Could you drop everything in your life for fifteen days with only a week’s notice? With a budget of only $550 per person, these eight people planned the trip of a lifetime down the Grand Canyon in seven short days.
The current system for receiving private permits to run the Grand Canyon is through a lottery. The first year an individual applies, he or she is given 5 points. The lottery occurs in February and people are allowed to select which dates they want. For every year that passes, an additional point is accrued. The more points, the more likely the odds of receiving a launch date. Throughout the course of the year, redraws occur due to cancellations. Morgan Wright, recent graduate of Georgia State University, had applied for a permit in 2013, knowing the waiting period averaged 10-15 years. She decided to apply for a redraw on May 22, 2014 and was notified that same evening that she had been awarded a launch date of May 29 — only seven days away. The deposit had to be paid by noon the following day to accept the launch date. If declined, her points would have been reset back to 1 and the waiting process would begin again.
Within 24 hours, a team of eight had decided to go, regardless of school, work or family obligations. Five people were meeting in Atlanta that Monday to drive 26 hours across country with all the gear. Two people would fly out from Atlanta, and one was flying from Hawaii. That left two days to borrow or rent boats and gear, purchase food, and pack. By utilizing everyone’s connections and equipment, the team was able to gather or borrow a 16’ Star Water Bug, a 12’ NRS Otter, 2 Dagger Green Boats, a Wavesport Recon, and a 4-door Tacoma for hauling people and gear cross-country. Additionally, Georgia State University allowed the team to rent dry bags, an oar frame, water jugs and a camp stove.
It was decided that additional gear such as extra paddles, a groover (solid waste container), a hand-washing station, signal panels and extra dry bags would be rented from Moenkopi Riverworks upon arrival in Arizona, and that each individual would be responsible to bring their own food. A menu was suggested to allow for group dinners, which most people utilized. The menu for breakfast was to be oatmeal and dry fruit; for lunch, peanut butter and jelly tortillas with trail mix; for dinner, a rotation between mac & cheese with tuna, rice with summer sausage and red beans, ramen and tuna, and spaghetti.
Five team members arrived in Flagstaff, AZ on Tuesday, May 27, where they purchased Tom Martin’s guide book (an excellent resource) and last minute supplies. On Wednesday, they picked up rental gear and the team member from Hawaii. The plan was to drop the gear off at the put-in and begin organizing before returning to Flagstaff that evening for the rest of the crew, whose flights were landing around 5pm.
On the way to the put-in, a loud “BANG” jolted everyone in the truck, which held six passengers and was heavily weighted in gear. Call it weight, heat, altitude, over inflated tires, or just bad luck — half an hour into the shuttle ride, we blew the rear right tire. With no time to waste, Moenkopi Riverworks was hired to pick up four of the crew and all the gear, and take them to the put-in, while the rest of the team waited for a tow truck to haul the Tacoma back to Flagstaff for a full set of new tires. When the first wave of the crew arrived at the put-in, two other trips were finishing their inspections with the ranger and had their boats fully loaded and ready to go. The ranger looked at the new-comers with skepticism when they arrived at 6pm with nothing organized. It was late that evening before the rest of the team arrived at the put-in.
Early the next morning, gear was organized (at which time we noticed that we had received no toilet seat for our ammo can), boats were loaded, and final preparations were made by 9am, just in time for the ranger’s safety speech. Three kayaks and two rafts launched at noon that day, intending to paddle 23 miles. Within an hour, it became apparent that their intended goal would be impossible to reach. Brutal headwinds prevented the rafts from gaining hardly any ground, and the oarsman fought just to keep the oar rig from going backwards. This went on for hours, until finally the group made it to mile 18 where they camped for the night. A feast of spaghetti noodles and sauce lifted everyone’s spirits (along with a bit of white wine), and by dark, most everyone was sound asleep.
The next two days were filled with Class 5 and 6 rapids (on a 1-10 scale, not in accordance with the International Scale), beautiful scenery, and the clear turquoise water of the Little Colorado River tributary. The Roaring 20’s saw the loss of a GoPro, which fell off its mount, untethered, and became a sacrifice to the river gods. The mornings were relatively calm and peaceful, but afternoon headwinds raged for hours, making the trip painfully slow.
One afternoon, Graham (from Hawaii) got on the oar frame and began to paddle. The trip was his first ever whitewater experience, but he seemed to be a natural at oaring, until reaching Zoaroaster, a Class 5 rapid. Intending to go left, he set his line, but at the last minute, the kayakers scouting below shouted to go right. Though he tried to correct, Graham plunged into the center of the rapid, hitting the hole straight but with no momentum, and flipped the oar rig. A bit of teamwork saved the day, but revealed that the food drybag had a leak. Two nights worth of pasta dinners were soaking wet. Micah laid the noodles out on top of a kayak to let them dry out. The spaghetti turned out ok, but the macaroni and cheese turned into lumpy balls of melted, doughy mess, which was eaten that night anyways.
On Day Four, the team prepared to face their greatest challenges on the trip – a series of Class 7 and 8 rapids that were known for huge waves, crushing holes, and technical lines. Hance, Sockdalager, Grapevine, Horn, Granite and Hermit were all happening in a single day. Approaching Hance, each boat picked their line and set off. The kayakers, staying left, set up safety. Then came the oar frame, which dropped in a little too far right at the entrance and missed their intended line. The oars slipped out of the oarsman’s hands for a moment, yet made it down the right side with no incident. The 12’ paddle raft, teased by commercial outfitters as a “baby boat”, made it safely down the left side. Everyone’s confidence was boosted by the success of the first Class 8 of the trip. Sockdalager and Grapevine went smoothly, and then came Horn.
At Horn, the first kayaker, Nell, portaged the rapid, identifying no line by which she could safely pass. The second kayaker, Morgan, went too far right and ended up front-surfing the meat of the biggest hole, before making it out safely a few moments later. The third kayaker, Mark, charged through a bit further to the left, but still flipped, then rolled and set safety for the rafts. The oar rig went first, its beefy tubes plunging into the top pourover with ease; it charged through the rest of the rapid like a champ. The paddle raft was next. From the kayaker’s vantage point, it was obvious that the raft was way too far right. Indeed, the boat plunged into the meat and was typewritered into a massive rock, where it spun into an eddy on the right in the middle of the rapid. Assessing the situation, the paddle team decided to portage the rest of the rapid over the rocky ledge, grateful to be upright and to have quickly recovered the one person who fell out.
The day was getting late, everyone was tired, but there were still miles to be covered. Scouting Granite, the kayakers decided to run far left, away from the meat of the rapid. Micah and Stephanie scouted the rapid and debated lines through the rocks and holes and eddy lines. As Micah prepared the oar frame for launch, Stephanie reported to the paddle team that the rapid was likely to cause a flip and that the team should be prepared for a swim. One paddler decided to portage the rapid. Indeed, at the very beginning, the raft climbed a huge wave and was plunged into a massive hole, flipping the raft instantly. Swimming Granite was a gnarly experience, and everyone came out at the bottom unscathed but for a bruise on the foot. At that point, everyone decided to quit for the day and find a camping spot.
The next several days were filled with all kinds of fun, especially since the water levels had risen and the winds had started to subside. Havasu Falls was one of the best side adventures, the clear blue water refreshing everyone’s spirits. Afternoon hikes became a regular activity, and the team made steady progress.
Meeting another group of private paddlers was one of the highlights of the trip. Noticing the minimal gear and food selection of the team, the group of 50-60 year-old rafters freely offered their beer, food, fresh margaritas and piping hot juevos rancheros for breakfast. Indeed, it was a good start to the day, which was to include the biggest rapid yet — Lava Falls. One by one, boat by boat, each kayaker and raft made it through Lava Falls without incident, charging down both the left and the right side.
A second oar frame flip occurred at Mile 209, yet another Class 5 rapid; this same rapid nearly flipped the paddle raft and caused one kayaker to swim. Carnage abounded, and so the team stopped to cook a hot lunch and regroup.
During the entire trip, it did not rain even once. Temperatures in the morning were cool, but warmed up as soon as the sun rose above the canyon walls. During the day, it got very hot, while evening temperatures remained warm. As the night wore on, temperatures cooled off again, and the cycle repeated.
On the last evening of the trip, we set out on the night float, a 12 hour float across Lake Mead to the take-out. We tied all of the boats together, fashioned a bed on top of our gear, and assigned rotating shifts to man the oars to keep us on course. By daybreak, the team had made it to the take-out at Pearce Ferry, where a shuttle took them back to Flagstaff, AZ. There they feasted on pizza and beer, celebrating the adventures, misfortunes and fun of the last 11 days.
Currently, many more permits are issued to commercial outfitters than to private boaters, at a ratio of 70-30. Commercial trips are also allowed to have many more people on the trip than private boaters. American Whitewater has played an instrumental role in advocating for the rights of private boaters to have fair access to the Grand Canyon. Please consider supporting American Whitewater to protect and restore rivers.
*Photos courtesy of Soon Mac Kweon, Nell Steed and Graham Risch.