Last August, when Adam Goshorn offered me a spot on his winter Grand Canyon trip, I thought at the time there was no way I could swing it. The base cost of permits and travel combined with the extensive gear I would have to acquire loomed large. But the idea lodged in my mind, and after it worked on my imagination for a few days I laid down the $100 permit deposit to hold my spot.
Flash forward four months, and I’m standing on the beach at Lee’s Ferry with the six other members of my group preparing to launch onto the Colorado River. In the weeks prior to our December 5th launch date I had managed (with extensive help from my local outdoors shop, Diamond Brand) to put together the equipment necessary to make this journey–a three-season tent, 15-degree sleeping bag with fleece liner, gloves, wool socks, drysuit and insulating layers, etc., etc. With these items packed away in my drybag I was feeling pretty confident for the journey ahead, but the ranger giving us our orientation that morning seemed to have other ideas. She went to great lengths to impress upon us the seriousness of the expedition we were embarking on, warning us about the various critters that would try to steal our food and share our sleeping bags at night all the while making foreboding references to a heavy winter storm coming our way. In reference to the whitewater we would encounter downriver she said simply, “You’re going to be surprised.”
Once we slipped our four kayaks and two rafts into the cool, green waters of the Colorado, we quickly forgot the ranger’s gloom. Our group of seven had pulled together around the gravity of Adam’s organization: there were his four college buddies from the Radford University Outdoors program (Chris “Odie” Odell, Brandon “Beadle” Dale, Herb Crimp, and Dave Goodman), there was his co-worker (and the only woman on the trip) Kim, and then there was me, a friend made through several days spent together on rivers around the Southeast. If there was any common characteristic that bound our party together during those first days we were getting to know each other, it was that we shared a vibrant sense of humor–a cardinal virtue when you have to spend fourteen days in the wilderness together.
The air was comfortably cool and the skies clear and sunny as we floated down the river that first afternoon. The canyon walls began to rise around us, and a still quite replaced the bustle and conversation that had dominated our morning preparations. We drifted beneath the Navajo Bridge (the last sign of civilization for many, many miles), and the tiny silhouettes of people high above looked down and waved at us. We whistled and waved back and forth to them.
This river journey was unlike any boating I had ever done, and I had a lot to learn. I learned how to efficiently pack my personal drybag. I learned not to pitch my tent beneath the tamarisk trees. (While setting up, the prickly needles dropped down my pants and stuck to my longjohns). I learned not to thaw the congealed olive oil in the pot of hot water intended for drinks.
Day by day our team of seven tightened up our routine and the distribution of labor. Due to scheduling conflicts, we had allotted only fourteen days to complete the Canyon (normal winter trips take nearly twice that long). This meant that we had to average twenty river miles each day, which was a heavy load for the rafts. Our three dedicated oarsmen (Kim, Herb, and Dave) all had minimal rafting experience and were learning the slow-moving, eighteen-foot oar-rigs for the first time. I found the rafts to be an exciting challenge and took many opportunities to share in the oar work. Lining up for a class 4 rapid is pure fun in a kayak, but in a huge inflatable weighing over a thousand pounds it becomes a daunting challenge.
To my surprise, one of the greatest challenges in the raft proved to be the flat water. The river would often meander through mild stretches of long oxbows and pools. In certain pools, nearly all the current dove below the surface, creating a river-wide eddy current that the oarsman would have to fight to cross. In swifter water, the main concern was being swept into a recirculating eddy where the swirling current would trap the raft behind eddy fences and keep it spinning in circles, unable to re-enter the main flow.
On our third day out, the character of the river bed was particularly fickle and the effort of downriver progress exhausting. We stopped at Lower Nankoweep Camp in the early afternoon, and as we unloaded the rafts a light rain began to fall. The winter storm had finally caught up with us, and it rained off and on throughout the afternoon as we hiked up the canyon walls to visit the ancient Indian granaries. By nightfall the rain was falling steadily and gave no indication of letting up.
Kim and Adam had managed to pitch their tents before things got really wet, but the remaining five guys all elected to huddle up under the kitchen tarp for the night. I attempted to set up my tent fly and poles under the tarp, poking several people in the face before all was said and done. A cold, windy front blew through camp as the darkness became complete, and the tarp overhead soaked through until it sagged and dripped all over. A few sleepless hours into the night, a major gust lifted the edges of our tarp and brought pots and pans cascading down atop the heads of the guys trying to sleep beneath the kitchen tables. A chorus of colorful language followed.
Shortly before midnight, the falling rain and sudden drop in temperature conspired to set off a series of rock slides on the canyon walls around us. It was an eerie, thunderous sound–each long rumble was followed by expressions of awe from beneath our tarp. Balled up in my sleeping bag and trying to stay dry, I thought to myself that if there was anything that could redeem this miserable night, that sound was surely it.
The next day dawned clear and very chilly. The night at Nankoweep would be the worst weather we encountered on the trip, but it set off a stretch of persistently cold, wet days that were trying for our group. There was a tradeoff of this miserable weather, however: the wintry conditions produced some of the most beautiful scenes we would witness during our time in the Canyon:
It took me a long time to get used to the size of our group in the Canyon. Many nights, while sitting around the campfire, I would look up and wonder who was missing, only to count and rediscover that we were just seven, and all present. For me, this new sense of scale was the most impressive part of the experience. Being way down in the Canyon truly puts a person “in his place.” We’re forced to recognize how small and insignificant we are in the context of creation. This is a humbling thought, especially in light of the out-of-scale impact that we humans frequently have on the natural world (for example, the two enormous dams that bookend the Grand Canyon).
The Canyon is an embarrassment of riches in natural beauty, and for the avid photographer it can be a challenge to simply pull back from the lens and be present. As our journey progressed, I found I had to remind myself to spend time apart from my cameras in order to take it all in. Here’s more evidence that I was not entirely successful in this effort:
In addition to the wonderful scenery, the Grand Canyon offers a lot of high quality whitewater. Our whole journey down the Colorado I lived in dread of a raft flip, and as luck would have it, I was the only person to come close to actually tipping a raft over. We were fortunate, though: Our three oarsmen/woman navigated every challenge with grace. The whitewater of the Grand Canyon can be pretty well summed up thus: big waves, big holes, big fun.
We made our mileage quotas, and by day eleven we were able to take a layover at Whitmore Wash Camp. We slept in, hiked to a nearby pictograph panel and continued up the adjacent lava flow to the rim, and in the evening we ate as much of our remaining food stores as we could stomach. At Whitmore we savored all the best aspects of the Grand Canyon in winter: no crowds, no motorized traffic (helicopter or boat), driftwood campfires, and minimal threat of embarrassing exposure while grooving by the riverside.
After nearly two weeks on the river, I’d finally grown used to the small size of our group and the remoteness we felt each day in the Canyon. As our journey neared its end I began to feel some reluctance about re-entering the “real world.” You might understand the quotation marks here, for in many respects a wilderness trip like this is much more of a substantial experience than the day-to-day grind that forms our customary routine. That’s why we hunger for wild places. The natural world is good therapy for the culture-addled mind and heart. Take away culture, take away cell phones and television and the Internet (and yes, even cameras sometimes), and you begin to pay attention on a different level. You watch the play of light across the carved landscape, you smell the dry sage aroma of the desert in the morning, and at night you hear the river and are exquisitely aware of the absence of any other sound.
Two days after our layover at Whitmore Camp we rose before dawn and floated one final mile downriver to our takeout at Diamond Creek. Drifting out of the Canyon in the pre-dawn stillness felt like a fitting way to conclude our trip.
This journey down the Canyon took me by surprise in so many ways. It was one of the greatest adventures of my life. I’m grateful to the folks at Diamond Brand who supported me in this journey, and I thank you readers for participating in the story this far. In closing, I’ll leave you with two final images from the Canyon. Here’s to adventure and to sharing it with good friends: