FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK: No compilation of best rivers in the world, which is what we have humbly attempted in this “Our Rivers, Our World” issue of DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE, would be complete without including the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Since starting this publication in November 2014, no single whitewater stretch has been written about more extensively. Yet those pieces were primarily focused on the history of this most famous river in America. For this issue, we instead opted to focus on what is to come rather than what has passed, a view looking downstream from the Put In of life as opposed to looking back upstream from the Takeout. We hope to inspire you our reader to take the journey for yourself and make the journey through the Grand Canyon “Your River”, and the memories made a part of “Your World”…
What better way for us to celebrate our 3rd year of existence as a community known as DIRT BAG PADDLERS is there than to give the gift of inspiration?
No river so huge, in both its physical size and its emotional heft, could possibly be covered by only one voice. So we invited three of our Admins to share in the endeavor, two by writing and one by photography. We hope you enjoy, and share with others if you do, the following works of love.
PART 1: Grand Dirtbaggin’ ~ A “How To” Guide, from Years of Experience. by Taz Riggs
EDITOR: Up first is Associate Editor Kevin “Taz” Riggs, a river guide with over 30 years of experience who worked in the Canyon for a number of them, forming lifelong friends and a robust knowledge of what it takes to enjoy an adventure of a lifetime…
In 1983, I had just come to work in the outdoor industry in North Carolina. One morning, a group of more than a half-dozen people crowded around a small TV in the corner of the staff dining room. In those days there was only one way to get a television image down in the steep valleys of the Smoky Mountains. What we were watching was a VHS tape of a national news report. The image on the screen was of Glen Canyon Dam at the head of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. The discharge tunnels were spewing huge horizontal columns of water hundreds of yards through the air. The voice of the announcer was grave and very serious; the atmosphere in the room I was in was something on the other end of the scale. The people I was watching with were shouting and screaming with glee. I was gape mouthed and staring at the screen trying to figure out what I was seeing and trying to figure out how two groups could see the same image in two completely different ways. I was really too young to the sport to really comprehend what that much extra water downstream would mean. Later, I would learn that this was the one greatest event since Glen Canyon had gone on line. The dam came catastrophically close to failure and produced some of the greatest flows the canyon has seen since the coming of the massive structure and its hydroelectric plant.
This was the stuff of nightmares or dreams, depending on your point of view. Then and there the Colorado was entered on my Dream List, at the top, and alone. Anyone who is into whitewater sports probably has the river somewhere on their list. To most it is accepted as the birthplace of whitewater recreation. Even if that is not entirely accurate, there is no doubt that a large number of it’s roots were fed from Colorado River waters. Some of the greatest stories of exploration and survival come from there as well; once again we find contrast between the endurance required by John Wesley Powell, Robert B. Stanton and their men, the romance of Buzz Holmstrom’s solo adventure, and the early days of pleasure tripping with Georgie White, Norm Nevills and Martin Litton. All these people surpassed the nightmares to make river running the dream that it is today. And for their efforts, we have the opportunity to find pleasure in what truly is a national and world heritage river. The Colorado is likely on every river runner’s dream list.
There is nothing quite like putting in on a river where you can watch civilization fade away as you do when you float downstream from Lee’s Ferry. Did you leave the oven on? Who won the election? What teams are playing in the Super Bowl? In less than 48 hours none of these things make any difference. This is an alien world, the terrain is new, the plants, the rocks, the colors, the stars at night, even light and time seem unique to what we know. The sensation is not overwhelming, but it is consuming. Without a doubt my most often used word there is: “wow.” There are moments when you feel smaller than a flea in the scheme of the world, and times when you are convinced that you are the greatest creature on the planet. The river can make the outside world invisible and will hold you tightly in it’s arms for as long as you can stay.
My first trip was a mere ten days from Lee’s to Diamond Creek. It felt rushed even though I had nothing to compare it to. I had no idea how long it might be or if I might be here again, so I chose to use the boat that I was most familiar with, a decked canoe. I wouldn’t have traded that trip for anything; I had a blast in that boat, but six or more hours daily on one’s knees is a bit much. I then vowed that if I had a chance for another trip, I would take an oar-rig. My logic was that everything that I might need would be at hand, whenever I needed it. (Happy hour doesn’t require a clock in the Canyon.) Maps, camera, nail clippers, a snack or a water bottle is easy to get to.
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I get so excited to recommend a Grand Canyon trip to anyone who can make the time or expense, that I don’t have reservations about the type of craft one would travel in. There was a time when I frowned on the large motor rigs in the Canyon, but I now see their place on the river. They can transport a group of up to thirty passengers. The group is then well contained, they can cover a lot of river fairly quickly, preventing the need to bypass side hikes due to time constraints. For those with disabilities or other physical limitations this can be one of the best options for river travel. There are those that just can’t spare a large block of time for such a vacation, so for that reason this may be the only viable option as well. The river can also be split up into upper or lower stretches (not only on motor trips, but on most other trips as well). The motor rig drivers that I’ve met have been some of the most knowledgeable and experienced boatmen in the Canyon. They’ve also proven to be helpful in many ways; bartering for food, arranging parking at busy locations, working out campsite selections. The only complaint that I’ve ever had were the noise of the motors and the potential pollution, although solar electric motors are beginning to make the scene and hopefully will be the norm in the future.
As a client you can also ride in an oar-rigged inflatable raft. This is probably the most popular way to go down the river. You are much more a part of the river, while the action is greater than in a large motor boat. It doesn’t require any experience and allows more time to share with a guide who is versed in different aspects of the river and the environs. The pace of an oared or paddled raft is much slower; allowing time, first to get acclimated, and second, to become one with the surroundings. These trips are also able to insert more hikes away from the river on their itinerary, allowing for greater intimacy with the place.
Of course there is what I would consider the ultimate Canyon river craft, the whitewater dory. Quite frankly, no other commercial river boat can compare with the ride. It’s kind of like comparing tractor-trailers and pick-up trucks to sports cars. Comparatively more delicate, these rigid wood or fiberglass boats (sometimes a combination of the two) require an adept boatman to care for vessel and passengers equally.
Then there is of course the private option. In this case, a private individual holds a permit to run the river and can select whatever craft they deem appropriate, setting their own itinerary. To get on the list can be quite daunting, but the Park Service makes it somewhat simple, if not still a little complicated. The savings of a private over a commercial trip make the effort worth the wait. You can opt to control every aspect of your trip: equipment, menu, food selection, packing and transportation. Or you can pay a professional outfitter to take care of all or any portion of your needs. These guys are tops at what they do, they are from the ranks of river runners and they have this down to a science that makes their help well worth the investment.
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The Grand Canyon is more than just the river and whitewater. There are so many things to command your attention. One is the geology; practically the entire history of the planet is spread out before your eyes. It’s definitely written in a language that few of us understand, but with a book or someone who knows the story the curiosity about the geology can become a fascination (even if some of the pages to the geologic record are missing and seemingly replaced by the pages of another book).
For the fisherman, there is no reason to leave the rod and reel behind. The Rainbow trout fishing is good above the Little Colorado, where quite often the river becomes muddy. People also boast of the trophies that are available up some of the tributaries such as Tapeat’s Creek among others. There are a scattering of native fishes, but their numbers are greatly diminished and should be protected if encountered.
Hiking, hiking, hiking… you’ll never get enough. Hiking can lead to breathtaking vistas, clear water pools, grottoes and slot canyons festooned with greenery and flowers, waterfalls, slides, and archaeological sites: old petroglyphs and ruins of civilizations thousands of years gone, whose advanced agricultural techniques sustained them. The Nankoweap granaries and the Unkar Delta are must make stops. There are also many stops close to the water that can’t be missed, if for nothing else but to soak up some shade. Redwall Cavern, Elves Chasm and Deer Creek are all close to the river, but are all hard to leave, when your time is limited.
For those lovers of flora and fauna (the plants and animals) the place is more alive than you ever imagined with creatures you might not have considered. Awaiting you are Condors with plane sized wingspans, Ravens that are ten times smarter than a first year river guide, the sharp sing-song of a Canyon Wren, Big Horn Sheep gaspingly high on a narrow ledge above, funny, ugly and scary lizards. Oh, there are snakes, and the prettiest snake I’ve ever seen was a Grand Canyon Rattlesnake, a darling coral pink that could make you forget that they are dangerous. I even had a brief discussion at three o’clock in the morning with a Ring-Tailed Cat. I decided to let him keep the apple if he would let me go back to sleep. And of course there are pests. Some camps can be infested with ants and or mice. There you will learn the importance of a tight kitchen. Many of these pests are normal in the area, but sometimes we unknowingly tip the scales. There are also spiders and scorpions to be aware of, though being aware and avoiding the spots that they like are usually enough to avoid a bite or a sting.
Sun-block, hand lotion, soft socks, comfortable shoes for camp and sturdy shoes or boots for hiking… There are long lists of things you can bring, that you may question the need for or consider a luxury. You won’t know you need it till you need it. Don’t let yourself get sunburned. Don’t allow your hands to dry, crack and bleed. Pamper your feet! You need them to stand and walk on. What might seem frivolous while packing your bag could be sorely missed at some point on your trip. Extra sunglasses, extra prescription glasses, personal medication, a second hat… think ahead, some things can’t be replaced out there.
Unless you are setting a time record or testing self contained kayak travel, pack things that can keep you amused. Don’t be the person that asks, “How much further to lunch?” or “How many miles are we going to go today?” Everybody should have a guidebook of the river. I also recommend other guide books of your choice. Pick up some history about the river and the people that came down the river before us, such as John Wesley Powell, Robert B. Stanton, Buzz Holmstrom, the Kolb brothers, or Tom and Bessie Hyde. Get a feel for what these people saw and felt as they traversed the river. Write a journal, a book of verse, or sketches. Bring a good camp chair (and hope you’re not the only one who did.) A camera is a must if you own one and don’t put a limit on what you shoot. If your favorite form of art is not too bulky, you should bring that along. Drawing, painting, carving, weaving and an unlimited imagination have been inspired more than a few times down there. I have enjoyed the tunes of a flute while on a trip and some have carried nearly an orchestra. I can’t play but I like it when there is someone along who does. A deck of cards, a hacky-sac or a frisbee are easy to pack and make great time fillers after setting up camp, or while waiting for dinner. Yeah, and don’t forget your costume, there is always gonna be a party.
Most importantly, always bring your vices. I’ve known folks that decided they would find the Grand Canyon a good place to stop using tobacco or to cut back on alcohol consumption. If you want to quit something, bring more than you would normally consume… and quit. Unless no one on your trip uses tobacco or drinks, this ain’t the place to clean up your act. If you want the same friends you put on with, support your own habits.
The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon is a river of dreams. Whether you dream to go there or dream to return, it is. Make your trip what you want it to be. If you have a passion, bring it with you. If solitude and silence is what you prefer it is all around you. If you can only come for a short trip, I’m sure you will dream of returning and spending more time. Make your dreams come true.
Apply for a Private Permit
EDITOR’S DESK: We linked a few popular YouTube videos from the Grand Canyon to give a feeling for what it’s like to send it.
Great Series opener on the Canyon
Flight over the Canyon
All the major rapids
A Dory trip
Speed kayaking Lava!
AND MORE WALLACE!!!
PART 2: Grand Dirtbaggin’ ~ Lessons From a Lifelong DB’s One Time in the (Highwater!) Canyon. by Rev. Ewok Carswell
EDITOR: Next up is a treatise on running the Canyon by a lifelong river guide and trip leader from the Southeast, Rev. Chris “Ewok” Carswell of Appalachian Outlaws fame. He took his first of what surely will be many trips down the Colorado two years ago, and shares with us some of what he learned along the way… (Look for an extensive series written from Ewok’s river log in a future edition of DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE…)
The Grand Canyon is known for being big, wet, and intimidating. Very few Grand Canyon rapids are referred to as technical. Technical rapids require making one or more moves. The more moves you make, the more technical a rapid. In the Canyon, most rapids require the guide to enter at a nearly fairly precise location and float through the wave train. However, a few rapids are considered technical, and require one or two moves. These typically have breaking waves, holes, and occasionally rocks or cliffs that need to be avoided.
To many people it may seem impossible that 95% of the Canyon is flatwater. Before I took this trip I didn’t realize it either! After seeing all of that flatwater water I decided to to do the math and with a gradient of only 8′ a mile it is amazing there is any whitewater to be had.
She don’t give you much but what she does give is the best whitewater this Dirtbag has seen any place.
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The Colorado is considered a “Big water” river. The CFS through the Canyon averages about 12-15,000 cfs in the commercial rafting season. Before the dam was built the river regularly ran as high as 100,000 cfs + in the spring. Occasionally the dam will run what they call a “High flow experiment” bringing the water up to that golden level between 25 and 45K!
I was lucky enough to be on the water during one of these; when I realized that the water was changing color rapidly, I was stoked! We saw water as high as 37,000 CFS on my trip, and as low as 9,000. But the thing I remember with the most fondness is those first few days when the water was that magnificent green — that picture will be forever ingrained in my memory. That was the most beautiful water I have ever seen in my life! Remind me to tell you about it sometime…
Badger Rapid is the first Class V rapid with a large pour over in the center. That is where we had our first swimmer; my buddy Mark followed me into the pour over in his duck. I hit it like a brick wall and it felt like a brick wall hit me right back! I can only imagine what Mark felt in that duck. Remind me to tell you about that sometime too…
Twenty Three Mile (Indian Dick) Rapid was the first rapid that threatened the Wallace (apparently that Indian was hung like a mule.) The Dick is a straightforward kind of rapid, run and done… so, this can cause you to start feeling a little relaxed. I got a little too relaxed myself and I got a little side surf in an eddy line. The line sucked my right tube, yanked the oar from my hand and stood the raft up vertical. I’d rather not tell you about that, but I might.
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There are many things that make the “Big Ditch” one of the most magical place on earth.
We packed out with PRO, whom I highly recommend, and let me tell you why. From the moment that they pulled into the parking lot of the motel the professionalism, the humor, the gear (4 SOTAR rafts and one Duckie), the kitchen gear, and the food, we’re all top notch. Not to mention that the shuttle vehicles were comfortable and air conditioned. Our driver was a fountain of canyon information and very entertaining as well. He gave lots of great pointers for major rapids and shared great historical tidbits with us. (Being a guide, this was a great opportunity to be experiencing this from the other side.)
We had three 18′ rafts and a 16′ raft. On our way in, the shuttle driver, who had seen our “little” boat, (the one I’d be rowing) asked who was on the oars in the “Small” raft. I spoke up and admitted that it would be me, and his response was, “You will flip during the High Flow.” I’m not sure if he was trying to prepare me or if he was making fun of me, but in any case I thought, “Great!” That sounds just “awesome!” (Sarcasm for those of you who didn’t catch that.)
All of the rafts were in great shape. They all held air really well which in retrospect was fantastic for us, because during the trip I saw more than a handful of rafts that were not nearly as well taken care of. PRO even has great repair kits, and we would need one…Yeah, ask me about that too.
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Now for what I considered the most important: The food.
Our kitchen set up worked flawlessly the entire time, which I was thankful for because, as you know, rafting works up an appetite! (And so does camping, drinking beer and swapping river lies.)
I have to say we ate like kings! (I should know about good food; we love to cook and eat where I’m from.) Virtually every night was Steak (Inch thick Ribeye), Chicken Breast, Pork Chops, Lasagna, Chicken Fajitas, or something as heavenly as such. Breakfast in the mornings were sometimes as simple as cereal; other mornings we had Bacon, Sausage, and Eggs, every now and then even Pancakes. Lunch was usually a Sandwich you made at breakfast. (Something that can be eaten on the run while on the river.) I never went hungry and I always looked forward to the next meal.
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My trip inside of the Canyon was a life altering experience— You should ask me about it some time….
My Advice, Go spend your $25 and register for your chance in the lottery, it may change your life too.
I recommend doing 21 days in late October into November. (Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek)
The 1st of November is the first day you can have a fire. Otherwise it is fire logs… The fire each night is great for reminiscing on the events of the day. It builds cohesion within the group.
So as you start to think about your trip of a lifetime, just remember… Drink water, and “Wash your F’ing hands.” Always wash your hands. Oh and one more thing, Wash your F’ing hands!
EDITOR: Last but not least, we wanted to thank Ryan Waterhouse for the many beautiful photographs that grace this article, taken over many trips that he has enjoyed. He’s run the Grand three consecutive years running, and just received word that he’s been granted a fourth private permit that puts on in a few months!
Here are a few links to other articles on the Grand Canyon that have appeared in DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE over the years. and YES you might also notice they are all from our new website! THANKS FOR CELEBRATING OUR 3RD YEAR WITH US!!
Taz Riggs on Ote Dale-
Sam Morse on an evacuation-
Mike Toughill on JW Powell-
Mike Toughill on recent scandal-
Peter Ely’s Part 2 of journal series-