A Bucket List Trip: The Grand Canyon (Oct 2020)
A Bucket List Trip: The Grand Canyon
Submitted by David Pauli
(October 2020, Grand Canyon - Lees Ferry to Pierce Ferry)
I began whitewater boating 30 years ago. Right from the beginning I began hearing stories of the infamous Grand Canyon. It has been on my bucket list ever since.
My opportunity finally came! A group out of Southern Oregon had scored a permit for 16 and they were looking for another team member to round out the trip. The invitation went out to our own Jared Linkhart. Unable to participate, he had known through our conversations that it was something on my list to do. Through his relational connection to the trip leader and his knowledge of me as a person and a boater the connection was made.
OWA member and trip leader Peter Collins welcomed me to the team just six weeks prior to launch. When the trip roster was sent I recognized just one name…Blaire Samuelson. I met Blair on last year’s OWA Veterans Day Rogue trip.
I was torn between pulling my boat to Lees Ferry or renting a boat and flying. After discussing my options with Blair over the phone he suggested riding with him and sharing rowing duties. That seemed like a good idea to me so the decision was made…Blair and I would be boat mates. (I will develop the aspect of boating with Blair in a future story.)
For me, the trip started on October 7th when I rented a really cool glossy black Dodge Charger. I drove it to Medford to meet up with Blair.
We headed out the next morning, and after a couple days of driving, we arrived at Marble Canyon Lodge just downstream of the launch point. This is where I finally had the opportunity to meet everyone in our party.
The next morning was boat rigging day. We had contracted with Cieba who showed up with all the coolers loaded and ready to go as well as an assortment of rocket boxes. These items were numbered corresponding with a map they provided showing which day to dig into which coolers and what rocket boxes to unload. In addition to having done all the shopping and cooler/ rocket box packing for us, they also provided the groover that they would deal with at the conclusion of the trip, a huge plus. It became very clear by the sheer amount of gear and everyone’s attention to detail in rigging that we were up for something very significant. The park ranger needing to inspect every PFD, boat, and first aid kit underscored this fact. Once rigging was complete, the whole party enjoyed dinner out.
Photo: Matkatamiba Canyon
Our launch day was OCT 11th. We met up at the river early and had an orientation with the ranger where we were instructed for nearly an hour on all the dos and donts while in the canyon.
Most of our party members had prior experience on the river, so that fact alone helped to put me at ease. In fact, this would be Blaires 12th trip down and our trip leaders 4th trip down (his third in four years).
On October 11th our team of 16 boaters and 12 boats launched from Lees Ferry Boat Ramp to warm weather and sunny skies. We passed under the Navajo Bridge which spans 470 above the Colorado River. Eight miles in I got my first taste of whitewater as we navigated Badger Creek Rapid.
On day two after a hearty breakfast we broke camp, loaded boats and were back on the water. At mile 17 we navigated House Rock Rapid, our first class 7. We had one boat stuck on a rock in the rapid. Fortunately they were able with some assistance to finagle their way off without incident.
On day three the morning mood was livelier as our launch would bring us quickly into a stretch of river called, The Roaring Twenties. This is a stretch of river between mile 20 and mile 26 in which we would encounter eight large rapids ranging from class 4 to class 6.
At mile 24.4 Blair was on the oars when we entered Georgie rapid. This class 6 is named after Georgie White Clark, the woman of the river that owned and operated a rafting company in the canyon for 45 years. Upon entry there was a large diagonal wave rolling in from the left. Blair yelled, Duck! With my head low I could feel this powerful surge of water shooting right over me as the boat began to lift. I was sure we were gonna flip. I could see Blairs guide book disappear into the current out of the corner of my eye.
When I looked back to see Blairs reaction to the excitement his rowers seat was vacant and the oars were just dangling in the water. The surge of water had blown Blair right out of the raft. Upon looking back downstream I spotted Blair being swept through the froth. After a quick high side maneuver and a blast on my whistle to warn other boaters that we had a swimmer I jumped on the oars, finished the rapid and caught up to Blair who was clinging to side of one of the boats. After plucking him out of the drink we were back on our way.
On day four, thirty-three miles into our journey, we landed at Redwall Cavern. This is a popular attraction site. Musicians like this spot because it resembles a large amphitheater. The size of this cavern is enormous and the photos do not do it justice.
Photo: Redwall Cavern
Our first layover of the trip would be spent at the Nankoweap Granaries. My love for history made this stop the most interesting. These Puebloan storage units were cut into the sandstone around A.D. 1100. We got to this site by hiking a well-traveled, steep trail about a half mile from the beach. From this vantage point I was treated to one of the most breathtaking views of my journey.
On day seven the highlight was the Little Colorado River at river mile 62. The blue water is stunning! After hiking upstream Ben, Pete and I jumped in and floated through one of the rapids on the LCR just for the fun of it.
The Little Colorado River is revered by many Navajo and Hopi natives and for good reason. (Duwain Whitis)
On day eight we navigated several class 6 rapids. The rapids are gradually growing in size and intensity as we go deeper into the canyon. We camped at river mile 76 at a place called Nevills.
The next few days would be my favorite for two reasons. One the best whitewater is coming up, and two, the side excursions were off the charts.
The morning of day nine brought us to Hance Rapid, a technical class 8. We had one boater miss his line and go right over a large pour over at the top where his boat was surfed and tossed around for about a minute before being released. His vise like grip helped keep him in his boat.
Grapevine Rapid is a long class 7 filled with large holes. This is where we had our 2nd swimmer - an unexpected swim through the bottom third of Grapevine.
At river mile 88 we made a stop at Phantom Ranch. This is a popular destination for hikers coming down from the rim to the canyon floor. From this location I was able to mail off some postcards for my family. Mail is hauled out and delivered each day at Phantom Ranch via mule back.
We wrapped up the day after running class 8 Horn Creek Rapid.
On day 10 we ran through three monster class (8) rapids; Granite, Hermit, and Crystal rapids. Hermit was my personal favorite with a long series of massive standing waves. It was like riding a liquid roller roaster down the river.
Heading down river at mile 108 we passed the Ross Wheeler. This boat has been sitting there since 1915 when the party drug it up on the rocks and left it abandoned there after a failed attempt to run the canyon.
Photo: Elves Chasm by David Pauli
At river mile 109 we pulled in to explore Shinumo Creek. For the heck of it I climbed up behind the falls and dove right through it.
On day eleven our journey took us to two side excursions. The first being Elves Chasm, at river mile 117. Elves Chasm is a jewel in the desert. Our party enjoyed swimming and cliff jumping. Further down the river we pulled in to explore Blacktail Canyon. The high towering canyon walls are majestic, and the phenomenal acoustics make it a popular stop for musicians.
After a much needed layover we were back on the water on day thirteen. The river was typical for the canyon; long stretches of flat water punctuated by a couple of hair raising rapids.
The highlight of the day came at river mile137 with a stop at Deer Creek Falls. It was a grueling hike to the top but once there I was treated to this wonderful oasis in the dessert. I wish the photos could do it justice. The beauty of this sanctuary was truly breathtaking.
I also had a fun time getting the cooties knocked out of my hair while standing beneath the 100 Deer Creek Falls.
Day fourteen did not yield much whitewater but the side excursion was epic. Matkatambia Canyon also known as Matkat was shaded, lush, and a special refuge in the desert.
On day fifteen we ran one large rapid class (8) Upset Rapid before pulling in at the mouth of Havasu Creek. This is ordinarily a very popular side excursion but on this trip there were restrictions due to Covid-19 at the request of the Havasupai Nation which lives upstream just a few miles.
After pushing off again we were confronted by a terrible windstorm that forced us to pull in for camp early. This also was the only day that we encountered a little rain. Fortunately I was able to pitch my cot in a little covered nook which eliminated the need for a tent.
After a windy damp night everyone was up and we were on the water early. It was a cool day and this was just one of two days that I wore my drysuit.
There were no rapids to speak of on day 16 but thats okay because our thoughts were preoccupied with what we would be facing the next day; Lava Falls.
Day seventeen is the day people had been talking about since our launch. This is the day we would be facing Lava Falls. This class (9) rapid is the largest rapid on the river. Unfortunately videos and photos really dont show the magnitude of this frothy beast as there are numerous waves and holes capable of flipping boats.
We pulled in above the rapid to scout. I could feel the adrenaline surging through my veins as we stood on a high point on river right where we attempted to decipher our routes.
Photo: Scouting Lava Falls by David Pauli
We watched the first wave of our boaters enter the rapid and exit the bottom unscathed. Their success bolstered confidence so with that, the rest of us headed back to our boats.
Our route through the rapid was flawless and Blair demonstrated the skills and poise of a 50 year veteran of whitewater. In fact, our entire group navigated Lava falls with no swims or flips.
Lava Falls is the last of the huge rapids and as is customary our party pulled in below at Tequila Beach to celebrate the success and relief. Not really knowing if I would still be standing after a shot of tequila I played it safe and opted for a shot of my mango vitamin water instead.
Later we pulled into camp at Upper Hundred and Eighty-five Mile Camp. After 17 days in the heart of the Grand Canyon being surrounded by stunning beauty and epic whitewater I was feeling contemplative, reflective, and thankful for being in such a special place with such amazing people.
With most of the big rapids and the inclement weather behind us we were enjoying the warm sunny weather and low stress boating.
At river mile 187.9 we pulled over to look at some pictographs. These ancient native open air rock art were fascinating. Later we pulled in at Parashant Canyon river mile 199 for our third and final layover. In addition to rest, layover days are chore days. Laundry was on the docket, as well as a very chilly bath in the river. River water is a cool 50 degrees, similar to our ocean water on the Oregon Coast.
On day twenty with most of the big rapids and notable side excursions behind us, the focus of the trip shifted to logging miles. We still had 89 miles to go and just a few days to do it. Even though we floated 21 miles on this day, we were still to camp early enough to enjoy the warm afternoon sun.
On day twenty-one we logged 23 miles. We passed Diamond Peak. Rumor has it that this pyramid shaped buttes height is equivalent to the elevation of Lees Ferry, our launch point more than 220 miles up- river.
At river mile 231 the river came back to life with the last sequence of whitewater, a series of class 4 6 rapids including Killer Fang rapid. Not to be confused with Killer Fang on the upper Clackamas.
We camped at river mile 243. Three of our team members came prepared to put on their Halloween costumes. I had completely lost track of time and didnt even realize it was October 31st. I was glad someone had thought ahead and brought a bowl of candy to share.
Photo: Lava Falls by David Pauli
Day twenty-two. In the lower canyon campsites are few and far between. After logging 22.5 miles we found a unique Island Camp within eye shot of the Hualapai Skywalk. (River Mile 265.5)
We were now in a part of the river known as The Ditch. In years past, Lake Meade (formed by Hoover Dam) was backed up all the way into this section of the river resulting in silt deposits. This has filled in rapids making it essentially flat water. In addition, these silt deposits have created a ditch-like effect on the shoreline matching the depth of what the lake level had been. Fortunately there was still plenty of beauty to see above the silt line.
On day twenty three we launched at river mile 265.5 and pulled into our final camp at river mile 279, just one mile from the take out. It would be a bittersweet time around our final campfire. Soon this epic journey would be over, but truth-be-told, I was ready to go home.
Grand Canyon Exit. 11-3-2020 Our final camp was just one mile from the Pierce Ferry Boat ramp. After reaching the boat ramp the same company that met us at the launch point with coolers and rocket boxes loaded for our journey, was there to pick up the aftermath. After hugs, high-fives, handshakes, and well wishes it was off to Las Vegas where Blair dropped me off at my brothers place. Blair would finish his trip home in his Chevy Blazer. I would catch a plane out of Vegas the next morning.
All told, we floated 280 miles over a period of 24 days. We had three swimmers and mostly sunny warm weather. In addition to the epic whitewater, stunning side excursions, and breathtaking beauty, there were the peoplesixteen people doing life and adventure together. This was a bucket list trip I will definitely remember for a lifetime. But more so, its the people, and our times around the campfire and our conversations and friendships that I will most cherish.
Photo: The Crew by David Pauli