On January 26, WRI instructors Paul Heffernan, Matt O’Reilly, Frank Preston and Cody Harris launched from Lees Ferry, Arizona for a 10-day kayak self-support down the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Below are a series of letters and photos discovered in the bottom of a drybag after the trip. One of our crew wrote these, but choose to remain anonymous. After reading them, we felt that the insights into the camping, paddling, hiking and many other things involved in a self-support make them a valuable resource for all paddlers. I hope you enjoy.
Day 1: Mile 0-21
Today we launched from Lees Ferry. The weather was exceptional, probably close to 70 degrees and bluebird. The ranger, who had been furloughed for the past month, arrived around 11 am to check our gear. This made no difference, an early start was not our intention, because many of our crew were still working out the kinks of how to fit the necessary gear into their boats. In total we have 10 paddlers in our group, and many different types of boats. Here is our team list and their boats:
- Frank, Liquid Logic Stinger
- Steve, Liquid Logic Stinger XP
- Cody, Liquid Logic Stinger
- Matt, Dagger Traverse
- Ryan, P&H Hammer (outfitted as a C-1)
- Louis, P&H Hammer
- Jure, P&H Hammer
- Marc, P&H Hammer
- Burch, Soul Waterman District II
- Paul, Prijon T-slalom
We had decided that each person on the trip would do their own food plan and be completely self-contained with their kitchen set-up and camp kit. The downside to this is that everyone has to carry their own stove, but I have a feeling that will come in handy on some cold mornings in the future. The only group gear we carried was the fire pan (which broke down into about 10 different pieces), the major first-aid kit, and a small repair kit. Luckily our trip leader volunteered to carry the majority of that, which was nice because my boat was terribly small.
We set out from Lees at about 1 pm. There were many groans and sighs as each paddler took the first strokes in their loaded boat. My guess is that the boats weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 175-200 pounds. They responded about as well as a hungry burro in sight of a barn. After a about 10 minutes of paddling though, each paddler made peace with their unwieldy craft and we were underway.
Today we made about 21 miles and camped at North Canyon. We ran a few rapids, most notably House Rock, and only lost one Go-Pro and had one swimmer. We pulled up to the beach as the day turned dark and quickly set up camp.
Tomorrow and the days after we have to average 27 miles. I don’t think that will be too difficult. I will let you know.
Day 2: Mile 21-44
I am happy to report that our fearless leader carried us through today. There were many moments when I, and I am certain others, questioned our gear choices and our physical fitness. But his leadership and dominance forced us to tuck away our fears and persevere.
We did not leave camp until 11 this morning. Many of us struggled with packing our boats. But eventually we were able to start devising a system that will work. Our trip leader gave me many pointers that will certainly come in handy in the days to come.
We paddled 27 miles to President Harding Rapid. The river started off with a beautiful series of rapids. The guides call this section of whitewater the “Roaring 20’s.” But, just as the 1920’s were followed by a period of slow economic growth, so too are the 20’s on the river followed by a flat section of water.
However, the scenery was something to behold. We had a short hike up Shinumo Wash (Silver Grotto) and stopped to have lunch at the Red Wall Cavern. Both locations are truly masterpieces of nature.
The river is still running clear, which is nice, as this makes for easy use at camp. We do not have to settle the silt out of the water.
We have been fortunate enough to find springs and tributaries to fill our drinking water. I am carrying about 4 Liters of water.
Tonight at camp, each person cooked their meal. It is amazing to see the different menu’s each person planned. I choose to carry only freeze dried food. This is light and has the added benefit slowing down the speed with which my groover will be filled. Others vacuum sealed pre-made food and spend more time cooking at camp. And still others brought only fresh vegitables and lentils.
Tomorrow we hope to launch earlier to enjoy camp during the light. The days are short, but so far, there seems to be plenty of time to make the miles and hike a bit.
Day 3- Mile 44-71
As the canyon walls rise above to ever growing heights, I cannot help but feel gratitude and humility in the face of it all.
Today we paddled past the confluence of the Little Colorado and through furnace flats.
We made our camp at Cardenas just upstream of Unkar Rapid and went for a great hike to the cliff above the rapid.
So far my choice of small tent and inflatable sleeping pad has been appropriate. We have not had any weather and those that sleep out at night have very little dew on them in the morning. A few of our team have struggled with the inflatable sleeping pads. Unable to find the holes, they are now resorting to sleeping on their spare clothes.
Tomorrow we will enter the inner gorge and with that the rapids will increase in size.
Day 4- Mile 71-98
What a day! As the river turned to the east, the schist and granite layers came up to meet us. One cannot help but imagine how the first explorers of this river must have felt as the dark and ominous rock squeezes in on the river. For us, though, this was a spectacular day.
First off was Hance Rapid, then followed closely by numerous others including Sockdolager. We stopped and hiked to Phantom Ranch, and then quickly set-off again. Running many rapids like Horn-Creek, Granite, Hermit and Crystal. The waves and power of the river are a treat.
Again, I must mention the strength and fortitude of our leader. On many occasions, like Horn Creek for example, I skirt the meat of the rapid while he charges through the largest waves undeterred. I can only hope to paddle as he does one day.
Tonight we camp at Crystal.
Day 5- Mile 98-134
We are now half way through our trip in time, but just short of half-way in mileage. Today we paddled many great rapids and saw the granite of the inner gorge dive back under-ground.
We did a short hike to Elves Chasm and had lunch at Blacktail Canyon. This section of the canyon is my favorite yet. It is called Conquistador Aisle and the rapids and scenery are too grand to describe.
Tonight we camp at Tapeats Creek. Tomorrow we will hike to Thunder River.
Day 6- Mile 134-146
How quickly our groovers are being filled. We each have a 16” long piece of 6” PVC. I am using wag bags and am not sure if I will have enough space as I am ¾ of the way full.
The hike to Thunder river was amazing.
Tonight we camp at Olo Creek.
Day 7- Mile 146-180
Today we made 34 miles. The furthest yet. We hiked Matkat, explored Havasu, and ran Lava. We now sleep soundly at Tequila Beach.
Day 8- Mile 180-213
It is with great enthusiasm that I tell you that my groover will not be over-filled. The freeze-dried food has finally taken control.
Today we left Tequila beach at a reasonable time, especially considering many of our team were a little foggy from the night before.
The river has become tamer and only occasionally leaps upward in torrents. I continue to doubt my own preparation for this trip as I tire quickly and often struggle to keep up with the more seasoned paddlers of our team.
We forego hiking this day, and opt instead for a longer day on the water. We spend the evening huddled in a tent playing cards as the rain and wind rage outside. This
is the first weather we have encountered. We have been fortunate with most days approaching 70 degrees. Hard to believe this is mid-winter.
Your son, Little Spoon
Day 9- Mile 213-240
We are now sitting at the location (Separation Canyon) where three members of the Powell expedition choose to risk the snakes, cactus and miles of waterless wilderness over floating through another rapid. I try to imagine this decision. To have come this far. To have survived what at the time must have seemed impossible and, yet, to say” enough, I must not go forward anymore. The risks of this environment, as great as they may be, do not outweigh the hazards of this river and this rapid in particular.”
The rapid now is gone. Drowned by the Hoover dam. But in my mind’s eye, I can see its boiling eddies and turbulent waters and I understand their choice. The igneous rock re-exposed with black dagger like teeth grinning as if they know a secret all their own. It is no wonder that those three men choose to hike out. How could they have known what lay around the next corner, or the one after that. Had it not been for the mentorship and daily coaching from our leader, I too would have climbed out of this canyon.
We may still be in the canyon wilderness, but our trip on the wild Colorado has ended. As I mentioned above, the waters of Lake Mead have drowned and domesticated the river beyond this point.
Day 10- Mile 240-280
To end the trip at Pearce Ferry is to complete the Grand Canyon. It is quite rewarding to paddle through the Grand Wash Cliffs and realize that the canyon has ended. Yes, it just ends. It is hard to describe, but one moment you are in the canyon, and in the next moment the sky widens and you are on an open plain.
The 40 mile float from Separation to Pearce Ferry is a lesson in humility. It is an opportunity to witness firsthand the battle of mankind and nature. With the drought in the west, the waters of Lake Mead have shrunken to a fraction of their former height. What remains is the river. The river now cuts through the silt deposits, reclaiming its purpose and carries its load further south. It is still blocked by Hoover, but just for this moment, these 60 miles, it has been reborn and carries on, undaunted. It will always carry-on, we and our concrete dreams are merely a temporary distraction.
“As the Water Rescue Team Leader for Missoula County Search and Rescue, WRI has been not only a great training resource but also a great partner on several of our swiftwater rescue and recoveries. Cody, Mike and WRI’s very capable and knowledgeable team of instructors teach from the perspective of having experienced the very missions that we are tasked with completing.”