Grand Magic: Packrafting the Grand Canyon

A float trip down the 226 mile length of the Grand Canyon is one that many friends have called a once in a lifetime experience, special, and magical. It's a trip I figured I'd take later in life when time and use slow my body down, but this past June Mike C said "I've got a Grand Canyon river permit and you're invited."

Mike cast his fly in the right spot to deserve a look.

"8 guys, packrafts, self-supported, January" he continued.

His presentation was excellent and he set the hook. I signed up and paid my fees.

Summer and fall were spent riding bikes and boating progressively bigger, higher volume water to prepare for the Grand. As cold weather returned, thoughts of paddling and the trip were buried under the snow that fell. Our departure date snuck up quickly and in the midst of pre-trip anxiety, Keri and I were running to REI for last minute details.

Driving the seven hours to our launch site at Lee’s Ferry afforded ample time to flirt with feelings similar to those experienced prior to a first kiss. Nervous laughter, excitement, sweaty palms, the voice in your head saying “don’t screw this up."

Lee's Ferry was a bit chilly
Eight of us, all connected through Mike C, met over a fire's glow, solidifying new friendship with traded stories and a shared bottle of tequila. 

Morning saw us completing the park service inspection and dragging boats into the cold, green waters of the Colorado River. Though on the surface the waters appeared lazy, it was clear there was no shortage of power pushing us along at a steady 6mph. Our laughter and joking trickled off as we floated through invisible gates beneath Navajo Bridge. No going back, the river was carrying us into the canyon and all of the majesty and mayhem that lay within.

Despite what we may say, not one of us felt comfortable on the water that first day. This proved even more true for the ducklings, our name given to the less experienced boaters, as they all learned the consequences of river holes in House Rock rapid.  

Morning dawned and we entered the Roaring 20s from camp. Whitewater for breakfast. Nine wonderful miles of river that became a memory to soon. We were fully in the canyon now, it’s walls looking down on us in the same way we look ants in the dirt. Small, insignificant. Our days began to run together. Was that rapid this morning or yesterday? We grew more comfortable in our boats, but as the miles drifted by, fear and uncertainty waved to us from shore.

Hance, Horn, Granite, Hermit, Crystal.

Five of the largest and most infamous rapids in the 226 miles of canyon. All packed in a short section of river. We’d run Hance a day before the others and have no photographic evidence. Anxiety had been building in the preceding days and we were too jittery to wait and watch. Hance was over quickly and I recall the elation of a clean run rising as I was spitting water from my grinning mouth.

We stayed at Phantom Ranch that night. After four days of experiencing the canyon's magic in the solitude of our small group, Phantom was shocking. Radios blasting Taylor Swift, perfume, and an awful breakfast had us scurrying like mice back to the river and our world of comfortable uncertainty. 

Horn Creek’s horizon line came into view before our muscles were warm. I put my trust in Mike’s memory and followed him into it sight unseen. Somehow, Horn’s grip let me slide through on more luck than skill. Our ducklings wouldn’t fare as well.

Dave taking a knife to his full finger gloves
Granite ruffled a few more of the ducklings feathers, my luck continued and my smile grew. Hermit loomed.

During a backpacking trip, I remember standing on the banks of the river beside Hermit looking at the largest waves in the Grand Canyon and thinking, “that’s fucking nuts. No way I’d do that.”

Seven years after that thought, I was floating towards Hermit in a 6 pound inflatable boat with 7 friends. There was no fear, no anxiety, no second thoughts. Only confidence and excitement. With a group of rafters cheering us on, all 8 of us read and ran Hermit clean. Even amidst the jet-like roar of the water, as I crested each wave the hoots of joy and laughter from my companions could be heard behind me. 

It was as close as I’d ever been to having too much fun. As the others were exchanging high fives, I caught the eddy and humped my boat back up for a second lap. Rafters eat your heart out. A tenth of the boat and ten times the fun!

Mike C constructing our way into Silver Grotto

Many rapids have, at their entrance, a perfectly smooth and glassy tongue of water. To me, it is the most beautiful and seductive of river Sirens. Crystal Rapid, home of the canyon’s most notorious hole, is no different. 
Unlike Homer, I wasn’t tied to a mast and was unable to resist their song. Down that glistening tongue I slid, tempting fate in Crystal’s pulsing center hole. I remember being type-writered across the the top of the wave towards the truly terrifying hole on river left and battling to avoid it. Paddle blades seeking green water hidden under the boiling white. Searching and searching for traction to pull away. Finally, my fingers felt tension as the blades caught current and I was through. Shaking with excitement, I pulled to shore. Mike C let the song fill his ears and plunged into the hole with style.

We camped soon after, just above Emerald Rapid. All were exhausted from our mental and physical efforts of the day. Though morning would not bring such a feeling, falling asleep I felt clear and content, the way one often does after such a day.

Stumbling around camp, packing for the day, I noticed a mental haze coffee would not remedy. Coming off my high from our last days, I experienced my low point. Hands were cracking and bleeding. I'd find myself laying awake staring at the sky wondering if those back home could see the same stars had they been looking. 

My battle to accept the sand recycled daily. Early in the day, it was everything I could do to avoid sand. By afternoon I'd accept sandy teeth or eyes or hands, but promptly wash it away and continue on. With night, fatigue and cold found me dropping my sleeping bag on the nearest flat spot. Sand be damned, it would do no harm. 

The canyon's gifts pulled me back up.

Ever dynamic, the flat water sections were not boring. Boils and swirls appeared with little warning, threatening to flip boats and reversing forward travel, sapping energy. Eventually, it became a game and reminded me of the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride. Looking at the water for a subtle sign, predicting it's next move, leaning left or right in effort to slalom around the next disturbance.

We were seeing the ever classic layers of V’s with in the canyon. At one point I counted 6 V’s form among the intersecting walls and balconies of the canyon. Light and shadow at play. Divine. Our hikes took us into many places seen by fewer than 1% of visitors to the Grand Canyon. Places that were only accessible to those on the river. Thanks to the timing of our trip, we had them to ourselves. Each one a natural cathedral. Equally beautiful and full of wonder for travelers today as they were to the ancients a thousand years ago. 

In this Grand place, with fingers gliding over the same rocks as those who came before, I felt not at one, nor separate, with nature. I had only a simple feeling of being part of the world.

Days on the river became easier as our ducklings grew more competent with time in their boats. Miles ticked by thanks to fewer swims, more efficient packing, dirtier jokes.


We camped at the mouth of National Canyon. During the nightly retelling of our daily exploits and endless passing of chocolate, someone mentioned Lava. In the peace of the night, as fire light and moon light dueled on the canyon cliffs, it was easy to forget we’d face Lava Falls before lunch the next day.

Lava is the most famous of the rapids on the Grand Canyon and the only one that rates a maximum rating of 9+/10 on the Grand Canyon scale. So intimidating, Major Powell’s expedition choose not to run it for fear of the consequences. 

Mike offered up, “it’s bigger with more violence and chaos than anything we’ve paddled up to this point.”

Doom leading the ducklings into Lava

He casually walked to the water, brushed his teeth, and went to bed.

Our float from camp to the rapid was easy and relaxing in the warm sun. Were we not passing deep black igneous boulders, sculpted by time and flowing water, it would be to forget what lurked ahead. Eventually a dull growl found it’s way to our ears and we pulled to the bank, well above a large horizon line. With our first glance from the scout, Lava didn’t appear any worse than many of the rapids from our prior 180 miles. As I continued to scan for the path through Lava, realization set in; every path leads to something I’d rather avoid. 


Choose the lesser of the evils and don’t mess up. Ledge Hole and Vee Wave won’t be forgiving should you enter too soon or fail to cross the laterals separating the two churning features.

While my friends had their eyes turned towards the rapid, I snuck down the trail to my boat. Mike and Mike appeared at the water as I began getting in my boat and we shoved off together.

As if one were gazing into a strobe, flashes of blinding white and pitch black followed. Unable to tell up from down or forwards from backwards, Bracing and paddling and silence. Five seconds of calm water passed before my mind registered I was securely in my boat, upright.  

Mike C successfully fought his way into the eddy having made it through Lava’s gauntlet. I clamped my teeth around the stern line of Mike W’s empty boat and dragged it to shore.

Seven of our group ran Lava. Five stayed “dry” and two found themselves slightly more damp. A flask of bourbon sailed my way, it’s burn helping toast our success.

Our last days on the river were wonderfully joyful. We set camp at mile 205 and lapped the rapid until our arms gave up, smiling in afternoon’s golden light. Five friends intentionally charged the hole of Mile 209. Five giggling heads, simultaneously bobbing in the water will forever be part of my memory. 

Lapping 205

Sitting around the fire our last night, looking at the faces of my friends, I had a growing sense that the Grand’s magic isn't the rapids or the river or the canyon. These are merely pots and utensils, tools to create. Friendship, adventure, and time are ingredients, that when combined with special tools become a potent potion who's affect haunts memories until your return. I can't wait to go back to that place, surrounded by magic.

Even big ducks crash land now and then


Post a Comment

Popular Posts