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  • Writer's pictureKatja

Rafting the Grand Canyon: Nankoweap Excursion

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

Day Four (July 18th)

My favorite part of the morning quickly becomes the brief hours when the sun has risen but the rays have not found us. Watching the light approach on the upper walls and slowly seek us out drives me to wake up earlier every morning. By the end of the trip, I am averaging a bedtime of 9:00 PM and a natural wakeup at 4:45 AM. I never set an alarm during the two weeks, and after a while, I stopped checking the time unless someone asked.

The fourth day began with some challenges but ended full of joy. Group dynamics can be difficult to navigate, even in the best circumstances. Tuckman's stages of group development include the "storming" stage for a reason; people start speaking up, conflict arises, and trust is gained. The first several days were a time for introductions and getting to know each other, sprinkled with periods of survival, as we navigated the monsoon weather and flash floods. By day four, we were accustomed to each other enough for the tensions to arise. Aboard The Swan, we experienced it as a disagreement over the proper way to lash down a sleeping pad. Or maybe a sleeping pad and a table. Whatever the catalyst, our storming session began. If you think disagreeing with someone is difficult, try doing so on an 18-foot long oar raft in the middle of the Grand Canyon.

Spoiler alert: the two massively type-A raft partners got through it just fine in the end.


I do not want to dwell on the conflicts or disagreements, but I do want to acknowledge that they happened. Managing interpersonal conflict is a very real part of expedition life. There can be frustration, resentment, differences of opinion, etc. Sources included different approaches to gear and logistics, genderlects (your new vocabulary word for the day; you're welcome), strengths and weaknesses, life philosophies, even something as simple as how much momentum to put into an oar stroke as you approach a rapid. Really, it can be (and was) a little bit of everything. What matters is that you talk through it and let the little things go so you do not strangle each other with them.


Once we navigated to more peaceful interpersonal waters, the rest of the day was magical and the beauty of the Grand Canyon consumed us.

The day brought us to a location I was eager to see, the Nakoweap Granaries (river mile 52.4). My family had seen them from the river in 2009 but had not hiked up. Even though it was incredibly hot and nearing midday, as we pulled ashore I was eager to visit them. Apparently, the hiking trail down to the granaries from the rim is one of the Grand Canyon's most difficult named trail hikes that a person can do. From the river, it was no cakewalk either. The hike from the river is a scramble of 600-700 feet (depending on what source you check) and 1.2 miles roundtrip. This translates to a very exposed shadeless slog up a series of rocky steps with (at best) 600 feet of gain in a half-mile.


Can you believe that no one wanted to go with me?

Can you see the granaries? How about the trail? Hint: the granaries are dark holes in the red rock, middle right. The trail is a diagonal line across the grey talus that turns and goes straight up in the area that looks a little like a rockslide.


From my journal:

I moved quickly and struggled with the heat, but it was worth it. The trail up goes from beach sand to rough trail to some huge sets of stone steps with vertiable scrambling moved, all of which is sharp stone with tons of scree and cacti. The granaries are square windows in the moutainous walls above you, watching as you struggle upwards. Then, suddenly, you are on a narrow ledge, making your way acrross to the shadows of the granries. The view up and down the canyon is amazing--a very famous viewpoint here and I can see why. The heat was intense so to be safe on the descent, I played slow music on my phone and went down in time with the beat to keep myself from moving too quickly and getting myself into trouble.

I made the ascent in 27 minutes, which in hindsight was a little insane given the conditions. In that heat and baking sun, however, I just wanted to get up as quickly as possible, pausing only to gulp mouthfuls of water and take pictures.

According to a post on the HikingProject.com:

The Nankoweap Granary is a series of stone and mortar storage bins situated high up in the cliffs. These bins were constructed by the ancient Anasazi people to store their seed stock and food. The placement and design of these bins protected the seeds from animals and the weather. The Anasazi were thought to have lived in this area from about 700 to 1200AD.

I got back to the boats in record time and plunged into the river, emerging muddy and victorious in having made it up and back before lunch was over.

After some cold lemonade (our coolers still had ice at this point), it was time to begin again. Steve began a several-hour struggle of continuous rowing in the heat as we battled the afternoon up-canyon wind that slowed progress and made the cold, muddy water seem extra inviting. The majority of the rapids were small and very spread out, and our boat lagged behind as we fought through the heat. This would not be a big deal except that up til now, we had kept close to the other boats and relied on John and Max to show us the way through every rapid. We were far enough behind at Kwagunt (5) that we had a quick conversation about which way Max had gone, and by Sixty Mile Rapid (4) we were on our own for route selection. I balanced on the front platform and Steve stood up in the oars and we scouted the features ahead with some trepidation. In the end, we pulled off a smooth run and came out beaming. My mantra had now officially become "we got this."

Several bighorn sheep watched our progress from the riverbank but seemed largely uninterested as we floated by. With the current drought conditions, a lot of bighorns made regular trips down to the river to drink. They became a regular presence as we continued our journey between the steep canyon walls.

We camped at mile 61, Above Little Colorado. I was sent down the beach to assess the quality of the water in the Little Colorado across the river, a beautiful tributary famous for its aquamarine-colored waters. From my vantage point, I saw the brown water and knew we would not be paying a visit. The camp delivered, though, with some beautiful rock features, another wash to explore, and lots of little lizards.

After dark, I broke out my two blacklight flashlights, and Logan and I began searching for scorpions among the rocks. I had heard that they would be everywhere, but thanks to the daily rain driving them deep into the safety of their rocky tunnels, we had no luck locating any. Instead, we settled on seeing who in the group would glow the most (get your minds out of the gutter--the 9-year-old was fascinated by the way different materials and fabrics showed up in the blacklight, so we lit up almost everything we could find for scientific purposes. Luckily, we did not see anything we didn't want to lol). Steve won hands down.

I slept on the boat for the first time that night and decided it was nice to be closer to the cool river air, but mentally challenging as every few hours I would sit bolt upright wondering if the rope had come undone and I was floating downriver. Thankfully, this was not the case, but it kept me sleeping on land for the majority of the nights after that.


In the morning, I dragged Steve up the small wash I had found the evening before and we talked through our plan for some of the big rapids that loomed ahead. Back at camp, we stowed our gear and loaded up the raft (this time without any lashing-related incidents), and set out for another day of rafting the Grand Canyon.

P.S. For those who have asked about "how do you 'go' on the river", it is pretty easy liquids go in the river itself (NPS orders; no peeing on dry land), and the solids travel with you in the infamous "groovers" i.e. army surplus ammo containers that seal up tightly and have a handy portable seat and accessories like slightly soggy toilet paper and hand sanitizer that you set up at each camp. Finding the perfect groover location is a fun part of each campsite, and we definitely had some very scenic spots on our adventure.


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