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Rookie Rafters in the Grand Canyon

By Brian Burns

originally published at northwestwhitewater.org, 6/11/07.


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Brian climbing 24.5 Mile Rapid.

On February 27th, 2006, I found myself sitting on a fully loaded Maravia 16' raft, sweating in a drysuit, waiting around at Lee's Ferry for one of the other rafters in our group to come up with a fourth oar to satisfy the equipment requirements for launching.

Finding an oar in the winter in the desert isn't an easy task, but it was just one in a myriad of problems that had to be resolved before 16 people in 4 rafts, 1 cataraft, 3 tandem canoes, 1 solo canoe, and 1 kayak took off on a 27-day adventure through the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  

How the heck did I get here? What was I thinking? I'm a Class III canoeist, at best, and here I am in a borrowed raft, with a bent oar blade, thinking I'm going to somehow survive some of the biggest commercially run whitewater in the country?

A year earlier, I had received a call from a whitewater canoeist (Laurie Robinson) I had met on the Tieton, and later did a trip on the Rogue with. She had the idea that I was a rafter, and she was looking for raft support for a canoeing trip through the Grand. I assured her that I knew nothing about rafting, but would like to learn someday. For some unknown reason, she then told me if I learned to raft in the coming year, I could come on her trip. Seemed a little sketchy to me, but I'd always wanted to see the canyon, so I said if I could bring my wife, we were in. We were in!

I knew I needed help--I didn't know a baffle from a tube, an oar-right from an oarlock. I started searching the internet and found a company providing a 10-day raft guide training course for $399 that included time on the oars. So, in April and May, 2005, my wife Tracy and I traveled to the Skagit (the long way, due to a closed mountain pass), the Nisqually, the Skykomish (where I learned that rafts can flip just like my canoe does when I take a lousy line), and the Wenatchee.   Tracy thought it was all great fun. She loves road trips, and got to go sightseeing and motel-ing while I trained in the rain. Her chore was to come later, as the deal we made was that I would learn to raft, and she would prepare our share of the meals for 16 people. I knew I had the better part of that bargain!

Guide school was a hoot (except for all the driving).   There were 6 people in our class, all in their 20's except for one 55 year old geezer (me), and we quickly became good friends. In fact, I still go boating with several of them. The training was invaluable, as the company (Wildwater River Tours) taught us the parts of a raft, how to rig rafts, paddle raft guiding, rescue, Z-drags, and, best of all for me, they brought along an oar boat for any of us that wanted to learn to row. Most were in class to learn to paddle raft, so I got the oar raft to myself as much as I wanted. Guide school had its moments: I found myself hopelessly stuck in Suffocator on the Wenatchee in an oar boat, also stuck under a flipped raft in Boulder Drop on the Sky, but the most interesting part of all was watching my fellow guide trainees, who knew nothing about reading water, take some of the lousiest lines available through rapids!

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The bottom of the Grand Canyon is supposed to be warm, but maybe not in February.
Tracy Burns tries to stay warm while rowing.

Anyway, I got as trained as I could from guide school, bought an Aire Tributary 14' raft and an NRS frame, and started practicing on the Clark Fork, Salmon, Green, Deschutes, Wenatchee, and Spokane Rivers. I was having a ball. Running rapids in a canoe is pretty dicey--you always have to take the most conservative line, and there's a LOT of bailing involved. With the raft, I could blast through the biggest waves, and the boat took care of the bailing for me. What a deal! All it took was spending a lot of money. Of course, in the back of my mind, I always thought about the upcoming Grand trip that would make the rapids on my practice rivers seem like riffles. What would Crystal and Lava be like? I read too many gory accounts of rafting mishaps in the Canyon...

So, back to Lee's Ferry. An oar was finally found without having to drive to Flagstaff, and we launched. The first major rapid, Badger Creek, was an eye-opener for me. It was rated a 5 on the 1 to 10 scale. As a benchmark, it was disconcerting. The waves seemed so big. Doing the math, the 10's at Crystal and Lava must be immense!

House Rock Rapid was our first 7. I watched the most experienced rafter miss the three large holes on river left, and tried to follow his lead. Expecting to start river right and back ferry right all the way through the rapid, I was surprised (and FREAKED OUT) that my boat was being sucked to the left--directly towards the huge holes! The back ferry was definitely not working. I resorted to the only thing I had left in my tool chest, shouting, "GOD HELP ME" as I went into the first hole. Surprisingly, the hole spit me out to the right instead of sucking me in. I lost an oar and went towards the second hole, which did the same thing. By then, I was lined up nicely to skirt the third hole on the right side also. Textbook! There were two other inexperienced raft captains on the trip, and they ended up doing exactly what I had done. We were lucky clowns.

So, after that experience, I watched the good rafter (Dave) a lot more. I learned the "Grand Canyon Ferry", pointing the stern downstream, gathering momentum by back rowing, and angling away from the problem spots with speed. The Colorado's current in the narrow canyon is so powerful, and the loaded raft was so heavy, that a classic upstream back ferry didn't always produce the results I needed.  

We sneaked Hance on the left, and then we were faced with Horn, Class VIII. It looked HUGE. Laurie's group had been on a GC trip the year before and had flipped a raft here, with total video coverage that I had watched over and over again. Shouldn't have...

I got spooked and asked Dave to take my wife through on his raft. Tracy had found that walking around the big rapids was a great option for her. She was a little scared of them, and it allowed her the opportunity to video the boats going through the rapids. Horn was different. The canyon walls were steep, and the rapid was long. No walking this one. I watched her disappear into the first big wave of Horn perched on top of the gear in the back of Dave's huge Maravia Mistral. The boat shuddered to a stop as the wave crashed into it. Slowly it regained its momentum and finished the rapid successfully. My stomach was in knots as I pushed out into the current. I knew I had to stay left of center, or suffer the same fate as the flipped raft the year before. The waves I had to punch looked like buildings looming above me. Finally made it and I could breathe once again...

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Brian and Tracy in camp.

A succession of fun, exciting rapids followed, with beautiful campsites at night. We had 8 layover camps, with lots of hiking on the off days. Snow had been falling on the canyon rim and walls, and was making wonderful vistas. We had a variety of weather, from 70° at the put-in, to well below freezing later on in the trip. Some rain, some hail, some snow, some wind, the whole package.

Cooking for 16 was something we had never done. Tracy spent weeks testing recipes, measuring portions, and preparing and packaging the food for our share of the meals. The trip leader had us separated into teams that were responsible for either cooking, washing dishes, or community gear set-up and takedown. Our team of four would rotate through these chores, then have a day or two off while the other teams took over. The days off were sweet, especially if they occurred at a layover camp. Lots of chair time with some Seagrams 7.

There was plenty of canoe and kayak carnage on this trip, as one would expect. I can't believe the canoes made it through any of the bigger rapids without flipping, but the boaters were excellent, and successes were many. We only had one raft flip (thankfully it wasn't me) which happened at Upset Rapid. There was also a "Royal Flush" there (all occupants ejected, boat stayed upright). There were several other "Flushes" during the trip, but Upset was caught by Tracy's video camera for all (except the "Flushees") to enjoy later.

Why our group chose to camp at the top of Lava Rapid is still a mystery to me. The last major rapid to run (Class 10) could be heard roaring just downstream from our camp. Of course, we walked down to scout it in the evening, and then had nightmares about running it all night long. In the morning we scouted it again and finally decided to run the meat (the right side). The canoes ran the left side--a very tight technical run that they all did masterfully. The kayak ran the gut, and paid for it. The huge V-Wave engulfed him and he disappeared for quite some time. When he reappeared, he was upside down trying to Eskimo roll in the giant tail waves, to no avail. He swam a LONG way before self-rescuing.

One of the rafts ejected its captain and oars in Lava, but he managed to climb back on after a stiff pummeling. It's a miracle his boat didn't flip, as it went sideways into the biggest tail wave. The wave actually broke onto the middle of the boat, instead of building up under it, which probably prevented a flip.

After Lava, the rapids became easier, and the experience gained throughout the trip made me confident that our trip would be completed without flipping our 1200-pound load. More beautiful campsites, with some interesting hikes rounded out the trip.

Now we're hooked on rafting trips. The same group has invited us on a February 2008 Grand Canyon trip, and I'm in the process of gearing up for it. I've now got my own gear raft (Aire 156R), frame and accessories (no bent oar at the put-in this time). Can't wait to go again. In the meantime, I'm raft guiding for several different outfitters. No money in it, but what a fun job. Lots of rapids to run, people to meet, and even some tips to collect. Wish I'd discovered rafting about 30 years ago!

See you on the river.




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