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  • Writer's pictureKatja

Rafting the Grand Canyon: Shinumo Wash, Bigger Rapids, and Sleeping with the Toads

Day Two (July 16th)

On our second river day, we travel approximately 16.6 river miles to our next camp at Shinumo Wash. Regarding camp names, some are historical or refer to a person or event that happened there, like “Brown’s Inscription” where one can find historical graffiti on the stone walls noting that “F.M. Brown, Pres. D.C.C. & P. R. R. Co. was drowned on July 10, 1889.” Other places have names denoting the natural history and features, such as Shinumo (a series of massive, cliff-forming sandstone and sedimentary quartzite) Wash (in the Western United States, the dry bed of a stream, typically in a ravine, that only flows seasonally).

The day begins with wrestling the boats down to the lower water level and free of the mud and sand left behind by the floods. The Colorado River is dam controlled, meaning the water level rises and falls throughout the day based on electricity needs. When people are running air conditioning units and have a lot of lights on, more water is released to generate more power through the turbines, thus the river levels rise. When less power is needed, the water levels are lower. This is usually done on a predictable schedule, however, due to the depleting water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead and the power surges during times of excessive heat, warnings were issued to all boaters that releases will be sporadic and outside of normal patterns. The result can be boats becoming high and dry, especially when flash floods contribute even more uncertainty.

We all work together to free the three boats and carry our gear down to the water for a long session of reorganizing and repacking, then we are off once again.

Day two takes us through more whitewater rapids, many of which are fun, splashy 2s and 4s. A quick note on ratings: the traditional whitewater rating system is on a scale of I, II, III, IV, V and VI, but the Grand Canyon and several other big whitewater rivers have their own system where a 1 is flat water and a 10 is equivalent to a V (plenty of websites like Wikipedia have more information on how the rating systems work). Today we will hit the first 7-8 rapid of the trip, House Rock. I seem to recall my family sharing stories of someone taking a swim there in 2009 (a trip I was not a part of but heard many stories about).

Steve appears to find his rhythm in the oars and I sub-in a few times on flat water sections. While Steve says he doesn’t plan on rowing the entire river by himself, I know he is nervous letting me take the oars because I lack the formal guide training that he’s had and my experience had been in kayaks and paddle rafts on rivers of less consequence. I try to let my type-A self accept the secondary role, but it is mentally difficult to sit back and let go of the proverbial steering wheel. Still, the beauty of the Grand Canyon distracts me and I find joy in being able to drink in the views while not worrying about every wave and riffle we pass. For the most part, I am fine being The Swan’s official hood ornament and assist with navigation, but I am hoping for a chance to prove myself and show that I have also been training for this adventure and am ready to row.

We make it through House Rock Rapid successfully and have a fun day.

From my trip journal:

Steve learned firsthand that the river carries you fast—we almost hit the big hole. I shouted a lot of encouragement to row and apparently that did help (he said so after). I rowed a few miles in the canyon between there and mile 29… Learning to navigate the boat on such big water is something I studied for and I am glad I did, but there is no possible way to understand it until I was in the experience. It is humbling yet exhilarating and there is so much release after...
A blue heron just flew by in the evening light, downriver along the Colorad’s muddy water. The cicadas are singing in the trees and add a cacophonous ring to the thundering waves.

After setting up camp and having a delicious dinner (Max cooked for us most nights and the menu included amazing meals like grilled chicken with mashed potatoes, steak and green beans, patty melts on sourdough, etc) and dutch-oven cake for dessert, we all go to bed with the sunset (around 8:45/9 P.M.). No rain tonight, but the river continues to surge with mud and I keep my tent nearby just in case.

Day Three (July 17th)

I wake up early as the sun is rising and use the opportunity to catch some candid shots of the guys sleeping (Max and Logan on tarps and pads, like me, and Steve on the raft. John (not pictured) spent most nights in his dory). John is awake and making coffee and shows me how to begin the process as the first one up should always get the coffee started. I make mental notes and learn a new term, "cowboy coffee" which apparently means boiled grounds with no filter. I opt out this morning but have a feeling I will be crunching through that strong brew soon.

As the others begin to stir, I wander down the beach to explore the entrance to the Silver Grotto. I decide not to climb up as there is evidence of recent flash flooding and the way in appears to require using driftwood for a ladder and some questionable scramble moves that I am not comfortable doing alone, but even the entrance to the slot canyon is beautiful and I enjoy the peacefulness of the morning.

Slowly, the rest of the group emerges from slumber and we gather, eat breakfast, and prepare for another day on the river.

From my trip journal:

It was slow getting the boats loaded but we made good time once we left. Steve and I have a routine starting to take shape where he trends the boat and I break and clean camp. Once we “sail”, whoever isn’t rowing begins going around the boat to scoop water and clean off the thick red sand that covers everything. The flash floods yesterday created a lot of sticky, clingy mud that covers everything now. Keeping the boat as clean as possible not only helps with aesthetics but also keeps our skin from being scoured as me move around the rubber raft.

Our first stop is at the mesmerizing Redwall Cavern. I’m told you can fit 5,000 people inside and I honestly think that number is an underestimate. John naps in his dory and Max, Steve, and Logan bust out a football and frisbee to play in the shade and I wander around the perimeter and bask in absolute awe of the cave’s enormity.

We leave Redwall and feel the heat of the day. It is slow going as we are halfway through our water and eager for a refill. We float past what should be a source of fresh water, Vasey’s Paradise, but the once gushing waterfall is barely flowing and we continue on. It’s strange that even with the storms and floods, the area continues to suffer from a horrible drought. They say the lakes will never be full again, and the news beyond the rim is full of dire warnings and forecasts for water levels.

We stop again a few miles downstream and John stays with the boats while the rest of us scramble up Nautiloid Canyon in search of fossils in the limestone. From the guidebook: Limestone floor of Nautiloid Canyon yields fossil remains of Paleozoic nautiloids, squid-lIke creatures with tapered external shells. We don’t see many on the ground as the flooding has left a lot of debris and mud behind, but we find some along the ledges and enjoy a somewhat challenging scramble up and down the smooth canyon rocks. The area around us is breathtaking and we take our time exploring before returning to the boats.

The next several miles are somber ones. Although our group is divided on the exact location of the flash flood fatality, the area we pass through had clearly been hit hard. I take some pictures to show the extent of the damage—two weeks later, I will learn that this is the area where the disaster occurred, and my heart aches as I imagine what the people hit by the surge of mud and debris must have gone through.

We paddle through some flat stretches and I keep us entertained by reading aloud from The Emerald Mile. We camp early at Buck Farm camp at mile 41 as the now daily afternoon storm hits and threatens rain as the wind howls and the sky flashes and grumbles above us. It only lasts a little while, however, and we are blessed with another tent-free night.

The weather is lovely in the early evening and I spend over an hour hiking into the gorgeous canyon above camp. I’m gone so long that John sends Steve with a container of cold cherries from the cooler to entice me back down. I show him the Prickly Pear and the snake I found and promise to come back down soon. Everything is mesmerizing and I feel like an adventurer in another world.

Back on the beach, I take my first river bath and try to wash my clothes in the silty water. John tells us stories of being a guide for several decades and Steve and Max cook up another fantastic dinner. Logan plays in a large muddy area and keeps us entertained with his shenanigans. Having a 9-year-old on the trip certainly brings a new dynamic to the journey and I quickly come to appreciate his humor and perspectives, especially when the "grownups get grumpy" and the two of us can escape into games of "what if" and wildlife watching.

At bedtime, I feel extra clever by laying my tarp close to the river where the air is cooler (I think the average night temperatures were in the 80s, but I did not verify this)… and as the sunlight fades and I go to lay down, I discover that I’m camped in the middle of a Red Spotted Toad highway. After several rounds of shooing away amphibians, I finally give up and lay down to sleep, praying nothing leaps on my head in the night. I get lucky--the toads seem to dislike the ground tarp and no drive-by hoppings occur, although the rustle of their little feet on the edges of the tarp wake me up several times during the night.

"At least it's not scorpions or snakes," I tell myself.

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