavetrain. The crashing noise told a different story. Apparently, Horn’s is a little bigger at the lower level we had this day. Horn’s was huge with holes everywhere. I began pouring on the forward strokes building speed and momentum. Straight down the middle I was heading for a monster pillow of white. I lowered my shoulders and hoped for the best. No traditional whitewater kayak would have made it through that hole without a trashing. The Yukon just saved my tail. I looked back to see my buddies one by one punch through. We floated the next few minutes to camp exchanging smiles. I had told everyone to expect big waves. The surprise of finding the hole was the best part of the day.

 


View from Nankoweap looking downstream

Day Three:

One of the greatest things about the Canyon is that all of the biggest rapids are in the middle of the trip. Granite and Hermit were sensational. After scouting Crystal, Pete chose to run the center of the hole. There is nothing like seeing a fourteen foot kayak cart wheeling in a hole the size of a Mack truck. Pete not only stayed in control, but after his skirt blew he paddled to shore laughing. Needless to say the rest of us skirted the hole.

Through this section the Canyon’s appearance becomes intimidating. The shear and jagged rocks keep you focused. By today’s standards the Grand’s rapids are considered relatively easy. However, you imagine the early explorer’s nightmare of trying to navigate this run. I doubt Powell ever envisioned people paddling the Grand Canyon strictly for fun. In the afternoon the whitewater eased. Ahead of schedule we shifted into slow gear and focused on the scenery. We passed a private raft trip and chose a campsite directly across from Deer Creek Falls, which plummets fifty feet within view of the Colorado. This had to be a dream; it is not often you fall asleep to a billion stars and a fifty-foot waterfall.

 

Day Four:

Like any good river trip there’s always a day you’d be fine just hanging out, drinking beer, and doing basically nothing. The fourth day was this for me. I really did not want to put on my paddling gear let alone paddle 45 miles. After a sluggish start the day turned out as great as any day in paradise. We made exceptionally good time through this section where the Colorado narrows significantly. In a little more than an hour of paddling we arrived at the only big rapid of the day: Upset. Unbeknownst to us, at low water Upset has a sizable hole and we paddled through unsuspecting. Chris, who was filming a documentary, had strapped a video camera to my helmet. As I floated along behind them trying to keep the camera steady I realized what I was headed for a second too late. I tried to turn but there was no avoiding this one. I hit the hole, flipped and expected to never see the camera again. I rolled up to hear everyone hooting. The camera was still in place and all was well.

After Upset we floated the few miles to Havasu Creek. Havasu is home to the Havasupai Indians; possibly the most unique reservation in the Southwest. The Havasupai live in a small village nine miles from the confluence of Havasu Creek and the Colorado. Their village has no road to it, only a footpath. The closest automobiles are another nine miles farther up the trail. To visit Supai, you, as well as the residents, must walk, ride a burro, or take a helicopter. The village of Supai, Havasu Creek, and the three incredible 50+ foot travertine waterfalls in this canyon make it one of the most spectacular places I have seen.

After a little hiking and a big lunch it was time to continue downstream. The river slows and widens through here. The mileage was tough but the scenery was incredible. As had been the case for the first three days we found a rhythm and knocked out the miles. If I were paddling elsewhere I could not have lasted an hour. However, in the Grand Canyon you are so mesmerized by the surroundings the miles fly by. Before we knew it we arrived at Vulcan’s Anvil, the core of an extinct volcano which rises straight up from the center of the Colorado. The lava flow was a recent event in geological time and probably occurred when the river was here. Imagine paddling a river when a volcano erupts from beneath your favorite surf wave. Vulcan’s Anvil is less than a mile above Lava Falls. We made camp on the River-left beach and watched a remarkable sunset. As the moon rose you could see the Anvil looming out of the river. We slept well knowing that we had almost completed the long journey through the Grand Canyon.


Redwall Cavern

 

Day Five:

Lava for breakfast. Our last day in paradise began with a bang. With only a few minutes to warm up we found ourselves feeling the roar of what once was considered the nastiest rapid on the continent. Of course, times have changed. Lava is no longer as menacing as once thought. Floating to the horizon line could have fooled us; the thundering roars of this rapid left every one’s heart pounding. We all decided to run the river right line. Chris had swam here a few years before, and decided to redeem himself by hand paddling. I followed him, filming his line. The entrance to the rapid is confusing, as it is hard to tell if you are getting too close to the hole. In these kayaks we knew there would be no time to correct a bad line. Fortunately, we were on line and spent the next several seconds in the biggest crashing wave train I’ve ever seen. From the bottom, we could see a faint rainbow forming from the mist. Everyone’s line was solid and after a long rejoice we began the final 45 miles of our journey. The day was filled with smiles and a lot of hooting. Mile 209 rapid had the biggest, fluffiest hole on the river. We all tried our luck at punching it but one by one we did a huge backender and flushed through. Though it is hard to believe, we all wished there were more miles that day. We wanted to keep paddling and not return to the world. As we came around the last bend and saw our cars parked at the takeout we felt both an incredible amount of relief and sadness as our journey ended. Secretly, we all had doubts about making it. Something might go wrong or the miles would be too much. It was a great sensation to ramp on shore at the take out and truly realize that the trip had been a huge success. The smiles from my friends were indescribable, and yet another sight I’ll never forget. For most paddlers, a Grand Canyon trip is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Many of the thousands of folks on the waiting list often spend hours dreaming how great it will be to lead their buddies through the Canyon. Unfortunately, these dreams often do not materialize.

 The waiting list has become so long and the time and planning required to lead a conventional private trip are discouraging. At f rst, I used my permit for this five day trip reluctantly. I feared I would not get the complete experience in only five days. I was wrong. I have participated in a few Grand Canyon trips and this was my favorite by far. The planning for a conventional trip is overwhelming. The expense is as much as a month long paddling trip to South America. The coordination and cooperation required between sixteen friends can be burdensome. All of these concerns were eliminated by this style of trip. The planning required only a few hours. The expense was minimal.The challenge of the trip weeded out the friends who probably would have been the bad apples on a conventional trip. Most of all, I feel I experienced the Canyon fully and was able to focus on the beauty. I did not worry about rigging a raft or preparing an elaborate meal. My focus was on the scenery and the river. My 5-day trip was not a vacation but a journey. The feeling of being completely self contained is extremely rewarding. The rush of flying through the big waves and holes with the speed of a fourteen foot kayak was incredible. Instead of floating through and seeing the canyon I felt as though I experienced it. I highly recommend this style of trip although I think an 9-day trip would be preferable. With fewer miles per day there would be plenty of time to explore side canyons and hikes. You can organize it in a moments notice, keep expenses low, and experience more in less time. The Grand Canyon is a place all paddlers should see. Maybe this style of trip will allow more to see it and change what they see.

 

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