Monday, November 21, 2011

Rafting the Big Ditch: A Grand Canyon Odyssey

Posted By on Mon, Nov 21, 2011 at 9:10 AM

In this week's Boise Weekly, I write about three-week trip down the Grand Canyon. Here's a preview of what's to come:

As I scouted from atop a neatly formed pile of billion-year-old lava rock on river right with my heart in my throat, I knew that this was going to get western. There was no clean line—just a complex series of massive ledge holes, rocks, erratic haystack waves and dangerous pour overs—one after another. Lava Falls was either going to eat my lunch, or I was going to row a superman line that would surely find its way onto my most-daring-attempts list.

Click here to see a slideshow of pictures you won't get in the print edition of my story.

And from the travelogue:

Week 1:
The trip started off with some very nice, timid flat water as we passed under the Lees Ferry Bridge and entered the Marble Canyon section of the Grand. I was surprised to see that my cell phone still worked but turned it off nonetheless. We made camp at Soap Creek, eager to get into our first noteworthy rapid the next day. House Rock rapid proved to be a roaring wave train around a large boulder that made for a fun ride, although I didn't even get wet. Future rapids would more than make up for this lackluster inaugural run. The next few days would be full of epic hikes and truly wild scenery, including Red Wall Cavern and Saddle Canyon.

Red Wall Cavern is just that, an enormous amphitheater-esque sandy cavern formed by millions of years of the Colorado River wearing into the canyon wall. On day three, we stopped for lunch here, where I promptly tweaked my right ACL playing frisbee. An ace wrap and a cold beer, and I was back in prime form to hobble my way through the coming week's slot canyon hikes.

The side hikes are what make this trip really special. Every day you choose from any number of epic hoof-abouts to historical sites, waterfalls, rock formations and overlooks. Some are truly epic, while others amount to nothing more than a relaxing stroll. Some take a full day, others just a few minutes.

Saddle Canyon was about a mile and a half each way, and proved to be one of the better hikes of the entire trip. As with most Grand Canyon hikes, it began by us navigating to a narrow creek bed adjacent to a white sand beach. As we entered the shade, the greenery took over. I never imagined how lush these small oases could be, although most of them see minimal sunlight and have an active water source. We scrambled over small boulders, through tight symmetrical strata to a dead end at a small series of beautiful waterfalls. A dip in the crisp creek water, and we headed back down, eager to get to camp and relax by the fire.

We ended week one by picking up the last two members of our group, who had hiked 10 miles in to Phantom Ranch on one of the many public trails accessing the Grand Canyon.

Week 2:
Our second week on the river was heavily punctuated by vertical hikes and fast-moving water. We hiked up the magnificent blue waters of the Little Colorado River, the arid rocky overlook of Carbon Creek, the vibrant falls of Elf's Chasm, and got lost on a 12-mile scramble from Topeats Creek to Deer Creek by way of Thunder River. All of these hikes were extraordinary, but they were nothing compared to the whitewater we saw during that second week.

A series of rain showers and a few creeks shifting resulted in the deep green waters of the Colorado periodically turning chocolate brown—and that was usually on big rapid days. On day eight, after stopping at Phantom Ranch to pick up the last two members of our party, we camped at Upper Granite—the precursor to a full day of big water. We sipped cheap Scotch, played games, ate steaks and prepared mentally for Granite, Crystal and Hermit rapids the next day.

Granite was a turnstile of a run, with large boat-flipper holes and meaty lateral waves throughout. Crystal was large but offered an easy sneak line on river right. One of the more audacious members of our group elected to run the left channel and flipped his boat on the very last wave of the upper section of Crystal. Hermit was perhaps the most fun rapid on the Grand. It consisted of a series of humongous waves and required very little technical maneuvering. Just run up the gut and hold on tight. Riding with my brother for that one, I took the fifth wave of Hermit's full breaking might right in the kisser—burying the front of the boat under a sea of churning water.

Week 3:
With week three came the bittersweet beginning of the end. We had only the biggest rapid on the Grand Canyon, Lava Falls, and a handful of smaller rapids standing between us and the flat water that would take us to Lake Mead/Pearce Ferry and the end of our trip. On day 15, we ran Lava Falls. It looked like the inside of a hurricane from the aforementioned scout on river right. There were three doable runs, all of them requiring some careful maneuvering to avoid the extremely dangerous ledge hole that occupied the entire middle section of the river.

One boat from our group ran the right hand channel and was swallowed up in a giant V wave before being spit out into the huge rolling wave train at the end of the rapid. Everyone else ran one variation or another of the left-hand run, requiring punching one ledge hole and navigating several large haystacks near the bottom. My run was left of center off of the fastest current. It catapulted me through the edge of the deadly ledge hole and over one more large hole that, had I been off-line or sideways, would have swallowed me whole.

After our last big rapid, the trip began to wind down. We hiked and explored the slot canyons of the Grand until our feet hurt. On day 19, we reached Surprise camp, where we set up a light camp and prepared for a long day 20, which would take us 30 miles down the flat and uneventful headwaters of Lake Mead and out of Grand Canyon National Park. The feelings of seclusion faded as we came upon dozens of tour boats and helicopters near the park's boundary. Our last night, we camped on the silty flatlands below the park, with the Grand Canyon at our backs, and de-rigged our boats early on day 21.

COMING SOON: Check out video of my roller-coaster run between two deadly, boat-eater, sons-of-a-bitch holes at boiseweekly.com.

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