There are certain experiences in life seem that to be so beyond the realm of possibility due to constraints be it time, money or comfort, that I would not even dream of achieving: snowboard on every continent, walk the entire Appalachian Trail, climb K2, raft through the Grand Canyon. However, a friend of a friend won a 16 person permit via lottery for a 16-day private trip down the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River (“the Grand”), a permit that has a wait of at least a decade, and I was lucky enough to get invited. So despite my fear of fast moving water and disdain for heat, there was no way I was going to say no. I got the time off work, put a deposit down, and it was a done deal; I was going down the Grand.
The first thing I did was You Tube some of the biggest and well known rapids on the Grand, and witnessed several 20+ foot rafts get tossed around like rag dolls. I immediately shut my computer, realizing this was the worst thing I could do for my anxiety about the big water running through the canyon of all canyons. So instead I started talking to people around my small town, Durango, Colorado which has a strong river culture fed by the Animas River. Surprisingly, almost everyone I knew in Durango had either been down the Grand or knew someone that had. Talking to people was the best resource in both getting prepared mentally and knowing what to bring. Here are some things that I learned, by either word of mouth, first-hand experience, or both, that proved to be invaluable to me on this trip of a lifetime.
Take Care of Your Feet
This was the single best piece of advice I received before going on the Grand. The Grand Canyon has an endless number of hikes to offer to a variety of places including slot canyons, waterfalls, ruins of indigenous tribes, and chasms, that require hours of hiking. Our group was intentionally going to be on foot as much as on oars, so I brought four pairs of shoes: Chaco sandals, Keen Newport H2O water shoes, flip-flops and running shoes. I was so glad I brought two types of water shoes where the toe and heal were strapped down since many of the hikes required fording a stream and walking across watering holes, and sand would inevitably find its way into my shoes and create blisters against the straps. Being able to alternate between shoes for each hike while wearing flip-flops at camp allowed the blisters time to heal between rotations.
Also, don’t let the soft sand of the Grand Canyon beaches fool you. It is easy to stub your toe on a piece of drift wood, cut your foot on a rock, or step on a cactus, and it is difficult to heal an open wound on your feet when you are on the water all day. I recommend wearing shoes at all times unless you’re positive there are no obstacles that are out to get your feet.
Dry Bags Inside Your Dry Bag
Our group chose to hire an outfitter, Moenkopi Water Works out of Flagstaff, which supplied the boats and frames, PFD’s (personal floatation devices), groover (toilet), buckets, water filters, kitchen supplies, first aid, food, dry-bags, umbrellas, and other essentials for the trip. I was unaware that the outfitter provided dry-bags so I borrowed some lower-end dry-bags of various sizes. (Note that a dry-bag is exactly what it sounds like it should be; it’s a bag in which you put your stuff to keep it dry). I had two large dry bags: one for my clothes and one for my toiletries and other personal items. I also had three or four small dry-bags to organize things I didn’t want to dig for at camp such as my toothbrush, headlamp, IB Profen, cell phone, books and journal. Our outfitter supplied each of us a large NRS drybag for the majority of our things to be stowed away during the day while on the river and a small personal dry-bag accessible to us on the boat.
Since everything was already organized, I simply put my dry-bags inside the NRS dry-bag supplied. I thought this was overkill until my worse fears came true. On about Day 13, we made it to Lava Falls Rapid, the largest runnable rapid in the Grand Canyon. My boat captain had been down the Grand over 30 times and had never flipped on Lava, until that run. Everything happened in slow motion: a huge wave pushed us sideways, and the next wave, which was even bigger than the first, flipped us. It felt like I was trapped under the boat for a minute, but it was likely only five seconds. The three of us were able to get on top of the boat, get to shore, and wait for other five boats to help us flip back; the ordeal lasted less than 30 minutes.
We made it out alive with only a couple of bruises between the three of us and a cut above my eye (which made me look badass for a minute with all blood it produced). Our stuff in the dry-bags, however, was a different story. My captain brought her own top of the line bags so her stuff was fine. My things that were in the dry-bags I brought myself inside the NRS dry-bags provided were bone dry. I had gotten lazy toward the end of the trip and left a pair of shoes and some clothes outside my dry-bags which ended up getting soaked. My friend who also flipped was not so fortunate. Her sleeping bag, clothes and shoes were wet, and her cell phone was ruined. The dry-bag-in-dry-bag was an accidental discovery that saved me a lot of hassle. On a side note, the flip was not as bad as I had anticipated, and after the shock wore off, I was glad to have faced that fear.
Extra Contact Lenses
I lost three pairs of lenses on the trip due to sand, jumping into a waterfall and flipping on Lava. Not only did I bring only those 3 pairs of contacts, they were the last 3 pairs I had left with an expired prescription. Thankfully I lost the last pair toward the end of the trip so I was only in glasses for a couple days. I did have to miss some cliff jumping on the last day on the river. When I got home I had to set up and appointment with an optometrist and wait for my new supply of contacts to get in. Lesson learned: Bring more than 3 pairs, and make sure you have contacts at home.
Everyone remembers to bring sunscreen and chapstick on river trips, but one thing that is often neglected is regular lotion. The Arizona climate is so arid that your sweat dries before it even becomes liquid on your skin. On the Grand, you are constantly washing your hands and using hand sanitizer which is brutal on your skin. Bring a bottle of lotion and apply it daily to prevent cracking.
Variety of Beverages
Experienced river folks have a formula to calculate how much beer to bring on a river trip: take what you think you should bring and multiply that by 1.5. Although the rule is pretty good, I would go one step further and say diversify your portfolio. Even if you love dark beers and hops, consider bringing light beer, hard ciders and/or flavored beer. 16 days of even your favorite beverage will burn you out. Non-alcoholic refreshments are also good to have. My favorite new find of the trip was grapefruit flavored sparkling water. So refreshing in 100+ temps, and it makes for a good cocktail mixer.
Disposable Waterproof Camera
One regret I have about my trip was not bringing a disposable waterproof camera. I have zero action shots of rapids. A couple people on the trip, including a kayaker, had a waterproof GoPro. The kayaker, who had his GoPro mounted to his helmet, flipped a few times in huge washing machine rapids without losing his GoPro. If you don’t have a GoPro or don’t want to risk losing one to the river, a cheap disposable camera works fine.
Keep a Journal
There were so many intangibles on this trip that cannot be captured in a photo or described by words. Every day was jammed packed with adventure, conversation, and experience. We saw a helicopter operation, experienced a flip, witnessed four boat captains with very little prior rowing experience transform from novice to skilled oarsman, threw midnight dance parties on the boats, jumped off cliffs, saw wildlife, told stories, hiked everyday, cooked, cleaned and laughed. So even though words will not always quite capture the moment accurately, writing in a journal everyday will ensure that you hold onto these memories.
Define Roles of the Group and Rotate Tasks
My friend described this trip perfectly, “This is the hardest working vacation, I’ve ever taken”. We did not have a layover day (i.e. stay more than one night at a camp) during our trip. That meant every morning packed all our personal items and tents, the kitchen, the groover (toilet), and the dish station; loaded everything onto the boats; and ensured everything was rigged down securely. Every afternoon, we unloaded the boats, and set everything back up. The process took about 1.5 to 2.5 hours to perform collectively as a group; this was performed 32 times over the duration of the trip.
Our trip leader did an excellent job creating teams and assigning tasks. There were four groups and each were responsible for a task, and the tasks rotated daily. The kitchen crew cooked dinner, breakfast and lunch; dish crew assembled and disassembled the hand wash stations and washed dishes after every meal; groover duty assembled, cleaned and disassembled the toilet; and the last team had rest day.
In addition to the assigned tasks, there were shared responsibilities which included setting up and breaking down chairs, crushing cans, filtering water, and unloading and loading big items from boats such as tables, kitchen and pot boxes, and other shared equipment. Shared responsibilities seemed to be a grey area and setting expectations up front that everyone is expected to help could minimize that conception that only group tasks are required. If your trip leader hasn’t made this clear, ask. You don’t want to be that guy kicking back in the shade while everyone else is breaking down and rigging group equipment.
Bring a Paco Pad
A Paco Pad is a large self-inflating pad about 75 x 25 inches. I rented a Paco Pad from Moenkopi for $2 a day, and it ended up being the best $32 I spent on the trip. It fit perfectly in one-man tent or on the boat and was much more comfortable than camping sleeping pad. It was nice not having to blow up an air mattress every night and having to deflate roll it up the following morning. During the day, the Paco pads were placed over the metal hatch to create seating toward the front of the boat which was another added bonus.
Go the Extra 50 Miles
A popular take-out on the Grand is Diamond Creek which is 225 miles from the starting point of Lee’s Ferry. You can also opt to take out at Pearce Ferry which is at mile 279. On the evening of Day 15 of our trip, we cooked dinner at a beach at around mile 240. At dusk we strapped our boats together to create a barge (four boats side by side and one boat perpendicular to end of the four). We celebrated a birthday with a cake and candles, drank a beer and one by one fell asleep. The barge would periodically bump, or rather crash, into the canyon wall. It was startling the first few times, but eventually I got used to it so would wake for a second and either fall back asleep or look up for a moment to see a cloudless sky emblazoned by thousands of stars. It was such a unique experience to float down the Grand Canyon through the night, not being able to see your surroundings until dawn then paddle to the take out.
The Grand Canyon is a beautiful, wild, and mysterious place, and I feel fortunate to have been able to experience it the way I did. Currently a Scottsdale-based developer, Confluence Partners, is proposing a bill to build a tram from the rim of the Grand Canyon down to the confluence where the Little Colorado River meets the Colorado River. The development would consist of hotels at the rim and a restaurant, museum and walkway at the bottom. The tram will have the capacity to bring 10,000 tourists a day to the bottom. It is a controversial transaction given the land on which the proposed project would exist belongs to the Navajo Nation. The bill is currently being voted on by the Navajo Nation Council members.
The most important thing you can do to make your Grand Canyon river trip grand is to keep the Grand Canyon grand. Stay privy as to what is going on with the bill and speak out against the development of the tram. Save the Confluence is a non-profit organization devoted to fighting the development of the tram. Sign their petition against the development, and sign up for their emails so you will be alerted when to take action against.
Other gear we liked for this trip includes: