Tim Marozick did a solo IK (inflatable kayak) trip last year through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. We are pleased to deliver Tim’s experience here in series form via one day increments. This month we serve up Days 1 through 4.
DAY ONE: Last year, I won a small trip lottery slot in late May for the Grand Canyon. –With two days notice. This happened the previous year, and I had to decline, but tried to join the couple who actually took the trip. I met them at Lee’s Ferry and was delighted that they invited me along. In the end the “helpful” ranger talked them out of taking a stranger along and I ended up extremely frustrated. This time I was determined to put it together with or without partners.
All I had was an inflatable sea kayak, but I was not deterred. I’d make it work. I have no idea how much food I eat in three weeks, so my shopping frenzy was a little bit complicated. I probably ended up with 200 pounds of food, almost all of it dried. I went over the National Park Service application and checklist. I listed time on the Zambezi and The Numbers of the Arkansas River as my comparable experience. No one asked if I’d done anything solo. I mean, what’s the big deal? One was a commercial raft trip, and one a group trip with top level kayakers – same thing, right?
Arriving for my checkout, The ranger told me that my PFDs were not the right ones. It’s not just type III PFDs they require, it’s type III intended for use in kayaking, not water ski vests. And you need two of them. Thanks to Brady at Moenkopi I got set up out of his bin at Lee’s Ferry in less than an hour. I had also been told that since I was doing a solo trip I didn’t need a kitchen strainer or fire pan. There were a couple other items I didn’t need, according to an email I got from NPS but I could not produce the email since there is no cell signal at Lee’s Ferry. The ranger grumbled but let it slide. Said she’d have to have a word with the ranger who had “misinformed” me. Apparently this is an ongoing issue, from what I’ve heard from other private groups.
The sendoff speech went on…and on. And on. Probably about an hour longer than I had expected or hoped. All the while, the up-river wind was picking up.
Just a few weeks earlier I had done a week-long trip on the San Juan River. One other guy on the trip had a non self-bailing IK like mine which he managed to keep somewhat dry with a manual bailing pump. I’d purchased one for this trip. Before I even reached the first rapid I could see that nothing short of an electric bilge pump was gonna keep my boat dry.
With no experience in the Grand Canyon I naively planned on 20 miles of paddling per day. That’s what we’d managed on the San Juan. I thought I would probably camp at Hot Na Na the first night.
When I arrived at Badger rapid I scouted it, then waited on shore until a group behind me arrived with kayaks so that I could go down with them. I followed them down the middle and everything went great except for the 400 pounds of water in my boat 2/3 of the way through. Still, I was proud to make it to river right and not get stuck over at Jackass Camp where the other guys ended up. I made it as far as Soap Creek the first night and camped above, I was a little nervous about the run first thing in the morning. I also didn’t really know if it mattered whether the river flow is higher or lower.
Turns out I had the camp pretty much to myself, except for the ringtail cats that molested my hanging food sacks overnight.
DAY TWO: In the morning I just ran Soap Creek Rapid without much difficulty other than the compulsory stop to turn my boat upside down and bail. My little bailing pump was now just another piece of trash to be carried out.
Slowly acquiring insight, I considered the possibility that I would end up washed against the left wall of House Rock Rapid if my boat filled with too much water at the top. It’s not the same as when someone else is in charge, deciding what’s safe and what’s not, and then following you down to save your butt when you mess up. I portaged it, adding wisdom to my valor–dependent plan. At the bottom part of it I watched as someone’s yellow dry bag circled on eternal wash cycle in the gnarly eddy. I considered rescuing it, then pictured myself accompanying it there for eternity.
Sheer Wall and Redneck rapids were uneventful and good training for the more significant challenges ahead. I gained more confidence in my abilities, but the limitations of a non self-bailing kayak became more obvious with each stop to dump the water out. I tried rigging my tarp as a makeshift spray skirt, with very little improvement. It was still necessary to stop and turn the boat upside down periodically, though I got it down to a very quick procedure.
I made it to North Canyon camp for my second night where I was joined by a couple of very friendly and accommodating commercial groups who politely asked if they could share the camp. “It’s not MY camp”, I told them. I was happy for the company, and if I wanted solitude it was not hard to find a patch of dirt big enough for only me. One group came in late in the evening and offered to feed me. I’d already eaten and I had so much food to get rid of I think I declined but I was happy to utilize their groover.
DAY THREE: In the morning, an AZRA rowing group arrived and was as accommodating as the first commercial group. I appreciated the respect they showed me, wondering why they didn’t just think of me as a silly, unprepared neophyte doing dangerous things.
With the roaring 20s I ahead of me I was thrilled to run the first two rapids without incident. On one I did not even have to bail out the boat. After that, I relaxed quite a bit. I was hitting my groove.
Big mistake. I paddled along a flat section, approaching a clearly visible, moderately sized pour-over. I thought about going left, I thought about going right and, oh shit! My boat flipped me out and stuck on the rock, and I was swimming. Well, swimming was a little bit of an embellishment since with a paddle in one hand and a life jacket on, and eddys all about I really just watched the boat recede above me while I washed downstream. I was several hundred yards below it, making my way toward shore when the boat somehow freed itself. The gear bag had come unclipped on one side and was acting as a 150 pound sea anchor. Now I was faced with trying to drag all this to shore, just scissor-kicking. I kept nervously looking downstream for the next rapid as I raced to make a sandy beach. It took several hundred nervous yards of kicking as hard as I could to make shore. I was glad to be wearing a wetsuit needless to say. And like that song “Spill the Wine”, “This really blew my mind”. Getting maytagged in big surf doesn’t faze me, but there are sections of river where the equivalent would be wiping out on the first wave of a 6 wave set of 10 foot south swell.
It didn’t help to know that Ben Orkin got out in Lava Falls. In winter. In the dark. He chased his sea kayak for 15 minutes, got in and finished setting the speed record. In 1951, the Rigg brothers set a record of 53 hours, one of them with only one previous trip down the Grand, and the other with only two trips. I just needed to buck up and keep it together.
I took some time drying my gear out on the shore. Luckily I had secured things so well that nothing got lost other than the tarp I’d been trying to use as a spray skirt. Nothing essential got wet but a lot of things needed drying out. In a little while, the AZRA group pulled up about a quarter mile upstream from me. I decided to walk over and ask if I could follow them down the rest of the roaring 20s. They said it would be no problem. This was an eye opener and convinced me that I had clearly brought a knife to a gunfight as far as my choice of watercraft. We split up at Silver Grotto.
I paddled the next nine miles through the beautiful and mostly calm stretch of the canyon. There were some rapids not mentioned in the guidebook though. They would have just been bonus fun, had I not been so unnerved by my little swimming event. I got up in my boat, almost to standing above every little section to be sure there were no more hidden surprises.
This ended up being my longest on-the-water-day by far. I paddled all the way to Tatahatso, arriving at dusk to see a Western Rivers Expeditions group there. It was an elderly group of clients that were quite upset because some of the canyon research groups up river had denied them access to a camp, requiring them to continue for an extra half hour while they were cold. They were a bit whiny and, I think, making their guides miserable. Meanwhile, I had been in and out of the water most of the day and was still wearing my wetsuit. I went up to the group leader and asked if he would mind if I pitched my tent on a small spot somewhere downriver from his camp. To my amazement he replied that it was absolutely against the rules to share camps and I would have to go down river.
I was somewhat dumbfounded, especially considering how late in the day it was and how appreciative the previous two commercial groups had been when I shared my camp with them. I paddled down river several hundred yards, came ashore, and started looking for a suitable spot in the failing light. The next thing I knew, the expedition leader was running through the brush to tell me that this was still his camp and that I had to go further down river. I asked him where he would be tomorrow night, hoping he would tell me so could reply “not if I get there first”. I was pretty much disgusted with the man. For the record, this was on May 18th. It was the only downer of the trip. To be fair, Martha’s camp was only about a half mile downriver, but I had to negotiate another small rapid at dusk to get there and my nerves were pretty much cooked. To make matters worse, it looked like there was a chance of rain so it mattered whether or not I found an adequate spot to put up my tent or find an overhang to camp under. I poked around in the dark, got my stuff into a tent and made dinner. Had a nervous night’s sleep.
DAY FOUR: (Hopefully less contentious than Day 3) I managed to find a suitable spot for my tube tent last night. My headlamp had gotten wet during my swim and now was not working so I had to use my backup hand held light. I chose a tube tent because I really did not expect meaningful rain this time of year in the Canyon.
Growing up, my father took us backpacking from the time we could walk 5 miles. We just planned on good weather and brought tube tents for the emergencies. On my San Juan trip two weeks earlier, I brought my real tent because the forecast was for rain half the time. This time weight was a serious factor. The only downside is that it takes some additional resourcefulness to find two objects to run the cord between. Now I had to do this with a flashlight in my mouth. A quirk of tents is that you hear every raindrop that hits it, making it seem as though there is meaningful rain when there is not. You stay in, loathing the idea of getting up in rain. When you actually get up and out of the tent, there’s not even enough rain to feel.
So in the morning I got up, nervous as hell. There was no rain, but I thought I’d heard drops and I still had stuff to dry out from yesterday. I took my time on the beach, studying my guide book while drying it out.
I finally got underway at about 10:00. Instead of looking forward to having fun in the upcoming rapids I found myself getting up on my knees or actually standing in the boat before every audible water feature ahead. Since rapids existed that did not exist when my guide book was written I considered every sound ahead a potential for disaster.
At President Harding rapid, I eyeballed the big rock in the middle and decided I did not want to risk engaging it if my boat got too full of water to navigate before I got there. So I taught myself a new, useful skill and roped my boat down. Now I was starting to feel like the early river runners. Even though we all picture Powell in his wooden boat, crashing through giant water, turns out he and his group portaged every chance they could, and their boats were better than mine.
This rock at President Harding Rapid was hungry for a kayak snack. Still is, as far as I know.
Fortunately, most of the day was through extremely calm water. Shortly before Nankoweep a commercial motor group passed me, asking if I needed anything. We both ended up at the camp where they invited me to their (electric) campfire and meals. I met a great group of folks on a corporate “reward trip”. They were doing the opposite of what I was doing – flying in, motoring down and flying out by helicopter on a short luxury trip from Europe. Our trips and styles had nothing in common but we both admired and respected what the others were doing.
At this point I was considering my exit plan since I knew I was not going to be able to portage Grapevine rapid. One of the crew suggested I carry out at Tanner trail. I did not know that trail even existed, and was thinking how I could get out at Phantom Ranch and extract my gear by burro. I have read many accounts of the dried up human raisins that had failed to negotiate the trip down at Bright Angel, or back up when things got hot. I’d done that hike on a moderately hot Labor Day once. Regardless, if the trip had only been to Nankoweep it would have well been worth it. The area was breathtaking. It made up for the previous day’s trials, as I hiked up to the granaries, swam in the river, made friends and got clean.