Since we were uncertain, we decided to run right. We got pounded. -
Long Trip Report Aug. 9. 2009 Blakely LaCroix
It had taken 14 years to return to Lee's Ferry.
Preface: In 1994 I bought an Aire 156R raft with the idea that rafting would be a great family activity. Our first trip was a 150 mile segment of the Missouri - the compatibility cruise - flat water all the way. This worked out well. Next year we moved on to do a 200 mile trip on the Green River: Dinosaur takeout to Swazeys. Another success. In the summer of 1995, my family gave me an early birthday present - a 14 day oar trip through the Grand Canyon.
Western River Expeditions used to run a vacation trip at the end of the motor season for their guides and would sell enough commercial seats to cover costs. That was the trip I was booked on. It was a great learning trip because the passenger to guide ratio was nearly one to one. When I got home, I immediately put my name on the Waiting List. I repeated the Western Rivers trip in 1997. It was sort of a reunion trip for many of the 1995 customers. Even though it was a commercial trip, I got to row quite a bit of flatwater and a couple of rapids. The rest of the time, I was usually in the back of the raft, looking at the river as the boatman saw it. Halfway through, there appeared a secret desire to steal a boat and continue on my own.
Progress on the list was slow. At first, I hoped to get a launch date the year my daughter graduated from High School. When she graduated from college, I was still 10 years away from a permit. At the rate I was progressing, I would beat Martin Litton's record for being the oldest GC boatman. Then along came the lottery. I sat out the first two rounds and then tossed all my entries into a couple of mid July small group dates and won a 15 July 2009 launch.
I bought an Aire 183R in the summer of 2008 and spent the Spring rigging it. We ran Deso in July as the maiden voyage. The handling of the 18 fot boat was much different than that of the 16ft. I missed the responsiveness of the smaller boat, but greatly appreciated the ability of the larger boat to handle large waves. That September, we ran Deso again on my daughter's permit and continued on through the lower canyons and on into Cataract Canyon and finally Lake Powell. We spent 21 days on the river as the shakedown cruise for the Grand Canyon.
We have always run our trips as solo boat family trips. Running with your family is different than being out with your buddies. It makes one more conservative. Prior to the Cataract Canyon trip, I had let myself get seriously spooked. I questioned whether I should really be doing this. Rafting is like sailing. Only the horror stories get told. The other 99.9% of the experiences never get mentioned. Ultimately I got some good advice about trusting in my skills and relaxed. We had an incredibly great trip. We ate well, slept under the stars every night, and lived some of the best days of our lives.
Preparation: We prepared for the GC trip the same as we did for the Cataract trip. Since everything worked out so well, we resisted the temptation to make major changes. We used the same menu, same rigging, changing out only those things that did not work for us on the first trip. When you run a single boat, you have to make some sacrifices. We ate the same breakfast every day: Coffee, tea, or Coco and flavored oatmeal (with lots of brown sugar). Keeping breakfast simple made morning departures quicker. Lunches were pita bread, cheese, and salami and flavored mustards. To this we added a wide assortment of Pringles and fruit cups. The sandwiches work for about 18 days or so, and then you tire of them a bit. For the GC, we alternated with foil packed Tuna and bagels every third day and this provided some variety. And we brought no beer. Just Gatorade, Tang, Lemonade, and Propel.
We put most of work into our dinners. My wife cooked and dehydrated a wide variety of meals ahead of time and then vacuum packed them. These re-hydrated incredibly well. These meals were usually augmented by something from the Dutch Oven, such as biscuits, bread, or baked desserts. We carried only one cooler and minimized our dependence on ice. We carried about 15 lbs of ice when we put in and we had solid ice until day 12. By not draining the cooler, we used the leftover meltwater for chilling the sandwich fixing for the remainder of the trip.
The 183R was rigged using a front to back plan rather than side to side. The frame was constructed from custom length NRS tubing. Passengers sat on a homemade wooden platform that flipped up from the front to access a drop bag/sling custom built by Specialty Outdoors. The sling carried our cots, camp chairs, propane tank, stove, camp tables, wash buckets, hand wash system, and sand screws. The front deck was attached by straps on each side to the cross members. The front straps were made longer to provide a "rodeo strap" for the passengers. Passengers sat on Aire inflatable kayak seats which were attached to each other and joined by a strap under the front deck.
A main tube ran the length of the raft on each side, supporting cross members. Next to this on each side was a 2' x 10' varnished pine running board. Two dry boxes were then mounted long ways (front to back) on each side next to the running boards. Next to the dry box was a frame tube running parallel with dry box, secured on each end by a LoPro clamp off of one of cross members. The space between tubes formed the main cockpit. Attached to the cockpit tubes were a DRE captain's bag (side to side), throw ropes, and two foot bars - one high and one dropped.
Another set of front to back frame tubes behind the cockpit defined space for a cooler or dry box on each side. The space between these tubes formed the rear cockpit area, which supported the seat and contained the water jugs and spare groover tank. This space also allowed people a place to stand when accessing the cooler or main food dry box. All of the cooler/dry boxes were suspended on straps running from the outside tubes, over the running board, cockpit tube. This kept all of the major storage areas low in the raft. Straps were looped through the running board, over the top of the dry boxes and cooler and then around the cockpit tubes. These secured the boxes in the event of a flip. This structure allows us to interchange dry boxes and coolers as needed.
The front left dry box contained our snacks, water additives, and lunch material. The front right dry box was our rigging box and contained our tools, spare equipment, pump, and the heavy rescue equipment. The rear left dry box was our main food box, housing our dinners and breakfast bag. The rear right slot contained our 128 Quart Yeti cooler.
At the very end of the raft, a 100 quart action packer acted as our Fire Box. This contained the Dutch Oven, the charcoal, a spare propane tank, the Fire Pan, the Fire Blanket, and our DuraFlame fireplace logs which we carry for a camp fire when we want one. The Fire Box was suspended on straps and secured against flips in the same manner as the dry boxes. D rings on the rear of the raft supported one end of the straps and a cross member the other. The space between the Fire Box and the oval end of the raft neatly held our EcoSafe groover. The handles of the Groover were clipped to the Fire Box straps, thus ensuring a secure mount.
And finally, all dry bags were stacked across the top of the Fire Box, held in place by two straps - one along the bottom and one over the top. Each end of these straps were connected to a short loop strap that connected to the frame. This allowed the bags to be removed from either end. Bags that were accessed frequently were attached with 'biners, allowing quick and easy removal.
We carried a couple of extra dry bags and ultimately put one to a good use. It became our Shoe Bag. In the past, we had always carried our other footwear in our dry bags. This usually involved taking everything out of your bag when you needed your other shoes. Now we simply had one bag that contained everyone's shoes. Much easier to get at.
And speaking of easier to get at: My wife and daughter both got SeaLine Duffel dry bags for Christmas. They worked incredibly well, allowing easy access to everything at once, rather than the dump and find, or feel and pull method of the cylindrical bags. They stayed just as dry, if not drier than my cylindrical bag. Definately going to put one of those on my Christmas list.
Our final dry bag held our camp garbage, which was minimal (10 inch high stack). Waste packaging materials from the food boxes were kept in small trash bags in their respective dry boxes. Our previous trip allowed us to adjust our portion size such that food waste was minimal. There was usually only a small bit of food left after the second helping, but this was easily fed to someone (usually me).
The DRE Captain's bag was a great addition in that held most of the loose stuff that was in frequent use (sun screen, binoculars, water filter).
Attached to the running board, next to each passenger, was their personal dry box - a Plano marine box. And two thirds of the way back, attached to each running board were the Orange Safety boxes. One contained our first aid kit and was marked with a white cross, and the other contained the remaining rescue items.
And just behind the cockpit, doubly secured to the running board with a strap through each handle and one over the top was a small Frontier Play dry box we nicknamed "The Vault". It held everything that absolutely had be remain dry such as our cameras and documentation. Because of its ease of access, we later added a fleece jacket and raincoat to it for anyone who might have gotten chilled.
New to this trip was our water treatment system. While we had clear water all the way to Phantom and could simply filter river water directly, the river was muddied by afternoon storms and mostly stayed that way for the remainder of the trip. I carried three 5 gallon buckets. One was modified to have a hole 1/5 of the way up from the bottom. A fitting was attached to this hole that connected to plastic tubing. The plastic tubing went into a cartridge filter. On the output side of the cartridge filter was a bulb siphon pump. I carried two sets of filters. The first was a 20 micron filter and the second was a 5 micron filter. The 5 micron filter worked the best and it was used for most of the trip.
If the water was not too turbid, such that you could see the your oar blades when dipped, then I could get clear water out of the filter directly. This would stream into another bucket where it was then hand pumped by a MSR purifier. If the water was the color of creamed coffee or coco, then I used Drifter Smith's method of pre-dissolved Alum to settle out the sediment. After about 1 hour of settling, the water could be run through the filter with a clear stream output. Because of the success of this system, I will continue to experiment with this system, perhaps moving to a multiple filter configuration. It was definately worth the space and weight.
For critical items, we carried two of everything. (water filters, propane tanks, hoses, sediment filter, any tools). These were stored in different places, such that the loss of one would not affect the trip. The pump (K400) was one of the exceptions. Each 10 lb propane tank had its own hose and fitting covers. The tanks were the composite
- see through type and this was very useful in helping alleviate "Fuel level Anxiety". We boiled water each morning for coffee and to mix with oatmeal, boiled water for dishes each night, and heated about 3/4 of our meals on a two burner stove. Over 17 days, we used about 1/3 of a tank (~ 3 lbs) of propane.
I should comment that not many places that fill propane tanks have experience with composite tanks. The place the filled mine over filled them - they did it by sight rather than weight - and we had to burn them down to the proper fill weight. Having an overfilled propane tank on an inflatable vessel in a remote canyon in 120 degree heat just did not sit well.
The Trip: We left Minnesota with a Dodge van and a trailer on 10 July. We traveled about 500 miles each day. We took interstate 35 to Kansas City, spending the night in Ottawa, KS. The next day, we headed diagonally across Kansas, exiting in the SW corner, passed through a bit of Oklahoma and Texas, and spent the second night in Tucumcari, NM. The third night we spent in Flagstaff. We then drove up to Page to pickup my daughter who was flying in, spent the night there, and then arrived at Lee's Ferry on the 14th for rigging.
Rigging went quickly, as each box on the raft was already loaded. They only need to be placed. We did not see the rangers however. At 7:30 pm, we drove up to Marble Canyon Lodge for dinner and on the way out, saw them coming in. It turned out that they had an emergency. An RV had used its brakes all the way down a switchback and ultimately caught fire and burned to the ground. Since we did not get checked out the night before, the rafts remained where they were, and by morning were high and dry. It took a dozen people to drag each boat to the water. My solo craft felt like a huge barge.
One of our life jackets was rejected and I was fortunate enough to have another loaned to me by the group of 8 launching next to us. My orange signal panels were reluctantly approved. I had bought two international orange tarps. Not their favorite solution. We had a Kitchen tarp and some spare ZipLock bags for "DayPoopers" - that one was new requirement for me.
Our Fire Blanket was a $65 black carbon fiber blanket and worked quite well. The rangers indicated that the Kevlar and Fiberglass blankets do not work well. Makes one wonder why you would have a requirement without a recommended good solution.
On the River: We launched right after the briefing. It felt great to get on the river. Flows were 9,500 to 16,500 cfs. Temp was in the high 110's. At Badger Creek, I was reminded again of how Big the water is in the Grand Canyon. Big pillow on a Big rock with Big waves. We read and ran our way to House Rock, where we scouted on the right. Lesson #1: No matter how far right you are at House Rock, you are not right enough. We got a good view of the lower hole, faced and rode the next diagonal wave all the way up, and then slid on down stream. Very satisfied with the run, aside from wanting to not be so close.
I was satisfied with most of our runs. There were some that I would like to do over. The biggest mistake I made and repeated a couple of times was rowing like I was in a 16 ft raft instead of an 18 ft. One simply is not going to be able to finesse your movements in the largest rapids. Once you get you oars handed to you, that mistake does not get repeated. The setup is everything. Blow the entry and you are going to work like hell to correct it. You will be lucky if you do.
The only bad rapid we had was Horn Creek at high tide. We went past Pipe Creek, and looked for water going over the only rock on the left. Well there was a reddish rock about 2 feet out that was a foot out of the water. Was this it? Who knew. When we scouted Horn Creek, the horns were covered and the downstream hole filled in. It is a high scout. Things look small. Since we were uncertain, we decided to run right. We got pounded. Fortunately, the boat made up for our mistake and the only damage was losing an oar (good crew had the replacement in a jiffy) and to my pride. I definitely would like to get to do that one over. Not sure what I missed. No harm though, the oar was recovered, and added humility is good for the soul.
Best rapids for me was Hance, Sockdolager and Hermit. Everyone agrees that Hermit was most fun. Granite was simply huge and had the biggest waves I have ever seen. Dubendorf was scary in that the water was just like coco and the laterals at the bottom above the last hole were curling over and forming barrels. It looked mean. Just as we were floating toward the entry, the wind gusted up to some huge (50 mph?) level. But we had a great run, ridding up on the barrel lateral and then straightening out and floating just right of the bottom hole.
Lava was the toughest mentally. We had checked with the motor trips running by earlier and there were not any oar trips behind us for a couple of days. We would have to run it unaccompanied. Just like all the other rapids.
From the scout, the line very clear. It sure looked different that what I had seen in 95, 97 and on YouTube. In those trips and videos, the right side looked to have a much larger drop. This time it looked more filled in. We were successful in running our line. We dropped over, as close the ledge hole as a rational person would care to run. The stern kind of stalled in the water there with the bow pointing toward the first lateral. We met it cleanly, but did not get pointed downstream as quickly as I would have liked. We took the V wave at a bit of an angle, stern downstream. The boat filled with water, straighten and then we headed downstream, up and over the final wave.
We continued on down to Diamond Creek and then did the Night Float to South Cove (See posting on RRFW site for summary).
Our trip was a great success. We had no flips, no close calls, only one humbling experience, no equipment failures , aside from two different pairs of my sandals blowing out (repaired using cable ties!).
Everyone we met was wonderful:
The NPS film crew at Redwall Cavern; Dan, the NPS youth group trip leader and his crew; Charlie H and the CANEX commercial trip we leapfrogged for a couple of days; The parties derigging at Diamond who gave us ice and beer; And most of all, Brian Dierker and the USFWS people for their gracious support and encouragement.
After 14 years, I finally made it back.
Over those 14 years I have collected enough gear to fully outfit two rafts. There always seems to be an opportunity for people with gear to join in on other trips. I don't think it would be the same, however. I can honestly say that a single raft trip with your family through the Grand Canyon is one of the most profound experiences of my life. Not sure I could or would attempt to repeat it.
Special thanks to my family for their unwavering faith and trust. Thanks also to the GCPBA and its members for the wealth of information made available here. Thank you to all the river runners who have taken the time to correspond with me over the years. Every contribution helped make this trip a great success.
Time to look North. Blakely
-- Blakely LaCroix Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
"The best adventure just was"