Look at all the beer!
I always knew at some point in my future that I’d like to raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon… likely “someday” on a fully-serviced commercial trip, with paid guides.
This all changed when my friend Josh Case scored a permit from the National Park Service to row the Canyon as a private expedition with his own select team, and invited me along! The adventure was slated for a full 21 days beginning on March 18, 2013.
In the past I had little experience in being on board (Let alone piloting), any sort craft that floats on the water. This was due to a healthy fear and distrust of being on the water in general throughout my life, especially as seen from the shores of backpacking destinations in the Grand Canyon. Regardless, I badly wanted to join this trip, and Josh assured me that I would not be fully responsible for piloting a boat.
Anticipation grew throughout the full year of planning, as friends and associates signed on for the trip. These included some known Canyon names such as Chris Forsyth, Doug Nering, Dave Nally, and others such as Chris Atwood, and Jeremy and Shannon McCumber. Some were friends that I met at the Canyon or on its trails, and others I felt like I already knew through longtime correspondence about hiking the Canyon.
Josh arranged to rent all of the shared gear from a private outfitter, Moenkopi Riverworks. This included all of the major group items like the rafts and frames themselves, oars, kitchen, foodpack for three meals a day, life jackets, toilet, multiple first aid kits, etc.
Despite my significant collection of backpacking equipment, the steady accumulation of dedicated rafting gear was an interesting (And expensive!) process. All of my know-how in hiking the Canyon seemed to disappear as I was faced with equipment I’d never seen before, and in some cases never even heard of before.
On a hike to Phantom Ranch I intruded upon a private river trip parked on shore there, simply to get a look at their rafts and gear. Going into the final days, I still couldn’t quite picture how our boats would be packed and rigged.
The final process of pre- packing my personal gear was a little overwhelming for a few moments, but we got it figured out. There’s an assumption among hikers that rafting parties can bring anything and everything including the kitchen sink, but this idea was soon shattered by the reality of the physical process of packing.
On the morning of “rig day,” March 17th, the day prior to our launch, we drove from our home at the South Rim to Lee’s Ferry to meet the team. A large contingent of the group was driving down from Utah, and the rest were coming up from their rendezvous in Flagstaff with Josh and the Moenkopi gear truck.
We were the first to arrive at Lee’s Ferry, pulling up and parking my car near the launch ramp on the shore of the Colorado River. It was a quiet morning without any rafting activity, save for that of some fishermen. I took a walk around and saw Josh’s last name, “Case” on the posted calendar for tomorrow’s launch day, and walked downstream a bit, seeing one of today’s parties take off from the boaters’ beach. So we sat in my car and somewhat nervously awaited the others.
I sat and scrutinized every vehicle that came and went, trying to judge if they were members of our group. Eventually I saw a few pickup trucks pull up to the launch ramp with Utah license plates. I guessed that this was part of our team and introduced myself.
There on the shore of the river I met Dave Nally, our “qualified boatman,” the most experienced guy on our trip. To my knowledge, the definition of a Qualified Boatman according to the National Park Service is “Must have participated in a previous Grand Canyon river trip as a boatman or participated as a boatman on rivers of similar difficulty.” Accompanying Dave were two of his daughters, Stephanie and Brooke, as well as Dorothy Kyees, Mike Burkley, and Bo Beck.
Dave said he got permission from the park ranger to begin unloading our gear on the ramp, so I pulled my car down there as well, and things were suddenly becoming very real! We stacked our things in a neat little row on the ground. Bo Beck brought his own cataraft to pilot down the Canyon, so it was interesting to see the process of piecing it together. This cataraft was smaller than our traditional 18-foot rafts. It’s essentially two long tubes held together by a frame in the middle, with a single occupant.
It wasn’t long before the Moenkopi truck arrived, with the rest of our team in tow. There was a great flurry of eager handshakes, smiles, and introductions. Nobody seemed to really know each other. I’d met 5 out of the 15 others in the group before this day, and exchanged emails with 3 or 4 more… I feel like this was more familiarity than almost anyone else had, and instantly felt comfortable and confident about the group as a singular whole.
Next there was a whole lot of work to do. Brady Black from Moenkopi organized assignments for unloading the truck and piecing the rafts together.
It was especially windy, and at one point my Ridgerest foam sleeping pad took off and landed out in the water. Jeremy McCumber made a valiant attempt at swimming to recover it, but to no avail. Luckily a party of rafts was on the river just at the right time, and they were kind enough to pick it up and return it to us. I was so embarrassed that I didn’t reveal to anyone that it was mine until quite a few days later.
Once all the rafts were together and loaded with the communal gear, it was time to get the personal gear on board. This meant that Jackie and I had to find ourselves a boat, as none were assigned by Josh.
Before the trip I wondered who we’d be riding with, and my top two choices were Doug Nering or Chris Forsyth. Frankly nobody else had much (If any) experience, with the exception of Dave Nally, who already had his passengers. It looked like Chris Atwood had already began loading his things onto Forsyth’s boat, and I hopped on with Doug Nering.
We had ourselves a boatman and a glorious floating home for the next three weeks.
Here behind Dave Nally you can see Doug trying to figure out where to go with all of our Tecate and PBR!
We got to work figuring out how to rig our boat in the most sensible way possible, finding a system to “rig to flip.” Absolutely everything needed a way to be strapped down securely, so we wouldn’t lose anything in the event that the raft flips upside-down in the rapids.
The setup basically went like this:
The back of the boat consisted of empty space where the majority of our personal gear was stowed.
In front of that was a back hatch where a lot of community gear was stored in large ammunition boxes. On top of that we fit a collapsible table, and more personal gear could get strapped down on top of that if desired.
In front of the back hatch there was a cooler with our perishable food and large blocks of ice. The top of the cooler served as the boatman’s (Doug’s) seat.
In front of the cooler there was empty space for Doug’s feet, and on each side there was a large box containing community items. Our boat had a whole lot bread and tortillas in these boxes.
In front of this area there was a front hatch that was also packed full of community gear in milk crates and large ammo boxes. The top of the front hatch served as seating for the passengers.
The bow of the raft consisted mostly of empty space for the passengers’ feet, and provided room for passengers to shift our positions and throw our weight around to help keep the boat upright through the rapids.
Once everyone was situated, we took off on our exciting first float on the water. It was about one hundred yards downstream to the designated boaters’ beach camping area, where we’d spend our inaugural night. The wind was still vicious, and I think everyone was glad that we only had to go those hundred yards.
Finally it was time to relax and ride a shuttle to Marble Canyon Lodge for “The Last Supper.” We packed into a large van like sardines. If we weren’t quite comfortable with each other yet, well, we sure were now, getting all nice and cozy.
Oh, we’re all so clean and fresh-smelling!
Thanks to Chris Atwood for this photo.