A Colorado River Journal
by Jamie Compos
We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown… We have but a month’s rations remaining… the spoiled bacon has been dried and the worst of it boiled… The sugar has all but melted and gone on its way down the river…
We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above; the waves are but puny ripples, and we but pygmies…
We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.
Many things have changed since John Wesley Powell led the first expedition down the length of the Colorado River in 1869. For example, I discovered that I had the opportunity to raft the Grand Canyon via a text message from Josh Case. He’d successfully jumped through all the hoops and won a private permit to begin a 21-day river trip in March of 2013. Did I want to go? Could I go? Hell yeah!
Thankfully, in contrast to the rest of the world, the Grand Canyon has changed very, very little since Powell’s journey. That’s what keeps so many of us coming back to it again and again. The Canyon is one of the most timeless places on earth. The days from 1869 until today have gone by like the blink of an eye. Even our concrete dams are laughable in the scope of the Canyon’s epic concept of time.
Not only would this be my first rafting experience on any river, but it was also the first whitewater for some of our boatmen, too. The group was mostly pulled together as hiking enthusiasts, so naturally we tried to incorporate an ambitious hiking schedule into the trip… but it wasn’t long before the serious nature of the big water took its toll on the itinerary.
TEAM: 16 people
BOATS: 6 Maravia 18ft self bailing rafts (rented), and 1 cataraft
AVERAGE CFS: 10,000 cubic feet per second
TRIP LENGTH: 21 days
LAUNCH DATE: March 18, 2013
TAKEOUT: Pearce Ferry
My daily journal for this trip of a lifetime with photos is below, augmented with some of the group’s own pictures and Youtube videos through the rapids.
Table of Contents
Day 0 – Introduction and Rig Day
Day 1 – Lees Ferry to Hot Na Na
Day 2 – House Rock Rapid and North Canyon
Day 3 – Silver Grotto to Nautiloid
Day 4 – Buck Farm Canyon
Day 5 – Climbing Nankoweap Mesa
Day 6 – Kwagunt Creek
Day 7 – The Lava – Carbon Loop
Day 8 – The Inner Gorge
Day 9 – Phantom Ranch, Horn, Granite, and Hermit Rapid
Day 10 – Crystal Rapid and the Gems
Day 11 – Shinumo Creek
Day 12 – Elves Chasm and Blacktail Canyon
Day 13 – Stone Creek
Day 14 – The Thunder River / Deer Creek Loop
Day 15 – Olo Canyon
Day 16 – Havasu Creek
Day 17 – Tuckup, National Canyon, and Fern Glen
Day 18 – Lava Falls Rapid
Day 19 – The Book of Worms
Day 20 – The Great Pumpkin Rises
Day 21 – Travertine Falls and The Killer Fang
Day 22 – The Nightfloat Watchmen
Josh did an amazing job as trip leader, which at times comes as a thankless responsibility. The majority of pre-trip planning fell on his shoulders, and it was up to him to finalize the constant process of making decisions on the group’s behalf throughout the trip. This is much easier said than done through the rigors of an expedition such as this, especially considering that Josh took this on as a rookie to whitewater rafting himself.
I admired the way that Josh could dive into a new subject and have it seemingly mastered in so little time. For example, he’s taken on river running with such fervor that he’s now building his own boat! He’s a natural leader, and we all leaned on his decisiveness.
Dave was essentially our guide, for all intents and purposes. He has been down the river through the Grand Canyon many, many times, and it’s told that he’s never flipped a boat. He provided assurance, knowledge, and direction for all the major rapids, and was always the lead raft – everyone aspired to follow his line. Even in the calm water, he read the currents so well that it was difficult to keep up with his lead.
Every morning before we’d set out, Dave stood on the beach and recited a poem from a collection he’d prepared for this purpose. Beginning the days in this way added a great flavor to the adventure.
Dave keeps a website at dNally.com, where you can find his popular, pocket sized Grand Canyon River Map, as well as his book Deaths and Rescues in Zion National Park, co-authored with Bo Beck (below).
We knew Bo as a reputed authority on Zion National Park, as a member of their search and rescue team, and co-author of Favorite Hikes In & Around Zion National Park.
It wasn’t long before he made an impression as an unstoppable force of nature. Whenever there was work that needed to be done (always), Bo was on it – before most of us even realized what needed doing.
He brought his own cataraft to row solo for the full length of the river, and immediately proved to be invaluable as a safety net, with his extra maneuverability and always watchful eye. At the bottom of the rapids he’d unfailingly eddy out and wait until the group was safely through.
Every morning and virtually after every stop, Bo would untie before the rest of us and circle offshore as he waited, as though for fun or to burn off energy. Visit Bo at his outfitter, The Desert Rat, in St. George, Utah.
Doug is a living encyclopedia of the historical nature of trails in the Canyon. His first visit to Grand Canyon was at the North Rim at age 3, and he first hiked to the bottom at age 12. His first of five previous river trips was in 1968, at a time when things were much different on the river.
Doug began hiking to the more remote places when he went with George Steck and Gary Ladd around Powell Plateau in 1990, which included the Stina flash flood incident described in Grand Canyon Loop Hikes.
His special interest is in re-discovering historic trails and old routes, with a respectable collection of books and old maps for reference. He has served with the Grand Canyon Hikers & Backpackers Association for many years, and his informative website is found at Grand Canyon Off The Trail.
Last but not least, I was a passenger on Doug’s boat for this trip. He was frequently pointing out hidden features and hiking routes along the river corridor, and took on the rapids with a diligent enthusiasm.
Chris has been hiking and backpacking avidly in Grand Canyon since some friends coaxed him into a rim-to-rim day hike in 2003, and today he’s counted among those that have hiked the length of Grand Canyon National Park. He’s been a valuable partner of Rich Rudow’s canyoneering trips, from the rim as well as on the river.
Chris brought his invaluable know-how as a boatman and detailed knowledge of the Canyon to our group. His witty good nature shed light on all situations, and his practical, realistic outlook drawn from experience often kept us cool and out of trouble.
Jeremy McCumber photo thanks to Shannon McCumber
Jeremy and Shannon McCumber arrived with an insatiable appetite to see and do as much as possible in the Canyon, from the first minute at Lees Ferry to the final oar stroke at Pearce. If you look up Carpe Diem in the dictionary you will find a photo of Jeremy and Shannon McCumber. These two were always finding an extra hike or a random rock to climb.
Jeremy steadily handed out compliments left and right, often serving as a positive influence on the group. If we didn’t know better, nobody would have ever suspected that he was a novice at whitewater rafting. Shannon was always upbeat and clearly having so much fun that it was contagious, ready for anything with a smile.
Jeremy and Shannon get to share a description because they were a perfect team in every sense of the word – the sort of couple that just makes you wonder how you can be more like them. Dubbed by someone as “Team Cute” on the first day, it was additionally more like “Team Prepared and Unstoppable.”
Stephanie Nally photo by Shannon McCumber
The look of shock and surprise on the faces of onlookers from other river parties when they saw this 21 year old girl on the oars pulling through the hairiest of rapids says it all. Stephanie rowed the length of the Canyon as though she’d been doing it all her life, mirroring her dad as the second in line of our running order.
The river itself was clearly Stephanie’s love and obsession – often she could be heard going over the details with others about the previous waves, rocks, and holes, or later found in silent contemplation over the next day’s big rapid. These days she specializes in leading yoga classes and retreats and can be found online here.
Brooke Nally photo by Chris Atwood
Brooke was the solo passenger on Stephanie’s boat, essential to completing a partnership of their own. Dubbed as the “Nally Girls,” a black pirate flag bandana flew on their bow. Brooke was fearless in the rapids and on shore as well, coaxing her sister into hitting the biggest waves for the thrill of the ride. She had no reservations about piloting the inflatable kayak through rough water, or roping up for some canyoneering.
Jackie’s first backpacking trip was only four months before the beginning of this adventure. In that short time she gained the skill and experience to hang with this group through the toughest of hikes, such as the gnarly off-trail climb up Nankoweap Mesa. It was a joy for everyone to witness her skills and confidence to improve over the course of the trip. Jackie’s quiet, calm demeanor lent a peaceful air to the team.
Mike joined us as Dave Nally’s longtime Grand Canyon backpacking partner. Josh often referred to Mike as “The Packrafting Pioneer” though I don’t know of the origin of the title. Mike’s easy-going good nature was as smooth as the river itself, and he was always down to stomp out a good old traditional hike. The women on board dubbed him as the “best-looking man in the group!”
Dorothy had never even seen the Grand Canyon before this trip. This was her very first Grand Canyon experience! Can you imagine that? Though it’s a bold statement, I’d dare to say she enjoyed the adventure in a greater capacity than anyone else on board. Every day it was clear that she was in the midst of a joyous, eye opening, and soul shaking experience.
Amy was also a relative newcomer to the Grand Canyon, having only been backpacking once in the Canyon prior to this trip. Not only did this experience open her eyes to Josh’s (And our) world of Grand Canyon obsession, but it’s always great to witness someone’s confidence steadily grow as they push their limits. Her outgoing personality kept all of the conversation light and humorous throughout such an adventurous and gritty endeavor.
Steve Nelson photo by Shannon McCumber
SteveO! Our trip surely wouldn’t have been the same without Mr. Steve Nelson. He’s by no means a stranger to Grand Canyon, with a long history of backpacking its trails. He was so full of funny stories and hilarious one-liners that we were never short of entertainment. Steve took it upon himself to wake earlier than the rest of us every day to get the coffee started, so each day began with the sound of his wake-up call rising over the river and echoing off the canyon walls: “Coffee! Come and get your coffee!”
Chris Atwood – Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch
We found ourselves with an open slot for the crew very late in the game, and Chris Atwood was a perfect fit. As a young schoolteacher in Winslow, at the time Chris spent virtually every weekend in the Canyon. He’s accumulated a very impressive resume of experience through the toughest of off-trail routes, naturally taking on a role as a valuable member of our team for the allotted first nine days. Chris is just one of those guys that’s unfailingly upbeat, positive, and ready to lend a hand.
Nic Bewsey – Phantom Ranch to Pearce Ferry
Nic joined us as Josh’s old college roommate at NAU and original backpacking buddy. Now a resident of Colorado, Nic descended the Bright Angel Trail and fell upon the group like a breath of fresh air from the Rocky Mountains. Always ready for a good time, he quickly earned his place as a fearless wild man, eager to pilot the inflatable kayak or jump into sketchy situations when needed without batting an eye. When Nic joined us on Day 9, we were all fully armored in drysuits to run the big water of Horn Rapid, Granite, and Hermit… Nic was just fine in a t-shirt and shorts.