Posts Tagged With: rafting the Grand Canyon

The River

River
Beauty, power
Churning, flowing, imposing
Creator of Grand Canyon.
Colorado.

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I was mesmerized by the power and beauty of The Colorado River when I first saw it. The undulating, dancing water, deep in the Canyon it had carved, was hypnotizing. We spent nine days on it and there was no one section that looked the same. The river was always there, the one constant of the trip.

It was our means of locomotion; We floated on it for 142 miles, bouncing down rapids, drifting through tranquil sections; the walls of the canyon always towering over us.

River edge at dawn.

The Colorado was omnipresent; You could always hear it at camp; it was the first things you saw in the morning coming out of the tent; It was cool to the touch. It was always only a short walk from wherever you were in the canyon.

It was our coolant; By 9am it when it was already well over 100 degrees, The Colorado was 50 degrees and we would dump buckets of it over our heads. Before hiking we would fully immerse ourselves in it.

We drank it, we cooked with it; Filtered and purified, we consumed a lot of the Colorado in the crazy desert heat.

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We peed in it; It was required we all peed in the river to avoid stinking up the small and limited camping areas. We peed in paintcups overnight in the tent and then emptied them in the river in the morning. We peed off the raft during long days on the river. This was no trip for the shy. By day two, we were peeing within full view of everyone, without a second thought. It was easy for the men to pee off the raft in motion. I won’t go into detail on how the women hung off the raft to pee. Whalen asked during one such complicated maneuver, “Did you imagine you’d have to be peeing off the boat on this trip?” Katie promptly replied “Yes, but I didn’t think I’d be talking to people while doing it!”

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The river would look different with every bend; Changed color as the sun traversed the sky. On the last day we woke up at first light to discover the overnight storm had flushed out the tributaries and turned the river a deep, dark brown, like flowing coffee.

For nine days the Colorado was our life blood.

“The river flows not past, but through us, thrilling us, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies.” – John Muir

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Swimming the Grand Canyon

Swimming the Grand Canyon

When Whalen said nonchalantly, “coming up next is one of the rapids you can swim,” I thought, “you can choose to swim in the rapids?” That never even crossed my mind before; I had been doing everything I could to stay in the raft and not swim. Before I could decide if it was sane, Helen responded “I’m in!” So in solidarity, I followed with my own ‘In!” And eventually everyone in the boat volunteered – We were basically all abandoning ship on Whalen!

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Luckily, he didn’t take it personally and mentioned it was a good idea early in the trip to voluntarily learn to swim a rapid, a ‘training swim’, just in case you involuntarily got ejected from the boat later in the trip. He gave us some tips on how to breathe in the whitewater; which didn’t totally make sense to me.

Too late! The whole boat jumped in and floated swiftly downriver; a bunch of heads bobbing like corks as we drifted steadily towards the rapid. You don’t really swim, it’s more about treading water and keeping your head high and facing downstream.

I gained speed and hit the first wave head-on, and went straight through the middle of it. I was stunned, gasping for air, flailing my arms. This was totally full-on – I asked myself… Is this supposed to be fun?!

Then I remembered the advice The River Buddha had given us and quickly gulped a big breath before I hit the next wave. This worked much better as I started to get into the rhythm of the water. I tumbled through the rest of the rapid with a big grin on my face; Wait! This IS fun!

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Before I knew it, I was at the bottom and was hauled unceremoniously onto a different raft. There were people scattered all over the river, and we worked together to pull some other crew mates on board.

I finally spotted Helen. She had been swept over near the rocks, close to another raft who hadn’t seen her; she was having a harder time. She adeptly kicked off the rock wall bank and latched onto the back of the raft before it pinned her. She clinged on for a ride until they were able to get her in. She had apparently lost a contact lens and she is completely blind without them; so thankfully she was only half-blind!

Now we were still missing one from our raft. We maneuvered across the river and plucked our final crew-member who was trapped in an eddy upstream and finally we were all back on board together, soaked yet exhilarated.

Back on the boat

Whalen mentioned there would be more chances to swim other rapids later in the trip; I’d have to think on that. It didn’t take too long. Despite the fact I had just drunk a gallon of the Colorado River; Obviously, I was in.

 

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Rapids

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The strange thing about rapids when you’re on the river is that you hear them long before you see them. Some of them sound like you left the tap running, some sound like Niagara Falls. Obviously those are the ones to worry about.

It was day two, we were still green and we were running some of the biggest rapids of the trip. Our guide for the day was Whalen: The River Buddha. A calm, confident captain, storyteller, mischievous jester; He gave us a quick crash course: some basic commands and tips on how to paddle the raft in unison.

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Whalens pre-rapid pep talk

I heard Granite Rapid in the distance, a faint rumble at first, but I knew it was a class 9 out of 10. I’ve never been on a 9, but as Whalen started lashing down everything in sight, I knew I was going to get wet. “Get a good foothold, don’t forget to paddle, we’re gonna go BIG.” He shouted

Granite was a deafening roar now, but I still could not see it. Then almost in slow motion, the Colorado River looked like it was about to fall off a cliff. Now coming into view was total whitewater chaos. Huge waves rising above whirlpools; it looked like the river was boiling.

As we paddled we picked up speed into the oncoming mayhem and I questioned how this was going to work without me getting catapulted into the water.

We hit Granite Rapid dead center. It felt like being in a washing machine, and not the delicate cycle. Whitewater rushed past both sides of the boat; it was hard to tell which way was up; we were flung out of the wash spun sideways. We started to approach a growing, angry standing wave, broadside. I was naive but still even I figured that wasn’t the best way to hit the rinse cycle. With a sense of urgency I hadn’t yet heard from Whalen, he yelled “LEFT BACK!”. In unison, we on the left side paddled a hard backstroke. The boat spun straight and we hammered through the huge wave straight up. A quick rinse through the turbulent water and we were safely through Granite.

We had it more together as we hit the next powerful rapid; Hermit. We hit it square and plowed powerfully through the tsunami wave. Then we discovered these these two were just an appetizer, because Crystal Rapid was coming up next; One of the biggest and more technical rapids we would run all trip.

Crystal Rapid looks mellow from this distance.

I knew Crystal was big when Whalen said, “you hear that?….Sounds like a 747,” and it did and it was still very far away.

I knew Crystal was big when we all got out to scout it before we ran it. When I saw it from an overlooking bluff I understood why it had the 1-10 rating of 10 +.

10 + ? That’s like a 110%.

Whalen started talking us through how we were going to run it. Pointing out the line through all the unseen dangers in a calm and reassuring Buddha sort of way. It still looked scary but I started to feel good.

Then I walked by Tommy, one of the other river guides, as he intensely briefed his paddle crew, circled around him listening to his every word; “It looks like you can go through on the left. You try that and the current pushes you off that wall into the middle” he pauses, and starts slowly spinning his arm in a circle, “and into a hidden hole there” he points to a vortex in the river. ” His arm spinning faster. “It will take a raft, flip it over and over until it decides to let you go”; his arm abruptly stops. His crew is completely silent, everyone looking at him, then at the river. Hidden by their sunglasses, you couldn’t see but you knew everyone’s eyes were really wide, as were mine. He was freaking me out, I headed back to the raft.

Crew looks ready

We quietly loaded up and pushed off. It wasn’t long before we were launched into the teeth of the rapid. It was hard to paddle the chaotic whitewater, sometimes missing altogether as the raft bucked. We dug in and avoided the hole, coming within feet of the cliff bank to hit our line for the rest of the run. We powered through whirlpools, waves that towered over the raft; it was like being power-washed. But we hit it perfectly and came through unscathed.

A celebratory Pabst post-Crystal Rapid.

Sometime early in the day I invented a call before we hit a rapid. Some other paddle boats shouted and whooped before they dived in. My call was a rather unique high-pitched double squeak; ” Eek Eek! ? Not sure where it came from, it was a little strange but it became the rally cry of the boat all trip.

Our confidence had grown as we went through the rest of The Gemstone Rapids. They were all good-sized and we had some fun with them. Whalen always hit them big, and we started to mix it up; some we’d go through standing up, and Whalen had us spin the raft in circles as we bounced down Bass Rapid.

Standing on the rail in Gem rapid.

As we pulled into camp we had paddled 28 miles and 22 rapids under the majestic walls of the Grand Canyon. Hard to believe; an insanely fun day. It was only the first full day on the river but if this was any indication of the rest of the trip, it was going to be something I will dream about for years.

Categories: Grand Canyon - July 2017 | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

It begins

Bright Angel trail at dawn

I wanted to do something big for my 50th birthday. I figured rafting for nine days, down one of the biggest, deepest canyons in the world would do it. It has been something I’ve always wanted to do and this seemed to be the perfect occasion.

We were lucky to get spots on an AZRA all-paddle rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, traveling 136 miles over my birthday week. One of the first, and most important things we then did was organize beer and wine for the trip. We pre-ordered the maximum amount, (obviously) and AZRA would then pack it all into the raft before we embarked so we didn’t have to carry it in. I liked this rafting company already.

We started packing our stuff months before, but it didn’t take long. It turns out that you don’t need much in the desert, we had limited on space on the raft and we had to hike in anything we wanted to take down The Bright Angel Trail. We packed a lot of cotton clothing, as it keeps you cooler when soaked in river water; and it was all about keeping cool. This was odd for me; I’m used to packing polypropylene for camping trips.

The night before the big trip, we arrived on the touristy south rim of the Canyon, and headed to the trip orientation. They outlined the basics of the trip and gave us some necessary equipment; 2 dry bags, snacks, electrolytes, a coffee cup and a pee cup. Yeah, we had to pack a plastic cup in case we had to pee in the night to then dump in the river in the morning. Interesting, all pee was to go in the river, but you didn’t want to risk being swept away in the night!

We talked about the next morning’s hike down the legendary Bright Angel Trail and that it was a grueling 8 miles that drops 4300 feet and that it would be stupid hot. The guides stressed how difficult this hike would be and so to beat the heat we would start out at 4:15am! Noooo.

4:15 am!

But oh yes! Our alarm went off and it was just starting to brighten in the east as we headed over the rim. We were just able to make out the trail at first but as we slowly made our way down, the Canyon revealed itself in all its glory as the sky gradually brightened. Shadowy outlines gave way to brilliant red walls as the sun rose higher.

Sunrise

We were lucky though; A light cloud cover kept the sun at bay and the heat down;
to a manageable 95 degrees! We had a quick snack under the trees of Indian Garden and then sweated our way around the steep corkscrew section of the trail. After 6 hours, we finally reached the powerful Colorado River, dumped our packs, soaked our feet and scrambled for shade.

Colorado river foot bath

After a few more hours, everyone was assembled and we loaded up our boats, pushed off and caught the current; we were off. Finally, this was it.

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I hadn’t known exactly what to expect; 9 days rafting, totally off the grid, camping deep in the Grand Canyon with a bunch of strangers. But what I did know now – It was going to be epic.

Categories: Americas, Grand Canyon - July 2017 | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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