Twenty-four days without connection to the outside world has a profound way of shifting perspective. The Grand Canyon can turn winter “blahs” into inspiration, transform strangers into family, and also test your limits of fear and endurance.
Free from electricity and human drudgery, something in your brain unclogs. The fog lifts. Awe and joy abound. Howls of laughter resound through the canyon. New names are given. Potty humor is embraced. Bags of wine are slapped.
If that sounds like a good time, here’s what it’s like to pull off a river trip that should definitely sit at #1 on your bucket list.
Departure from Lee’s Ferry
Seventeen people came on our trip. Half of them were a family of Montana river wizards; among them two vagabonding pilots, two sets of twins, a lawyer, a veterinarian, and a whale scientist.
The other half were there by random associations. Some climbed together, others kayaked together. Some were just friends of a friends. A few were Instagram celebrities of sorts, and they ensured the trip went fully documented. (For a cool edit of the trip, check out the video by Caitlin Cammarata @peakproject here)
It was a loosely-connected group, but we bonded the night before we launched. We’d been left hungry and without transportation after miscommunication with our outfitters (totally our fault). Rather than diving into our camping supplies, we took a ride to one last civilized meal at the Marble Canyon Lodge in what we’ll just call… borrowed government vehicles.
These rigs weren’t stolen, exactly—the location of the keys had been disclosed to us by someone with authority. But our ride in those dilapidated old vehicles and the mischief required to obtain them proved to us that our group would do well on the trip ahead.
We left the next morning. After a mandatory safety talk from a local ranger (who fined us $150 for using a kitchen without a ground tarp), we piled into our lumbering 18-foot boats and set sail.
Getting it together
I had the good fortune of joining a private trip on the Grand Canyon—there were no guides to call the shots.
It was in November, so temps ranged from 32 at night to 65 in the day. This was completely tolerable with a few warm layers and a drysuit, but it kept most other parties off the water. We didn’t see anyone else on the river during our float; we had the ultimate freedom to explore the canyon on our own terms.
Unguided trips through the Canyon are very popular, so permits for them are given out by lottery. Many boaters wait years for their turn on the river, shelling out $25 for the ticket time and time again. (You can read about the permitting process here).
Our trip leader got called this year. Then he reached out to friends and family to build a crew of experienced kayakers and oarsmen. We starting planning the trip about a year ago, when we worked out everything from meal plans to shared gear over group email. It was an intensive process—prepping 17 people to survive three weeks cut off from the outside world is not easy.
We rented all our river gear from Professional River Outfitters at the cost of about $1,200 per person for 24 days. This included four bombproof rafts, a five-star camp kitchen, food (lamb chops!) and everything else needed to survive a river trip. P.R.O. also gave us a ride from Flagstaff, Arizona to and from the put-in and take-out. They covered months of leg work, and this was well worth every penny.
Behold the sights
The Grand Canyon is truly one of the wonders of the world. You’ll have the full experience if you use Martin and Whitis’s “Guide to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.” It’s pretty much the most essential navigation tool for the river.
Along the river you float through layers of perplexing geologic history. Periods of silence will take over the group as everyone stares at giant quartz veins, vishnu schist, hakati shale, sandstone and limestone formations.
There are caves the size of football fields with natural art installations of stalactites and stalagmites. There are huge Nautiloid shells embedded in limestone, fossils of all kinds, rose quartz, and a million other treasures to discover. Even if you’ve never cared about rocks, you’ll be an aspiring geologist by the time the trip cruxes at Lava Falls.
The Grand is laced with side canyons, and exploring them was probably the most interesting part of the whole trip. The huge rapids are fun, but the real reason to do the trip is to hike in places like Saddle Canyon or Deer Creek, where slot canyons, natural springs, cascading waterfalls, and lush vegetation combine to make what feels like a zen patio garden.
Not to be missed are visits to the Little Colorado River and a scenic hike up Havasu Falls. Havasu in particular is a rare emerald green travertine river. On our trip, it turned out to be an ideal setting for a wedding proposal (she said yes!), and a booftacular kayak run.
For the cliff jumpers in the group, Elves Chasm is a surreal scramble and leap into a deep, clear pool. It was here that our boat, aptly named the S.S. Party Minnow pulled out of the eddy and immediately parked itself on some rocks in the middle of “panty slicer rapid”.
Luckily, we had swift water rescue experience on shore to salvage the passengers and the boat. Word to the wise: don’t listen when they shout “Read and run! Read and Run! Sneak line!”
Also, don’t drink and drive.
Triumph and carnage
The Colorado River has huge class 8 and 9 rapids (comparable to class 4-5 on normal rivers, but with a much bigger water volume). We were able to run all of them without major incident, but we did pop and break oars, hit holes sideways, and ram rocks.
Eddies and holes are the most powerful forces on the river, a lesson one jubilant paddle boarder in our crew learned the hard way.
Our friend “Hayaduke” leapt from the S.S. Party Minnow in Tuna Rapid not realizing it was one of the worst places to paddle, much less swim on the river. After about a mile of exhausting struggle, he was pulled underwater and laundered in a huge eddy fence. The river spat him out a couple of times, and he narrowly avoided getting sucked into a sieve before he slammed into a giant mid-river boulder.
Thankfully, the boulder was not undercut, so he was ejected on the other side where we could collect him. We spent the next hour trying to stave off his hypothermia.
Most of the Grand Canyon’s accidents don’t occur on the river, though—they happen at camp. Our group was no exception.
The trip’s first concussion happened after “Nurse Ratchet” stood up and bonked her head on a ledge. She came down with nausea and vomiting, which caused extreme concern amongst our crew. She also faced a long hike, where half the members got lost for the better part of a day leaving those who ferried boats down river in a prolonged state of anxiety.
Lessons learned: Stick together and watch your brain cage.
The second concussion happened at an aptly-named camp called Ledges. Despite our caution, the eldest member of our group took a digger in the dark. The next day he looked like he’d lost a bar fight with Rhonda Rousey. He felt fine, but only because a lack of mirrors helped him from realizing how beat up he looked.
The third concussion happened on the home stretch of the trip. It involved a tumble off some loose conglomerate rock above Lava Falls: the largest, most bowel-churning rapid on the river.
The fall was merely a misstep in the wrong place. As “Hotwing” plummeted head first, she caught herself with her wrist, which broke, and then her skull, which hit hard enough to call for five expert stitches by Nurse Ratchet (fully recovered from her own concussion).
Luckily, the head bonk did not fracture her skull which was the main concern. All things considered, Hotwing was a trooper and now has a finely decorated cast.
Attitude and travel insurance are everything. We voted to end the trip three days early as a group to get the broken arm and head medical attention. Nobody complained, and in fact the carnage brought everyone together even more. Our four oarsman crushed Lava Falls, despite the S.S. Party Minnow single-oaring the gnarliest line on the river like the Grand’s one-armed pioneer: John Wesley Powell. We then rallied a few 20+ mile days to Diamond Creek and the end of the trip.
Our final day on the river blessed us with sunshine and high spirits all around. Even the wounded didn’t want the trip to end. We exited the canyon with our own culture; like scrappy neighborhood kids worn out from our own laughter, we reveled in our wildness.
If you have the chance to raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, drop everything and DO IT. Don’t ruin your life over it, but just know the river will forever change you. If you have any questions for me, email them to [email protected]